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
"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
"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
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