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Interview with Gary Rejebian

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Armenian Oral History Project
Interview with: Gary Rejebian
Interviewed by: Gregory Smaldone
Transcriber: Cordelia Jannetty
Date of interview: 22 June 2016
Interview Setting: Binghamton, NY
(Start of Interview)
GS: Okay. So ready to go, my name is Gregory Smaldone. I am working with Binghamton University in the Special Collection’s Library on the Armenian Oral History Project. Would you please state your name for the record?
GR: I am Gary Rejebian.
GS: Okay, Gary. Can you please tell me where you grew up?
GR: I was brought up in Binghamton.
GS: What year you were born?
GR: 1959 in Groton, Connecticut.
GS: Okay, who were your parents?
GR: My parents are George and Marianne Rejebian. My father George is a Binghamton native. He was born here in 1929.
GS: Okay, were your parents immigrants or were they born here?
GR: No, all four my grandparents came around the time of the genocide. The Rejebian grandfather came actually before the genocide. He was born in 1892 in Hajin, Cilicia/Armenia that is near Adana and so his family was aware of the massacres there in the 1890s and he came as a teenager. There was another Hajinsi by the name of Garig Manian whose family is very well known in California and he came with Garig Manian’s name in his pocket and was, he was a laborer in the Endicott Johnson Shoe Factory and then he eventually he opened Orthotic shop, not a shop, but a shoe repair shop, but he is specialized in orthotics in downtown Binghamton. My mother’s parents were both from the town of Çomaklı also in Cilicia, near Mount Archelaus. They have kind of a different trajectory that Grandfather Garabed came to New York and worked for about ten years before returning to Beirut to marry my grandmother Dikranouhi who was four at the time of the genocide escaped with her grandmother and her lame uncle. They wandered around, I believe even as far as Egypt before eventually settling in Beirut for probably almost ten years. The grandmother Rejebian was a teenager at the time of the genocide and really suffered the worst of the marches and the refugee camps. She also ended up in Beirut and then she was a relative of a fellow in Binghamton ̶  I am trying to ̶  Ketchoyan, and so Ketchoyan was good friends with my grandpa, Peter Rejebian and then he made this introduction at that time it was now 1928. The quotes were closed and Dikranouhi Zapabourian was her maiden name, made her way to Cuba. Grandpa went to Cuba on a gambling junket, married her there and brought her back to Binghamton in 1928.
GS: Okay, So let us talk a little bit about your childhood. Did you have any brothers and sisters growing up?
GR: I have one sister, Vivian, who practiced here. We both went through Binghamton high school and she practiced as an orthodontist in Binghamton for a number of years and that is ̶
GS: Is she older or younger than you?
GR: She is not quite two years younger.
GS: Now, did your parents speak Armenian?
GR: My parents, interestingly, both of them spoke the language but not insistently with us.
GS: So, they were both fluent?
GR: They ̶  my father, so my father’s mother, her dad was a school teacher and photographer. So she had a rather more educated knowledge of Armenian and Grandpa Rejebian came from a town that had a very, very idiomatic dialect which was probably about half Turkish. So he had an interesting mix of knowing his father’s dialect although he did not formally speak Turkish and yet every once a while he would come out with these million dollar Armenian words that he had learnt from his mother. So he was, you know, they were of course both were speaking fluent in the language, my mom ̶  I do not think my dad really ever read it fluently and my mom used to read it a bit. But they both communicated with their parents in a mix of Armenian and English.
GS: Now, did you and your sister grow up speaking Armenian in the household?
GR: No, no. Entirely English. I have moved ̶  I did my college at Hamilton in New York; I went to North Western for Journalism School for Master’s degree At North Western. My wife is born in Chicago but her family was both from Istanbul. He parents were college educated there. So, you know, the long and short of it was you have married into a Bulsetsi family and you have no choice you need to learn Armenian.
GS: So you had to learn Armenian later in life?
GR: I learned it. I learned to read on the L on the subway. I would take my flash card with me and learn a letter a day ̶
GS: So, your parents did not have you attend any Armenian Language School?
GR: There was not really that option. I mean I suppose you know there were old ladies who try to teach letters here and there in Sunday school ̶
GS: But there was never any formal?
GR: No, the community was not that big. I mean it was not so bad really, there were probably thirty to forty maybe even fifty of us, kids in my childhood, maybe closer to forty altogether. But it was still a small parish and, and we were lucky to get together socially. My mum and her best friend ran the church youth group. So, they had regular ̶  We had regular get together but we did not have any kind of a formal schooling program or anything.
GS: Okay, what were some ways in which your parents tried to maintain a sense of your Armenian identity and your Armenian heritage growing up?
