e need only look to the titles of a few anthologies published within the past ten years—Jews in America, Who We Are: On Being (And Not Being) a Jewish American Writer, Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections—to see that American Jewish writers continue to wrestle with the problem of how to be both American and Jewish at the same time. In Emma Lazarus, who lived and wrote more than a century ago, we find a poet engaging with this same tension between citizenship and cultural identity. Indeed, Lazarus may be treated as a model for current American Jewish poets, demonstrating the ways in which we might navigate the hyphenated self, writing poems that are politically engaged, personal, and also formally rigorous.
by Jehanne Dubrow
As scholar Diane Lichtenstein explains, Lazarus deserves to be read and studied because “she provides us with a vivid example of how women, Jews, and other ‘outsiders’ have had to struggle to belong to the American nation, and, more particularly, to the American literary nation (“Words and Worlds: Emma Lazarus’s Conflicting Citizenships” 247). In an era characterized by debates about national identity, immigration, and xenophobia, Lazarus’s work suddenly seems more relevant and urgent than ever. While her most famous poem, “The New Colossus”—with its oft-quoted lines, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—seems to indicate an author comfortable voicing the universalities of human experience, Lazarus is in fact a poet whose writing remains grounded in the specificities of her perspective as an American, as a Jew, and also as a woman.
Born into a large and wealthy Sephardic family, on July 22, 1849, Emma Lazarus was raised in privilege, dividing much of her childhood between a stately brownstone not far from Union Square in New York City and a summer house in elegant Newport, Rhode Island. The Lazarus family could trace its line back as far as the American Revolution, with perhaps even a connection to the original Spanish and Portuguese Jews who first settled in New Amsterdam in 1654, a mark of distinction that placed them among the elite of East Coast Jewish society. Emma’s father, Moses, was a successful sugar refiner “who moved beyond the close-knit Sephardic community, into the ranks of the ‘upper ten thousand,’” the New York upper class (Schor 8). Moses and his wife Esther provided their children with a classical, Victorian education appropriate to their social standing and in line with their desire to travel not only within Jewish circles but in the gentile world as well. Although they belonged to a synagogue, the Lazarus family might have been deemed “high holiday Jews,” seldom attending shul except on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Given her family’s apolitical, assimilationist views, it’s remarkable that Emma Lazarus eventually became a proto-Zionist and an outspoken defender of persecuted, Eastern European Jewry.
Trained in French, German, and Italian, the young Emma Lazarus was a passionate reader and a prolific writer, whose poems were inspired often by current events, including the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. By the time she turned seventeen, in1866, Lazarus had amassed such a body of work that her proud father published a collection of her poetry, Poems and Translations Between the Ages of Fourteen and Sixteen. A short time later, the book was rereleased as Poems and Translations Between the Ages of Fourteen and Seventeen by Hurd and Houghton, a well-regarded New York press.
Poems and Translations served as Lazarus’s calling card when she met the Transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1868. Although Emerson was nearly 50 years Lazarus’s senior, the two writers struck up a lively, sometimes heated correspondence that lasted almost 15 years, until Emerson’s death in 1882. Stephen Whitfield, in describing the pair’s unlikely friendship, points out that “Emma Lazarus became the first Jew Emerson ever met…In Victorian America, a postbiblical Jew cut an exotic figure; and as her surname suggested, she seemed to have arisen from the dead, from a moribund people” (32). It is interesting to note that despite Emerson’s admiration for the young Lazarus’s energy and intelligence, he chose not to include the Jewish poet in Parnassus, his 1875 anthology of contemporary American and British verse.
Despite her omission from the anthology—or perhaps to spite her mentor—Lazarus dedicated her second poetry collection, Admetus and Other Poems, to her “friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson.” In Admetus, we finally see Lazarus’s first overtly Jewish poem, “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” a text that is in conversation with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “In the Jewish Cemetery at Newport.” While Longfellow focuses on the buried, Jewish dead and concludes that “dead nations never rise again,” Lazarus concentrates on the synagogue itself; she describes the building’s emptiness and the nearly extinguished Ner Talmid, the Eternal Light in the sanctuary, but chooses to end her poem with this injunction: “And still the 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” (41-44). Although the poem argues fiercely with Longfellow, one of the literary superstars of Lazarus’s day, no reviewers addressed “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport” when Admetus was first published. Esther Schor explains the silence surrounding this poem: “To hear an authentic Jewish voice in Emma’s brave lyric would have been all but impossible, since her readers had never heard a Jewish voice in English verse. Her critics could see her as an American, as a woman, and as a gifted youth. But none—as yet—could see her as a Jew” (36).
