Emma Lazarus: Poet of Exile

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March 1, 2007
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Alicia Ostriker

Emma Lazarus by Esther Schor,
Nextbook, Schocken, 2006. 350 pp, $21.95

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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

The words of Emma Lazarus, famously engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, are so familiar that we tend to suppose they have always exemplified the American dream. Esther Schor’s biography of Lazarus gives us the complicated, poignant, contradictory, and ultimately tragic backstory.

Born in 1849 into a highly wealthy and visible New York Sephardic family, an ambitious and multilingual Emma Lazarus was already writing, in her early teens, verses in the manner of everyone from Schiller to Poe to the sentimental English poet Felicia Hemans, translating Victor Hugo, and composing “copious blank verse on Greek gods and medieval heroines.” In 1867, after a visit with her family to the historic Touro Synagogue at Newport, she composed her initial Jewish verse celebrating “the consecrated spot” and the suffering, exiled Jews who once worshiped there.

Lazarus’ first book, running over two hundred pages, was privately printed by her father. An enlarged edition appeared from a commercial publisher before she was eighteen; meeting the 65-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson at the home of family friends, she boldly sent him the book. Schor tracks the ensuing somewhat comic correspondence between Emerson and Lazarus as Emerson gives unwanted advice, while Lazarus’ pushiness alienates her mentor. The young poet’s extraordinary sense of entitlement may be seen in her indignant letter when he failed to include her juvenile work in an anthology he edited. Quoting his own words of praise back to him, she declares she deserves a place “in any collection of American poets” and that he is treating her “with absolute contempt.”

Lazarus needed that chutzpah. Throughout her life, she pretended not to notice the genteel antisemitism of her elite literary and artistic colleagues and friends, some of which was mockingly directed at her, behind her back, while her own Jewishness grew increasingly intense. Though non-observant, she translated medieval Sephardic poets. Fascinated by Heine, she translated his tale of a Jew-hating Spanish noblewoman in the time of the Inquisition whose lover is secretly Jewish, then wrote a sharp essay about Heine’s conversion to Christianity, claiming that “no sooner was the irrevocable step taken than it was bitterly repented…as an unworthy concession to tyrannic injustice.” When antisemitism of a less genteel kind began to swell in Europe, she responded instantly. In her melodrama The Dance to Death, about massacre and martyrdom in fourteenth-century Germany, viciousness is not underplayed:

Jews, said I? when I meant Jews, Jewesses,
And Jewlings! All betwixt the age
Of twenty-four hours and five score years,
Of either sex, of every known degree,
All the contaminating vermin purged
With one clean, scorching blast of wholesome fire.

Like other assimilated Jews of her class, Lazarus felt condescension for the “ghetto Jew” of Eastern Europe. But in the 1880s, when floods of Russian Jews fleeing pogroms became a “problem” both for Christian America and for assimilated Jewry, Lazarus not only became a major player in the debate, unflinchingly attacking both Christian hypocrisy and Jewish complacency; she visited the refugees on Ward’s Island and elsewhere, advocated for sanitation, education, and job training, published Songs of a Semite, and in a weekly column in the American Hebrew announced her vision of a secular Jewish state in Palestine — years before the word Zionism was invented. She also insisted on a new idea of America. “Every American,” she wrote in an unsigned essay, “must feel a thrill of pride and gratitude in the thought that his country is the refuge of the oppressed.”

“The New Colossus,” written to help raise money for Bartholdi’s statue, enjoyed a “brief stint in the limelight,” but her aristocratic high-mindedness ultimately left her alienated among both Christian and Jewish circles. “Fatigued, battered, and spent” by 1883, she spent much of the remainder of her life abroad, and died in 1887 of Hodgkin’s disease at the age of thirty-eight. Yet Schor’s excellent biography makes clear that Lazarus by the end of her life “was inventing the role of an American Jewish writer” whose prophetic burden “was to glimpse, in the trials of her people, the pain of the world’s exiles, and in her own passionate vocation, a mission for her country.” The mission remains today; as Lazarus wrote in one of her “Epistle to the Hebrews” columns, “Until we are all free, none of us is free.”

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Dr. Jen Glaser, a member of the faculty at the Mandel Leadership Institute, Jerusalem and the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University, focuses her research on personal identity and group membership, pluralism, critical thinking, children's philosophical thinking, and the connection between philosophical inquiry and the teaching of the Bible.

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