GR: Well, they were, they both came from families that were very close to the church. My dad grew up on Park Avenue. Cross Street on Park Avenue within blocks of the church his elementary school, long fellow school; what is there now, I think a supermarket, um, was four blocks from the church. I mean that was an Armenian ghetto neighborhood around Saint Gregory’s. And um, so my entre childhood he was Parish Council or you know, we were in Church every Sunday, I mean within that has been my habit also, um, and my mother’s family was also very close to the church. So, I think it was more a matter of that was our nucleus of our closest nucleus of friends um, and that was our sense of community. We lived it in other ways, you know close to all of our grandparents I was lucky that I knew all four of my grandparents, um, what else would you be looking for, I mean ̶
GS: You said that, that was your closest sense of community, so your community was fundamentally an Armenian community growing up?
GR: Yeah, I mean it was very much a sense of one big family.
GS: Where was the central location for the Armenian community?
GR: Oh, it was definitely the church.
GS: And how frequently there would some sort of meeting at the church; obviously there were not weekly church service?
GR:  Well, actually my parents, yeah there were actually. By the time we got to, you know, grade school age, the people of my parent’s generation had made a commitment that although the Parish had not a regular ̶  It had you know you can check the church history there were periods of regular of Pastorship, but there had not been a pastor in the church for quite a while ̶
GS: So, you started going to church at the time when ̶  Because before you were growing up there had been periods where the community relied on visiting preachers or splitting preaches ̶
GR: That was the case but then, you know one of the things that was distinctive about a community like this is that many of the ̶  the founders were ̶  Their families remained in the church and their kids came back or never left and you did not necessarily have a huge influx of other new families that created other new generations in the church. So. it was like this one big long extended lifeline but what I meant to say before was ̶  People like my dad went away for education came back, established their businesses or their practices and, but when they sort all have ̶  we kids around the same age; give or take you know five or ten years in each direction, they made a commitment that they needed to have a full-time priest. And our childhood pastor, father Gorger Kalian who after seven years in the Parish moved back to his native California, was the first graduate of the Saint Nerses seminary and had a good long run here of seven years as the pastor of the church and so we had a very active community for a small community it was enough to keep going on a regular basis.
GS: Early you talked to me about an Oral History Project you did of the founders of the Binghamton Armenian community. Would you like to a little bit talk about the context in which you conducted it? Who you spoke to, somethings you learned?
GR: Sure, so the project was initiated by the Roberson Center for Arts and Sciences. The two curators, who landed the grant Ross Maguire and Michel Morison, created a project to do an ethnic biography of the community fourteen different ethnic communities. So, I after graduate school, came home for the Christmas break, my mother casually mentioned that “Oh, they are doing something with immigration history at Roberson.” I went over there, Ross told me just the beginnings of the project, they had maybe been about a year into it, and I did not even ask him when do I start. I said I will be back on Monday. And I did not leave for a year and I just sort of dug in and did the world history interviews in the Armenian community, collecting artifacts at that time they were tons of, not only photos but objects and all kinds of other memorabilia that really told the story of the community. So it was a great time to do work like that because although people like, I am trying to remember so that was (19) ̶ , it was shortly after my grandfather died but he still had contemporaries who were living and lucid, and certainly people like my dad were very aware of whatever they knew they shared. So we mapped out, how did we do it, we mapped out clans and arcs of different stories. I also did a project like this in Chicago and that was much more complex because you have many more moving parts. In the Binghamton community, you had a few outliers like Kevork ̶  who was from Istanbul but most people’s families were from different areas of Cilicia, they came from you know probably half a dozen towns and there was a high degree of inter-relationship. So ̶
GS: And now were the people you were studying what you had considered the founders of the Armenian Binghamton Community?
GR: Oh, yeah we definitely hit a number of them, but you know ̶
GS: What did you learn? What would you say was an important lesson you learned about the nature of how the Armenian community in Binghamton came to be?
GR: Well, it was interesting to me to see how it elucidated the other immigration patterns that we were studying, you know this is an area with a huge, had a huge Eastern European community, so the stories were, so there were patterns that were repeated but the significant difference for the Armenians was they came out of the necessity of saving their lives as a result of the genocide where many other communities like the Italians or some of the Eastern European communities came just out of economic opportunity.
