The Jewish Traveler: Armenia
Armenians and Jews share an ancient reverence for the written word, and literary links between the two peoples go back to the Bible and the 12 tribes.
Rose is the color of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. From the government buildings surrounding Republic Square, with their colonnades and rows of arches, to a modern villa on a hill overlooking the Opera House, all is stone, and almost always pink volcanic tuff.
The city center is a bowl ringed by mountains and sliced by broad avenues named after poets, composers and architects. The tree-shaded boulevard that forms a horseshoe around the center is a favorite promenade.
The Armenians’ love of aesthetic detail can be seen in all the churches, but especially at the shuka, the closed market at the foot of Mashtots Avenue. Flowers, animals and geometric shapes in elaborate patterns adorn the metal gates; inside, dried fruits are arranged in colorful, intricately designed mounds.
To the south of Yerevan, row after row of snowcapped mountains seem to stretch to infinity. But Armenia’s most important mountain is the one that looms over the Rose City: Ararat—where, the Bible tells us, Noah’s ark came to rest. The mountain’s twin peaks were once the heart of Armenia, but now the Turkish border cuts between that heart and Yerevan, so that Ararat remains ever visible but just out of reach, the object of endless yearning.
The literary links between Armenians and Jews go back to antiquity. The Armenians speak of themselves in their literature as “the Ashkenazi nation,” the descendants of Noah’s grandson Ashkenaz. Jewish literature, too, sometimes equates the geographic place Ashkenaz with Armenia.
Noblemen of the tribe of Benjamin are said to be the forefathers of Armenian Jewry. Jewish scholars, starting in the second century C.E., believed the Ten Lost Tribes were to be found in Armenia.
Stories from the Middle Ages describe Armenia as the place of “free Jews” or a Jewish state.
The historical links between Armenia and the Jews began with the Armenian ruler Tigranes II, who brought Jews from the land of Israel as captives in the first century B.C.E. There were sizable Jewish communities in Armenian cities in the 4th century C.E., when the conqueror Shapur II deported many thousands of Jews to Persia.
In the Middle Ages, after a succession of conquests by Persian dynasties, the Armenian kingdom was restored by the Bagratid feudal dynasty, which claimed King David as its ancestor. Caravans laden with gold, perfume, precious stones, gleaming silk and luxurious carpets followed the Silk Road through the kingdom en route from China to the West.
In 1375, when Armenia was conquered by the Mamelukes, the Jewish communities disappeared; some were absorbed by Kurdish Jewry. For the next five centuries, there is no physical evidence of a Jewish presence in Armenia.
As a place of relative plenty and minimal anti-Semitism, Armenia attracted Jews after World War II from other parts of the Soviet Union, including Moscow.
A close tie between Armenia and Israel grew after the devastating earthquake of December 1988, when the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) brought an El Al plane—the first Israeli plane allowed to land in the Soviet Union—to take 65 victims to Israel for treatment.
Though Yerevan’s Jewish community attained formal status in 1991, the terrible privations during the war with Azerbaijan in the early 1990’s caused many Jews to leave for Israel. Today, nearly every family that stayed behind has family ties to the Jewish state. Israeli diamond magnate Lev Leviev employs hundreds of Armenians in a diamond-polishing factory near Yerevan.
Another connection between Armenia and Israel dates back to the 5th century C.E.; mosaics and manuscripts show that Armenians had settled in Jerusalem, where they built dozens of churches and monasteries. After 1099, Armenian kings and queens ruled Jerusalem. The Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem is the center of the Armenian community in Israel.
Armenians say of themselves, “If you have three Armenians, you have four political parties.” The tiny Jewish community, numbering about 800 souls and concentrated mainly in Yerevan (a city of 1.2 million), is no different: It is split between two rival organizations.
Rabbi Gersh Burshteyn, a former medical biologist, heads the Chabad Lubavitch-affiliated Jewish Religious Community of Armenia. Rimma Varzhapetyan, a mechanical engineer, until recently headed the (secular and Zionist) Jewish Community of Armenia. Each group claims to represent the entire Jewish community, provides educational and cultural activities and produces a newspaper.
Burshteyn says he realized in the 1980’s that “religion, rather than Zionism, was the answer.” He oversees a kosher vegetable-canning factory and is also a ritual slaughterer of chickens.
The JCA, on the other hand, is Israel-oriented and—unlike the JRCA—welcomes mixed families, who are the overwhelming majority of the Jewish population.
Everything appears to be done on a shoestring. “We are highly educated,” Varzhapetyan says, “[but] there are no rich people in the community.” The average monthly salary is estimated to be $50; in October 2003, the average pension was $13.50, and about half the Jews there are pensioners. The JCA provides food parcels and medical care to the needy. It also offers lectures, a Sunday school and Sabbath Eve programs as well as summer camps.
