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Border Crossings

I didn’t truly appreciate the sense of security that citizenship can provide until I became an immigrant myself as an adult

Jonathan Silin
January 07, 2016
Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images
Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images
Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images
Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

Like so many things about the state of Israel, the summer I spent working on a kibbutz in 1961 was the result of a compromise. My parents had rejected my plans to travel across Europe with two friends during the time between high school and college. Forced to find an alternative, they proposed an Israel trip sponsored by the United Jewish Appeal Federation, part of the organization’s effort to strengthen young people’s Jewish identities. Motivated by a desire for adventure and independence—Zionism the furthest thing from my mind—I agreed.

Part of my preparation for the trip was acquiring my first passport. The U.S. Immigration Service was then housed in a small if intimidating office at Rockefeller Center. My mother, who worked full time, made time to accompany me, a sign of the importance that my parents gave to the project. I already had the requisite photo, a high-school yearbook image—squint-eyed, perfectly combed blond hair, conservatively outfitted in Brooks Brothers clothing. I stared hopefully into what all assumed would be a future filled with promise. But because it had taken extra time to hatch a summer plan acceptable to both my parents and myself, I was late in securing an officially signed and stamped copy of my birth certificate (no simple Xerox copies were available in 1961) from the Health Department. A close family friend, then Assistant Commissioner of Health, was tapped to expedite the process from what appeared to me to be her surprisingly drab and cramped City Hall office. Finally, various shots and inoculations required for re-entry to the country were documented on a yellow card that was inserted into the passport.

The overriding message from my parents about the passport was clear: It constitutes your identity, and must remain with you at all times; in the hands of a malicious person, it can be used to steal everything you own as well as your social location in the world. Once the passport arrived I secreted it in an expensive leather case, a graduation gift that was then carefully placed deep within my carry-on knapsack.

During this first trip abroad the passport provided both tangible security—just take it to the nearest American embassy, my parents advised, and any difficulty will be quickly resolved—and a powerful reminder of home and natal identity. But when I used it to travel to Europe the following year, I had an additional emotion as well: a deep sense of shame. After all, this was the era of the Ugly American and I wanted to be seen as anything but an American tourist. I was secretly relieved each time I was mistaken for Scandinavian or German, which happened frequently given my Nordic looks. While I still clutched my passport tightly as I waited online at airports or at banks to change money, I now tried to surreptitiously glimpse others’ documents—maroon, black, dark blue with indecipherable gold scripts. With a growing curiosity, I conjured up the emotions with which they were imbued by their owners. Could they possibly value these passports as much as I valued mine? The world was expanding and my appreciation of others along with it.

My failure to have understood the importance of citizenship and its guarantee, the passport, may seem naive given the nature of Jewish history and the endless displacements that have marked its course. But perhaps it was not surprising considering the provincialism of my early years in New York City and the protectiveness of my parents.

As a child in the 1950s, I learned little from adults that would help me to understand how people became stateless and what this might mean for them.

At home my parents seldom if ever spoke about WWII, let alone the fate of the Jews in Nazi Germany. I remember finding and being fascinated by my mother’s worn and frayed ration books, with their incongruous cherry red covers. As a young child I questioned her intently because anything about food, especially food being withheld or in limited supply, was emotionally resonant. I quickly intuited, however, that questions about even this purely domestic aspect of the war were out of bounds. Later, as my curiosity continued to be piqued about others living in what I learned to call the Jewish “Diaspora,” I pressed my father, who would talk passionately about the 19th century pogroms in Eastern Europe—but not about the Holocaust. I didn’t hear that word until it came into use by scholars in the 1960s, the label finally helping to make the previously unsayable into something to be privately studied, publicly examined, and discussed with children.

As a child in the 1950s, I learned little from adults that would help me to understand how people became stateless and what this might mean for them. In fragments of overheard conversations my parents referred to refugees, a far more darkly charged marker than immigrants. Immigrant was a neutral term reserved for people who, in the past, because of hardships but not necessarily under the threat of persecution or death, chose to leave their countries of origin to find better lives. No matter this distinction, in keeping with the closeness of the war and the protectiveness practiced by my parents, both words pointed to topics that, in the Yiddish of my childhood, were nisht far di kinder—not for the children.