GS: How did that difference manifest itself in the Armenian community do you think? What effects did it have on the trajectory that took on the ways, on the community that was built on the individuals who lived it?
GR: Well so, I mentioned the connections that people had across the ocean and so there was this magnetic pole of the clans of you know, grandpa knew this Hajinsi who was in Binghamton and had a name and had some body to go to, and then you know the next cycle might be the brother comes or the cousin comes or sponsoring the wife and the wife’s family. Let us see this aunt, that great aunt that I was visiting with just told me tonight that her dad supported her aunt, my grandmother for eight years before she finally got connected with grandpa and got married and got here. So, there were all kinds of different connections the compatriotic for very important in keeping people connected to one another. You could have called them in their day they were the internet of the community. The economic drivers of the patterns you know the fact that America was recruiting these legions of labor to work in the factories was a huge part of how the communities came together. And then what else did I learn, for these first generations there was much more a sense of putting down roots in the foreign land, a sense of the Armenian being the foreigner. What was tremendously different for the experience here was that there might have been, there was definitely some bias by you know the sense of the established society the Anglo-Saxon Protestant American you know white-bread society nobody was standing there with open arms. So there was a sense of adjustment, there was a sense of you know not every, these were families that did not necessarily come educated, that did not know the language, did not know the customs. So they had acclamation periods and there was a drive and a desire to start a new, especially when they really wanted to forget what they left behind. They were not people like the Polish in Chicago who would go back and forth, you know who were here in this country specifically just for economic opportunity. So they created a new Armenia in a sense here by planting down new roots and yet at the same time the distinct characteristic of even these Armenians from small towns and small cities in Cilicia that had previously been settled by, with Protestant missionaries that some of them were educated, valued education and strove to really get established, I mean when you think about my dad the son of a cobbler becoming an orthodontist and graduating from two Ivy league schools in one generation is really astounding in a way.
GS: Yeah, It is. So let us move on a little bit to your, a little bit more of your adult life. Do you have any children own your own?
GR: Yes, I have, my wife and I have two sons.
GS: Let us actually start with your wife because you were saying that her parents from Istanbul how did the two of you meet?
GR: So, we were [laughs] we were casually introduced through a mutual friend. I was, between college and graduate school went overseas and came to Chicago for the ACYOA sports weekend and when I told my friend Debbie that I was starting graduate school in the fall, she said oh I have a friend who is also in graduate school there. My wife, Sona was in the business program and we ̶  It was not really until halfway through the year that we started sort of socializing and so that was how we got to know one another. She was living in Evanston but she was bouncing between the day and the night program and so she had kind of free time and that was how we got acquainted. I came back to Binghamton. I did not expect to find this immigration history project. I wanted to do it. It really sung to me. I stayed a year, year and a half. My boss said at the end of the grant you know it is time to get a real job and he went off to the Fresno Art Museum actually, amazingly. Then I came back to Chicago where I had you know the opportunity to find a job and settled fairly quickly by June of 1984 then I was working in Chicago again. So, we dated for four years, we married in 1987. Our first born, Nicholas Arakel was born in 1994 and we subsequently adopted a baby boy in Armenia 2000, Andrew Artak. And so they are now 21 and 15.
GS: Okay, did your wife, does your wife speak Armenian?
GR: Yeah, she came from a family that wrapped her knuckles if they did not speak Armenian in the house. Her father was already a physician in Turkey. Her mom graduated from lise [Turkish: high school]  Her parents interestingly you know their private language between the two of them was Turkish which really is not much different than people speaking English here but they insisted that their kids learn Armenian fluently even my wife taught in the Armenian school in Chicago, one of the Armenian schools in Chicago. And they, because they were of that some different generation had a different take on things now, my father-in-law ̶  came to the US for residency in family practice. That was in 1953, right before the Cristal ̶  of the Turks [Istanbul pogrom, September events, 6-7 September 1955] against the Greeks in Istanbul. So they basically could not go home. And then you know he had come here with the assistance of a cousin in Washington D.C who helped, then helped him find a job in those days you know Americans were hiring foreign doctors as there was a shortage of physicians and, so he although, at the time did not really know much English at all. They knew French. So, they knew the alphabet but they really did not know the language. And started totally from scratch in fact their stuff was boxed up in Istanbul, you know they really came with nothing.
