The Revolutionary Preacher
This is the seventh installment of Bedros A. Keljik’s Armenian-American Sketches, which were translated and annotated by Aris G. Sevag. “No Good Comes From Having Children in This Country,” along with a short biography of Keljik, can be found here, the second story here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here and the sixth here.
There was no need to ask who the speaker of the day was. Before entering the building, never mind the meeting hall, you could tell from his stirring voice and shouting, — which constituted the sole capital of Armenian-American political activists — as well as the resultant hue and cry that the speaker was Ignatius Tenekejian.
Approximately 45 years of age, he was of less than average height and sported a rebellious mustache. He was eminently suited to be an orator, owing to his voice, pronunciation and oft repeated exclamations, which he had made a habit of uttering ever since his preacher days. His speeches would last the minimum of an hour and, after listening to him, we would leave the hall, having been more entertained than enlightened.
Tenekejian was not one of those unassuming speakers; the common people referred to him as a “clever man.” His manner of speaking had a kind of vaudevillian aspect to it. He used to walk on stage, move back and forth, and cause the floor to shake with his feet and the table with his hands. His only topic was patriotism. He would often pause, interrupting his speech, then twirl his mustache, clear his throat and sing “Mer Hairenik Tshvar Ander” (“Our Fatherland, Wretched and Defenseless”). The audience, in turn, would join in, thereby generating the excitement prevalent at an evangelist meeting conducted by Billy Sunday.
Tenekejian had been a preacher in Nicomedia (Ismit) and, because he had paid more dues to Bacchus than his pulpit, the religious council had summoned him to a hearing and defrocked him. When speaking about this matter, he would get incensed and liken that tribunal and its condemnation of him to the trial and sentencing of Christ before Caiaphas and the high priests. “They didn’t even let me say a word; that closed-door assembly of khakhams [Jewish rabbis, fanatics, extremists] condemned me; they totally lost their cool, fell upon me and threw me out like a plucked stork,” he would say.
After arriving in America in 1890, he joined the revolutionary-socialist party of the day[, the Hunchaks]. It didn’t make any difference to him what the party’s principles and modus operandi were; since he wanted to preach, it was sufficient that he be permitted to speak at the meetings of that party. Such a wide-open and unlimited field was opened before him, and he spoke whatever he wished, whenever he wished and however he wished. He would remark, “I love America, the land of freedom and free political parties, I’m rid of inquisitorial tribunals!”
He was superficially familiar with Marxist socialist doctrine. He spoke about the party’s new resolutions, half the time employing the Eastern Armenian dialect; he used foreign words, the majority being sociological and economic terms, whose meaning he didn’t know: for example, proletariat, energy, agitation, reaction, capital, process, bourgeoisie, lumpen proletariat, etc. The people used to be amazed at his aptitude and use of these incomprehensible words.
He wouldn’t go on stage before downing a few shots, as he was accustomed to doing during his preacher days, and whose unfortunate victim he became. When references about that were made to him, he would say, “You don’t understand such things: even Daniel Webster, America’s greatest orator, used to drink a glass or two before going on stage; then there was Omar Khayyam, the great Persian poet, who couldn’t have written his famous quatrains without first having drunk wine.”
Tenekejian was a kind and pleasant man, as meek as a lamb, but when he drank a few shots, he would turn into a lion: his eyes would sparkle; he would twirl his mustache in the French style, and then utter the most stirring exclamations, with his arms spread far apart and raised upwards. Although his education was limited, his speech was tolerable: he related anecdotes from his life; at the point when his speech was on the verge of becoming tedious, he would immediately pick up the kanon and expertly play selections from Turkish jazz music.
He understood about psychology, and he had a keen intuition. He played Armenian tunes for us youths having just arrived from the homeland, knowing that we were extremely patriotic and nationalistic, and that not everything reminiscent of Turkey was pleasing to us.
His father had been a tinsmith so, after being defrocked and coming to America, he engaged in his father’s trade. He worked in a factory that produced tinwares and lectured for free. Not a cent of the money raised at political party gatherings went into his pocket; the fundraising efforts were beyond reproach, and all of the proceeds went to the Danayian Garas Center.
The Italian restaurant on Hanover Street in Boston, which always had an abundant supply of Oriental oghi, or raki, had been his rendezvous, a semi-official office, so to speak. We often used to find him there. It was really something to see how he would caress the bottle of raki, how poetically he would pour from it and how, after downing a few glassfuls, he would advocate socialist revolution with new fervency and arguments, mixing up short-term and long-term goals and thus creating a labyrinth from which he could not even extricate himself.
