Yigal Ben Zion grew up in Kfar Saba, Israel, in the 1970s, but his grandmother Esther Dias would usually speak to him in Ladino, the language that the Sephardic Jews developed after fleeing Spain and Portugal back in the 15th and 16th centuries. He is convinced that these childhood conversations with her helped produce in him a deep emotional connection to Portugal.
Eight months ago, he was able to gain Portuguese nationality, having applied through a program designed to award citizenship to descendants of Portuguese Jews.
“I’m still very excited about getting Portuguese nationality,” says Yigal, who reads news about Portugal every day on the Internet and who has visited the country many times over the last few years.
“I even went back again just three weeks ago, for Yom Kippur, to pray together with the Porto community.
“The community and synagogue are amazing. I have visited many Sephardic synagogues but, in my view, this is the best.”
Yigal is just one of 713 Portuguese-Jewish descendants who have been successful in their efforts to gain Portuguese citizenship since the program began in December 2014. So far, only one candidate has been turned down.
Nearly 8,100 applications are currently being evaluated by the Portuguese government, which receives between 400 and 500 requests per month. Candidates must demonstrate either a link to an organized Sephardic Portuguese community or an emotional connection to Portugal through family history or language.
Two recent requests have been submitted by Sue Summers and her sister Judy, who have Sephardic heritage on their father’s side of the family. Sue, a television documentary producer, lives in London. Having traced their family’s genealogy, she and her sister know that their paternal ancestors came from Bragança, a small city in the rugged northeast mountains. Their special connection to Portugal has only deepened since the Brexit vote, Sue says. “My sister and I feel Portuguese and European. It’s part of our identity, and we don’t want that to end with the Brexit.”
Applications from Israel are the most numerous, followed by Turkey, Argentina and Morocco. Of those who have already received Portuguese nationality, the highest number is from Turkey (171), followed by Israel (56) and Brazil (39).
Anyone wishing to obtain Portuguese nationality must first obtain a certificate from the Jewish Community of Oporto or Lisbon that attests to their family ties to Portugal or to a Portuguese-Jewish community in another country. To begin the process, applicants should write to the Oporto Community at firstname.lastname@example.org or to the Lisbon Community at email@example.com.
Applicants should be prepared to send passport and birth information, proof of current residence, a one-time payment of 150 euros and supporting evidence of their connection to Portugal or to a Portuguese-Jewish community.
Historians believe that Jews first came to Portugal about 2,000 years ago, with the Roman conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. In 1497, King Manuel ordered all the Jews – between five to 10 percent of the population – to be converted to Christianity. Over the next centuries, those converted Jews who wished to openly practice their traditional religion fled for Turkey, Italy, Holland, England and many other countries, giving rise to the Sephardic diaspora.
Richard Zimler has written several books about the Sephardic Jews includıng The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Hunting Midnight, Guardian of the Dawn and The Seventh Gate. His website is www.zimler.com.