GS: So, let us go back to your children. Can you re-introduce them for us?
GR: Yeah, Nick is twenty-one. He is a third year at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. He is Economics and Political Science major. Andrew Artak was born in Yerevan. He is fifteen. He is a sophomore at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Illinois, which is the largest Jesuit high school in the country. Both boys went, Nick also graduated from Loyola.
GS: And both boys grew up in Binghamton?
GR: Both boys grew up in Evanston. There is a home we bought which is the town just north of Chicago, we bought our home in 1989 and both kids were ̶  Both kids came home on Christmas Eve and you know, grew up in that home, that same home.
GS: Did your children grow up speaking Armenian?
GR: Yeah, actually I have remained ̶  I have become very active in both the church. The Evanston Church had a lot of connection ̶  My mother had a lot of relatives in the Evanston Church and there were a lot of Çomaklıs in the Evanston Church. And I lived all my ̶  the years that I lived in Chicago, I have lived in Evanston. So, that was my home Parish in the area. And So I was very active in the church. I also served as a Parish Council Chairman and a Parish Council member but we also have ̶  We were one of the few towns that has an AGBU center or building and I have been the cultural chair there forever.
GS: What are your responsibilities as a cultural chair?
GR: So, I plan community activities and we also have a small Armenian school there. Actually, it was not a small school when Nick was a student, we maxed out the capacity of the school at fifty student and you know it dwindled over time but I got private foundation support to do ethnic identity and cultural heritage programing.
GS: So, you said the school had about fifty students but fifty kids is about the size of the Armenian community that you said you grew up with. So, would you say a fair statement is that the Armenian community you were growing up in now has a larger population that was speaking Armenian than other Armenian communities at this time? You know at this time in history not over the course of the twentieth century but now well into the twenty first century? Would you say it is a goal?
GR: I do not know that is a right comparison you are talking about you know, a town, Binghamton had a number of families, Binghamton had you know there is a whole other disenfranchised Tashnag Community if you will that was not active in the church here ̶
GS: What do you mean by Tashnag community?
GR: The people who politically were nationalist and/or rather anti-Soviet in their political believes and that community was pretty strong in Binghamton ̶
GS: Can you explain the difference between the Tashnag and what would ̶  the other community be called?
GR: Well, I mean that is the name for the political party ̶  Tashnag is the name for the political party I do not know that, you know you could say that there were other political parties that were more sympathetic to the Soviet Republic whether they were Hunchakian or Ramgavar, you know, it was more a nationalist anti-Soviet and other you know. And I am, I am really of a younger generation that did not get involved or enmeshed in that politics ̶  it really did not matter in my generation ̶  
GS: Let us get back to ̶
GR: But I want to get back to this whole like the idea of ̶  to have, first of all two Armenian schools in Chicago. The main differences that the Antelias Diocese, you could call them the Tashnags had one central Perish in the metropolitan area. So they are much large ̶
GS: In which metropolitan area?
GR: In the Chicago metropolitan area, so they had a much larger critical mask where the Diocese churches that were aligned with Etchmiazdin in Soviet Armenia, then Soviet Armenian, had you know, there is a total of eleven communities in the Chicago area right, and so the other, they are only four that were from with Antelias, the others were ̶
GS: What does this have to do with speaking Armenian now?
GR: What I was trying to say is that you are looking at this huge community and the fact that this one school had fifty kids does not necessarily equate to the fifty the total population of fifty children ̶
GS: In Binghamton ̶
GR: Like that school should have had a hundred and fifty kids right! The building only held fifty and we were happy and fine now we might have a dozen or twenty students.
GS: So, you would say that the portion of children speaking Armenian is about the same in the Chicago?
GR: No, no, no, it is gone down and it is much smaller. I do not think, you know the kids I grew up with very few of them really I mean I knew some words but they did not, I did not necessarily feel like I grew up speaking Armenian and my ears were full of it but I did not actually learn the language until I married into a family where there was no choice. So, my contemporaries here did not have that much of a base to build on. You know I am kind of an anomaly.