* * *
Boston was the center of his operations and place of residence. His parish, in turn, included the heavily Armenian-populated towns in the surrounding area, which comprised almost half of the Armenian-American community at that time. A few times a year, like a pastor, he used to visit the towns in his parish to collect dues, if not for a church or monastery, then for his new church — social revolution. He was the dues-collecting vartabed, or archimandrite, whereas I, being still a young man, was his subordinate, his inferior and apegha, or novice.
The most interesting of his regional lectures about his missions took place on a visit to Worcester. While I was accompanying him there, he said, “I am going to deliver my best prepared lecture in Worcester.” We arrived there on a summer Saturday evening and walked straight to the hospitable home of the city’s most patriotic resident. Generally speaking, the home of such an individual served as the free hotel for community activists. This house, a haven for Armenians, was right next to the newly built Holy Savior Church. After resting a bit, we went out for a walk. As we were proceeding along the main commercial street, Tenekejian stopped to enter a brightly lit bar, and it was quite some time before he came out. “This is a village, not a city; I’ll take Boston any day. The people there are civilized. It’s not for nothing that Boston is the Athens of America: the people there are intelligent, on the ball; you give them a hint and they understand what you’re talking about; the wink of an eye is sufficient for them. In this here bar, it took a half hour for me to get two glasses of raki and ensure a bottle in reserve for tomorrow.” Then he began to walk at a quick pace, like a frisky horse just let out from the stable in spring.
He said to me, “While I was lecturing in Providence last week, I found a new way to excite the people and hold their attention, and I am going to use this discovery during all my subsequent lectures. The saying, ‘A prophet isn’t respected in his hometown,’ is quite accurate; in other meetings, I used to utter meaningful words with a maximum of rhetorical force yet the people still used to fall asleep. I found a new method in Providence which you too are going to like when you hear it tomorrow evening.” As we walked to our hotel, I began to anxiously look forward to witnessing this new method of lecturing the following day.
The best room in this hospitable house was allocated to him. I found him having gotten up early in the morning and sitting under a huge oak tree in the front yard. “Good morning, reverend,” I said, still not having forgotten his old title. “My sleep was greatly disturbed last night; they attacked me like it was an invasion led by Xerxes,” he said.
“May God see to it that your dream turns out to be good,” I said.
“What dream, my son, what dream? I’m talking about reality; legions of bedbugs — mothers and children alike — attacked me. Just look at my nose and mouth, they’re bright red; if it weren’t for this little bottle, I would have been in really bad shape,” he said and swallowed a gulp.
We arrived at the meeting an hour late on Sunday evening, which means right on time, according to the Armenian custom. The hall in the basement of the church was full. Shortly thereafter, Tenekejian was on stage; after his standard opening remarks, he praised the well- known patriotism of the Worcester Armenians and began his usual exclamations.
The new Providence method constituted the first part of his speech, as follows: “Once upon a time, a famous philosopher spoke thus,” followed by a minute’s pause. Then he rolled his big eyes in all directions; the members of the audience waited breathlessly for the philosopher’s statement. “Pay close attention,” he said. “Peoples live with patriotic dreams, and patriotism is one of the powerful factors of civilization” (thunderous applause) “and do you know who that famous philosopher is? I, yes, I am Ignatius, the son of Casper Tenekeji.” Boundless disillusion was followed by applause. He continued: “Patriotism isn’t a matter of talk — faith without deeds is dead; in order to avenge the loss of our brothers’ blood, we should take up arms, prepare soldiers and train them, like this.” Then, repeating one-two-three-four, he began to pace back and forth, stomping on the floor of the stage, to show how we can prepare soldiers. While continuing these military training exercises, he caused the stage to shake and almost fell off it. All of a sudden, the teacher Yeghiazar, one of the well-known Armenians in the crowd, who was also a chorister and oral philosopher known for his quick wit, rose to his feet and said, “I wonder, Reverend, have you come here to teach gymnastics or give a lecture?”
A twinkle came into Tenekejian’s eyes. He paused and said, “Mister, without gymnastics and without military training, all our orations are useless” (thunderous applause). Tenekejian continued, “I have often said that you are extremely critical of your leaders and speakers, but what are you looking for? Do you want an orator like Cicero, a military strategist like Napoleon, and diplomat like Richelieu? From a people like you comes a leader like me.” The audience shouted “bravo, bravo,” gave him a standing ovation while he — Tenekejian — looked at them with glee, with his arms open wide like a victorious eagle.
According to the accepted custom, the fundraising began prior to the end of the meeting. We returned to Boston late that evening on the last train. On the way, Tenekejian slept for an hour and when the conductor shouted “last stop, Boston,” he woke up, rubbed his eyes and said, “We got here real quick, didn’t we? We forgot something important. Did you find out the results of the fund raising?”
“No,” I said.
“You should find out these things, we forgot the most important thing.”