Edward Wagenknecht (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: Wagenknecht, Edward. “Emma Lazarus.” In Daughters of the Covenant: Portraits of Six Jewish Women, pp. 25-54. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1983.

[In the following essay, Wagenknecht comments on Lazarus's life, poetic themes, literary influences, and religious attitudes.]


Emma Lazarus was a pioneer Zionist and one...

(The entire section contains 55967 words.)

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SOURCE: Wagenknecht, Edward. “Emma Lazarus.” In Daughters of the Covenant: Portraits of Six Jewish Women, pp. 25-54. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1983.

[In the following essay, Wagenknecht comments on Lazarus's life, poetic themes, literary influences, and religious attitudes.]


Emma Lazarus was a pioneer Zionist and one of the very first writers to strike an authentically Jewish note in American literature, but most readers today merely think of her as the only poet who has ever had the honor of having her verses engraved upon the pedestal 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.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

In her time she was known for much more. Bryant thought the verses in her first book, Poems and Translations Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Sixteen, better than any others he had seen by a girl of her age; when she sent Turgenev her only novel, Alide, he professed himself proud of her approbation and assured her that she was no longer a pupil but well on her way to mastery;1 British critics thought her “Admetus” superior to Browning's Belaustion's Adventure and her “Tannhäuser” better than “The Hill of Venus” by William Morris. Her American admirers included John Greenleaf Whittier, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Charles Dudley Warner, Edward Eggleston, H. H. Boyesen, John Burroughs, E. L. Godkin, E. C. Stedman, William and Henry James, John Hay, and Henry George, and when she went to England, she was welcomed by Robert Browning, William Morris, Edmund Gosse, Austin Dobson, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

James Russell Lowell, to be sure, refused to print her poems in the North American Review, thinking that she needed to do more work on them (he partly atoned for this later when he told her he liked “The New Colossus” better than the Statue of Liberty itself), and Howells rejected “Admetus” when Emerson sent it to the Atlantic, thinking it too derivative, a view with which Emerson did not agree. But Emerson himself presents a problem. Though he found the classical influence too strong in her early work and urged her not to neglect “the despised Present,” he practically made a protégée of her and then nearly broke her heart by excluding her from his immense poetic anthology, Parnassus, which included the work of many less gifted poets than she.2 We do not know whether he replied to the letter of protest and inquiry she wrote him, but he did invite her to Concord, where she made friends with Mrs. Emerson and Ellen, was not attracted by Bronson Alcott, and established fairly close relations with Ellery Channing, though she described him as “a gnarled and twisted shrub—a pathetic, impossible creature.” After Emerson's death, she summed up her impressions of him with dignity in the Century Magazine.3

Emma Lazarus was born in New York City on July 22, 1849, the daughter of Moses Lazarus, a Sephardic Jew and wealthy sugar refiner, and his wife, Esther Nathan, who was of Ashkenazic stock. Both parents came from families of assured position and some distinction which had been in this country since before the Revolution. The girl grew up in a household which ultimately embraced seven living children, all but one of them girls, of whom she was the fourth. The death of her mother in 1874 probably made her more dependent upon her father, who had retired from business at fifty-two, nine years before. He lived until 1885, four years before her own death.

She was educated at home by tutors and began writing and translating poetry very early. Her indulgent father had her first collection privately printed in 1866; the next year it was published by Hurd and Houghton, who, in 1871, followed it with the considerably more mature Admetus and Other Poems. Her only novel, Alide, which is based on Goethe's own account of his youthful affair with Fredricka Brion, followed in 1874, and The Spagnoletto, a lurid Renaissance tragedy or melodrama about José (or Juseppe) Ribera, a sixteenth-seventeenth-century Neapolitan painter, was privately printed in 1876. Just before the final curtain, Ribera kills himself in front of his daughter, thinking this the most effective way to punish her for having allowed herself to be seduced by Don John of Austria. This climax is more horrifying than effective, and Emma herself decided that the play was unactable, but it is included in the first volume of her collected poems. The next year she made, from German texts, her first translations from the Jewish poets of mediaeval Spain, and in 1881 she published her translation of Poems and Ballads of Heinrich Heine.

She became a prolific contributor to both Hebrew and general American magazines (Lippincott's, the Critic, and the Century were particularly hospitable to her), and in 1882 she published her Songs of a Semite, which includes her other tragedy, “The Dance to Death,” the story of a fourteenth-century pogrom that had been fired by the same kind of insane accusations against Jews as were being revived in eastern Europe in her own time. If “The Dance to Death” is not quite an acting drama either, it is certainly much more powerful to read than The Spagnoletto. An Epistle to the Hebrews was serialized in the American Hebrew in 1882-83 but did not appear as a book during the author's lifetime. By now she was deep in propaganda and relief activities occasioned by the plight of eastern European Jews pouring into this country after the persecutions following the assassination of Czar Alexander II. She made two trips to England and the Continent, in 1883 and 1885, but she was fatally ill of cancer, and in 1887 she returned home to die in New York at the cruelly early age of thirty-eight. Her death drew extensive press coverage, and perhaps George W. Cable's valedictory was the most adequate: “She was the worthy daughter of a race to which the Christian world owes a larger debt of gratitude incurred from the days of Abraham until now, and from which it should ask more forgiveness than to and from any other people that ever trod the earth.”


