Emma Lazarus - Jewish Poet



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Emma Lazarus & Statue of Liberty

By Henry W‌einrib

    "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!"

What is more American than the Statue of Liberty, you say. The immortal words of Emma Lazarus which are fastened to the base of the statue give it its eternal message. So you may say, but the reality of the Statue and the words of Emma Lazarus are not quite what we popularly believe.

The Statue of Liberty was a project totally conceived by the French people as a token of their admiration of the American democratic way of life. The poem of Emma Lazarus was a later composition that was only indirectly related to the Statue of Liberty.

The Statue was conceived by French intellects who had envied the America style of life. Whereas America had won its liberty from Britain, France had seen revolutions that produced corrupt governments and despots. One night a man named Edouard Rene Lefebvre di Laboulaye gave a large dinner party in his home. He was a politician, historian, and a law professor who envied the American democracy that assured liberty and equal rights to all. He remarked that since the individuals of France and America had much in common, it would only be appropriate for the citizens of France to give them a monument as a token of their common bond. This would show the rulers of France the desires of the French people.

One of his guests was Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, a sculptor. He listened enraptured to di Laboulaye's words and they entered Bartholdi's heart and took root. The Statue of Liberty came to fruition as a result of Bartholdi inspiration. But how it came to be is a story which is beyond the scope of this article.

* * *

Emma Lazarus was born on July 22, 1849 to Moses and Hettie Lazarus. Moses traced his ancestory back to the Spanish S'fardim that had come to America generations earlier; Hettie's family were Ashkanizi, and came to the shores of America in the 1700's.

Moses was a wealthy man who had made a fortune in sugar refining. The family, which included sisters, Josephine, Sarah, Mary, Emma, Agnes and Annie and one son, Eleazer Frank lived in an upper class neighborhood in New York City.

The children receive an extensive education beyond that which was average for that period. They studied literature, arithmetic, history geography, music and languages. Emma became fluent in French, German, and Italian. She took to literature and poetry and began writing poems at an early age. She also spent much time studying the writings of the philosophers of the time, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson. Her father was much impressed by Emma's poems and took a collection of 35 poems and had them published privately to be given out to the family.

It was much later that her parents were invited to a dinner party where Ralph Waldo Emerson was a guest. Emma came along and was thrilled to meet her idol. She told Emerson that she was a poet, and he asked to see some of her poems. She sent him copies of her poems signed and dated February 12, 1868. She was a mere nineteen years old at the time. Emerson was impressed with her poems and began a correspondence with her that lasted many years. He gave her advice and criticism about her poems and her style.

It was not until one summer that her family vacationed in Newport, Rhode Island that Emma found Jewish history fascinating. The colony of Rhode Island was the second colony to open its doors to Jews (1658). Here was a synagogue that was built in 1763; George Washington came to visit and later wrote a letter to the congregation. Emma was impressed with the Jewish American history and wrote a poem entitled, "In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport".

    Here, where the noises of the busy town,
    The ocean's plunge and roar can enter not,
    We stand and gaze around with tearful awe,
    And muse upon the consecrated spot.
      Nathless the sacred shrine is holy yet,
      With its lone floors where reverent feet once trod.
      Take off your shoes as by the burning bush,
      Before the mystery of death and God.
        (First and last stanza only)

        In 1874, Emma published a novel, "Alide" which was based on the life of the German poet Goethe. It was a fictional work which portrayed a poet who had a love affair with a simple girl. It ends with the parting of the lovers since a poet must be free to pursue his love of poetry and art, perhaps telling us a bit of her inner feelings and thoughts.

        She kept a constant correspondence with Emerson sending him copies of her works. Emerson himself collected works from many poets and published them in a book called "Parnassus". Emma bought a copy of Emerson's new book and was shocked and dismayed to the point of depression when she saw that her own works were not among those which Emerson chose to publish. She wrote a letter to him telling him of her hurt feelings that she was not represented in his new published collection.

        Two years later, Emerson replied by inviting her to visit him at his home in Concord. Emerson was at the time 75 and had famous neighbors, Nathaniel Hawthorn and Louisa May Alcott. She met William Channing, who besides being a poet, was the biographer of Henry David Thoreau, who died several years earlier. The now famous Walden Pond was adjacent to the property of Emerson as was Thoreau's famous cabin.

        Upon returning from this most experiential vacation, she began more soul searching regarding her role as a poet. She did not consider herself a "Jewish" poetess, yet her Jewish heritage was part of her being.