Orot Hesed, a welfare organization sponsored by the JDC and run by Lea Premliser, Burshteyn’s wife, provides hot meals for 100 people a day. A dozen volunteers visit bedridden pensioners, delivering food parcels and medicine, and volunteer doctors refer patients to free medical care.
“New people keep coming to us for help,” says Premliser, who has run the center since 1996.
A community of about 30 Jews, descendants of gerim—Russians who converted to Judaism in the 18th century—lives in Sevan, about an hour’s drive northeast of Yerevan. A few Jews live in Gyumri, in the northwestern tip of Armenia.
In 1915, the Ottoman Empire embarked on the annihilation of the Armenian people; more than a million Armenians were killed. Turkey has never taken responsibility for, nor has Israel ever recognized, the Armenian genocide. For the Armenians, it remains an open wound.
Tsitsernakaberd (“Swallow Castle”) Park, on a hill overlooking the city from the west, is the site of the starkly plain Armenian Genocide Memorial and the Armenian Genocide Institute–Museum. A round two-story structure, the museum is built into the hill. Photographs on display depict Armenian life before 1914 as well as the atrocities (open Tuesday through Sunday 10 to 4; 374-1-390-981;www.armenocide.am).
The memorial’s 12 massive stone columns lean inward, surrounding an eternal flame. Next to the circle of columns stands a thin pyramidal obelisk, split from top to bottom. The 12 columns represent the 12 western provinces emptied of their Armenian population; the obelisk symbolizes the sundering of eastern and western Armenia. Thousands of Armenians come each year on April 24, the memorial day, to lay flowers around the eternal flame.
It was only in the 1990’s that Armenia’s Jewish community was able to erect a Holocaust memorial. A simple granite stone, inscribed “In the memory of Holocaust victims” in Hebrew and English, stands at the corner of Moskovyan and Teryan Streets, in Aragast Park, five blocks northeast of Republic Square.
Nearby, close to the Opera House and the intersection of Tumanyan and Koghbatsi Streets, the JCA has a modest office on the ground floor of a rust-colored building (69 Koghbatsi, Office 49; 374-1-534-924).
If a history of genocide links Jews and Armenians, so does their love of the written word. “Armenians have kept their identity only because of their alphabet and their striving for education,” says tour guide Lusine Ananyan. Their alphabet was invented in 405 C.E. by the monk Mesrob Mashtots, who also translated the Bible into Armenian. Just a few blocks north of Aragast Park and the JCA office, the Matenadaran–Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts honors his name and his legacy. Containing more than 17,000 works on parchment and paper, it is the world’s largest repository of Armenian manuscripts as well as a research center.
The works cover nearly all fields of ancient and medieval Armenian culture and science; many are beautifully illuminated. Some are translations of important works whose originals have been lost, including a pharmacopoeia by Maimonides. Among the manuscripts on display in languages other than Armenian is a Scroll of Esther, darkened with age. The institute is at 53 Mashtots Avenue (374-1-562-578; open Tuesday through Saturday 10 to 5; book English tours in advance).
Biblical themes are the focus of an exhibition at the Armenian Museum of Children’s Art, just two blocks southeast of Aragast Park. Rich color, attention to detail and expressiveness characterize the exhibit. Established in 1970, the museum claims to be the first in the world dedicated to children’s art (13 Abovian at the corner of Sayat Nova; 374-1-520-951; open Tuesday through Sunday 11 to 4).
The Sergei Parajanov Museum offers another view of Armenian art. To get there, follow Sayat Nova west until it becomes Baghramyan Avenue, then turn left on Proshyan Street.
Sergei Parajanov, considered one of the top filmmakers in the former Soviet Union, was also a prolific artist who was imprisoned for refusing to follow Soviet artistic norms. He died in Yerevan in 1990.
A film poster he created while in prison includes a Star of David, reflecting his desire to unify religions. The Girl and the Angel, a painting by Natalia Shnaider-Hachatyan, a Russian Jewish artist, is a museum tribute to Parajanov.
The museum is in the Dzoragiugh Ethnographic Center (off Proshyan Street; 374-1-538-473;https://moon.yerphi.am/~parm/museum_e.htm; open daily 10:30 to 5). Exhibits are labeled in English.
From the western edge of Republic Square, follow Khorenatsi Street to Nar Dosa where, in a three-story ramshackle building, a handful of men study Jewish texts with Burshteyn on weekday mornings. On Sundays, a dozen children, ages 8 to 14, come to learn Hebrew, English, Torah and other Jewish subjects. In the small synagogue on the top floor, the only one in Yerevan, an image of a menora on a window and an embroidered velvet Torah curtain are the sole adornments. Visitors often help make up a minyan (23 Nar Dosa; 374-9-407-798). The first floor of the building houses Orot Hesed, the welfare organization (374-9-420-998).