Her photographs show a long, slender face, with fine, rather deep-set eyes, comparatively large nose and ears, finely modeled mouth and chin, and dark hair braided firmly around her head. One writer speaks of her face as a “forest densely populated with thought,” and she is said to have been capable of quick changes of expression, passing at a bound from severity to tenderness. Stedman found her “thoroughly feminine and a mistress of the social art and charm.” She was an ornament of the Richard Watson Gilders's salon, and Rose Hawthorne Lathrop says she conversed with celebrities with ease. John Burroughs told her frankly that he liked her and wanted to see more of her, at the same time reproving her for thinking too meanly of herself, and she enjoyed a warm friendship with the great Italian actor Salvini. No doubt it would have been more dignified not to bare her heart to Emerson after he had cut her to the quick by leaving her out of Parnassus, but her protest was expressed with dignity and without self-vaunting; speaking generally, I should say that her letters to the Emersons and other literary folk whom she had approached or who had taken an interest in her are frank, affectionate, and free from fawning, equally compounded of modesty and self-respect.

In the biographical memoir prefaced to her collected poems, her sister Josephine accents her modesty: “She was a born singer; poetry was her natural language, and to write was less effort than to speak, for she was a shy, sensitive child, with strange reserves and reticences, not easily putting herself en rapport with those around her. Books were her world from her earliest years; in them she literally lost and found herself.” Indeed “her unwillingness to assert herself or to claim any prerogative” went beyond modesty to morbidness, and she was even inclined to resent any reference to her work.

When Stedman lent her the poems of Mrs. James T. Fields, she wrote that “what you say about their resemblance to my own work confirms me more than ever in the opinion I have long held of my verses—that they are not of the slightest value or importance to the world.” Mrs. Fields's poems seemed to her “very sweet, graceful and delicate,” but there was nothing in them “to stir, to awaken, to teach, or to suggest, nothing that the world could not equally well do without.”4 In a more intimate vein, she wrote Ellen Emerson that she believed herself more dependent upon expressions of friendship and confidence from those she loved than most persons are, “not from any lack of confidence in their kindness or loyalty” but because of her own “painful distrust” of her capacity to inspire affection. Obviously she habitually kept her own defenses up, for, as she wrote Emerson himself, she found “a certain egotism in … holding up the glass to one's heart and mind. I think after all, modesty and the concealing of one's fault imply at least contrition and a desire to be better, but declaring them openly requires a degree of boldness and shamefacedness which tends to intensify them.” Nor did she believe that those who attempted to make a clean breast of things often achieved it; some concealment was nearly always practiced, and when the meanest and most contemptible faults were confessed, they were often so presented as almost to reconcile their possessor to them.

She herself judged that her natural inclination tended too much in the direction of retirement and she was consistent to the end in her refusal to participate in public speaking, though she sometimes agreed to write a lecture which somebody else could read for her. For all that, she was no shrinking violet; had she been, she could never have nerved herself to take the public stands she did during her later years. Mary Cohen quotes “one who was very closely related to her” as having said that “she was always on fire about something.” In one letter to Ellen Emerson she reproaches herself for a habitual bluntness of expression, and Ellen herself thought her “a pleasant—if somewhat intense—companion.” Even in the tribute to her published in the Critic after her death, “her playful, though sometimes sardonic wit” is spoken of.

She did not care to be misrepresented. When she heard that the American Hebrew had adopted what she considered an undignified way of advertising her writings, she protested with spirit, and when its editor Philip Cowen tried to brush away her protest about misprints in one of her articles as unimportant, she would have none of it. In one case she had been made “guilty of a grammatical blunder,” while in another the omission of a word had deprived her sentence of meaning, and to her such things were not trifling. She added notes to her poems to make it clear that “Admetus” had been written before “The Love of Alcestis,” and “Tannhäuser” before “The Hill of Venus,” and that therefore she was not indebted to the work of other writers. Even her last, grueling illness did not, it seems, quench her spirit, since her sister writes that clear to the end, though wasted physically to a shadow, “she talked about art, poetry, the scenes of travel, of which her brain was full, and the phases of her own condition, with an eloquence for which even those who knew her best were quite unprepared.”

All this seems far removed from the graveyard atmosphere of her first book. A girl in her teens, she was fond of identifying herself with elderly persons looking back over a disappointing life, and there is unintended humor in such poems as “On a Lock of My Mother's Hair”:

In looking o'er the souvenirs
          Of days when I was young,
I found a lock of silver hair
          The tokens dear among.

As absurdly as the young James Russell Lowell, she had “gelebt und geliebt”:

Yes, I have lived through many weary years
Of suffering, and grief, and endless pain,
And little joy, and bitter, bitter years;
And all my darkened life, has been in vain,
For what is left me in my old age now?
                                        These locks of snow.

