Discovering Louisa May Alcott's Jewish History on Portuguese Tour

'Little Women' Author Was a Little Bit Sephardic

A Little Surprising: “Little Women” has served some Jewish immigrants to America as a tool of assimilation. But, as it turns out, the novel’s author Louisa May Alcott came from Sephardic Jewish ancestry.
Getty Images
A Little Surprising: “Little Women” has served some Jewish immigrants to America as a tool of assimilation. But, as it turns out, the novel’s author Louisa May Alcott came from Sephardic Jewish ancestry.

By Eve LaPlante

Published May 28, 2013, issue of June 07, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Louisa May Alcott was often told as a child that her dark hair and dark eyes came from her Sephardic Jewish ancestry. Her mother, Abigail May Alcott, who had similar coloring, had learned this from her father, Joseph May, a late 18th-century Boston businessman whose Portuguese Jewish ancestors immigrated to Sussex, England, just before 1500.

The Mays spent more than a century in England, becoming prosperous enough to cross the Atlantic during the Great Migration. Around 1640, the Mays — also spelled Mayes, Maies and Maize — settled in Massachusetts, where one of their descendants was the quintessentially Yankee author of “Little Women.”

Click to see the rest of the section, Click for more summer books stories.

Alcott never wrote about her Jewish heritage, nor did she visit her ancestral homeland of Portugal, as I discovered while researching “Marmee & Louisa,” a dual biography of the author and her mother. As her first cousin and a great-niece of her mother, I was eager to learn more about the family’s past, so in October 2012 my family traveled to Portugal. My late aunt, Charlotte May Wilson, whose grandmother was Louisa’s closest first cousin, told me that the Jewish ancestry was a topic of pride in the family. The first person we encountered in Lisbon, the cabdriver who picked us up at the airport and took us to our hotel, offered us an impromptu history lesson on Portugal’s Jews.

“King Manuel I expelled the Jews because his second wife,” Princess Isabella of Spain, “demanded it.” The king found the Jews useful because they helped finance his government. But in 1496, under pressure from his anti-Semitic in-laws, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Manuel issued a decree expelling all Jews who did not convert to Christianity. Jews who could not leave immediately were forced to convert and to assume new names, often taken from nature, such as “pear tree” (Pereira), “olive tree” (Oliveira) or a month of the year (Maio, for May).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.