From Moscow to Missouri — Svetlana Grobman

June 1990

Arrived in Columbia, Missouri. A group of people in shorts met us at the local airport – presumably, our Jewish sponsors. They don’t speak Russian and I don’t speak English (or was it Hebrew?), so it’s hard to know for sure.

July 1990

Got invited to the Fourth of July celebration. The hostess kept saying something about American independence. I’ve never studied American history, so I’m not sure from whom. Of course, it could’ve been her way of letting me know that the congregation won’t be helping us much.

The temperature is 41 degrees Celsius. They measure everything in Fahrenheit, and my thermometer reads 105 – which makes me feel even worse.

August 1990

A small tornado hit the town. Nobody got killed, but several houses lost their roofs.  Some people predict that we’ll have an earthquake here soon, too. Reconsidering my coming here.  As bad as it was in Russia, we never had either one!

October 1990

A neighbor with a daughter dressed in a black cloak came to the door looking for candy. They didn’t look hungry, so I was very suspicious. After they left, I looked outside – the street was full of children searching for food. Apparently, they have shortages in America, too.

November 1990

Got invited to a Thanksgiving dinner by another member of the congregation. She talked about being thankful. This time, I’m sure that she meant us.

The food was baked turkey and red potatoes. Even in Russia, where red was very popular, potatoes were white! I skipped the potatoes and ate the turkey that was stuffed with bread. That way, I suppose, they can feed more people.

December 1990

Our Jewish community celebrates Hanukkah. I don’t know much about Jewish holidays. Besides, we had no olive oil in Moscow, so it’s hard for me to relate to the Hanukkah story.

January 1991

A woman from the congregation has been helping me with my English. She also helped me get a job at a public library shelving books. This is great, because this way I don’t have to speak English. Still, yesterday, one man asked me where the restroom was. It was just around the corner, but I panicked and sent him to the reference desk.

February 28, 1991

A blue plastic bag appeared by the door of our apartment. I opened it and found some candy, pastry, a small bottle of wine, and a piece of paper titled “Purim.” What does it mean?”

The pastry was good, though, and the wine sweet.

Spring 1991

Celebrated my first American Passover — the only Jewish holiday I know something about. Mostly, because that was the only time of the year my grandma cooked gefilte fish from carp. American gefilte fish comes from a jar, and it is not as tasty as Grandma’s. I suppose they don’t have carp in this country.

Summer 1991

What a language!  Half the words have multiple meanings, while the other half sound the same but mean different things. Besides, no matter how I twist my tongue, I can’t roar the American “r,” or hiss their “the.” My “think” comes out as “sink,” and even when I say “Hi,” people ask where I’m from.

Fall 1991

My daughter had a bat mitzvah, and we had a party afterwards. Served salad and shish kebab. The rabbi asked what meat I used. I wanted to say, “Pork” (it’s more tender than beef, everybody from Russia knows that!), but my daughter elbowed me and said, “Lamb.”

Feel really bad. Still, I had no religious education in Moscow. How could I have known that Jews are not supposed to eat pork?! Eliminated pork from our diet, so nothing like that would ever happen again.

Winter 1991

American expressions are strange. When did they ever see “raining cats and dogs”? And what about “give a leg up.” Why would I lift my leg if somebody needs a ride home?   Also, “it costs an arm and a leg.” We never paid with our limbs!

Yesterday somebody said, “Keep me posted.” I looked. No postage stamps anywhere. Besides, where do I put them? On her clothes?!

Winter 1992

Got promoted to the Front Desk.  Understand about 25%. Today, a patron asked about stagecoaches. I knew “stage” and also “coach,” so I referred him to the theater section. Expect to be fired every day.

Fall 1993

Started reading books in English.   Also, made my first “Library will close in fifteen minutes” announcement.   Everybody left immediately — including some staff. They said that it “sounded scary.”

Fall 1994

Decided to go back to school and get a Library Science degree. A friend from the congregation took me to the local University and helped me fill out an application. I spelled “Library” just fine but couldn’t spell “Science.” Got a funny look from the friend and the admission staff.

Winter 1994

Took the GRE.  Scored 95% on Math and 15% on English — confused “sink” with “synch,” “bear” with “bare,” “horse” with “hoarse,” “effect” with “affect,” and “sail” with “sale.” Passed anyway — they counted the average.

