How I Became a Circassian-American Writer

14 May

My family name, Cherches, is a Russian Jewish name. My father’s side of the family came from an area that I believe is in modern-day Ukraine. But for years I thought the name derived from Circassia, an area in the Caucasus. The Circassian people are known as Cherkess, and several academics, a classicist and a Near-Eastern specialist, on seeing my name and hearing it pronounced, posited that Cherches was a variation on Cherkess.

In 2006, on the Chowhound foodie bulletin board, I responded to a query about Circassian restaurants in New York. I wrote, “‘The Circassians, or Cherkess, are well-renowned for their horsemanship and the linguistic complexity of their languages.’ I believe this is where my name and my ancestors on my father’s side originated. I inherited the linguistic complexity but not the horsemanship.”

A few years later a video appeared on YouTube about “The work of the Circassian American writer Peter Cherches.” It was wild. There was Circassian folk music and a caption that referred to me as the scion of one of the first Circassian families to immigrate to America. Then a man with what I guess is a Circassian accent read several of my pieces.

Where did this come from? I wondered. I figured it had to have been that comment I made on Chowhound, about the putative origin of my name. Somehow I had been transformed into a Circassian cultural hero, albeit a small-time one.

Eventually I did more research on the name Cherches. I began to suspect the Cherkess connection when I learned that the people of Circassia, many of them living abroad in Israel or the U.S., are Muslims, and I could find nothing about a Jewish presence in Circassia. Interestingly, though, the Cherkess in Israel, though practicing Muslims, do not identify with the indigenous Muslim peoples of the middle east, live peacefully with the Jews, and serve in the Israeli military.

Digging further, I learned that there is a village in western Ukraine whose Romanized spelling is Czorcze or Cherche, and it’s smack dab in the heart of the region that so many Jews emigrated from, not far from Lviv. It seemed much more plausible that the family name Cherches derives from that place name than from the non-Jewish Cherkess.

But as a writer who revels in blurring the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, and creating outlandish personae, I love the fact that someone went to the trouble of creating this false biography of me, blissfully unaware that it was fiction.

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One Response to “How I Became a Circassian-American Writer”

  1. evenchick June 19, 2016 at 11:48 am #

    Actually your ancestors probably did come from Circassia. The original inhabitnts were not Muslim and had many jews among them. When driven from their homeland by Russians many did settle in the middle east. But many Muslims were once jewish. Also the town in the Ukraine you mention was settled by circassians. So their is nothing that contradicts being of jewisj circassian origin.. I know this because I am a Cherches on my faters mothers side. Some of my relatives changed the name to Cherkes and Charkes but in Belarus, from where they came to the US, they were alll Cherches. The circassion women were known for their beauty and all my female relatives who took after my grandmother were beauties.

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