Lazarus, Emma

June 20, 2006

Emma Lazarus was born on July 22, 1849 to Moses and Esther Lazarus in New York City. She came from an old family of Spanish Jews, but her initial reaction to Jewish ritual and customs was not positive.

When her old religious teacher asked her for a poem for his hymn book, she refused, saying “I will gladly assist you as far as I am able; but that will not be much. I shall always be loyal to my race but I feel no religious fervor in my soul.”

Instead, she turned to Transcendentalism, a distinctively American philosophy, that found literary expression in the poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She maintained a long correspondence with that American literary icon. But after staying for a week in Concord at the invitation of Emerson and his wife, she seems to have left Transcendentalism behind.
In 1881, a bloody pogrom broke out in Russia, which produced a large stream of refugees. Emma met with them on Ward’s Island in the East River, along with a group of Jewish women. Expecting them to find them of a low class, she was amazed to find among them “men of brilliant talents and accomplishments – the graduates of Russian universities, scholars of Greek as well as Hebrew … and burning with zeal in the cause of their wretched co-religionists.”

This first encounter with reviled and persecuted Jews changed Emma’s life. She began to identify strongly with the Jewish People. She became a defender of Jews against anti-Semites, and became active in many Jewish causes. She began to sing of freedom –

“Freedom to love the law that Moses brought,
To sing the songs of David and to think
The thoughts Gabirol to Spinoza taught;…”

She became the modern “sweet singer of Israel” and what would later be called an “ardent Zionist,” who believed in the freedom of the Jew to return to Zion or to come to America or to other enlightened countries. She wrote:

“In two divided streams the exiles part –
One rolling homeward to its ancient source,
One rushing sunward, with fresh will, new heart –”

She extended her vision of the oppressed from only persecuted Jews to suffering human beings of all religions and ways of life.

The Statue of Liberty was a gift from the Republic of France to the United States, with the name “Liberty Enlightening the World,” in honor of the two republics that had secured freedom through revolution.

But Emma Lazarus, the Jewish American poetess was able to provide the statue with a different name, and with a Jewish insight that better captured the spirit of America – that to help was even more important than to enlighten. Its mission was defined in a poem, “The New Colossus,” that was inscribed on a plaque at the base of the statue:

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman
With a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning;
And her name Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon hand glows world-wide welcome;
Her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
’Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”