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 4 of 5)

At the top of the hill, past the city’s magnificent Romanesque Old Cathedral, is the University of Coimbra, one of Europe’s oldest universities, founded in 1290. This is a university town: One in five residents of Coimbra is a student.

Created out of a palace occupied by the early kings of Portugal, the university boasts the second-largest library in Portugal. Its gorgeous Biblioteca Joanina, erected in the early 18th century, contains important papers of local Jewish scholars, many of whom were students or professors here. The ramparts afford views of Coimbra’s city’s red-tile roofs, the river below and the surrounding countryside.

Our final destination, a short walk northwest of the university, was the Pátio da Inquisição — Courtyard of the Inquisition — where Coimbra’s inquisitorial trials were held. Coimbra’s tribunal disposed of more than 11,000 individual cases between the 16th and 18th centuries.

Some of the trials lasted for years, while the accused waited in prison. Records indicate that more women than men were tried, convicted and executed, probably because mothers and grandmothers were held responsible for maintaining Jewish beliefs and practices among New Christians. As recently as 1718, in this courtyard, the tribunal tried more than 60 suspected Jews and then burned two people at the stake. On this spot, students and tourists now gather at the Restaurante O Pátio cafe.

By prior arrangement of our local guide, the informative Tiago Boavida, we were able to view torture chambers where the accused were held as they awaited trial. The chambers are in the basement of a 16th-century building that is now part of the university’s art school, the Centro de Artes Visuais. A student unlocked the door, welcomed us inside the cavernous space now used as an art gallery and removed a panel of floorboard. Metal stairs led down into the empty, whitewashed cells.

Afterward, as I stood outside in the school’s peaceful courtyard, surrounded by flowering plants and 16th-century capitals, it occurred to me that these cells are where Alcott’s ancestors might have been held if they had stayed in Portugal. In that case, their American descendants — and the writings of Alcott — would not exist.


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!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • 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.