Collector of Passports - Nina Lichtenstein

I’m born Norwegian, a new American, and soon to become an Israeli citizen, too. Who needs three passports when many people in the world don’t even have the privilege of one? Well, I do.


I’ve waited for over thirty years to legally manifest my multiple belonging because it was just in January of 2020 that Norway finally allowed its citizens to hold more than one passport. Suddenly it felt urgent to formalize my threefold allegiance.


Immigration stories are rarely simple and my tripartite national belonging is a testament to a life-trajectory that was not planned, but that happened a certain way, like so many do.


I didn’t have the peripatetic childhood that often causes adults to feel rootless or unsettled throughout life. I grew up in Oslo, Norway and owned and roamed the city like I was the queen of the jungle; I was fearless and ferociously independent, typical of the latchkey-kid-generation. For nineteen years, that country was the safe cradle of my bildungsroman. The people and places specific to this first chapter of my life, populate my dreams, my yearnings and my most palpable memories.


I didn’t crave to leave Norway exactly, when I set sail for America in the summer of 1984, but my subconscious self must have been searching for something. Intended as a gap year between high school and university, I now marvel at how thirty-three years passed while I’ve lived in the U.S, with only a few brief interludes in France, Norway and Israel. A marriage, three kids and a divorce later, it was only when I began to examine my journey in writing that I could glean an understanding of my (im-)migrations.


Not only did I fall in love and decide to stay in the U.S. but I joined the Jewish tribe when I converted to Judaism and married a Jewish American man (and his clan) in 1988. I had to prove my knowledge and conviction in front of a Jewish court, a bet din; the entry exam was a humbling experience, face to face with three bearded orthodox rabbis. Among other things, I had to agree that Abraham and Sarah were now my true parents and that I would not celebrate Christmas anymore.


While the cultural adjustments from Norway to America required plenty of compromises, trials and errors, the learning curve for becoming Jewish was much more significant. Though this immigration was spiritual in nature, a seemingly endless lineup of practical life-changes were required. These were all different from my stoic, Nordic heritage, and mostly agnostic childhood and adolescence. As a Jew, I committed to keep kosher, observe the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, great and small, and to educate my children in all things Jewish. The home and family life I created as a Jewish wife and mother became an expression of what I did not have growing up, what I eventually understood I had hungered for as a child. I became the quintessential yiddishe mame, always offering hospitality and meals. Our home became our temple, of sorts; a sacred, central space in our lives.


Now that I recently became an American citizen, I was again tested for my allegiance and knowledge in order to be granted admission. I studied the 100 questions about American history and civics, happy to finally learn what I had ignored for too long. I practiced the Pledge of Allegiance for the naturalization ceremony taking place one week later.


But there, something unsettling happened.


The agent presiding over the ceremony handed me a paper with photocopied text that did not look anything like the pledge I had practiced. “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen,” it began. But I’m a Norwegian citizen too, I thought. I love my king! “That I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law,” the oath continued. I will always be ready to serve my country,” I knew, “but this sounds a lot like an NRA plug.”


Safely spaced six feet apart in the parking lot of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, we, the almost-new Americans glanced furtively at one another and I swore I could hear them think, like me, “what the fuck?” Together we mumbled the words on the paper in a cacophony of confusion that suddenly felt uncannily similar to the wacky state of the nation.


I received my certificate of naturalization in on October 16, 2020 and I was finally able to vote for the first time. It felt so great to turn in that ballot at my local town hall that I was giddy, and my partner was so emotional about it he cried as we exited the polling station hand-in-hand.


And now, finally, after being Jewish for nearly thirty-three years, I have embarked on another arduous immigration journey: becoming an Israeli citizen. When a Jewish person moves to Israel, it’s called to “make aliyah,” which in Hebrew means to go up or ascend, in a spiritual sense. But as a convert, the path to Israeli citizenship requires many more hoops and scrutiny than for someone who is born Jewish. Again, I am faced with having to prove my credentials. It’s not enough that I underwent an orthodox conversion, that according to even the strictest standards of Jewish law or halachah, I am Jewish; I have to document my ongoing involvement in Jewish life and communities and I need to ask rabbis who know me to write letters of support.


It was not until I was separated in 2010 that I began my true love affair with this complex country in the Middle East, where Christians, Jews and Arabs share their sense of yearning, belonging and entitlement. After several summer-long studies at the Hebrew University to learn the language and dozens of visits to my partner’s family and our mutual friends, I am convinced that I will not fulfill my life’s destiny before I can call Israel my home, too. I experience a visceral joy when I am in Israel. Nobody looks at you funny when you say, “is it kosher?” You’re not the only person who rushes on Friday afternoon to be home for the Sabbath meal, or who celebrates Rosh Hashana and Passover. It’s really something to feel like you are among your people, and that your people are in a land that they can call home, complexities and all.


All these new beginnings, the transplanting whether geographic or spiritual, have never been easy. It’s humbling to navigate “the new” while code-switching and also staying true to my own, inner self. But as challenging it can be, it’s also empowering that I am able to adapt, translate and thrive in several countries. I imagine a Venn diagram with each of the three circles representing Norway, U.S.A and Israel. That smaller area in the middle, where the circles overlap, that is the core of me. Not watered out or weaker, because eternally suspended in-between, but stronger and more colorful, centered, even, around my division. I must embrace this kaleidoscopic understanding of “Nina,” and imagine myself a pliant and dynamic human being, and stronger for it.


But I don’t want to lie: Despite how resilient I may imagine myself due to my ability to master languages and cultural know-hows, whether I am “at home” in Norway, USA or Israel, I am often painfully aware that I’m on the periphery, looking in. There’s always a reference I miss or don’t get, a word or expression that I don’t know, a moment when the reality of my outsider-ness stings. Does this mean that I don’t belong anywhere? That I actually am rootless, after all?


But then I remember the most valuable of my possessions: a kind of passport not issued by any nation, but one that allows me access and entry to a borderless notion of “home,” not bound by location. I carry this passport in me, not on me, and it is like a gateway to living with ease by letting go.


It’s not for the faint hearted to choose to belong in several countries and cultures at once. But perhaps it is for the big spirited; those who can breathe large and deep and imagine themselves whole, because divided, singular, because multiple. I am a collector of passports, but the real passport, I carry in my heart.

Nina Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway who lives in Maine. She holds a PhD in French literature and an MFA from University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast program. Her writing has appeared in Brevity, Tablet, Lilith, The Washington Post and Hippocampus (forthcoming), among other places. She is currently working on a memoir titled My Body Remembers.

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