In the stanza following this one she adds that she had “loved, and madly loved, and long, / With all the passion of a woman's longing” and that now, in her old age, she has been left with a broken heart. “Beginning and End” mourns the death of a lover; “A Cradle and a Grave” is a lament for a dead baby; “The Broken Toy” is written from the point of view of a little boy who had been badly treated by “a lovely maiden” who was obviously spoiling for a whipping which should have left her unable to sit down; in “Rest at Last” peace comes only as we “float down the stream of Death.” It is hard to tell how much of this is temperamental and how much is due to the literary fashion of the day, but I think everybody would agree that humor is not a prominent element in either her life or her work.


Primarily she was a lady of letters, but what else did she care for? Obviously no beauty-loving temperament, above all that of a nineteenth-century poet, could be indifferent to nature. Emma Lazarus once wrote Emerson that, except for Thoreau and Whitman, she had even dismissed books for the time being in favor of the world lying around her. “Of all seasons, Autumn is the one whose approach I love best to watch. I have seen with delight the bronzing trees of the woods, and the trembling poplars sprinkling their silver with gold, and the later flowers and fruits blooming and ripening.”

She also had a special feeling for the sea (her early summers were spent near it at Newport and elsewhere), and some of her sea poems have erotic implications. Her last day on shipboard during her first trip to England was a “vision of beauty from morning till night—the sea like a mirror and the sky dazzling with light.” But she did not need spectacular or unusual aspects of nature to delight her. So she can write in “Phantasies”:

The ceaseless whirr of crickets fills the ear
From underneath each hedge and bush and tree,
Deep in the dew-drenched grasses everywhere.
The simple sound dispels the fantasy
Of gloom and terror gathering round the mind.
It seems a pleasant thing to breathe, to be,
To hear the many-voiced, soft summer wind
Lisp through the dark thick leafage overhead—
To see the rosy half-moon soar behind
The black slim-branching elms. Sad thoughts have fled,
Trouble and doubt, and now strange reveries
And odd caprices fill us in their stead.

When, during her final, ultimately fatal illness, she believed at one time that her disease had left her, she wrote with unconscious pathos, “There is no such cure for pessimism as a severe illness. The simplest pleasures become enough—to breathe the air and see the sun.”

When she got to England, the appeal of natural beauty became entangled for her with literary associations that had sweetened all her life; though she was not of English extraction, no American of her time felt the appeal of what Hawthorne called “our old home” more strongly. “To American eyes,” she wrote, “no bit of rural England can be devoid of interest and charm”; to her “the most ordinary objects” seemed “under a spell,” as if “to bewitch us back into the dream-world of a previous existence.” In Rome the association was less with literature than with art. “I am wild with the excitement of this tremendous place,” she wrote. “It is all heart-breaking.” The almond trees were in bloom, the grass was covered with violets, and “oh! the divine, the celestial, the unheard-of beauty of it all!” One of her biographers even has her buying paints and canvas toward the end of her life. Greek sculpture enraptured her also, “wiping out all other places and impressions, and opening a whole new world of sensations.” Whether or not she attempted painting, there can be no question that she began a serious study of Rembrandt preparatory to writing “a critical analysis” of his “genius and personality” which her cruel malady did not permit her to write. But her visit to Paris did produce the fine sonnet about the Venus de Milo which ties up with her life-long interest in Heine and practically identifies her with him.

Down the long hall she glistens like a star,
The foam-born mother of Love, transfixed in 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 her not 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.

A serious interest in painting and sculpture was a late development in Emma's life, but music had been a passion from the beginning and became more important for her poetry than the plastic arts ever did. Her Tannhäuser, deprived of his lyre, tells the shepherd boy that

                                                                                Whoso hath
The art to make this speak is raised thereby
Above all loneliness or grief or fear.

She called Bach, Beethoven, and Handel the supreme composers, but apparently the Romantics better fired her muse, for she wrote four sonnets to Chopin, and the elaborate “Phantasies” and “Symphonic Studies,” to say nothing of the uncollected “Scenes in the Wood,”5 derive from Schumann, though it must be admitted that both Shakespeare and Botticelli are more obviously present in “Symphonic Studies.”

In the theater her great admiration was for Tommaso Salvini, who became her friend. She did not write much about the theater, but her two articles about Salvini and the one about the German actor Ludwig Barnay6 are enough to prove that she would have made an excellent drama critic. She had no patience with the notion that criticism is primarily fault-finding, and she did not pigeonhole artists in any line of endeavor, but she knew how to describe acting in sufficient detail so that her reader could share her experience, and her enthusiasm matched her discrimination.

One wonders whether there were any emotional experiences in her life that were not filtered through art. Critics who believe that all literature is autobiographical have been tempted to interpret the sequence of lyric poems she called “Epochs” as indicating that the poet herself had “loved and lost.” This may be so, but we have no corroborative evidence. She was friendly with Thomas Wren Ward, a member of the Emerson circle, and she was obviously, for a time at least, fond of her cousin Washington Nathan, to whom she dedicated “Lohengrin,” but that is all we know.