        At the same time, immigration to the United States was increasing. Jews were being killed and forcibly removed from their homes in the distant lands of Russia, Romania and Poland. The scourge of anti-Semitism was sweeping Eastern Europe. Many thousands of Jews were uprooted and forced to flee. Many abandoned their family ties and came to America.

        America in the1880's was a difficult place to earn a living. The immigrants came on boats packed with refugees. Passengers huddled together in the steerage like cattle, food and water were sparse. Many became ill and some died. The surge of refugees swamped all housing stations including Castle Garden and Ward's Island.

        The authorities were overwhelmed and baffled. Committees were organized to help these poor people who came to escape death and uncertainty in the new land. One of Emma's acquaintances, Dr G. Gottheil, was active with the relief organization. He brought her together with some other women to see first hand the situation first hand.

        Emma led a sheltered life of a wealthy aristocrat. She was shocked and moved to see the state of these poor immigrants who lacked all. She was aroused to write a poem called "The Banner of the Jew."

          WAKE, Israel, wake! Recall to-day
          The glorious Maccabean rage,
          The sire heroic, hoary-gray,
          His five-fold lion-lineage:
          The Wise, the Elect, the Help-of-God,
          The Burst-of-Spring, the Avenging Rod

          A rag, a mock at first—erelong,
          When men have bled and women wept,
          To guard its precious folds from wrong,
          Even they who shrunk, even they who slept,
          Shall leap to bless it, and to save.
          Strike! for the brave revere the brave!

          (First and last stanza only)

        After that day, Emma felt a strong connection to those people who were groping and struggling with their lives, torn asunder from their homes and forced to flee leaving their land and possessions behind. Now formally intellectual and successful people totally reduced to fear and hunger. She helped the refugees with money and clothing. She said "…I have no thought, no passion, no desire, save for my own people."

        Although she belonged to the cream of the wealthy aristocracy, she would often visit the immigrants' camp on Ward's Island. She felt a strong sense of sympathy toward her "brothers and sisters". She joined committee after committee to arrange for practical and useful help for them.

        Her friend, Philip Cowen of the American Hebrew asked her to write a poem for the new Jewish year. Occupied with the refugee work and influenced by it, she wrote ""The New Year, Rosh Hashanah, 5643" (1882)

          High above flood and fire ye held the scroll,
          Out of the depths ye published still the Word.
          No bodily pang had power to swerve your soul:
          Ye, in a cynic age of crumbling faiths,
          Lived to bear witness to the living Lord,
          Or died a thousand deaths.

          In two divided streams the exiles part,
          One rolling homeward to its ancient source,
          One rushing sunward with fresh will, new heart.
          By each truth is spread, the law unfurled,
          Each separate soul contains the nation's force,
          And both embrace the world.

          Kindle the silver candle's seven rays,
          Offer the first fruits of the
          clustered bowers,
          The garnered spoil of bees. With prayer and praise
          Rejoice that once more tried, once more we prove
          How strength of supreme suffering still is ours.
          For Truth and Law and Love.

          (Last three stanzas)

        In 1883, Emma took a break and sailed to Europe to rest and be inspired. Yet the French sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was completing his magnificent work, to be presented to the people of the United States. Yet, the American government was cool to the idea. An American committee was set up to provide a place for the triumphant statue. Funds were needed to build a pedestal for the statue.

        A fund-raising exhibition and auction were set up. Many great writers and artists submitted their works to be auctioned. The list of writers included Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and John Burroughs. Emma was approached when she returned from her European trip to donate a poem.

        She considered the statue as holding out her torch to the Russian refugees, who were so lost and frightened, yet full of hope. This is the sonnet called "The New Colossus."

          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!"

          Written in aid of Bartholdi Pedestal Fund 1883

        The collection of writings was sold for $1,500 which was enough to see the pedestal through its completion. Emma received an unexpected letter from James Russell Lowell who said, "I like your sonnet about the Statue much better than I like the Statue itself."

        The matter does not end here. A woman named Georgina Schuyler was a patroness of the arts. She was browsing in a used book store in New York in 1903 when she came across the portfolio containing "The New Colossus." She was touched by the words and showed it to her friends. It was she that arranged to have the last five lines of the sonnet engraved on a plaque. The plaque was place inside the second story of the statue's pedestal with no ceremony or fanfare. It was on that unrecorded date that the Statue of Liberty was given its meaning:

          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!

        Today since most immigrants arrive by airplane, a portion of the "The New Colossus" was engraved on a plaque that stands in the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The words of this Jewish American poet give encouragement to all new arrivals to a the United States of America.

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