Following the publication of Admetus, Lazarus turned her energies toward a novel about Goethe, Alide, released in 1874, and a play, The Spagnoletto, which was privately published in 1876. That same year, Lazarus began to translate medieval Spanish verse by Jewish poets such as Judah ha-Levi and Solomon ibn Gabirol, working not from the original Hebrew but from Abraham Geiger’s German translations. Around this time, Lazarus initiated a more sustained exploration of the poetry of Heinrich Heine, a German Jew whom she had first started to translate when she was still a teenager. Her Poems and Ballads of Heinrich Heine was published in 1881, calling attention both to Heine’s Romantic, spiritually conflicted writings and to Lazarus’s great talents as a translator.
But even as she immersed herself in translating Heine, a Jew who had converted to Christianity as a young man, Lazarus discovered her own Jewish conscience. For Ashkenazi Jews—the Jews of Eastern Europe—the late 1870s and early 1880s were a time of terrible persecution; anti-Semitic pogroms resulted in large-scale Jewish emigration from the Pale Settlement, a territory that included parts of Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, and Russia. For many American Jews, the Ostjuden refugees were a source of shame: perceived as uneducated and unassimilated, overly devout, too much a part of the Old rather than the New World, and speaking Yiddish, a dialect that carried with it a history of oppression and marginalization. In his critical study, Diaspora and Zionism in Jewish American Literature, Ranen Omer-Sherman writes that as “a romantic poet, Lazarus was naturally attracted to the sagas of medieval Judaism, yet as a secular intellectual she abhorred the enduring insularity of old customs, and so she sought to encourage the immigrant Jews to transcend their physical and cultural confines by embracing the ideals of the Enlightenment” (37). While many of her relatives were embarrassed by obvious displays of Jewishness, Emma Lazarus was deeply moved by the poverty and exile of the Ostjuden. From 1882 to 1883, she published “An Epistle to the Hebrews,” a series of letters in which she defended these immigrants and argued that they would only achieve safety in the creation of a Jewish homeland.
In 1882, Lazarus also published Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death and Other Poems, perhaps her most Jewish collection. Songs of a Semite includes the stage play, The Dance to Death, which Lazarus dedicated to the novelist George Eliot. It was Eliot’s Daniel Deronda—with its reverent treatment of Jewish characters and its exploration of the concept of a Jewish state—that helped to change Lazarus into a political poet and a vocal advocate for the rights of Jewish refugees. That a novel should serve as a catalyst for her own spiritual transformation demonstrates how seriously Lazarus viewed the job of literature.
During her first trip to Europe in 1883, Lazarus met with influential thinkers such as William Morris and Robert Browning. That same year, she wrote a poem for a fundraising event, an auction to generate money for the pedestal that would support an enormous gift from the French government: the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus’s most famous text, “The New Colossus,” only became a physical part of the Statue in 1903, 16 years after the poet’s death, when the sonnet was engraved on a bronze plaque and hung inside the Statue’s pedestal.
In the final four years of her life, Emma Lazarus continued to publish in literary journals. She remained unmarried; without textual evidence, it is difficult to know whether her sexuality was the cause of this singleness or whether, like so many women, Lazarus believed that a prominent role in the public sphere prevented her from exploring more traditional roles in the private sphere. By the time her father died in 1885, the writer was already beginning to show signs of illness, what we now know to have been Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She traveled to Europe, visiting England, the Netherlands, France, and Italy. By 1887, now very sick, Lazarus returned to the United States and died at her home in New York, on November 19. She was only 38-years-old.
Today, Emma Lazarus is mostly remembered and read for one poem, “The New Colossus.” Feminist critics view her “as a founding Mother of Jewish American literature” and believe Lazarus has been “unfairly neglected because of gender” (Omer-Sherman 17). But,
if one of the earliest concerns facing the Jewish writer was the problem of how
one’s Jewishness might be translated from the marginal exotic into the foundation for an American identity, Emma Lazarus must surely be regarded as preeminent among those who took up this challenge.” (16)
In considering how Lazarus’s work remains instructive to contemporary American Jewish poets, it is helpful to study not only her most famous poem but also additional sonnets in which Lazarus speaks several different identities, voicing separate yet intersecting forms of Otherness and demonstrating that they belong to the American experience.
“The New Colossus” is now so deeply embedded in American psyche that it is difficult to see beyond the poem’s surface and to identify the Jewishness encoded within the text. As Max Cavitch rightly argues, Lazarus’s poem has become “part of the lingua franca of an American integrationist fantasy,” yet the sonnet “continues to be almost universally under-read. Not only is it generally reduced to its last four or five lines, but those lines are themselves abstracted from the remarkable conditions that bring them to voice both within the poem and in relation to its author and her other work.” (“Emma Lazarus and the Golem of Liberty” 1-2). Instead, we should read “The New Colossus” as representing a specifically Jewish notion of what it means to become an American, an identity which Lazarus discovered through “her Jewish commitment to repair a broken world,” what in Judaism is known as tikkun olam (Schor 189).