Despite my parents’ best efforts, however, exposure to the effects of war were inevitable, even in our solidly middle-class world. Most obviously in our West End Avenue building there was a large German Jewish family, all women who dressed mysteriously in black from head to toe and occupied what was considered by my parents to be a déclassé ground floor apartment. Directly across the hall from our large seventh floor apartment facing Riverside Drive was another even larger apartment turned rooming house filled with dignified older men and women, a few of whom walked with elaborately carved wooden canes, and all of whom seemed to speak Eastern European languages that inspired fear, fascination, and my shameless attempts at imitation.

Nor was it any easier to understand my relationship to the refugees depicted in the weekly newsreels at the dozen movie theaters that lined upper Broadway with names evocative of another era: the Rivera and the Riverside, the Midtown and the New Yorker, the Symphony and the Thalia. Even now I can hear the concerned yet always reassuring voices of narrators like Ed Herlihy, later a TV announcer and host of one of my favorite shows—the Sunday morning Horn & Hardart Children’s Hour—and John Cameron Swayze, one of the early TV newsmen, informing us of heartrending and miraculous human interest stories about refugees in the displaced-persons camps established during the war.

Eventually I learned about “waves of immigrants” in my high school history books, but they were nameless and faceless abstractions from the past who seemed to have nothing to do with the present. As for those few we knew who immigrated to the recently created state of Israel, they were said to have made aliyah, literally to ascend or go up, by returning from exile in the Diaspora to the new Jewish homeland. They were to be admired and celebrated rather than pitied or scorned for this act of dedication to the future of the Jewish people.

Growing up in an effectively Americanized family that distanced itself from the “unfortunate” refugees, I had only the vaguest sense that I, too, was descended from people who once emigrated from elsewhere. My parents were first cousins; their mothers, my grandmothers, were sisters who were raised on New York City’s Lower East Side. As for my grandfathers, both emigrated from Europe near the turn of the 20th century and died before I was born. My maternal grandfather, David, came from Poland at age 3. My mother seldom spoke about him and when she did it was with great respect but little warmth. I know nothing of his history or his fathering which I suspect from my mother’s tone was distanced and patriarchal.

By contrast, my father got obvious pleasure from telling and retelling the story of my paternal grandfather and namesake, Nathan, who came from Vilnius as a young man. He raised funds for his passage from Lithuania, so the family legend goes, by creating inventories of church artifacts in the multiple languages he spoke and wrote. Nathan’s life as a peddler of “dry goods” (textiles, clothing and sundries), walking from one town to another in western Pennsylvania where his cousin had a “territory,” is perhaps not uncommon. He first managed to settle in the village of Sinnemahoning, thriving because of a logging boom, where he opened a store, and later in Erie, establishing a wholesale business that allowed him to send five of his six children to college, places like Harvard, Smith, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Both Nathan and David’s stories came to me second-hand, filtered through my parents’ own emotional lenses, and that undoubtedly contributed to my limited connection to their immigrant experiences. My own father’s communication about the lessons to be learned from our family history was complicated. On the one hand, he certainly did not identify with the refugees living around us at that time, and on the other, he placed an incalculable value on education, both for the way it offered immediate social status and because it was portable in the way that material wealth was not—should we find ourselves no longer welcome in America. Although there was something incomprehensibly ominous in my father’s instruction on these matters, I never considered that I might become an immigrant myself, ultimate testimony to the sense of security, dare I say entitlement, with which I grew up.

Then, a decade ago, in my sixties, I met my spouse David. Citizenship was suddenly in question in a directly personal way, and my passport became an essential document of desire.

At first blush, moving from the United States to Canada, where David was a tenured university professor, would seem to be the easiest of transitions: no language to learn, no exotic culture to unpack, not even a new weather system to adapt to. And yet I was continually surprised by my sense of strangeness. I sat in meetings with other educators and continually needed to remind them that the acronyms they used so casually constituted a foreign language that required repeated translation. I felt foolish in my accountant’s office because I didn’t know the basics—the filing date for tax returns, the numbers of the most common Revenue Canada forms, the way charitable deductions are calculated—let alone the rules that apply to someone filing in two countries. At moments like these I longed to be back in the U.S. for the simple convenience of understanding how the practical world works.

I learned to live with a tacit sense of vulnerability regarding my status as a resident alien.

I read the disappearance of small things as tokens of my own dislocation. In order to get a Canadian driver’s license, I surrendered my American license, only to find that I was profoundly shaken by the loss of the document that had been with me for the last 30 years. How many times in those years was I called upon to use this card, first paper then plastic, to verify my identity? Would the new one work in the same way? Had my identity itself shifted with the changed documentation?

