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

(page 2 of 5)

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.


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!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • 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.
  • 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.