Legal Eagle Mark Momjian Soars in Pennsylvania

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By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

PHILADELPHIA — An attentive follower of the national media may have encountered Philadelphia lawyer Mark Albert Momjian’s name in connection with the divorce of reality television show actress Kate Gosselin. He was quoted in many national newspapers and appeared on television shows such as “Larry King Live” and the “Today Show.”

Momjian is a nationally-respected authority on family law who has also managed to actively participate in Armenian community life over a period of several decades, and to develop a variety of rich collections of books and ephemera dealing with Armenians and other topics. Interestingly, each of these endeavors in one form or another is connected to the idea of family and heritage.

The choice of law as a field certainly must have been at least in part influenced by his family background and upbringing. Quite a few Momjians are lawyers, including Mark’s father, Albert, a nationally prominent family lawyer regarded by many as the dean of the Pennsylvania bar. In addition, Mark’s two siblings (Carol and Thomas), as well as a number of cousins, are lawyers and they specialize in everything from bankruptcy to securities litigation.

After graduating from Columbia College (where he was a classmate of President Barack Obama) and the Columbia University School of Law, Mark Momjian worked for more than 25 years with his father, primarily in the large Philadelphia law firm of Schnader Harrison Segal and Lewis, before starting a specialized family law firm named Momjian Anderer this year. Momjian has written more than 50 articles on family law topics for many legal journals, and he also co-authored with his father the reference work Pennsylvania Family Law Annotated (Thomson/West), now in its ninth edition.

In Pennsylvania, family law is particularly challenging because each judicial district or county has its own rules. Momjian has argued many important cases before the Pennsylvania appellate courts. One of his most significant victories was in 2006. He explained recently that “I defended the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s Grandparents’ Visitation Act and got it affirmed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. That case went up [the technical term is on certiorari] to the US Supreme Court, but thankfully was denied. A biological parent was challenging the Commonwealth’s statute allowing grandparents the right to visit their grandchildren when the parents of the children were separated or divorced. In this particular case, the ex-wife of the father died of cancer. The maternal grandmother was not allowed to see her grandchild after her daughter died, despite having seen her grandson on an almost daily basis for the two years leading up to the mother’s death. This case was an important victory for  Pennsylvania’s seniors.”

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He handled an important case involving civil rights for the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LBGT) community in 2002 before the Pennsylvania Superior Court (an intermediate appellate). Momjian explained, “This was the first case in the US that imputed a child support obligation on a former domestic partner. The biological parent successfully sued her former partner for child support, even though the former partner had never adopted the child.”

Momjian is particularly interested in the intersection between family law and biotechnology — different methods of reproduction, gestational surrogacy, DNA distribution and frozen embryos. With modern technology, family law is a rapidly changing field. Momjian lectures nationally on these and other issues of family law, and teaches at area law schools in Philadelphia. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Drexel University’s College of Medicine, teaching mental health law.

His public service work focuses on problems facing non-traditional families, as well as victims of abuse and domestic violence. He is a member of the board of directors of both the Homeless Advocacy Project and Philadelphia VIP (an organization working for equal justice for the poor).

Momjian’s father and his uncle, Set Momjian, have been prominent as leaders in various Armenian-American organizations over the years, so it was natural for Mark too to become involved. Mark related, “I interned with the Armenian Assembly in Washington, DC when I was 16 or 17 years old. That was in 1979. I was one of the youngest interns. When I went to Columbia, I was very active in the Armenian Club, and eventually served as its president. I remained active as a club member even in law school. After graduating, I served on the board of the Armenian Assembly for close to 17 years. I also served on the board of the Armenian  Sisters Academy [in Radnor, Penn.].”

As part of his loyalty to his alma mater, Momjian has served on the board of the Columbia Armenian Center for over a dozen years, as well as in various non-Armenian alumni positions. He was formerly on the board of the Armenian Missionary Association of America, and when co-chairman of the Armenian Church Earthquake Fund in Pennsylvania he helped raise over half a million dollars of aid for survivors of the 1988 tragedy. He is a former president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Armenian Students Association, and as a lawyer, was active in the Armenian Bar Association as former cochair of its Armenian Rights Watch committee. Momjian is a familiar figure at public events in the Philadelphia area, often serving as master of ceremonies or as a lecturer himself.