Freud-oriented critics have consequently been led to speculate about the possibility of a “father fixation” in Emma Lazarus and to see the close connection between father and daughter in her two plays as reflecting the writer's own life. It is interesting that in her article on Salvini's Lear, she should have expressed the unusual point of view that Lear's wrath against Cordelia in the opening scene is not, under the circumstances posited, exaggerated. There can be no question that the Lazaruses were a very closely and warmly attached family. Thomas Wentworth Higginson has recorded finding the children almost in despair upon one occasion because their father had to leave home on business for a single night, but John Burroughs thought that what Emma told him of her relations with her father indicated that their association had been exactly what that of father and daughter ought to be.

In Emma Lazarus's novel, Alide, Goethe's defection from the heroine is foreshadowed in his comments on Hamlet; the prince, he thought, had once sincerely loved Ophelia but had simply outgrown her. Dan Vogel oversimplifies, however, when he sees the author consequently championing the freedom required by the artistic temperament. Her Goethe is no seducer (neither is Alide, in the vulgar sense of the term, seduced); the necessity laid upon him to grow affects the man as much as the artist, and the outcome of the affair would surely have been the same had he never written a line. He and Alide would simply have been hopelessly mismated, and it is she who, perceiving this, makes the break, though it nearly kills her to do it. “Is it not better to part at the beginning of the roads, before they diverge too widely?”

There are fleshly references in “Orpheus” and “Tannhäuser” and “Symphonic Studies.” Desire is well expressed in “Spring Longing”:

Swift the liquid golden flame
                    Through my frame
Sets my throbbing veins afire.
Bright, alluring dreams arise,
                    Brim mine eyes
With the tears of strong desire.

In the fantastic “August Moon” we encounter the ghosts of

                                        maids who died unwed,
And they quit their gloomy bed,
Hungry still for human pleasure,
Here to trip a moonlit measure.

And in “Autumn Sadness” nature itself is presented in erotic terms:

Such impassioned silence fills
                    All the hills
Burning with unflickering fire—
Such a blood-red splendor stains
                    The leaves' veins,
Life seems one fulfilled desire.

The most erotic poem Emma Lazarus ever wrote, however, is the Petrarchan sonnet “Assurance,” which she never published and which has been printed only in Dan Vogel's book about her. Since this expresses love for a woman, not a man, Arthur Zeiger interpreted it in an unpublished dissertation as a lesbian fantasy, but Vogel is surely correct in rejecting this view as nonsense. Women, both poets and novelists, often write from the man's point of view, as a man can write from a woman's, and it is not only in “Assurance” that Emma Lazarus has done this. “Prothalamion,” three unreprinted sonnets, traces a young woman's emotions from “First Love” to “Marriage Bells,” and if the glorification of motherhood which appears frequently seems unusual in a spinster-poet, the probable explanation is her deep sympathy with her own mother. Vogel is right also when he says that the stanza he quotes from another uncollected poem, “Teresa di Faenza,” is virtually indistinguishable from the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

What could I bring in dower? A restless heart,
As eager, ardent, hungry, as his own,
Face burned pale alive by our Southern sun,
A mind long used to musings, grave, apart.
Gold, noble name of fame I ne'er regret,
Albeit all are lacking; but the glow
Of Spring-like beauty, but the overflow
Of simple, youthful joy. And yet—and yet—
A proud voice whispers: Vain may be his quest,
What fruit soe'er he pluck, what laurel green,
Through all the world, for just this prize unseen
I in my deep heart harbor quite unguessed:
I alone know what full hands I would bring
Were I to lay my wealth before my king.(7)


But what of the world outside aesthetic and personal considerations? What did it mean to Emma Lazarus as a writer and as a woman?

Though she was not yet twelve when it began, the Civil War inspired some of her first poetic efforts, and her record in this connection is interesting and curious. “Brevet Brigadier-General Frank Winthrop” is a conventional lament for a dead warrior. There is no reason to suppose that the writer knew him or that he meant anything to her personally; she probably used him as a type or symbol of the life that was being taken by the war, but her two poems about John Wilkes Booth—“April 27th, 1865” and “The Mother's Prayer”—are among the most unusual of all those inspired by the conflict. The bulk of the first, which is much the longer and more ambitious of the two, is given up to Booth's own words or thoughts as he flees from his pursuers. Emma does not attempt to justify him; each division of his lamentation is followed by the refrain:

Go forth! Thou shalt have here no rest again,
For thy brow is marked with the brand of Cain.

But she does enter into his feelings and think his thoughts after him, and the reader is made to feel the pity which must be awakened in all decent human beings by the thought of any creature in extremis, no matter what his sins.

“Oh, where can I lay my aching head?”
The weary-worn fugitive sadly said.

The conclusion, recording Booth's death by rifle shot, is straight narrative, after which

A prayer ascends to high Heaven's gate
For his soul,—O God, be it not too late!

In the wholly sympathetic “Mother's Prayer,” the poet attempts to express the emotions of the assassin's mother.

Outside the Booth poems, the most interesting of the Civil War pieces is “Heroes,” which gives due meed of praise to those who died in battle but reserves most of its space and sympathy for those who survived into a life of toil on western plains or in city factories or, worse still, had to live “maimed, helpless, lingering still through suffering years.” Eve Merriam rightly describes this as a truly mature point of view, and though “The Banner of the Jew” and “Bar Kochba” do not seem exactly pacifist poems, “The Crowing of the Cock” ends by declaring of the wronged Jew that

The angry sword he will not whet,
His nobler task is—to forget.