Spring 1995

Going to school part time, working at the library full-time – now at the reference desk. Yesterday, a nice-looking gray-haired lady asked me about whales. I took her to the animal section. Who knew she was going to Wales? No time to eat. Lost five pounds.

Winter 1995

Became a naturalized American citizen. At work, a patron asked how to “dress” a deer. I said, “Do you mean clothes or stuffing?” Another patron wanted pictures of a groundhog. I knew “ground” and “hog,” so I suggested her to inquire at a grocery store. Lost another five pounds.

Fall 1996

Last semester. Preparing for the Comprehensive Exam and dating an American. Ran out of “I was sick” excuses and told my professor that my paper was late because I was getting married. He understood. Not sure what I’ll tell him next time.  Maybe, “I’m getting divorced”?  Lost five more pounds.

Winter 1997

Got my Master’s degree! Voted for Clinton and he won.  Also, received a marriage proposal. Well, I didn’t know about that, but it felt good.

Spring 1998

Accepted the marriage proposal and asked our rabbi to perform the ceremony. He said that he’d be more than happy to do that after my fiancé converted to Judaism. Unfortunately, my fiancé is 53 years old, and I don’t believe that circumcision would be good for his health.

Spring 1999

Was promoted to a reference librarian – doubled the salary and the fear of being fired. Married the American, too!  Now, I speak English 24/7. Gained five pounds.

Spring 2000

My husband does a great job of correcting my English — especially when we argue. Also, dreamed in English for the first time. Is that what happens when you marry an American?  Gained five more pounds.

Summer 2000

A guy wearing a “lion” cloth tried to enter the library today.  As soon as I got home, I described the event to my husband.  He was very surprised — not with the guy, but with the cloth. Then he said, “Did you mean “loin?” Gained five more pounds.

Spring 2001

We moved to a house by the edge of the woods. Now, I’m spending all my free time landscaping our yard. Lost five pounds.

Fall 2001

Lost everything I planted to the deer. Voted for Al Gore, and he lost, too.

Summer 2002

Tried new plants, and so did the deer. The plants are gone; the deer are still around.

Summer 2003

Found one kind of bush that the deer don’t like. Planted it everywhere.

Spring 2004

Traveled to Israel for the first time. Amazing! Especially the fact that the gefilte fish was not meant as delicacy, as I believed from my Russian experience, but as a means of feeding many people with one fish.

Spring 2005

Went bird watching with my husband.  Saw 3 ducks, 5 geese, and one woodpecker – all of which live in our neighborhood, too. Put up a bird feeder in the back yard, so we don’t have to drive anywhere.

Fall 2005

No bird feeder survives. We keep losing them to the deer, raccoons, and squirrels. Voted for John Kerry. He lost, too.

Summer 2006

Deer destroyed everything again, so no landscaping is needed.  Used my free time to write about the deer eating my “lushes” plants and sent it to the local newspaper. The story got published, although they replaced “lushes” with “lush.”

Spring 2007

Now, we are having moles and “aunts” problems. Wrote about that, too. My husband read my story and said, “I think you mean ‘ants.’”

Summer 2008

Continue writing. This time, I wrote how my husband and I “tied the nut” eleven years ago, and how “exiting” that was.  Showed it to my husband.  After he stopped laughing, he suggested replacing “nut” with “knot” and “exiting” with “exciting.”

Summer 2009

Wrote an essay about what life was like in the former Soviet Union, especially for Jews and sent it to several publications. The essay got published in The Christian Science Monitor (of all places!), and I got my first fan letter. Opened it with shaking hands and read that the only thing missing in my life now was … converting to Christianity. Decided to skip the advice.

Summer 2015

Led a library tour for new immigrants. One of them asked, “Do you go to your home country often?”

I said. “No, this is my home.”


Svetlana Grobman is a Jewish immigrant from Russia who was born in Moscow in 1951 and who moved to the United States in 1990. While living in Russia, Svetlana was an engineer and an editor for the Soviet Encyclopedia.  Now, she is a librarian and freelance writer living in Missouri. Svetlana’s first book The Education of a Traitor: A Memoir of Growing Up in Cold War Russia was published in March, 2015, and she is currently working on her second.

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