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< Echoes of Memory

Sense of Being Jewish



From my earliest memories, I have always had a sense of being Jewish. My father, who had grown up as an Orthodox Jew, made sure we observed all the Jewish traditions. My mother, who wanted to please him, kept a kosher home. She prepared all the traditional dishes for the Sabbath, and we celebrated all the Jewish holidays with great enthusiasm. My brother and I accompanied my father to the synagogue almost every Saturday. It was there that I learned that it was important to pray to God and that God liked it when the Jewish men worshipped him.

Because I was just a little girl, it was more important to be in the synagogue, but it was not mandatory for me to learn all the prayers. My brother and I also studied the Bible with our town’s rabbi. From him, I learned that God was the creator of the universe, that he talked to Adam and Eve before sending them out of the Garden of Eden, that he asked Abraham to sacrifice his son to him, and that Job suffered tremendous disasters that took away everything that he held dear. I was never sure what God wanted from me. I was afraid of him, and I understood that I had to be good. 

During the rise of Hitler, I was intrigued by the glamour of the Nazi Party, which was exhibited all over Germany. However, I realized that I was, above all, a Jewish girl, belonging to a very important people. It was not until later that I learned the Nazi plan for the Jewish people. 

Even when my brother and I were smuggled into France so that we would be safe from the Nazi atrocities, my Orthodox Jewish identity never left me. Saturday was an official school day in France. The French children were off on Thursdays and Sundays. We went to school on Saturday—the day of rest—but we did not write anything down, and we contributed only orally in the classroom so that we would honor the Sabbath tradition of not doing any work. We also ate only kosher food. After the Germans invaded France, we were put in an Orthodox Jewish children’s home and kept up all the traditions. It felt good to be with our own people. Again we prayed to God that we would be reunited with our parents.

What made me change when I arrived in the United States as a teenager? I think it was because I so desperately wanted to forget my childhood in Europe. I desired to become a real American girl. In high school and at the university, I wanted to be like the all the other young adults.

I remember two incidents very clearly that changed my Orthodox practices. At 17, I had a Saturday night date with a classmate who would eventually become my future husband. My father asked us to wait until the Sabbath was over. We had to linger on our porch until we could see three stars in the sky, which was the signal that the new work week had begun. I was always eager to leave and really did not care about these stars or when the Sabbath was over; I waited only to please my father.

The second incident happened at a Hot Shoppe. It was the practice of teenagers, after an evening at the movies or going to a dance, to get something to eat before going home. Most everyone always ordered a Coke and a hamburger. Of course, I could not order that because it was not kosher. However, I saw something on the menu called a cheeseburger, and I thought that it must be like a hamburger, but only with cheese.

To my chagrin, when the waitress brought our order, there was meat and cheese on the roll. I knew that I had to make a big decision in my life. So I did; I ate that cheeseburger. I felt guilty for a while because I had mixed meat and milk at the same meal, which had been forbidden to me since I could remember. However, at the time I considered myself someone who was open to new experiences, and that I was still a good person.

During my marriage to my wonderful husband, we led a rather secular life. However, I taught my three daughters all the Jewish traditions my parents taught me. When I was working, my father took his grandchildren to Hebrew school twice a week after their public school day was over. Later, they were all married in the synagogue where they had taken their Hebrew lessons. 

It was with great pleasure that I attended all nine of my grandchildren’s bar and bat mitzvahs. They were wonderful and joyous occasions with family and friends. My oldest grandchild, Matthew, spent one of his years in medical school in China. During the high holidays, he took a three-hour train to Shanghai so that he could attend synagogue services at the local Chabad. He met a group of Jews who befriended him, and on Chanukah, they sent him candles that he lit to commemorate the holiday.

This year Matthew was in Gulu, a small village in Uganda, teaching Ugandan physicians about infectious diseases. He was the only Jew in the village, and it was Passover. Matthew, who can tackle anything, made his own matzos. He looked up the rules on how to make them and found out that he had only 18 minutes in which to prepare and bake them. He sent me a picture; the matzos looked very authentic. He also prepared the entire Seder meal and invited the physicians to the meal. He used goat meat to make brisket. I am sure that the meal was probably more like what our ancestors had eaten than any he had known before.

I feel that my children and grandchildren will pass on their Jewish identity to their descendants. My own sense of being Jewish has been strengthened since volunteering for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, because I know that I am part of a community that must make sure the Jewish people survive.

© 2016 Susan Warsinger. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   susan warsingerechoes of memory, volume 9


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