My wife, Suzanne, and I have been happily married for 55 years, and look forward to many more. Except, perhaps, in Portugal and throughout the European Union, where—due to a bureaucrat’s whim (and wink)—I am now single.
How this came to be is part of a larger story about Jews around the world finally reclaiming—after nearly 500 years of exile—their Portuguese citizenship.
Ever since I was little, I wondered about where my family came from. I knew my dad’s family was from the Netherlands, Alsace-Lorraine, and Germany, and my mom’s was from Poland. But where were their roots?
On a trip to Portugal, a friend there told me she’d written a book for the Portuguese Ministry of Culture about the history, starting in 1400, of the Jews of Portugal. About the same time, my wife gave me a subscription to Ancestry.com and through that I learned that on my paternal side some of my ancestors were, in fact, Portuguese Jews. Further research showed that around the time of the Portuguese Inquisition, they all left for other parts of Europe.
Some history: The Spanish Inquisition of 1492 had forced Jews living in Spain either to convert to Christianity or leave. Some moved to Portugal, but in 1536, the Portuguese Inquisition—officially known as the General Council of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Portugal—attempted to root out Jews who had converted but who were suspected of secretly practicing Judaism. Victims numbered an estimated 40,000, many by being burned alive. Many Jews fled the country, joining a growing diaspora in Europe and throughout the world.
The information about my ancestral connection to Portugal took on new relevance when, in 2015, the Portuguese government approved the “Law of Return” allowing descendants of Jews who were expelled in the Inquisition to apply for citizenship.
I liked that idea: It would connect me in a real way to my family’s history and—if for political reasons the need ever arose—would give us a place outside the U.S. to resettle.
Under the Law of Return, applicants must prove they “belong to a Sephardic (Jewish) community of Portuguese origin with ties to Portugal.” I wasn’t sure if I fit that description. My Portuguese friends were not optimistic; the “red tape,” they warned, might be insurmountable.
But I began building my “Portuguese portfolio”—which wasn’t difficult because I discovered an affinity for Portugal and Portuguese culture. I’d already become an officer of the Center for Music Connections, a Portuguese-American cultural exchange program focused on a traditional Portuguese music genre called fado. In that role, I brought Ana Lains, a famous fado singer, to Rochester to perform in Eastman’s World Music Series and invited the local Portuguese-American community to attend. Later, my wife and I were invited to Washington, D.C., for dinner and a concert at the home of Domingos Fezas Vital, the Portuguese ambassador. After some time, I took the leap and applied for citizenship. I had no idea it would take well over two years.
Portuguese government officials asked for everything: an FBI report that I was not a criminal (I wasn’t); a similar document from the Ministry of Justice in Belgium, where I had lived for eight years; a birth certificate showing my parentage; a family tree; letters from rabbis; and a certificate from either of two Sephardic communities—in Lisbon or Porto—showing my affiliation. I chose the community in Porto—a coastal town in northern Portugal—because it was smaller and, I figured, easier to deal with.
All documents had to be notarized and translated into Portuguese, which I was able to do thanks to the kindness of a Portuguese-American I met in Rochester. There were required fees, payable in euros, many mailings back and forth for this or that missing document, and an in-person visit to the Portuguese consulate in Washington.
One day in October 2021, a certificado from Porto arrived in the mail verifying my claims in support of Portuguese citizenship. But that was just the start of the red tape. I now had to obtain a citizen card as proof and get my EU passport. The Portuguese consulate in New York City was the only place to do that in the U.S., but it was nearly impossible to get an appointment. I read it was easier to just go to Lisbon and do it there. So, with the pandemic quieting down, I decided to go for it. Online, I set up an appointment at the Ministry of Justice in Lisbon. But language still presented a problem: Despite having taken 12 weeks of online Portuguese lessons, I spoke like a three-year-old, so I arranged for a Portuguese friend, Carlos, to meet me at the ministry office.
On the appointed day, my wife and I met Carlos. To get to the little office building, we had to walk through a fish market. A woman greeted us coldly and began looking through my papers.
“Was I married?” she asked.
“Yes, almost 55 years,” I answered.
“Where is your wedding certificate?”
“Uh, home in Rochester, on my desk.”
And then she beamed a big smile and gave me a wink.
“Well, I’m afraid here in Portugal and the EU, you’ll have to be single!”
She then took my photo, checked my height, weighed me, and said my papers would be ready the next day—at a different office miles away.
The line at the other office was out the door and around the block. While waiting, though, we met some interesting people, among them a Canadian couple whose son played in the National Hockey League and a heart surgeon from Harvard. I later learned thousands of people from around the world have responded to Portugal’s Law of Return and become citizens. I wonder, though, how many of them, like me, are married in the U.S. and single in the EU.
Sanford J. Mayer M.D. is a pediatrician. Over the course of his career, he worked at St. Mary’s Hospital, in a private practice in Brighton, and at Rochester Institute of Technology as a college health physician and medical director. Now retired, he mentors medical students in their pediatric clerkship at Golisano Children’s Hospital.