Esther, God-fearing daughter of Michael, was engaged to be married, but death claimed her in 1266 before she could stand under the huppa. Her tombstone is one of 62 in a green valley near the village of Eghegis (Yeh-reh-GISS), in the Vayotz Dzor region, southeast of Yerevan. Esther’s memory would have been lost forever but for the Armenian bishop Abraham Mkrtchyan (Me-ker-tech-YAN), who discovered the stones in 1996 in the Eghegis River and in a nearby forest.
To reach the site, drive south from Yerevan one and three-quarter hours in the direction of Yeghegnadzor. Turn left (east) at the sign to Getap. About a 10-minute drive past Getap, follow the sign to Eghegis. Drive through the village and turn right down the hill, passing a Muslim cemetery, to the bridge. Cross the bridge to get to the Jewish cemetery.
The cylindrical granite stones, placed over the length of the graves, bear inscriptions in Hebrew and Aramaic; the latest date is 1337. They are the only physical evidence of Jewish life in medieval Armenia: A thriving community of some 150 Jews lived here in the 13th and 14th centuries, when the Mongols controlled Armenia. The city was then a provincial capital and an important commercial, intellectual and government center. But since it was not on a major trade route, its importance diminished after the Mongols lost their hold on the area.
Michael Stone, who heads the Armenian studies department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has completed surveying the site with colleagues from the Institute of Archaeology of the National Armenian Academy of Sciences. According to Stone, this important site should be preserved but it is, unfortunately, neglected.
Music, Reading, Films
Willy Weiner, who runs the Menorah cultural center in the JRCA building, composes Jewish orchestral music with hasidic themes. His first CD, Exodus, on the Narek label, is available atwww.narek.com.
The Heritage of Armenian Literature is a three-volume anthology in English translation, starting with the oral tradition and ending around the time of the genocide, edited by Agop J. Hacikyan and others (Wayne State University Press).
Franz Werfel’s novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (Carroll & Graf) describes the valiant stand of 5,000 Armenian villagers against Turkish troops on “the Mountain of Moses” in Syria. Completed after Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933 and published in November of that year, the book is a warning against racism. It was banned in Germany two months after it appeared but was soon translated into English and other languages. One of the two books most widely read in the ghettos of Nazi Europe, it inspired their inhabitants to rise up and fight to the death. A 1982 movie of the same name, directed by Sarky Mouradian, was released on video in 1987.
Atom Egoyan’s powerful film Ararat focuses on the long-term effects of the 1915 genocide.
The documentary Jews in Armenia: The Hidden Diaspora, provides an excellent introduction to Jewish life in Armenia. Director Vartan Akchyan is a multimedia specialist at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C. The film is available at www.jinafilm.net.
Personalities Famous members of the (non-Jewish) Armenian diaspora include writer William Saroyan, singer Charles Aznavour and painter Arshile Gorky.
Henry Morgenthau Sr., who was Jewish, was honored by Armenia for his actions relating to the Armenian genocide. Morgenthau was the United States ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1915. When he learned of the massacres and deportations he tried, unsuccessfully, to intervene with the Young Turk leaders of the empire. He sent to Washington reports he had received from United States consulates elsewhere in the empire and warned that “a campaign of race extermination is in progress.” After returning to America in 1916, he raised funds for the survivors.
In April 1999, soil from Morgenthau’s New York grave was interred at the Tsitsernakaberd genocide memorial site, in a niche in the Wall of Honor, and covered by a plaque with his name. The previous year an urn of soil from the Vienna grave of Franz Werfel was placed in the wall and a plaque with his name was affixed to it.
The deluxe Armenia Marriott Hotel, part of the architectural ensemble that frames Republic Square, is close to the synagogue and can accommodate kosher travelers (1 Amiryan; 374-1-599-000; fax: 374-1-599-001).
Best Eastern Ani Plaza, four blocks away, can provide kosher meals to groups (19 Sayat Nova; 374-1-589-500; fax: 374-1-565-343; www.anihotel.com).
Armenia has no kosher restaurants, but almost every restaurant offers a wide selection of fresh and cooked vegetables, cheeses and other dairy products, fish and lavash—a thin bread that goes well with everything.
Kavkaz Tavern in the city center (82 Hanrapetutyan; 374-1-561-177) has traditional live music by a trio that includes a player of the duduk, the Armenian folk oboe.
Long after you return home, the sweet and haunting sounds of the duduk will conjure up memories of Armenia’s struggle for survival, its vast snow-capped mountain ranges and its proud but welcoming people.