Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

15 Sivan 5761 - June 6, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family
The Smell of Cholent
by Menucha Levin

Aleksandra was a twenty-two-year-old Polish girl who came to clean Sima Berman's large suburban house every Friday. Efficient and a hard worker, she managed to get through her chores quickly. She always left before the time Shabbos started, but on this particularly cold February day, it began to snow right after Aleksandra arrived. It continued to snow as she vacuumed the carpets, scrubbed the bathrooms and dusted the living room. Thick white flakes kept falling as she cleaned up the children's bedrooms and found puzzle pieces and Lego blocks under the beds.

In the afternoon, after she had finished all her chores, she came to say good-bye to her employer.

"I just heard the weather report, Aleksandra," Sima told her. "This blizzard is really bad. The highways are all closed and the buses have stopped running."

Aleksandra nodded. "Just like in Poland in winter," she said. "Very bad snow; everything closed."

"You may have to stay here overnight," Sima suggested.

"Aleksandra's staying here?" ten-year-old Mindy Berman asked excitedly. She really liked the older girl and often chatted with her as she worked.

"I don't have a choice," Aleksandra replied. "Snow is too bad now."

"Oh, goody, it'll be fun to have you here, Aleksandra," the child told her happily.

"But it's your Sabbath. I don't know what I must do," Aleksandra said shyly.

"Oh, you don't have to do anything," Sima assured her. "You'll be our special guest. You always work so hard cleaning up our house, it will be nice to show you our appreciation." She smiled warmly.

Aleksandra watched in fascination as Sima lit the Shabbos candles and joined them for a festive dinner in the dining room. She insisted on helping serve the sumptuous food and helped clear up afterwards. Later, Sima loaned her a nightgown and Aleksandra went to sleep in the guest room.

The next morning, as she came downstairs, she wrinkled her nose in puzzlement.

"What is that smell?" she asked Sima.

"Smell? Oh, you must mean the cholent cooking on top of the stove. It's a meat and vegetable stew we eat for lunch on our Sabbath. You see, we can't cook today so I cook it on Friday and it simmers all night till lunch time. It's delicious. I'm sure you will like it."

Aleksandra continued to look puzzled. "But I remember that smell from somewhere. I know it. When I was a little girl..." Sima stared at her. "But you're not Jewish, Aleksandra, are you? Only Jews eat cholent, as far as I know. I don't think it's a Polish dish, too, or is it?"

The puzzling feeling haunted Aleksandra all that day. That night, when Shabbos ended and the roads had been cleared, Sima drove her home.

When she reached her room in the boarding house where she lived, she had a sudden impulse to try to phone her parents in Poland. But it was not easy to make such a call in the early 1960s and besides, what could she ask them? Still, the thought continued to bother her. Is my family Jewish? Perhaps they were only pretending to be Catholic to escape the Nazis during the World War.

A few months later, Aleksandra flew home to Poland for a visit. She explained the whole puzzling experience about the cholent to her mother. "Could it be, Mama, that we are really Jews?"

To her astonishment, her mother's blue eyes filled with tears.

"No, I am not a Jew," she replied shakily. "But you are. Your real parents left you with us when the war started. We never had a daughter and you were such a sweet little girl. They gave us some money to take care of you. Life was so difficult then, during that terrible war. You can't imagine..." She sighed deeply. "So you became just like our own child and when the war finally ended and we found out that all your family had been killed, we kept you for our own. I had always planned to tell you the truth when you got older but somehow, I never could find the right time or words."

Aleksandra and her mother wept in each other's arms. "You must be very upset, darling. Do you hate me now for not telling you?" her adoptive mother finally asked.

"No, Mama, of course not. I could never hate you. You saved my life and I'll always be grateful for that. You acted out of love; you are a good person. But, Mama, now that I know I'm a Jew, I must find out what that really means."

Soon Aleksandra was back at the Bermans. They became her second family, like her own Jewish family which she could not remember. She studied with their rov and underwent a conversion lechumrah so that her Jewish heritage would never be in doubt. Eventually, the Bermans introduced her to a nice young man they knew and Aleksandra, now Sara, is a happy wife and mother. And every Shabbos, summer and winter, she serves cholent. After all, it was the smell of cholent that led her to discover who she really was.


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