In Pursuit of Our Roots 05/25/2017

Zak (Zakharian) Mortensen was born in California, adopted by Deaf parents. His life shows the connection he has both to his adoptive parents, as well as to his Armenian background, which he learned about through his maternal grandparents. Since he was a teenager, he worked as an interpreter for American Sign Language, and pursued his education in Post-Secondary and Adult Education at the doctoral level. Zak also felt right at home within the Armenian community in Fresno, taking classes offered by the Armenian faculty at Fresno Community College.

Teaching American Sign Language and Deaf Culture brought him to Illinois in 2005, where he worked until his retirement. Zak wanted to find something meaningful to pursue, and while he grew up in a house of many languages, including Russian, Yiddish, Portuguese, German, Greek and of course American Sign Language, he realized one language was missing from his early upbringing—Armenian.

He discovered Armenian Virtual College and as he says, he “jumped in with both feet” when he saw the “scope and the range of classes” available, which he described as a vosgehank (goldmine).

Zak learned about his Armenian heritage through his maternal grandparents, and states that the process of learning Western Armenian, “the language of the Armenians who were part of the Diaspora,” is where the adventure to his roots began. He has already completed Pre-Advanced Western Armenian and states: “I find I have come home to my Armenian roots, and they grow deeper with every passing lesson.” He describes his instructors as “tremendous” and adds: “I could not ask for more than Ani and Zepur. They are not just instructors; they are true friends.”

Although there is no Armenian community in east-central Illinois, Zak feels very thankful for the “direct connection” he has in Yerevan through his instructors. As his health prevents him from traveling to Armenia, he greatly appreciates AVC’s virtual guided tours to his ancestral homeland, calling them a “delight.”

The classes have also allowed him to utilize his musical background, which includes playing the piano, organ, cello, harp and taking music theory classes. While studying Hovhannes Tumanyan’s poem “Parvana,” Zak states a melody kept running though his mind and inspired him to create a musical piece about it. Zak notes: “My classes have inspired me many times, and I’m sure there are other Armenian melodies percolating within me.”

Zak is currently enrolled in Advanced Armenian classes, and his future goals include composing music using Armenian lyrics, understanding the Bible in Armenian, and achieving a post-doctoral degree in Armenian linguistics with a music composition component. He jokingly asks, “I don’t ask for much, do I?”

To listen to Zak’s music, inspired by AVC, visit this link.

By Lena Tashjian