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.
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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.
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My family was eager to see the city’s ancient Jewish quarter, so we rode the Metro downtown to the Baixa-Chiado stop. Public transportation in Lisbon by bus, subway or tram is excellent, and taxicabs are ubiquitous and inexpensive. We emerged in the oldest part of Lisbon, the Alfama, atop which Saint George’s Castle, a medieval fortification that once housed Portugal’s monarchs, affords magnificent views.

The Alfama’s winding, medieval streets are filled with cafes and shops, many decorated with flowerpots and colorful ceramic tiles.

At the foot of the Alfama, near Portugal’s oldest cathedral (Sé de Lisboa, which is mostly 13th-century) and between Rua dos Cais de Santarém and Rua de São Pedro, we found the narrow, cobbled street we were looking for, Rua da Judiaria. Until about 1500, this Street of the Jews was the center of Portugal’s Jewish community, just below and outside the wall surrounding Saint George’s Castle.

As we rounded the corner and studied the street sign, an old woman behind a barred window peered down at us, expressionless. We were not the first visitors here. We meandered through the tangle of buildings that was once home to Lisbon’s Jews, passing a beautiful fountain and part of the wall of a synagogue.

Here, on the site of a 15th-century synagogue, King Manuel I had built in the early 16th century what is now one of Portugal’s oldest places of worship, Igreja da Conceicao Velha — the Old Church of the Immaculate Conception. The church was a gift for his sister, Leonor of Viseu, founder of the Order of Mercy. The great earthquake of 1755 destroyed most of the building, except the facade. One of the carved figures on the ornate front door is King Manuel I himself.

Jewish history in Portugal goes back to the Roman Empire. From the eighth to the 12th century, as Christians and Muslims battled for regional control, Jews — many of whom knew Arabic — served Christians as diplomats and intermediaries. After the Christian “reconquest” of Portugal, around 1150, Jews enjoyed prominent positions as merchants, scientists, artists and financiers, often protected by the king, who called them “Judei mei,” “my” Jews.

By the 15th century, the kingdom had more than 100 judiarias, or Jewish quarters, each with its own synagogue. Portugal’s Jewish community thrived, relatively free of persecution.

Tensions grew in the 15th century. Jews were forced to wear an identifying emblem and to obey a curfew, and they could no longer employ Christians.

By 1500, under Manuel I and his Spanish wife, many thousands of Jews, including some of Alcott’s ancestors, had left or had been expelled. The converted Jews who remained in Portugal — known as New Christians or by such derogatory terms as Crypto-Jews, marranos and conversos — suffered persecution.


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