“The New Colossus,” a Petrarchan sonnet, opens with negation. The speaker announces emphatically that her subject is not the Colossus of Rhodes, not one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but a modern and very different figure. While the “brazen giant of Greek fame” symbolized conquest and imperialism (Lazarus 1), this new American Colossus remains strong, awesome in its size and strength, but becomes feminine as well. Like other effective ekphrastic poems, “The New Colossus” succeeds because it moves beyond mere description of the art object to offer an explanation of why the work of art matters.
At the midpoint of the sonnet, Lazarus reimagines the Statue as a “Mother of Exiles” (6). Through this use of prosopopoeia—a form of personification in which an abstract concept is endowed with human characteristics—the poet not only feminizes Liberty but maternalizes her. Liberty becomes the ultimate Jewish mother, an inherently contradictory character who welcomes her children and commands them, who is simultaneously compassionate and fierce (Lazarus 7). The phrase “Mother of Exiles” is itself provocative. After all, a mother whose children have been exiled might normally expect to be separated from them forever; but here, in the poem, the mother is reunited with all the outcast, traumatized children she never knew were hers. Perched on her platform at the edge of the “air-bridged harbor” (8), she too is made exile, isolated in her grandeur.
Following the volta, Lazarus shifts perspective, placing the last six lines in the mouth of the Statue. But even this surprising speech act is contradictory. Liberty cries, “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp,” but her lips are “silent” (9-10), “paradoxically full of speech” (Cavitch 19). And because Liberty’s speech is not truly uttered, the reader focuses instead on the imagery of these lines, the Statue receding as pictures of immigrants move to the foreground: “your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore” (10-12). Although a phrase such as “huddled masses” is deliberately vague, blurry, it is easy to guess which cold, crouching bodies the poet envisioned. No doubt, when she wrote these lines, Lazarus imagined the Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, the very immigrants she tried to help through her charitable works and political writings. The poem ends with the blinding light of the Enlightenment—or, for Jews, the Haskalah—the Statue lifting her “lamp beside the golden door” (14). The difficult implication is that only by embracing Enlightenment values, such as education and integration, will these masses become distinct individuals with American lives of their own.
Within a few days of having written “The New Colossus,” Lazarus moved toward a vision of American that was more explicit in its Jewishness. Her sonnet, “1492,” can be understood as a companion piece to “The New Colossus.” Here is another Petrarchan sonnet that uses prosopopoeia, this time to bring to life the abstract notions of exile and homecoming.
The poem begins with a direct address to the famous year of 1492, which Lazarus renames “Mother of Change and Fate” (1). This mother is far more terrifying than the one we find in “The New Colossus.” Twice, the speaker calls 1492 the “two-faced year” (1, 9), a phrase that indicates the speaker’s ambivalence. Does 1492 represent change? Or fate? Does 1492 stand for deceit and betrayal, as the adjective “two-faced” seems to imply?
For Lazarus, speaking from her doubled-consciousness as American and Jew, the year is bittersweet, encompassing all of these conflicting qualities. While her American self treats 1492 as a moment of discovery—the year that Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue”—her Jewish self sees that same year as one of the great, tragic episodes in Jewish history. In 1492, the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, signed the decree that expelled all Jews from Spain. Within less than a century, the Portuguese Inquisition had pushed most Jewish citizens out of the region altogether. On the one hand, Lazarus’s own ancestors had been displaced by these very expulsions; on the other hand, her family had experienced great prosperity and success as a result of immigration to the United States.
The picture of America that Lazarus creates in “1492” is one of open doors, a utopian landscape devoid of “each ancient barrier that the art / Of race or creed or rank devise” (12-13). Lazarus contrasts the “virgin world” of America (10), with the “Close-locked” and “barred” gates of Europe (8). Contemporary readers might wish that Lazarus had been more sensitive to the ways in which the America of 1492 was not virginal, not an empty territory awaiting colonization. But, despite her forward-looking politics, Lazarus was still a product of her era and believed in the Victorian value of “progress.” Interestingly, in the final four lines of the poem, Lazarus performs a similar rhetorical move to the one she uses near the end of “The New Colossus”: “Ho, all who weary, enter here! / There falls each ancient barrier that the art / Of race or creed or rank devised, to rear / Grim bulwarked hatred between heart and heart” (11-14). The year 1492 speaks to the exiled Jews, much as the Colossus spoke before, welcoming the new arrivals and asserting that the New World’s destiny is to welcome the outcasts of other nations.
Near the end of her life, as Emma Lazarus was completing her second tour of Europe, the poet visited the Louvre in Paris to view the same sculpture—the Venus de Milo—that a dying Heinrich Heine had once wept before. In her Elizabethan sonnet, “Venus of the Louvre,” we see yet another representation of feminine strength, “maimed” by Time but somehow unmarred (4). We see Lazarus constructing another piece of ekphrasis, examining a work of art through the twin lenses of Judaism and feminism.
