jewish identity

I Tried to Return My Family to Our Ancestral Home in Portugal–Turns Out We’re Polish

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Some years ago, I was checking into a hotel in southern Poland, and when I told the clerk my last name, he gave me a sharp look. “That was a very common name before the war,” he said. Meaning that it was a common name for Polish Jews.

This wasn’t news. All of my forebears, on both sides, emigrated from Poland. I even wound up marrying a woman whose grandfather grew up 50 miles from where my mother’s parents were born. A century ago in the old country a matchmaker might have set us up. (“He doesn’t earn much, but he’s a wonderful dancer” said matchmaker might have told her of me.)

All this is to say that I am an Ashkenazi Jew. My heart is a matzah ball, my veins thick with schmaltz. Although I do find klezmer music irritating, I am otherwise 100 percent an Eastern European Hebrew.

And yet my maternal grandfather, God rest his soul, really believed that he was descended from Sephardi, or Iberian Jews. It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. You see, his own last name, Gurgel, is common enough in Portugal—there was even a famous car company called Gurgel in Brazil.

I didn’t give any of this a lot of thought until 2015, when the governments of both Spain and Portugal announced that, some 500 years after they kicked out their Jews, they were inviting us back. If you could prove a connection to either Jewish community, then you had a shot at citizenship.

For months, I fantasized about becoming a Portuguese citizen. I imagined summers on the Atlantic coast drinking heavy red wine and eating bacalhau. Our Portuguese cottage would overlook the roiling Atlantic, the sky a deep preternatural blue as my wife and I tucked into our sausage and salt cod. We could each have a second glass of Douro, secure in the knowledge that we were no longer spending nearly $10,000 a year on health care.

And then there were the advantages for my son. I’ve always envied my expat friends for their children who are equally comfortable in two or three languages. Not to mention the superior college education my kid could get, for free, in places like Scotland or Germany. (You know that things have changed when a Jew is angling to send his kid to college in Germany.)

Another consideration was how cool it would be to actually be a Sephardi Jew. I imagined myself at dinner parties earnestly explaining the difficulties that Sephardi Jews faced in Israel. Or happily eating kitinyot, or legumes, during Passover, which Sephardi rabbis have deemed acceptable I never make through Passover without eating a bagel; but as a Sephardi Jew I could achieve levels of piety that were unattainable as an Ashkenazi.

Let’s be honest: Europe is not the best place for Jews. But it’s not the worst place, either. And it became a more attractive alternative, during the election as Trump shifted from a dangerously ignorant joke to a dangerously ignorant candidate.

My friends thought that I was being paranoid. But as the volume of anti-immigrant rhetoric increased it seemed reasonable to have an escape strategy. This is the harsh historical reality of being a Jew: When they go after minorities, it’s only a matter of time before they get around to Jews. It didn’t matter, as Trump’s Jewish apologists argued, that his son-in-law and daughter were Jewish. His supporters weren’t making such distinctions.

I looked more carefully at the criteria for proving Portuguese Jewish ancestry. Apparently my grandfather’s last name wasn’t enough—the rules clearly state that “there are many Jews with Portuguese surnames who are not descendants of Portuguese Jews.” It was time for irrefutable proof: genetic testing.

So I sent 23 and Me a saliva sample and waited for the results that would prove, for once and for all, that I was Polish and Portuguese. I wouldn’t even have to be mostly Portuguese; I figured that ten to twenty percent was enough. So let’s say 15 percent: if I was 15 percent Portuguese, then it was Next Year in Lisbon.

The results, ironically, were emailed to me on Christmas Eve: I am 96.8% Ashkenazi Jewish. It was nice to learn that I definitely have a British ancestor, which explains the functional alcoholism. And one half of one percent of my progenitors were indeed from southern Europe, which includes Iberia.

But I ain’t Sephardi. There would be no Portuguese passport, no free health care, no legumes for Passover.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. But I am proud to be the descendant of Polish Jews. First of all, Poland is a great place—take my word for it, I lived there. And second, I’ve recently learned that with the right paperwork, a Polish passport is not inconceivable. I’m going to look into it, as soon as I check out real estate prices along the Baltic.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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