I have always felt a special connection with the Jewish people.
Growing up, I learned my name “Ari” is a common Jewish name, and to this day, many people assume I am Jewish when they first meet me. Ari means “brave” in Armenian and “lion” in Hebrew.
As music and chess became my favorite hobbies, I quickly became acquainted and amazed by the artistry of such great musicians as Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz, and Evgeny Kissin and learned that my favorite chess players, Garry Kasparov and Levon Aronian, are both half-Armenian and half-Jewish. I will never forget my life-changing pilgrimages to Jerusalem, where Armenians have been the last 1,700 years, including having a quarter of the Holy City designate to their people.
I came to learn from the histories of our people that we are also cut from the same thread. Armenian Christian theology is heavily influenced by the Old Testament, with our church fathers drawing on the works of Job, the Maccabees, the Wisdom, Proverbs and Songs of Solomon to inform their teachings. The hymns of our church often quote the Psalms of David, and of course, Armenians draw great pride from Noah’s Ark landing on Mount Ararat in historic Armenia.
In my mind, however, it is the ethos of the Jewish people, and their history of suffering, surviving and thriving that resonates most strongly with my Armenian heritage.
Like the Jews, Armenians have been persecuted by various tribes and barbarians throughout the centuries. Like the Jews, Armenians have constantly been displaced from their homeland, with a diaspora community that far outnumbers those living in Armenia. Like the Jews, Armenian parents instill into their children’s heads that their existence is not to be taken for granted, and that as an oppressed and small people, we must be the best possible citizens of this Earth we can possibly be.
Like the Jews, the Armenians consider themselves a chosen people of God, being the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion, and attributing our existence solely to His Providence. Like the Jews, we possess a streak of creativity, resourcefulness, and tenacity, borne out of our constant need to survive. Like the Jews, Armenia was put on the brink of extinction in the 20th century.
And now in the 21st century, Armenia’s existence is yet again being threatened. For more than a month now, Armenians of Artsakh (internationally referred to as Nagorno-Karabagh) and the Republic of Armenia have been under intense shelling (including illegal cluster bombs on civilian-occupied territories), gunfire and drone attacks from Azerbaijan, who is being supported by Turkey and mercenary terrorists from Syria and Libya.
This has been a trying time for our people. Beyond the senseless deaths and displacement (more than 800 soldiers and civilians killed, tens of thousands displaced and homeless), the most challenging part has been the seeming lack of coverage from the Western media and seeming refusal for those in power to speak out. Myself, like many others, have felt alone amidst this silence.
It is on this occasion Rabbi Jonathan Cohen reached out and offered to host a joint prayer service between The Temple-Tifereth Israel and St. Gregory of Narek Armenian Church Oct. 23 during its weekly virtual Shabbat Service. In addition to the typical service, a common prayer for peace and well-being was offered on behalf of the world and especially for Armenia. This was not the first time I have been blessed to worship at The Temple – our two communities came together last year on the occasion of Kristallnacht and the beginning of the Armenian Genocide (a jihad was declared in November 1914 in Turkey) to commemorate the beginning of both tragic events for the Jewish and Armenian people.
Albert Einstein said, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”
Many Armenians have felt alone and despaired over the silence of the Western world. Our coming together in Beachwood and online around the world gives me hope that the world is starting to pay attention. Our coming together further strengthened my love and respect for the Jewish people and bore in me a prayer of gratitude and thanksgiving.
As I sang the “Hashkiveinu” with Rabbi Yael Dadoun and Cantor Kathy Sebo, the words “All my life I’ve been waiting for, I’ve been praying for, for the people to say, That we don’t wanna fight no more, there’ll be no more wars, and the children will play” sounded in the temple, accompanied by thunderous rains and hail I believe sent at that exact moment from God, I knew that we are not alone.
Deacon Ari Terjanian is a deacon and choir director at St. Gregory of Narek Armenian Church in Richmond Heights.