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Tribute: Emma Lazarus: Answering a Calling

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By John E. Carey
January 10, 2007

"I fell violently in love again...with a lady I met...last night and from whom I hope never to be separated – a poetess, a magaziness, and a Jewess, Miss Emma Lazarus, whose name you doubtless know...."

-- Philosopher William James to his wife, in London, 1882

Who was Emma Lazarus?

You know her as the American poet who wrote the famous poem inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore...."

"The editor and poet James Russell Lowell said the poem finally gave the statue a 'raison d'être,' but the politicians were less enthusiastic," wrote Caleb Crain in The New York Times on December 31, 2006, "and it wasn't read at the ceremonial unveiling in 1886. Indeed, the poem was more or less forgotten until the 1930s, when it was resurrected for its celebration of immigrants."

But Emma was much more than the poet writing for the Statue of Liberty. A self-taught genius, she stood up for women's rights, the rights of Jews, and religious freedom and equality in an American society greatly influenced toward a wrong turn by European ideas.

Emma Lazarus's story is marvelously told by Esther Schor in her new book "Emma Lazarus" (Nextbook, New York, 2006). Without this book, Emma's wonderful story may have been nearly lost to history.

In 1867, while still in her teen years, her father found a publisher for her first book of poems, titled Poems and Translations. This marked the start of a life-long contribution to the American arts and letters.

Her work, though considered "ordinary" by some, attracted the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the leading American poets and essayists of the age. He invited her to spend a week at his home in Concord, Massachusetts, which led to a life-long correspondence. She also corresponded with and learned more about her "art" Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and other literary luminaries of her day.

Colonel Higginson, who had recruited and trained the first regiment of all Black Union Volunteers in the Civil War, became a prolific writer and editor after the war.Frequently published in the Atlantic Monthly, "a magazine of literature, art, and politics," Higginson corresponded extensively with Emily Dickinson for nearly 25 years.

He also offered critiques to Walt Whitman several times in the public forum of the printed essay. His evaluation of Whitman included this gem: "It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass,' only that he did not burn it afterwards."

Higginson proved to be an invaluable mentor and literary advisor to Emma Lazarus. Lazarus had a thorough knowledge of Jewish history and literature and impressed Higginson, a Boston aristocrat. She loved words and languages even more, perhaps than Higginson. She learned several languages, including German, French and Italian.

But as a teen, she did not thoroughly embrace her Jewish heritage. Moses Lazarus, Emma's father, was a wealthy sugar refiner. Consequently, Emma lived in the very upper Middle Class world of her father, who was well educated, suave, and accepted in the best circles, clubs and parties.

Moses moved effortlessly in wealthy Christian circles, joined the exclusive Union club, and founded, together with the Vanderbilts and the Astors, the elite Knickerbocker club. While he was known to be a Jew, he was not one of THEM, the poor immigrant first-generation Jews most in proper society looked down upon.

And, as a sign that he had achieved the very pinnacle of American New York aristocracy, Moses Lazarus built a mansion (called a "summer cottage") in Newport, Rhode Island – the summer home of all first-rate fashionable society.

As far as we know: Emma never attended a single day of school anywhere. Today we would call her "home schooled." All her knowledge and learning occurred as a result of her father's magnificent library and his wonderful teachings and good example.

In about 1880, the George Eliot novel, Daniel Deronda, stirred in Emma a reawakening of her latent Judaism.At that same time, about three-quarters of all the Jewish people on earth resided within the Russian Empire. In 1881, the Russian Tsar Alexander II died at the hands of an assassin. The Russians wrongly blamed the Jews; an accusation which touched off the "pogroms" or anti-ethnic rioting and killings.

The new Tsar Alexander III blamed the Jews for the riots. This exacerbated an already ugly situation. Thousands of Jewish homes were destroyed, many families were reduced to the extremes and depredations of poverty and scores of women were sexually assaulted. In 166 towns in the southwest provinces of the Russian Empire (modern day Ukraine), large numbers of men, women, and children were attacked and injured or killed. The pogroms continued for more than three years with at least the tacit approval of the authorities.

Jews began to pour out of Russia seeking a land of religious tolerance. Many soon found themselves on the doorstep of America: at New York, New York. Tens of thousands of persecuted Jews and other people seeking freedom and looking for a better way of life for their families flocked into New York's immigrant neighborhoods. They were tired, hungry, without an ounce of fat on their jagged bones. Many were poorly educated farm laborers with calloused hands. The people of New York turned against them .

Emma Lazarus steeled herself against criticism and took up their cause. In 1882, eight years before the word "Zionism" appeared in print or in regular English usage, "Emma Lazarus became the first well-known American to publicly make the case for a Jewish state," wrote Emma's biographer, Esther Schor in her 2006 book, "Emma Lazarus."

It is almost as if Emma Lazarus could see into the future Hitler's Holocaust, the massed movement of Jews out of Europe after World War II and the creation of the State of Israel by the United Nations in 1946.

The same year that Emma adopted the cause of the por Jewish immigrants, she started thinking about a poem which would become her most famous, The New Colossus. Little did she know that this poem would one day be at the foot of the Statue of Liberty – and associated with American immigrants and the Statue of Liberty for over 100 years!

"In 1883, France insisted on giving America a large copper statue of a woman holding a torch, and America had to pay for the pedestal. It was embarrassingly hard to find the money, and Emma Lazarus, a much published and well-connected poet, was asked to contribute a poem for a fund-raiser," wrote Caleb Crain in The New York Times on December 31, 2006.

"Her sonnet, 'The New Colossus,' imagined the statue - called 'Liberty Enlightening the World' - addressing the Old World with majestic brusqueness," wrote Mr. Crane.

By the mid 1880s, Emma became aware of discrimination even in her elite social circles. There, discrimination was practiced with subtlety and false-charm, quite unlike the open and brazen discrimination of the streets.

In 1877, the Grand Union Hotel refused a guest named Joseph Seligman a room.

Seligman, a nouveau riche German Jew, became the lightening rod for Emma's awareness that the once tolerant American climate continued to shift toward discrimination against the Jews.

But, as the owner of the Grand Hotel, Judge Henry Hilton, explained nobody had any objection to the Sephardic elite. People like Emma Lazarus and her family, who had lived in America since before the revolution, were the refined, the "true Hebrews." Hilton made it clear that only the dirty, greedy, German immigrants; the "Seligman Jews" were to be excluded and denied of many things because they were obviously "undesirables."

Emma became an even my steely advocate for Jewish immigrants, women and the downtrodden in general. In hundreds of essays, poems and letters she stood up for those most considered "underfoot and of little value" the rich New Y ork society mavens.

Lazarus' last book was a series of prose poems entitled, "By the Waters of Babylon." It was published in 1887.

On November 19, 1887, in New York City, Emma Lazarus died at the age of 37. She had contracted cholera and suffered for the final two years of her life. But during much of that time, she catalogued and organized and annotated her many works.

Emma's sisters published her manuscripts and previously published essays and poems which represented her life's work: some 1,886 documents!

Her biographer Esther Schor eulogizes Emma this way: "She saw and spoke the need for a Jewish homeland when that was lunacy; she saw in the blaze of anti-Semitism a coming apocalypse... She saw and spoke to all' more Americans encounters Judaism – it's history, its culture, its predicaments, and its destiny – through Emma Lazarus's writing than through that of any of her contemporaries."

The New Colossus
By Emma Lazarus

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!"
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John E. Carey is the former president of International Defense Consultants, Inc.
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