GS: Do you think it is important for the Armenian community that people continue speaking the language?
GR: I think it is a very traditionally held belief and you know sociologists like Anna Bakalian have done studies about, wrote a whole book about from being Armenian to feeling Armenian, what does that mean and how does the community identify and then you got you know other whole programs like birthright Armenian trying to reconnect people who do not have any sense of their Armenian heritage with their homeland.
GS: What do you think is the ̶  What for you personally is the most important part of your Armenian identity? Would you call yourself an Armenian, an Armenian American, an American Armenian, an American?
GR: Most important part of the identity is claiming it is your own. However you choose to define it and having affinity for any aspect of the culture that resonates with you personally. So the traditional way of identifying it is based from this perspective of, I am trying to stay focused here but, the traditional perspective is you know; oh, you are not Armenian if you do not speak the language because the language is the window to the culture and all that business. But it is all based on this idea that you are you know an Armenian growing up and an Armenian in an entirely Armenian community of some sort. Even if you were an Armenian in Beirut or Bolis or someplace else where you had a large critical mass and these people could sort of live only amongst themselves or they have so much of a community that their, that defined who they are which was definitely the case in major cities, diaspora cities. Clearly the great divide for coming, Armenians coming to America is that they no longer lived in a hostile land. So, how do I see myself, you asked you know, I mean I would probably say that I am Armenian American.
GS: And what do you think it is that makes you Armenian?
GR: Well, what I meant to say ̶
GS: Is it that you speak the language, is it that you grew up in church, is it that you grew up in Armenian family, is it the food you ate?
GR: No, it is really a lot of different things. For me, all those are indeed elements of my cultural identity but I still go back to the idea that the sense of claiming it is my own, is the most important element of, you know it matters to me that this is who I am and where I came from, and the part that is living vibrant and now here and now for me is that where I have the opportunity to ̶
GS: Let us move for a second. You said that you, you know, you raised your children to speak Armenian, you sent them to Armenian school, I am assuming you also raised them in the Armenian Church, what other ways did you try and give them the sense of Armenian identity? What other things did you do with them? Did you ̶
GR: Well, this is where I was going. I mean what is important to me is that they know some, what is important to me is that they relish living aspects of their cultural history and so I invested a lot of time in producing lectures, theatre, music, art you know anything that showed Armenian creativity or the Armenian story and, so I think an interest in that literature, an interest in that an ongoing interest in it and investing of yourself to keep that living in your community by producing another event, by helping promoted I mean probably people tell me that I am very well known in Chicago because I bother to promote whatever I hear is going on in the community to a larger audience and it matters to me tremendously when a major cultural institution like the Art Institute of Chicago, world famous cultural institution does some exhibit that involves an Armenian like Yusuf Karsh the photographer or you know the University of Chicago is producing a concert by Armenian musicians. And I think that you know, that is where I feel a sense of responsibility as an Armenian to seek out that kind of enrichment in my own life and to help promote it so that the world knows, the larger world, the first that my local Armenian community knows and then the larger world beyond that Armenian community knows the contributions of Armenians through the culture and the world they live in.
GS: I think that covers about everything, thank you very much for your time.
(End of Interview)

Date of Interview



Gregory Smaldone


Gary Rejebian

Biographical Text

Gary Rejebian grew up in Binghamton, NY. His gradnparents immigrated to the United States during the Armenian Genocide. Rejebian earned his Bachelor's degree in Creative Writing from Hamilton College and his Master's degree in Journalism from Northeastern University.  He currently lives in Chicago area with his wife and two sons.





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Binghamton University

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Armenian; Kentucky; Binghamton; Language; Armenian Culture; Armenian Politics; Armenian Genocide; Armenian Church


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This collection includes interviews in English with informants of all ages and a variety of backgrounds from various parts of Armenia. The interviews provide deeper insight into the history of the Armenian culture through personal accounts, narratives, testimonies, and memories of their early lives in their adoptive country and… More

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