Portuguese Jewish Heritage in the USA

by Luisa Gomes

Lisbon Tour Guides  ®

With the introduction of the Inquisition in Portugal in 1536, many Portuguese families left Portugal in order to survive. The first chosen locations were mainly in Europe: Amsterdam, Antwerp, Venice, Ferrara or Istanbul. 



In the 17th century, when the Dutch conquered part of the Brazilian territory from the portuguese, some families decided to move to this land. When, later on, the Dutch lost this territory, many decided to go back to Europe or to stay in the Caribbean.
One of the ships that departed from Brazil was attacked in the area of Cuba and the passengers disembarked in New Amsterdam, settling there the first Portuguese Jewish community. 10 years later New Amsterdam became part of the British Crown. The Portuguese Jews were mainly tradesmen and due to their contacts they helped other Jewish families to settle there in order to escape from the religious persecutions.


One of the most Portuguese prominent families, the Mendes Seixas emigrated from London in 1738 to New York after escaping from  Portugal during the period of the Inquisition. One of their sons, Benjamin Mendes Seixas,  is one of the 4 Jewish and 20 Christian stockbrokers that signed   the document “Buttonwood Agreement” in 1792 that is in the origin of the foundation of the New York Stock Exchange.

Emma Lazarus a poet and writer, another descendent of this family, is the author of the poem “The New Colossus” that one can read at the Statue of Liberty.
Her cousin, Benjamin Nathan Cardoso, was a lawyer and jurist and became the second Jewish to be appointed to The United States Supreme Court. Its main and most widespread book is ” The Nature of the Judicial Process”.


Another Portuguese jew that escaped from the Inquisition and settled in Savannah was  doctor Samuel Nunes. His great- great grandson Uriah Phillips  Levy, a navy officer, bought “Monticello“, the house  where Thomas Jefferson  lived and died. He restored the house and did much to keep it and the grounds in good shape. In Uriah´s grave there is an epitaph: “In memory of Uriah P. Levy, father of the law for the abolition of the barbarous practices of corporal punishment in the Navy of the United States”.

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