The Jewish people are often called “People of the Book.” We read the Torah, which teaches us our laws and history. We read Megillot Esther and Ruth on Purim and Shavuot. The Haggadah guides us through the Passover seder as we retell the story of the Exodus. Israelis buy the most books per capita, according to blogger Melissa Zeloof at the Times of Israel.
As an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) in East Orange, I wanted my adult students to become the “People of the Book,” too. But what did that mean for the Christians, Muslims, and Jehovah’s Witnesses from Haiti, Ghana, Cameroon, Uruguay, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic in my class?
The answer was simple: library cards. “Your library card is your ticket to America,” I would tell my students. “And it’s free!” We would examine the monthly calendar from the East Orange Public Library, noting that its programs serve newborns to seniors. For years the students nodded in agreement, but none ever told me about getting a new card nor visiting the library.
Recently, however, I gave an incentive. “Show me your library card and I will give you a hug and a piece of candy. If the entire class gets cards, we will celebrate.” That’s how the Library Card Party was born.
We created a sign-up sheet and when a student showed me a card, I checked off his or her name in red. Happily, no one refused a hug, though the candy was less popular, as many students didn’t eat sugar.
Each proud new cardholder shared the experience with the class. First, they identified “their” public library — East Orange, West Orange, Orange, Newark, Irvington, Bloomfield — and then they described the simple registration process. I asked if they borrowed any books or DVDs or signed up for any programs. My favorite question always was, “How much did it cost?” The chorus of ESL students shouted gleefully, “IT’S FREE!”
Slowly, the number of checkmarks on the sign-up sheet grew, and when I glanced at the list on my bulletin board, I thought about who would be next. Would it be the student who came to class regularly despite working full-time, or the mom juggling four children, going to school, and looking for a job? And could we really achieve 100 percent participation?
As I encouraged my students to get cards, I wondered why I suddenly was so fixated on the public library. Perhaps it was noticing National Library Week on the calendar in April while, coincidentally, reading Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book,” in which Orlean revisits the mystery of the Los Angeles Public Library fire in 1986. More important, her book is an homage to libraries and librarians throughout history. It is a love letter to books.
Quoting Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, Orlean writes, “I have always imagined paradise as a kind of library.” I wanted my students to experience that paradise.
She reminisces about her trips to the Cleveland Public Library with her mother and how they impacted her life. I wanted my students to create library memories for their families.
Orlean describes the few minutes before the library doors actually open, a time bursting with the excitement of a Broadway play before the curtain goes up. I wanted my students to experience that anticipation, the thrill of opening a library door or opening the first page of a book.
Years ago, I worked part-time at the Ann Arbor Public Library. I remember that same thrill, as the staff would take a collective deep breath before the 9 a.m. opening. In those pre-Internet days, we were everyone’s source of information, and librarians and patrons exchanged questions and answers like currency at a bank.
I remember the New Year’s cake I baked and decorated with a friend for a party at the library. It looked like an open book.
I was desperate to update this 40-year-old cake. So when our last student arrived with her library card, I breathed a sigh of relief as we gave her a standing ovation.
And so 19 students from two ESL classes at JVS proudly celebrated their “free” tickets to American life with a cake, decorated like an open book. In blue squiggly icing the new message read, “Congratulations Library Card Holders/Happy Reading!”
Merrill Silver is an ESL teacher at JVS of MetroWest in East Orange.