They say, “History is destiny.” Or better said in the words of the Torah: “Remember bygone days; understand the years of each generation; ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will say it over to you” (Deuteronomy 32:7). A recent trip to the supermarket reminded me how much this is true.

I am the daughter of German Jewish immigrants who proudly embraced their new, foreign land when they arrived in New York in 1946. My grandmother, Frau Bertha Becker, from Leipzig, Germany, traveled by ship with her family in the aftermath of the Holocaust. She arrived with little more than the clothes on her back––and a few precious artifacts to remind her of home, including a treasure trove of recipes. One of which, penned in a careful German cursive hand, was for spaetzle.

Spaetzle, a type of small noodle or dumpling made with fresh eggs, was always accorded a special place at my grandmother’s rectangular wooden table. The preparation of food was such a pre-eminent event in our family, and she made it from scratch, stretched out on a white linen cloth. Many times while absorbed in the task, she spoke about her family story, recalling to me Moses’ talking about the duty of telling our people’s story to our children.

Cooking was always accompanied by references to faith because for my family, they were necessarily intertwined. I can still hear my mother’s words, Deine Oma wird jetzt spätzle machen. Schau dir an, wie sie es macht, damit du weißt, wie. (“Your grandmother is going to make spaetzle now. Look at how she makes it so that you know how.”)

There was a further implicit instruction, however, consistent with my understanding of a Torah behavior I had been taught about by my yeshivah-schooled father: that of hospitality or hachnasat orchim—share what you have by inviting family members, friends and acquaintances to the home, and always be generous and gracious hosts. I could hardly wait to call everyone I knew, and ask them to come over and join the food fest. To this day, I cannot remember a single person refusing.

Watching my grandmother make spaetzle—as generations of her family had done before—was nothing less than a lesson in Jewish continuity and learning our history and traditions. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has spoken about the three gifts we give our children: 1) identity; 2) values; and 3) the sense of our people’s continuity. By making the old family recipe, I felt like all three of these gifts were rendered to me.

I watched my grandmother rolling out the spaetzle dough so that it was approximately a half-inch thick, speaking alternatively in French and German to her children about the importance of paying attention so that, someday, they could be replicated for future generations. The spaetzle was often accompanied by bratwurst or wienerschnitzel, and the adults all drank schnapps with the meal.

For a family who’d had more than their share of hardships—my mother and her siblings had hidden in convents, monasteries and farms in the French countryside while most of their extended family perished in the Holocaust—sharing food was a unifying force. But it was mostly German cuisine. As a young child, I craved the things I saw my American counterparts eating—hamburgers, pizza, hot dogs—though none of these ever passed through our doors.

My grandparents
My grandparents

Once I left home for college, my German Jewish heritage took a backseat to my burgeoning American identity. While I occasionally found myself thinking in my family’s native tongue, it wasn’t until my late 20s that I accepted that one couldn’t escape one’s history. Despite my attempts to become as American as apple pie, my German Jewish roots had shaped me into someone else. And no one represented those roots more than my grandmother.

By this time, my grandmother had passed away from cancer at age 81, surrounded by her family in Los Angeles. Shortly after her death, my cousin sent me photos of my grandmother. Suddenly, I wanted to learn much more about her and was able to secure a fair amount of information from my mother, who told me stories about her lively intelligence, humble demeanor, facility with languages and efficacy at child-rearing. That, among her many virtues, she was well-known as an excellent cook.

On a recent trip to the supermarket, history clapped back at me when my eye alighted on something named spaetzle, which, with a slight emotional jolt, I immediately recognized. I hadn’t thought about spaetzle since I left home for college at 19. I purchased a box, but on the ride home, I suddenly heard my grandmother’s accented voice saying that the real spaetzle is a dish you make yourself.

Once home, I put the box in the cupboard with a guilty conscience and began to look for the old recipe, lettered in my grandmother’s hand. The ingredients were simple enough: flour, egg and a bit of milk mixed into a pancake-batter-like consistency. Dropping little lumps of the batter into some salted boiling water then ensued. When the lumps finally took form plumping up into morsels, I turned off the burner, drained off the hot water and allowed them to cool off. The first bite reconnected to my childhood—to the tastes of my bubbe’s kitchen and the sounds of immigrants talking in their native languages, their home a refuge in this strange, new land.

The box of spaetzle I bought, which I know I will never use, still sits high upon a kitchen shelf, recalling the architecture of a former life. It reminds me that each of us is knit of an infinite fabric of previous histories; that I cannot separate my identity from my past, residing happily in my European and American Jewish worlds.

When my son nearly trips on a street curb while alighting from our car, the word Vorsichtig! (“Watch out!”) suddenly issues from my throat. I tell him about the great-grandmother he never knew who poured love and soul into her food so that her story is not forgotten. The word “spaetzle” is now a part of his vocabulary, and one day, he will make that delicacy with his grandmother’s blessing on his own. More importantly, the act of making and eating spaetzle will link him to a sustained Jewish path that stresses the values of hospitality and doing good things for others while sharing a storied food.

Homemade Spaetzle

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 medium-sized eggs
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup water
  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • one pinch of freshly ground white pepper

Pour the flour into a medium-sized mixing bowl. Stir in the eggs and spices with a wooden spoon. Slowly add water while mixing vigorously until the dough becomes elastic. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and drop in spoonfuls of the batter until cooked.

Photo: Kobako
Photo: Kobako