Making a continental connection

Making a continental connection

Catherine Suserman was born in Paris, the daughter of a French mother and a Romanian father. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. with 9-month-old Catherine in their arms and moved to the Bronx. Through the years, they all traveled to Europe so that Catherine and her brother would feel at home in both the Old World and the New.

Jerry and Catherine Sitbon

In order for her father’s parents to be liberated from behind the Iron Curtain, he had to establish a residence in Europe, so they could eventually immigrate to America on a visa. Once her grandparents were settled in the States, Catherine’s father decided to move his family to Spain, and then to Belgium.

After attending the University of Brussels, Catherine eventually settled in New Jersey and became a cosmetics chemist specializing in product development. She belonged to a number of Jewish dating organizations, and in the fall of 1990 she read a personal ad that intrigued her.

"The man said he wasn’t into drinking beer and baseball," she recalls, "which I thought was refreshing. He also said he spoke French, which made me a bit skeptical . . . so I wrote my response letter in French."

Jerry Sitbon was certainly equipped to answer — the child of French parents who were born in Tunisia, which was a French Republic, he is now a college lecturer in New York.

"My mother was three months pregnant when they came to America," he says. "I was born in New York but I learned to speak French, since this was the language spoken in our home."

"He called me after he got my note," Catherine says, "and we ended up talking for four hours."

Considering their international backgrounds, they were surprised to discover that they had lived one block away from each other and that they had also both been in the same fifth-grade class at P.S. ‘0 in Flushing.

"With our respective last names," she adds, "it’s likely we sat next to each other, but neither of us remembers. He was probably the boy who pulled my hair. What are the odds that we’d connect years later?"

Catherine agreed to meet with Jerry the next night.

"He rang the bell to my apartment," she recalls, "and when I answered it, he said he’d be right back. I figured that was the last I’d see of him. But he returned a few minutes later with a shopping bag filled with food — wine, cheese, halvah, and lots of other goodies."

After their impromptu picnic, the couple went to dinner and hit it off so well, Jerry invited Catherine to his sister’s birthday party the following weekend.

"I wasn’t nervous about meeting his family," Catherine says, "but not long after we got there, all the women at the party disappeared into the kitchen."

It turns out they were discussing her — and concurring that, after all the women Jerry had previously dated, Catherine was "the one." Not surprisingly, five months after they met, the couple got engaged.

"Jerry proposed to me during Passover," Catherine says with a smile, "in front of both our families. He wanted everyone to share in our happiness."

They were married five months later, and Jerry moved to Catherine’s apartment in Fort Lee. A few years later, they bought a house in Westwood, where they still live. Catherine is now a consultant for the cosmetics industry, while Jerry is a network administrator/lecturer on computers and electronics at CUNY. The couple have two children, Olivia, 1′, and Robert, 10. The family recently joined Temple Beth Or in Washington Township.

"We wanted to be part of a temple for our children’s bat/bar mitzvahs," Catherine explains, "and we also wanted our children to learn Jewish prayers [and learn] about their heritage, especially since my mother had been a concentration camp survivor and is now listed in the Yale University archives and with Shoah [project]." Catherine is currently part of the temple’s welcoming committee, and Jerry is a member of its men’s club. Catherine also volunteers at her children’s schools.

"What keeps our marriage going strong is that we’re the best of friends," Catherine says. "We understand and respect each other. And we absolutely trust each other. Also, without a sense of humor, you can’t make it through."

"Plus, you can’t ever hold a grudge," Jerry adds. "Let it go . . . it’s not worth it, and making up is a lot more fun." And with parents who were drawn together by their shared European roots, are their two children exploring their multicultural background? Catherine nods, "Jerry and I used to speak French when we didn’t want the kids to understand. But now they’re learning French in school." She grins. "So I’m teaching Jerry Romanian."

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