During my first year in Toronto, I traveled to New York regularly for work, and on every trip I found myself casually bumping into friends in different neighborhoods of the city. These encounters reminded me of the complexity of the social webs in which I’d been enmeshed my entire life. In Toronto I developed a yearly assessment to gauge the extent of my social connectivity: I counted how often I accidentally met people who I knew while waiting in line for a movie, at a restaurant, and swimming at the local YMCA. In the first years every encounter was a cause for secret celebration and an unhappy reminder of my outsiderness. Only recently have these chance meetings occurred often enough for me to stop counting.

In Canada, I learned to live with a tacit sense of vulnerability regarding my status as a resident alien. Although there was little difficulty crossing borders, each time I returned to Toronto I anxiously prepared myself by rehearsing the explanation of my Canadian residency that would raise the fewest questions. Acquired with the assistance of a Bay Street lawyer, my work permit identified me as a managerial consultant under the NAFTA agreements. However, I’d abandoned offering this explanation first as it inevitably prompted curiosity and prolonged questioning about my clients, so I had opted for my alternative status as a University of Toronto Fellow. I kept one goal in mind: Get through the interrogation quickly and inconspicuously.

On one particular night my university fellow status led to a surprising response. The Canada Services Border Guard proffered enthusiastic words of congratulations and warm wishes for my success. No doubt she was impressed by my credentials, perhaps thinking I was a newly arrived graduate student or post-doc, and wanted to cheer me on in an imagined scholarly pursuits. I found this misapprehension about my age all the more flattering for happening at 11:30 at night, after an especially turbulent flight, when certainly I looked more like a long-in-the-tooth-professor than someone starting out on a promising career.

A few minutes later, standing in the main cabin of the ferry that shuttles travelers from Toronto’s small island airport in Lake Ontario to the mainland, I was inexplicably overcome by sadness. It might well have been the late hour and the combination of harsh fluorescent lights and the overabundance of Christmas tinsel wrapping the interior columns, but I suspected something else: the sense of uncertainty, and potential displacement, that arrived with each border crossing.

My work permit wasn’t due to expire for several months, but in order to continue living with David I needed to begin the extensive paperwork required to become a permanent resident. This documentation included such details as how and where we met, if there was an exchange of gifts at that time, the precise dates of every subsequent visit, the list of family members who attended our assumed engagement and wedding parties, as well as the place of our honeymoon. The questions suggested the government’s eagerness to keep the nation safe from immigrants potentially gaming the system, as well as with traditional notions about the institution of marriage. David needed to fill out a similar 30-page questionnaire and agree to take financial responsibility for me.

Until meeting David I had never considered that I might become an immigrant, let alone that I might be separated from a loved one by arbitrary rules or idiosyncratic decisions made by local border authorities. Nor did I imagine needing to prove myself a potentially valuable member of society by identifying the number of languages I speak, my level of education, and professional credentials—all of which add valuable points to a Canadian application for residency. Call me privileged and politically ignorant, but questions of citizenship never felt personally at stake before.

On a bleak January day a year later, my application having been approved, David and I borrowed a friend’s more reliable car and drove to Buffalo, so that I could officially re-enter Canada as a landed immigrant. (Since citizenship, the next logical place to claiming my full place in Canadian life, is no longer automatically granted to spouses, I still have that process to look forward to.) Landing as an immigrant in Toronto has re-awakened my interest in the questions of citizenship that emerged over a half century ago when I obtained my first passport for Israel and began to travel abroad. I am thankful for the benefits citizenship has brought me. At the same time I am painfully aware that for growing numbers seeking safety and opportunity as they move from east to west, and from south to north across the globe, citizenship, more often than it should, functions in exclusionary rather inclusionary ways.

In becoming a landed immigrant, I’ve retained my American citizenship; I haven’t risked losing my U.S. passport or becoming undocumented—a term underlining how a valid passport securely fixes us in the world and how without it we lack basic human rights because we are not part of a viable polity. But I have gained a new sense of connection to the people who have experienced far more wrenching concerns about finding a home in the world, including my own family long ago. Ironically, if becoming Canadian has drawn me away from my New York City roots and the family that remains there, it has also had the effect of drawing me closer to the history that preceded our life in America and the first difficult years as immigrants in a new world.

Jonathan Silin is the author of four books including Early Childhood, Aging and the Life Cycle: Mapping Common Ground. He is a fellow at the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, University of Toronto, and was the life partner of the American photographer Robert Giard. He lives in Toronto and Amagansett, New York, with his partner, David Townsend.