Though Emma Lazarus always insisted that she could not write upon an assigned subject (this was even her initial reaction to the suggestion that she produce the Statue of Liberty poem), she did not entirely avoid occasional poetry. Her occasional poems were not all devoted to military or political events, but she did lament the assassination of President Garfield and of Czar Alexander II, which left her feeling

Bowed earthward, red with shame, to see such wrong
Prorogue Love's cause and Truth's—God knows how long!

The most interesting thing about “Destiny,” which comprises two sonnets inspired by the death of Napoleon III's son in a British regiment in Africa, is the way its conclusion shows the writer's bookish orientation:

Enmeshed in toils ambitious, not thine own,
Immortal, loved boy-Prince, thou tak'st thy stand
With early doomed Don Carlos, hand in hand
With mild-browed Arthur, Geoffrey's murdered son.
Louis the Dauphin lifts his thorn-ringed head,
And welcomes thee, his brother, 'mongst the dead.

She had some acquaintance with Henry George, who sent her a copy of Progress and Poverty, about which she wrote a sonnet imaging the age they were both living in as “richer than Cleopatra's barge of gold.” It is “manned by demigods,” and it carries

Of priceless marvels. But where yawns the hold
In that deep reeking hell, what slaves be they,
Who feed the cavernous monster, pant and sweat,
Or know if overhead reign night or day?

This is not exactly “refined” poetic diction for what the writer's contemporaries maddeningly described as a “poetess,” but perhaps she had learned from Chaucer that one needs vulgar words to describe vulgar—and wicked—things.

Since she seems to have found George's argument unanswerable, perhaps we should not be surprised to find her responding warmly to William Morris's socialism also. In her article on Morris she acknowledges that his views might appear “wild and visionary” to outsiders and that in America, where “the need for higher culture, finer taste, more solidly constructed bases is so much more conspicuous than the inequality of conditions,” it was natural to shrink from “the communistic enthusiast,” but the situation was different in England, where “the pressure of that densely crowded population upon the means of subsistence is so strenuous and painful that the humane onlooker … is liable to be carried away by excess of sympathy.” And if this seems a cautious approach, she goes considerably further in “The Jewish Problem,” where she sees labor and capital “arming for a supreme conflict.” At present “religious intolerance and race-antipathy are giving place to an equally bitter and dangerous social enmity.” Generally speaking, she thought Jews broadly representative of liberalism and revolution in Germany and Russia and of conservatism and capital in England and America. The idea that modern “socialism and humanitarianism” derive from the New Testament as against the Old she rejected decidedly. Christianity was otherworldly; it held out the Kingdom of Heaven as “a glittering dream of suffering humanity” and enjoined “the vocation of the mystic, the spiritualist, the idealist” upon all, making little or no provision for the here and now.

On the other hand, the very latest reforms urged by political economists, in view of the misery of the lower classes, are established by the Mosaic Code, which formulated the principle of the rights of labor, denying the right of private property in land, asserting that the corners of the field, the gleanings of the harvest belonged in justice, not in charity, to the poor and the stranger; and that man owed a duty, not only to all humanity, but even to the beast of the field, and “the ox that treads the corn.” In accordance with these principles we find the fathers of modern socialism to be three Jews—Ferdinand Lassalle, Karl Marx, and Johann Jacoby.8


As a writer Emma Lazarus admitted influences from many sources. In “City Visions” she wrote,

I will give rein to Fancy, taking flight
From dismal now and here, and dwell alone
With new-enfranchised senses.

She did this in many poems. “August Moon,” “Magnetism,” and “A June Night” offer excellent examples.

Elves on such a night as this
          Spin their rings upon the grass;
                    On the beach the water-fay
Greets her lover with a kiss;
          Through the air swift spirits pass,
          Laugh, caress, and float away.

But literature meant more to her than playfulness. In “The Cranes of Ibycus” she speaks of one walking through the huge town but traveling at the same time “in an April land / With Faust and Helen.” This, surely, was her own experience, for her whole life was interpenetrated with the kind of stimuli that being steeped in literature from childhood supplies.

In the beginning the classics addressed her more directly than her own religious heritage. In “Agamemnon's Tomb” she sees the ancients as

                              a generous-fashioned, god-like race,
Who dwarf our petty semblance, and who won
The secret soul of Beauty for their own,
          While all our art but crudely apes their grace.

“Daphne,” “Clytie,” “Aphrodite,” and “Penelope's Choice” appeared in her first collection; in the Admetus volume she treated the Alcestis and Orpheus stories more seriously and at much greater length and also derived “Lohengrin” and “Tannhäuser” from mediaeval sources.

English literature also brought important influences to bear. I have found no specific reference to Chaucer for his own sake, but her statement that William Morris had “that virginal quality of springtide freshness and directness which we generally miss in modern literature, and which belonged to Chaucer and Homer” shows that she was aware of his quality. “The Dance to Death” has a Continental source of no literary distinction, but Süsskind's defense before Tettenborn surely includes echoes from The Merchant of Venice:

Is not our flesh as capable of pain,
Our blood as quick envenomed as your own?


