Finding a Place

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster
July 2, 2012
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I’m a dual citizen. I was born to Canadian parents in New York, and the fact that I am American at all is an accident of timing. “The baby” unexpectedly was born a month early, 3 days before my mother was supposed to fly back to Toronto to have “the baby” at home, because “the baby” was also unexpectedly a set of twins. I was raised in Toronto but we moved back to the States when I was 14. My parents had to fill out green card applications but the border agent just asked my sister and I through, asking off-handedly if we’d ever renounced our American citizenship. I’m not what one thinks of when one hears the term “anchor baby,” yet I am.

My Canadianness was very much rooted to places and people. The farm where I played as a child. The wilderness where I went camping. The streets where we played. I knew what summer felt like (hot but not humid), what mornings at camp felt like, what winter felt like. Becoming American lacked those early memories, so while I had new memories and new places, I thought of being in the United States in terms of the people I knew. I’d been away from Canada long enough that I was clearly an immigrant to somewhere else, but living in that somewhere else, I didn’t really feel like I was from there. Or to put it another way: I’d been away long enough that I didn’t use the metric system, but I didn’t have an internal thermometer for Fahrenheit, an internal speedometer that understood how far a mile was. To this day, I know what a mile feels like but I can’t really accurately judge temperature and chronically under-dress for the cold.

I think I moved to New York City for college in part because I knew that could become my place. Half the people in the city seemed to be from somewhere else. The city had an easy way of integrating itself into your very being. I knew how it felt to walk on a street late at night, feeling the emptiness together with a sense of where every person within a block of you was standing. I knew what it felt like when it rained on the streets, and what the summer steam coming up from the pavement felt like. My identity as Canadian New Yorker was solidified on 9/11, when I saw the second tower get hit. New Yorker enough to feel under attack. Canadian enough to feel like the displays of patriotism were unfamiliar.

And yet, in the intervening decade, I’ve become an American, at least as much as an immigrant ever does. In my work on civil liberties and national security, I talk about American values a lot, and our need to make our country live up to those values, and if you say that enough, you either have to believe it or you have to be a tremendous hypocrite. In this line of work, I can’t separate myself from responsibility for the system that needs to be fixed.

But it is still not a connection to place. Maybe that is harder to forge as an adult. Maybe it just takes longer to build. I don’t know at what point I’ll be able to say that I live in New Jersey without hastily adding that I come from somewhere else. At some point, my new roots will tell me that I am from right here.

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Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is the Director of Programs for T'ruah. Ordained in 2008 from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she was a student activist and leader, she is a noted speaker and writer on Judaism and human rights, including speaking internationally on behalf of the U.S. State Department on the issue of human trafficking. Her writing has appeared on CNN.com, the Forward, the New York Daily News, the Huffington Post, and many other publications. Rabbi Kahn-Troster was named to the Jewish Week's 2011 "36 under 36" for her human rights activism. She serves on the board of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, with her husband, Dr. Paul Pelavin, and their daughters Liora and Aliza.

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