In his essay, “Emma Lazarus and the Golem of Liberty,” scholar Max Cavitch argues that “[h]ere another iconic mother ("mother of love") draws the exile toward herself, beckoning not with the promise of liberty but with the enchantments of a desire that will enthrall rather than free its subject” (23). But, it is possible to read the Venus’s power in a more positive light than does Cavitch. The beauty of the statue persists, which offers the poet-speaker some hope that her art will live on too. Because the Venus is armless, her whole body “glistens like a star” (1) and serves as a lighted beacon of hope to the speaker.
The poem is an elegy for Heine and for Lazarus herself, dying of cancer. In the great tradition of the sonnet form, the poem memorializes its subjects, even as it mourns their loss. Just as the Venus de Milo endures, “breathing on” (3), so does the sonnet bestow immortality on Heine and Lazarus, two “death-stricken” Jews (9). And, in the poem’s closing line, Lazarus immortalizes a second pairing: “vanished Hellas and Hebraic pain” (14). The dual influences of Greek and Jewish culture are apparent not only Heine’s work but also in Lazarus’s. And while the Greeks may have “vanished,” the poem ends on the word “pain.” Lazarus recognizes that the terrible pain of being a Jew is also evidence of life. How fitting that the “Venus of the Louvre” attempts to merge so many separate objects—the Venus with Heine and Lazarus, Hellenic with Hebraic art.
The discomfort created by such intersections reflects the discomfort that poets like Lazarus have always felt, as they try to be American and Jewish and female all at the same time. For her attempts to reconcile these distinct identities, Lazarus deserves to be revisited, her writing appreciated for its relevance to contemporary readers. Yet even as she serves as a role model for American Jewish writers in the 21st century, Lazarus can also embody the difficult task that any hyphenated writer faces. In many ways, Emma Lazarus’ work transcends the specific experiences of American Jewry and becomes the narrative of any immigrant population in this melting pot or the salad bowl, which we call the United States of America.
Barron, Jonathan N. & Eric Murphy Selinger, eds. Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections. Hanover: Brandeis UP, 2000.
Blair, Sara & Jonathan Freedman, eds. Jewish in America. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2004.
Cavitch, Max. “Emma Lazarus and the Golem of Liberty.” American Literary History. 18:1 (2006): 1-28.
Chametzky, Jules, John Felstiner, Hilene Flanzbaum, and Kathryn Hellerstein, eds. Jewish American Literature, A Norton Anthology. New York: Norton, 2001.
Hollander, John, ed. Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems. New York: Library of America, 2005.
Lichtenstein, Diane. “Words and Worlds: Emma Lazarus’s Conflicting Citizenships.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. 6:2 (1987): 247-263.
Omer-Sherman, Ranen. Diaspora and Zionism in Jewish American Literature. Hanover: UPNE, 2002.
Rubin, Derek, ed. Who We Are: On Being (And Not Being) a Jewish American Writer. NY: Schocken, 2005.
Schor, Esther. Emma Lazarus. New York: Schocken, 2006.
Whitfield, Stephen J. In Search of American Jewish Culture. Hanover: UPNE, 1999.
Poems and Translations Between the Ages of Fourteen and Sixteen, 1866
Poems and Translations Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Seventeen, 1867
Admetus and Other Poems, 1871
Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death, and Other Poems, 1882
Alide: An Episode in Goethe’s Life, 1874
An Epistle to the Hebrews, 1882-1883 (published serially in the American Hebrew)
The Spagnoletto, 1876
Poems and Ballads of Heinrich Heine, 1881
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!”
Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,
Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,
The children of the prophets of the Lord,
Prince, priest, and people, spurned by zealot hate.
Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state,
The West refused them, and the East abhorred.
No anchorage the known world could afford,
Close-locked was every port, barred every gate.
Then smiling, thou unveil'dst, O two-faced year,
A virgin world where doors of sunset part,
Saying, “Ho, all who weary, enter here!
There falls each ancient barrier that the art
Of race or creed or rank devised, to rear
Grim bulwarked hatred between heart and heart!”
VENUS OF THE LOUVRE
Down the long hall she glistens like a star,
The foam-born mother of Love, transfixed to stone,
Yet none the less immortal, breathing on.
Time's brutal hand hath maimed but could not mar.
When first the enthralled enchantress from afar
Dazzled mine eyes, I saw not her alone,
Serenely poised on her world-worshipped throne,
As when she guided once her dove-drawn car,—
But at her feet a pale, death-stricken Jew,
Her life adorer, sobbed farewell to love.
Here Heine wept! Here still he weeps anew,
Nor ever shall his shadow lift or move,
While mourns one ardent heart, one poet-brain,
For vanished Hellas and Hebraic pain.