The Collector

Mark Momjian’s dedication to his family and his past reveals itself once more in his hobbies. He collects various types of Americana, and materials connected to his alma mater, Columbia, but perhaps the pride of his collections are the materials connected to his heritage as an Armenian, and Armenian-Americans in particular.

To a certain extent, his family background led him to collecting. As Momjian explains, “I must have gotten the collector strain of DNA from my uncle, Set Momjian. He is the penultimate collector. He has done a brilliant job in bringing his collections both to the public through museums and to private groups. He has been a great resource for me and a remarkable person with whom to talk about issues of collecting.”

A specific purchase in 1983 triggered the start of a collection of books that now number several thousand. Momjian reminisces, “It was the summer before I started law school and I was in a used bookstore on South Street in South Philadelphia, in a store that sadly is no longer there. It was a small volume by Herbert Adams Gibbons, The Blackest Page of Modern History. Gibbons was of course referring to the genocide of the Armenians. As I was reading the book, I was so impressed by how forceful his arguments were. I was delighted to find out that he was trained as a lawyer because the book had a legal brief feel to it. I was also delighted to pay only $2.50 for the book.” Today of course such a first edition would sell for $400, but Momjian was motivated to obtain it not as an investment, but “because of my ancestry, and because of the period it covers, and the trans-generational trauma that still affects Armenian-Americans.”

Most of his books are in the English language, and often are inscribed by the author, giving it a more intimate dimension. Momjian gives some examples: “I have William Saroyan’s inscribed copy of the Blue Book [one of the earliest works on the Armenian Genocide, published by the British parliament]. It is extremely rare, but this is a copy he acquired in London in the 1940s. I treasure it. I also have a wonderfully-inscribed copy by Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. It was inscribed to Edith Snow, his poet-translator. Werfel’s signature is a sight to be seen — a flourish of flourishes, a stunning and bold signature at a time when authors did not market their wares as they do today. The book also has critical and other remarks by Snow in pencil. She did not translate this, but his other works of poetry, but it is interesting to see her remarks. When she looks at the English version she is comparing it to the German and writing notes about the translation in her copy in the margins.”

After the first 10 or 15 years, Momjian began to focus on what he likes to call “Armenian Americana,” focusing on the immigrant experience in the United States — “this is the experience that our ancestors endured, whether they came here during the Civil War, up to and including the aftermath of the genocide. It really fascinated me as a second-generation Armenian-American to delve into this area which I felt was largely ignored.”

Momjian has salesmen’s copies of many of the books published on the Armenians and the Hamidian massacres around the turn of the 20th century: “These books were used in some ways to titillate readers. There were great marketing opportunities — publishers would tell their salesmen that these books would practically sell themselves. This is why you see on the title page to Reverend Greene’s book that it is a thrilling account — it is almost unseemly.”

Momjian also has some draft articles: “I have an interesting 19th century manuscripts on the Armenian people — it is a 4,000-word essay, handwritten by James Bryce on the Armenian question and published in Century Magazine. It had a substantive impact on American foreign policy after it was published. For one thing, the American Ambassador to Constantinople at the time was pressured into interviewing Sultan Abdul Hamid II to make up for the damage done by Bryce’s article.” When he holds such historical pieces, he is greatly affected, and explains this through the German expression “fingerspitzengefühl.” This literally means “fingertip feeling,” but also refers to a military commander’s innate sense of what is happening on the battlefield though he is unable to directly see everything. Momjian, like many collectors, “feels an electric charge when touching something with so much history and importance behind it.”

Momjian did not stop with books: “I have collected pulpit notices — little slips of paper handed to parishioners to come to lectures on the Armenian massacres. I have a range of ephemera not meant to survive — from postcards and pin backs, to sheet music and badges. It really reflects the social history of what interested Americans in learning about the Armenian people and what was happening to them.”