                                                                                          we must breathe as ye,
The universal air,—we droop, faint, sicken,
From the same causes to the selfsame end.

“Recollections of Shakespeare” in Emma's first volume is a kind of vision-fantasy inspired by Shakespeare's heroines. “The Garden of Adonis” in the Admetus volume takes its epigraph from The Faerie Queene, and Milton's influence is obvious in both “Admetus” and “Orpheus.” Among later English poets, the influence of Browning's dramatic monologues appears strikingly in “Saint Romualdo” and elsewhere, but the Romantics were probably even more important. “Lucia to Edgardo” in her first volume derives from The Bride of Lammermoor or Donizetti's opera or both, and when she first saw Chester, the streets reminded her of “the scene of a Walter Scott novel.” In May 1875 she produced a poem “On the Proposal to Erect a Monument in England to Lord Byron.” Rejecting “the foul weeds of hate / That shamed his grave,” she declares that England's, not his, will be the shame if she suffers him to be forgotten.

Emerson was obviously the American writer who meant most to her, but through him she came to know both Thoreau and Whitman, who must have influenced the uncharacteristic “By the Waters of Babylon.” “In a Swedish Graveyard” has an epigraph from Longfellow's discussion of rural life in Sweden. She was a gifted linguist, translating from Petrarch, Leopardi, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, Heine, and others. Among the Continentals, Heine was obviously the writer with whom she felt the strongest affinity,9 but in 1876 she wrote Rabbi Gottheil that German prose was hard going for her. Her translations have generally been rated high by good judges. Under the influence of her increasing interest in Judaism, she began to study Hebrew, and the next year she was very proud of having translated a poem from the Hebrew. Up to this time all her translations from Hebrew poets had been made from German texts.

Emma Lazarus seems never to have made a systematic attempt to formulate a literary theory, but she knew what she believed both about individual writers and general principles. In her correspondence with John Burroughs, she criticized both Matthew Arnold (whom she considered cold, intellectually narrow, and lacking in spontaneity) and Carlyle; Burroughs defended Carlyle, admitting the justice of some of her strictures but regretting that she could not see anything more than that in him. In some moods she could assume a stance that would infuriate the feminists of today, as in “Echoes”:

Late-born and woman-souled I dare not hope
The freshness of the elder lays, the might
Of manly modern passion shall alight
Upon my Muse's lips …

But she was not always so apologetic. Like Wordsworth, she was sure that poetry came from emotion recollected in tranquility, but there was never any doubt in her mind that the emotion must have been genuinely there. As she puts it in “Life and Art”:

Not while the fever of the blood is strong,
The heart throbs loud, the eyes are veiled, no less
With passion than with tears, the Muse shall bless
The poet-soul to help and soothe with song.
Not then she bids his trembling lips express
The aching gladness, the voluptuous pain.
Life is his poem then; flesh, sense, and brain
One full-stringed lyre attuned to happiness.
But when the dream is done, the pulses full,
The day's illusion with the day's sun set,
He, lonely in the twilight, sees the pale
Divine Consoler, featured like Regret,
Enter and clasp his hand and kiss his brow.
Then, his lips ope to sing—as mine do now.

Moreover, despite all her reserves in private life, she understood the need for communication between human beings and knew too that poetry can perform a very important function in meeting it, sometimes all the more effectively with those who cannot achieve this in any other way. As she puts it in “Sympathy”:

Therefore I dare reveal my private woe,
The secret blots of my imperfect heart,
Nor strive to shrink or swell mine own desert,
Nor beautify nor hide. For this I know,
That even as I am, thou also art.
Thou past heroic forms unmoved shalt go,
To pause and hide with me, to whisper low:
“Not I alone am weak, not I apart
Must suffer, struggle, conquer day by day.
Here is my very cross by strangers borne,
Here is my bosom-sin wherefrom I pray
Hourly deliverance—this my rose, my thorn.
This woman my soul's need can understand,
Stretching o'er silent gulfs her sister hand.”

Being more interested in literature than in theories about literature, Emma Lazarus was not overfond of critical classifications, but as she grew older and responded more passionately to the life around her, she would seem to have veered away somewhat from her early devotion to the classics.10 Moderns who oppose romanticism to realism (a term which the nineteenth century added to the critical vocabulary) may be startled when, in her study of Ludwig Barnay, she speaks of the “romantic, realistic method, as opposed to the classic and antique,” seeing “the great romantic revival in literature initiated by Rousseau and his followers” and developed by Goethe, Byron, Scott, and others as “but the protest of truth, nature, and realism, against cant in morals and the artificial in art.” But it is at least interesting that the most determined modern critical enemy of what he called “Rousseau and Romanticism,” Harvard's Irving Babbitt, should also have seen romanticism and realism as the related faces of the same coin, even when the latter ran over into its more extreme form, naturalism. In “August Moon” Emma calls for a poet who shall not only celebrate the real but reconcile religion and science:

He shall be of bards the king,
Who, in worthy verse, shall sing
All the conquests of the hour,
Stealing no fictitious power
From the classic types outworn,
But his rhythmic line adorn
With the marvels of the real.
He the baseless feud shall heal
That estrangeth wide apart
Science from her sister Art.

