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.
What a marvelous story you tell, Sandy. Enjoyed reading about your “happy ending” journey.
Thanks for sharing with all of us.
Wonderful story. We visited Portugal a few years ago and saw the Lisbon Monument pictured in the story.; We found the people there to be welcoming, even if we only knew a few words (Vinho Verde for favor. Abrigado.)
Nice to hear about this journey, Sandy. Now you’ve got me listening to Fado! I also love your speaking “like a 3 year old” despite 12 weeks of online Portugese lessons. Glad to know you & Suzanne are still going strong!
Thank you, Ann! Hope you’re doing well!! Sandy
What a delightful read! As is Suzanne’s comment!
I have supported Sandy as he went on this journey and have delighted in meeting all of his contacts and making new Portuguese friends who have helped him. I did go to his meeting but was required to stay in the waiting room. Imagine my surprise when he came out to tell me he was successful in getting his citizenship card and that he was now single. We have always laughed together! The next laugh is that I am now on a dating app.
You could invest 280,000 euros in a portuguese bank or business and become a permanent resident rhrough The Golden Visa program while Sandy emigrated without that cost. Socialist friend tells me that this is a very salubrious place to live on many measures. The steep cobblestone streets are a challenge to walking for me. Got hit very hard in ongoing heat wave . At this time, great to have the choice!
current insufferable heat. Plenty to think about Suzanne!
Love the tale, Sandy! Thanks for sharing it with the Beacon.
I am Sephardic and my ancestors came from Spain. Landed in Corfu on one side and in Syria on the other. Your adventure sounds onerous. Although the door is open for me in Spain I do not know if I have the stamina to undergo the process. So are you considered Sephardic ?
Fascinating adventure!! Also nice to see
your picture! You two look the same as when we were neighbors so long ago! Rob has found out that he has a Ukraine connection. I know that my paternal grandfather came from Latvia. It’s complicated and a lot of work and time and patience to follow through like you have. Great job!!!
Well done, Sandy!