"Two books per visit per week," said the unsmiling librarian as she handed me a library card. Neither the limits nor her demeanor surprised me, a 9-year-old Jewish girl growing up in Moscow in the 1950s – a city where everything was strictly regulated and rationed. I read the two books in two days and impatiently waited for the next visit.
I needed those visits. The books were filled with stories in which, no matter how grim things seemed, everything came out well in the end, rewarding honesty, bravery, and wisdom – a striking contrast to my everyday experiences.
I needed the security of the bookish world, with no worries about the future and no anti-Semitism, which followed me even to my library where, recorded below my age and address, appeared the label: "Jewish."
Thirty years later, I, a recent immigrant to the US with a 13-year-old daughter, stood in front of another librarian. This librarian was smiling.
"What did she say?" I asked my daughter, who already knew a little English and often served as my interpreter.
"She said, 'Can I help you?' "
"Ask if they have any books in Russian," I requested.
"No, they don't," translated my daughter.
"Let's go, then," I said, disappointed.
The Midwestern town that became our home had greeted us with lush greenery enveloped in heat and humidity. Its look was startling to me – a small downtown, broad residential areas, and many cars.
With few Russian speakers in town, it was a place where loneliness surrounded me with thick walls. Outside those walls, people were conversing, laughing, and smiling. Inside, everything was quiet.
Meanwhile, life went on, demanding food and clothes, and, therefore, a job. "The library needs people to shelve books," someone told me.
The interview was short – the job didn't require much English, just a knowledge of the alphabet. I started the next day.
Most of my new colleagues were young and carefree. They chatted with patrons and with one another, not paying much attention to me. Several older employees tried to break through the language barrier, but had little success.
Every day I handled hundreds of books whose meaning was hidden from me, mentally dividing them by size and color, as a child would. One day, while shelving, I found "English for Beginners" and began studying it on my own.
Days became weeks, weeks became months, and gradually English letters started forming words I could recognize, words assembled into phrases, and – oh, miracle! – I was reading. It was a slow process, supported by dictionaries and accompanied by tears, but it was progress.
As my English improved, the library began to open up for me. The staff was friendly. There was no limit on how many books could be checked out. And nobody called me Jewish. Here I was just Russian.
After a while, I got promoted to the front desk – checking books in and out and answering simple questions.
"Today, I'll get fired," I thought to myself every morning. My vocabulary was still small, my comprehension limited, and my strong Russian accent amused my Midwestern patrons. Yet, many of them smiled at me, and I smiled back – first laboriously, and then, affected by the contagious amicability of the place, openly and sincerely.
I liked working in the library now. I liked its welcoming atmosphere and its air of learning.
"You should get a library degree," my supervisor suggested.
A degree? In Moscow, people my age didn't go back to school. Still, later that year, I filled out an application for the library science program at the local university. I had to look up the spelling of "science," but I applied anyway. The next four years of my life were spent in two libraries – the public library where I worked and the university's library, where I studied after work.
It's been 17 years since I arrived in America. My English has improved, and I no longer confuse "whales" with "Wales" and "tongue" with "tong." I've learned that a stagecoach is not someone who coaches actors on a stage and that keeping people "posted" does not mean gluing stamps on their clothes. If someone "drops the ball," I don't look down to see where it hit the ground.
I am still with the same library. Every day I meet dozens of people – looking for a book to read, using computers, or doing their homework.
Sometimes, I spot new immigrants. They come from all over the world, so they look different, but the hesitant expression on their faces and their shy manners are similar. My heart goes out to them, for they are people like me, and I recognize the difficult road upon which they've embarked.
"They've come to the right place," I think to myself. Then I smile and say – just as a librarian said to me a long time ago – "Can I help you?"