She warmly admired William Morris because he had managed to combine in his life the poet's passion for beauty with earnest labor in behalf of social amelioration, and as she contemplated his work, she understood, more clearly than ever before, that unless it is “balanced by a sound and earnest intelligence” and “a burning desire to bring all classes of humanity under its benign influence,” the devotion to beauty alone “is apt to degenerate into a sickly and selfish aestheticism.”

This side of her temperament led Emma Lazarus in the direction of literary nationalism. In “How Long?” she calls almost shrilly for American emancipation from foreign, especially British, models.

          How long, and yet how long,
Our leaders will we hail from over seas,
Masters and kings from feudal monarchies,
          And mock their ancient song
With echoes weak of foreign melodies?
          That distant isle, mist-wreathed,
Mantled in unimaginable green,
Too long hath been our mistress and our queen.
          Our fathers have bequeathed
Too deep a love for her, our heart within.

We “may not sigh / For lands beyond the inexorable main.” If “our noble scenes have yet no history,” then our lives must give them “all nobler charms than those that meet the eye,” and if this is an “aim austere,” it still “opens new vistas, and a pathway clear.” In 1881 she told Higginson that she saw signs of “fresh vitality” everywhere in American literature and that she did not share “the ‘low down’ estimate” of it entertained by “the Anglo-American and half-informed Englishman,” and this point of view was developed and defended nobly in an unsigned article on “American Literature” in the Critic, published that same year,11 in which she took on George Edward Woodberry without gloves and severely criticized the strictures on American literature he had entered in a Fortnightly article. She was willing to grant that Longfellow, whom she admired in many aspects, had looked backwards toward our European heritage, but in the work of her beloved Emerson she saw “the flowering of a distinctively American school of thought and habit of life,” and to her way of thinking the same tendencies appeared in Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Lowell, Holmes, Bret Harte, and others.12


Emma Lazarus's relief, rehabilitation, and propaganda work in behalf of distressed Jews during her later years was of course a powerful influence in turning her away from books to life as a source of inspiration. Though there has been some controversy as to how early her decided consciousness of her Jewish heritage developed,13 there can be no question that it was tremendously stimulated by the persecutions which began in 1881. Though her uncle J. J. Lyons was a rabbi, she did not grow up in a religious family; the allegiance of the thoroughly cosmopolitan Lazaruses to the synagogue to which they formally adhered was pretty perfunctory. Her sister Josephine says specifically that Emma received no “positive or effective religious training” at home and that “it was only during her childhood and earliest years that she attended the synagogue,” afterwards abandoning “the prescribed rites and usages” as a relic of the past which had, so far as she could see, “no bearing on modern life” and that “the first great moral revelation of her life” came with her discovery of Emerson. In 1877 she told Rabbi Gottheil that though she was loyal to her race, her religious convictions, “if such they can be called,” had set her somewhat apart from her people, and she said practically the same thing to the Gentile E. C. Stedman when he urged distinctively Jewish subjects upon her as a writer. She was “proud of her blood and lineage,” but “the Hebrew ideals did not appeal to her,” to which Stedman replied that he “envied her the inspiration she might derive from them.” In her late essay on Longfellow, she objects to his poem, “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport,” because, though tenderly sympathetic, it sees no future for the Jewish people as a people, but her own earliest poem on a Jewish subject, “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” expressed precisely the same point of view.

No signs of life are here; the very prayers
          Inscribed around are in a language dead;
The light of the “perpetual lamp” is spent
          That an undying radiance was to shed.

All the Jewish rites can do now is to recall Bible times, and their sacredness consists in that:

Now as we gaze, in this new world of light,
          Upon this relic of the days of old,
The present vanishes, and tropic bloom
          And Eastern towns and temples we behold.

When Emma visited in Concord, however, Ellen Emerson found her “a real unconverted Jew (who had no objection to calling herself one, and talked freely about ‘our church’ and ‘we Jews’).” But if this indicated a stage on the road of Emma's Jewish pilgrimage, it still left her far from the heroine of “The Dance to Death” as she faces martyrdom:

“I am all Israel's now—till this cloud pass,
I have no thought, no passion, no desire,
Save for my people.”

The Americanized, cosmopolitan, comfortably established Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews of the nineteenth century did not always welcome what Emma Lazarus herself called those who crawled “blinking forth from the loathsome recesses of the Jewry” of Russia and Poland in the eighties, and it must have been harder for this sensitive, refined, sheltered, reserved, and highly aesthetic woman to do so than it would have been for many others. Nevertheless, she did it. She visited the immigrants' camp on Wake Island in the East River and interested herself in such mundane matters as food, housing, and sanitation. Convinced that “antipathy to manual labor” was “one of the great social diseases of our age and country” for Gentiles as well as Jews, she knew that the problem for the latter had been compounded because for so long and in so many countries they had been prevented from owning land and had found so many occupations closed to them. “Upon every Jewish school and asylum in the land, religious or secular,” she wrote, “should be grafted a system of instruction in some branch of productive industry.” So she became one of the founders of the Hebrew Technical Institute and allied herself with the efforts of the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society to set up an agricultural colony in New Jersey. “The herdsman of Canaan and the seed of Jerusalem's royal shepherd,” she wrote in “By the Waters of Babylon,” “renew their youth amid the pastoral plains of Texas and the golden valleys of the Sierras.” Finally, she became a Zionist before the word Zionism had been invented, the advocate of a Jewish homeland, not for American Jews, who already possessed “the double consciousness of the American and the Jew,” but to take care of their less fortunate coreligionists in other lands, so that they should never again need to face such horrors as had flared in the eighties and given Emma herself a new purpose in life.

