At the Border: Between This Year and Next

14 September 2018

In the weeks leading up to the High Holidays, I spent a lot of time in private reflection without access to a phone: A long drive alone to my uncle’s funeral in Montreal. Long walks on the beach with family. 15-20 hours with my father-in-law on a fishing boat…and when the fish aren’t biting, it can get pretty quiet. For those fishermen keeping score, I caught a keeper striper.

Anyways, not accustomed to this kind of time, I reflected on several things, but especially on my personal history.

I could go back to a fateful 1998 interview at the U.S.-Canadian border with nasty customs officials. That process got me into this country on a NAFTA work visa, but it also left me a little scarred – not only from that experience. Even as a valid visa holder, you could never guess what way the officials would try to challenge and question you at each and every border crossing…and this was during the Clinton years.

To go back further in time, my mother’s French-Canadian family traces its ancestry back to 17th Century France from where they embarked on voyages to settle New France or Acadia, now located in Canada’s Maritime provinces and parts of Maine. Our family tree is unbroken up until the present day.

In contrast, my father was born in 1939 Budapest. He, his mother, and brother survived the war, but few other family members did and much of their family history is lost. Years after the war, my father fled to Canada during the Hungarian Revolution where he was taken in by a Jewish family in Winnipeg. He ended up in Montreal where he later met my mother. They are an eclectic pair and, as such, our family didn’t always fit cleanly into our straight laced, Jewish community. A Jewish, Hungarian asylum seeker and a Catholic, French-Canadian descendant of colonists. We stood out.

But this was still Canada, “eh,” a country known for embracing immigrants, multi-culturalism, and differences. After all, Canada Post published a pride stamp last year.

For my part, I made the decision to formally immigrate to this country after meeting Mara. I’ve been here for 20 years. Mara and I have put down roots, started a family, and have been members of Temple Beth Zion for almost 16 years. From the minute I took that oath of allegiance at Faneuil Hall 11 years ago this September, I felt that I’d never have to be intimated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection again. I became an active citizen by voting in every election, reading the newspaper daily, leading a town committee, and volunteering on political campaigns. I always felt like I belonged here.

Unfortunately, my feelings of security in my adopted country have been tested lately. Over the summer, as if this Administration’s behavior couldn’t get any worse, I read about their efforts to denaturalize Americans… and confiscate US passports at the border…and refuse to issue new US passports on the pretext that some passport holders may not really be citizens after all — even those born here or who have served in our armed forces. Then, on my way back from my uncle’s funeral a few weeks ago, U.S. Customs asked me if I was an American citizen right after I handed over my U.S. passport.

Think about that for a moment. What purpose does this question serve? What were they really asking? Or were they telling me something? Imparting a warning maybe? I since learned that a friend of mine, born in Brooklyn, was also asked this question at another border crossing. So, this is clearly standard operating procedure.

Since that border interaction, I’ve spent much of my reflection time — not in peaceful, tranquil contemplation — but rather in anxious, angry, and fearful states of mind. Will they come after me next?

A Darfuri refugee hero of mine reminded me that if officials are asking me, a white, educated, English-speaking male, if I am a citizen, you can only imagine what they are doing to others. I have since asked the ACLU and Senators Warren and Markey’s offices to investigate my experience. I’ve decided that none of this is going to change the way I behave. I won’t stop denouncing this regime. I won’t stop efforts to Get Out The Vote. I won’t end my resistance.

On November 9th, 2016, people wiser than I knew that we would have a long road ahead of us. It would require perspective-taking, organizing, action, self-care, love for one another, and efforts to rebuild and sustain community.

At my synagogue, we actualize Rabbi Tarfon’s Pirke Avot saying, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either,” But where’s the saying about avoiding burnout and handling anxiety?

My personal prayer is actually borrowed. You’ve heard it before. But in these uncertain times, when endurance is needed, I can’t think of a better one.

Yehi ratzon milfanecha – May it be your will that we be granted the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Shana Tova.

This speech was originally given at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, Massachusetts.