Momjian owns approximately 1,000 postcards, some of which are extremely rare, like from Cilician Armenia during the period of French occupation and coveted philatelic covers with Armenian associations, many from Armenian merchants in the Ottoman Empire. He has many postcards with photographs, as well as Near East Relief postcards. By and large the collection has been more focused on the US and its connection with the Ottoman Empire and the Armenians. In particular, Momjian has always been interested in materials relating to how Armenians came to America, and, working hard, established small businesses. He confided, “I have a 19th-century business card of an Armenian who sold dry goods and clothing from Boston. I have bill heads, specially engraved stationery, to sell products in the US.” He also has handwritten letters on Armenian issues by notables like Henry Morgenthau Sr., James Bryce, Oscar Strauss, General Harbord, Vice President Eisenhower and various congressmen, as well as a copy of William Saroyan’s first letter ever to his artistic collaborator, Don Freeman.

Momjian expanded into collecting original 19th-century photographs. For example, there  are the products of a tour of an Armenian doctor named Megerdich Attarian, who had graduated from Colgate University and then medical school in New York. He went from city to city, mainly in the East Coast, dressing up in costumes and selling photos, talking about what life was like in the Ottoman Empire. Momjian feels collecting such material “is a fascinating way to understand how Armenian culture was disseminated in the US. This is a form of cultural history. These photographs are quite charming when you look at them, but they are highly stylized. They did not accurately depict the average Armenian living in the Ottoman Empire, but this was common at the time, similar to the Orientalist approach to art.”

Momjian also has rare old photographs from the pioneers of photography, like Garabed Krikorian of Jerusalem: “He took photos as souvenirs when travelers from the West (mainly from North America) came to Jerusalem. They would dress up as a Bedouin or a tradesman in exotic garb and he would create a cabinet card which travelers would bring back as a keepsake from the Holy Land. I just bought one from a seller living in Utah.”

More unusually, he has a collection of milk bottles from various Armenian-American dairy farmers, and, “I have what I think is the largest collection of fruit labels depicting Armenian growers and merchants. For instance, I have a fruit label from an Armenian grocery store in Watertown in the 1920s, with the kind of engraving that is quite beautiful in its simplicity. These fragile ephemera somehow survived. I think that collectors now look at these things and understand their importance in trying to tell the story of Armenian immigration to this country.”

Among Armenian materials related to presidents of the United States, Momjian feels that one of the most interesting items in his collection is an appointment from the White House on engraved sheepskin with the Executive seal, appointing Milton Seropian as the vice-consul to Persia. He adds, “This is a marvelous document signed in the early part of the 20th century. Milton was the son of Christopher Seropian, the Yale graduate who created the dye for the American currency. The reason why this appointment is wonderful is that it is signed by both Theodore Roosevelt and John Hay, previously Lincoln’s personal secretary, but secretary of state at the time.”

Having accomplished much in his career and fields of service, as well as his hobbies, Momjian and his wife, Melineh (also a Columbia graduate), have strived to provide their two sons with the same background and opportunities that they themselves have enjoyed. They have taken their children to Armenia and provided them with an Armenian cultural background. Momjian explains, “The most important thing for us as parents is to see our children excited to be in their ancestral homeland. You want them to love your homeland instantly, the way that we do. We try to keep the language, music and culture alive in our home. We go to see Armenian soloists. We’ve really tried to raise our children with the deep appreciation that Armenia has a remarkable culture and it is the duty of every Armenian to spread those values.”

Momjian hopes that the new generations of Momjians — and Armenians in general — will work together to overcome the difficulties faced by the new Republic of Armenia and the inherited traumas of the Genocide: “I’ve tried to lead by example, but my inspiration will always be my parents, Albert and Esther, who have been very active and engaged in the Armenian community from as long as I can remember. They have been wonderful role models, as are my inlaws, Dr. Edward Vartany and his wife, Anik. It is a model that I hope our children will follow as well. It is one that’s, above all, respectful of the major sacrifices made by preceding generations of Armenians, both in the US and our homeland.”

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