As a child, the celebrated 19th-century American novelist Louisa May Alcott was told that her maternal grandfather, Joseph May, was the descendant of Portuguese Jews. Although May was a practicing Unitarian, the family reportedly took pride in its Jewish ancestry. Alcott’s biographer and relative Eve LaPlante writes:
Joseph May [was] 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. . . . 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.
In 1496, King Manuel I of Portugal had given Jews and Muslims a choice between conversion and leaving the country. At the time, the country had a sizable Jewish population, which included tens of thousands of refugees from the Spanish expulsion four years earlier. Converted Jews often took new surnames; names of months, such as Maio, were popular choices. During the subsequent decades, there was a steady trickle of Portuguese Jews to Britain, Amsterdam, France, and the New World. LaPlante adds:
Today, only a few thousand Jews live in Portugal. But . . . nearly one in five Portuguese citizens, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Human Genetics, has Jewish ancestry. Apparently, the number of Portuguese Jews forced to convert to Christianity half a millennium ago was far larger than historians previously believed. As for the countless Jews who fled Portugal, their descendants include the economist David Ricardo and the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, as well as Louisa May Alcott.
Read more on Forward: https://forward.com/culture/434188/discovering-louisa-may-alcotts-jewish-history-on-p/