One can safely assume that the number of students in Armenian day and Saturday schools throughout the Eastern United States is pretty much smaller than that of Sunday schools students. A comparative and updated statistics remains to be done, but let us take this assumption, however well-grounded it might be, as a starting point to confront an old debate in the Armenian-American community: what is the source of Armenian identity in this community? Church or school?
That depends, of course, upon who says that. If you have a couple of generations here, it is likely that you will say “Church”; if you are born overseas (meaning Middle East), the answer might be “school.”
While the shaping of Armenian identity cannot, or should not, rely any more on a simplistic, ideologically tainted definition of Armenian as “someone who knows the language,” any truly Armenian-oriented perspective of community survival cannot exclude language as a main factor. (To avoid any misunderstanding, the expression “Armenian-oriented” is far from advocating any narrow-minded, exclusivist, or chauvinistic viewpoint).
If we agree that neither language nor religion can be regarded per se as defining traits of so-called “Armenianness,” nevertheless we have to agree that the first is, of both, the only one able to ensure cultural transmission to the extent that past, present, and future can be effectively linked. It was first the language and then the Church. Suffice it to remember that the latter had to make recourse to the first in the fifth century to translate the Bible and effectively evangelize people.
In an increasingly secularizing world, where differences in mainstream Christian denominations are becoming slowly irrelevant, the thought of religion as a shaping force of identity in the absence of language can be seen as a naivety. The Jewish case, where religion was the flagship of survival rather than language (the long-dead Hebrew language was resurrected shortly after Jews started to settle in Palestine in the early twentieth century), is not a valid example.
Non-Armenian speaking cross-sections in different communities in the past and present Diaspora have been able to maintain a certain degree of identity because of the presence of Armenian-speakers or at least of some semblance of Armenian language. Even ritualized and, for that particular case, fossilized expressions of language such as Church ceremonies held in Armenian have played a role in the maintenance of Armenian identity in Poland long after the forced conversion to Catholicism and subsequent assimilation of that community in the 17th-18th centuries up to this day. If one day the Armenian Church becomes a fully non-Armenian speaking denomination in America, it will also become indifferent to outside observers. In the long term, the distinct theology of the Armenian Church will be irrelevant to the layman who goes to the Church for spiritual solace, regardless of the denomination.
This brings us full circle to our main contention. The survival of language and religion as benchmarks of Armenian identity (we are not excluding neither Armenian Catholics nor Protestants from this statement) can only be enforced by a process of transmission which does not stop on a few buzzwords or catchphrases peppered into English as some relic from the Old World.
Hayeren khoseh! “Speak Armenian!” You have or had some elder person at home who would lash at you these two words until you come/came back to your senses and start(ed) to utter some more or less intelligible Armenian phrases. This is part of one of many widespread myths about our fear of loss, as if forcefully listening to someone’s speech reassured us of the survival of the language. Nothing further removed from reality. Languages spoken in an increasingly narrow context are not able to function as what they should be, a reflection of the culture they carry, but they function as what they have become, a reflection of the society that uses them. A “kitchen language” is only bound to go on a downward spiral inasmuch as the users make no conscientious effort to enrich it or improve its quality.
For instance, a parent who sends his/her child to an Armenian day school and then pulls the child out in Kindergarten because “he has already learned enough Armenian” is just self-delusional, to put it mildly. Nobody can seriously think that a kindergartener would be able to have a fairly good knowledge of English language by adult standards. Same for Armenian!
Or take this parent who is equally dishonest with his/her purported “heritage” by pulling out a child at some point in elementary school so “s/he gets used to the diverse environment in public school.” Another meaningless argument: why did this parent took all the pain of putting the child through an Armenian day school if it “damages” children’s social conditioning?
If that kindergartener or elementary school student grows in a family where Armenian is a language of daily communication at home; where the maddening crisscrossing of English and languages is absent, but instead they speak one language at a time; where the child is schooled in Armenian up to the level that by high school he is able to speak, write and read at a level comparable to English; where he is instilled with interest for reading and writing as a vehicle of natural expression... Then one would have nothing to argue about such a choice.
But how many of those children you know?
Instead, we often come across to a gallery of proud Armenians who are frequent churchgoers, active participants in community affairs, perhaps avid readers of Armenian-related books and anxious followers of current events, but are unable to speak the language except in some kind of farfetched jargon and will be willing to donate (e.g. "dump") the books from their father or grandfather to some Armenian institution, just because they are unable to read and write the language, or they have not gone past the aip, pen, kim (which they may have as a decoration everywhere in their home).
In the same way as their command of the language is broken, the chain of transmission becomes eventually broken.
Do you know any other vehicle outside an Armenian day school to make sure not to break the chain?
("The Armenian Weekly," 2007)