Was the basic motivating force racial, religious, or humanitarian? On first consideration one is tempted to reply that it was more racial than religious and as much humanitarian as either. (She herself called Heine “a Jew with the mind of a Greek” and said that his sympathy with Jews “was a matter of race, not of creed.”) But the question cannot be answered in a word. Emma Lazarus responded warmly to the statement of former Secretary of State William Evarts at the Chickering Hall protest meeting: “It is not that it is the oppression of Jews by Russia; it is that it is the oppression of men and women by men and women; and we are men and women.” At the same time she did remember that it was her people who were being oppressed and that if she owed them something as a human being, she owed them something more as a Jew. If a man lets his own children starve, one can hardly take seriously his concern for other people's children. “To combine the conservation of one's own individuality with a due respect for the rights of every other individuality, is the ideal condition of society, but it is a foolish perversion of this truth to deduce therefrom the obligation to renounce all individuality and this remark is no less applicable to nations than to persons.”

Emma Lazarus knew that Jews are individuals. Their dualism was “the dualism of humanity”; they were “made up of the good and the bad.” Yet she did generalize about them, and she did not always avoid the stereotypes that their enemies had developed. They are “naturally a race of high moral and intellectual endowments.” But the Jew is also “a born rebel. He is endowed with a shrewd, logical mind, in order that he may examine and protest; with a stout and fervent heart in order that the instinct of liberty may grow into a consuming passion, whereby, if need be, all other impelling motives shall be swallowed up.” On the other hand, “that the Jews are as a race shrewd, astute, and sharp at a bargain no one will deny.” She even speaks of their “long-starved appetite for power.” One well understands the indignation awakened by her article, “Was the Earl of Beaconsfield a Representative Jew?”14 She begins amazingly by taking Spinoza and Shylock as representing the opposite poles of Jewish character, thus pitting an actual man against a character of fiction created by an Elizabethan dramatist who cannot possibly have known much about Jews except what he had read in the Bible and who may never even have seen one, and she concludes that though Spinoza's noblest characteristics did not appear in Disraeli, he still deserved to be called representative! It would take a hundred more years, she thought, to determine whether the Jews were capable of growth. “In the meantime, the narrowness, the arrogance, the aristocratic pride, the passion for revenge, the restless ambition, the vanity and the love of pomp of Benjamin Disraeli, no less than his suppleness of intellect, his moral courage, his dazzling talents, and his triumphant energy, proclaim him, to our thinking, a representative Jew.” No wonder there were Jews who felt that with friends like Emma Lazarus about, they did not need enemies!


There are both friendly and unfriendly references to Christianity in the writings of Emma Lazarus. I say nothing of her bitterness toward Christian persecution of Jews in “An Epistle from Joshua Ibn Vives of Allorqui” and The Dance of Death or her attack upon Madame Ragozin's defense of the pogroms in the Century,15 for concerning these things all persons whose opinions could possibly be worthy of consideration must agree.

This is the God of Love, whose altars reek
          With human blood, who teaches men to hate;
Torture past words, or sins we may not speak
          Wrought by his priests behind the convent-grate.
Are his priests false? or are his doctrines weak
          That none obeys him? State at war with state,
Church against church—yes, Pope at feud with Pope
In these tossed seas what anchorage for hope?

In “Bertha” the abbot is a murderer, and Bertha and King Robert are excommunicated and their land placed under the interdict for having contracted an incestuous marriage on the ground that both had once stood sponsor to the same child in baptism, and in “Arabesque” there is a reference to Europe as sleeping “befouled with monkish dreams” during the Moorish period in Spain. I think there can be no question that Joshua Ibn Vives speaks for his creator when he denies a priori no miracle except the Incarnation, which seems to him a blasphemous notion:

I say not therefore I deny the birth,
          The Virgin's motherhood, the resurrection,
Who know not how mine own soul came to earth,
          Nor what shall follow death. Man's imperfection
May bound not even in thought the height and girth
          Of God's omnipotence; neath his direction
We may approach his essence, but that He
Should dwarf Himself to us—it cannot be!

It was Emma's opinion that “‘converted Jews’ are probably not only the most expensive of all marketable commodities but also the most worthless after they are purchased,” and as late as 1882 she objected to Rabbi Gottheil's reported statement that in America the Christian Church was “a noble and vital institution.”

On the other hand, she uses Christian symbolism pretty freely. The uncollected poem “The Christmas Tree”16 is purely fanciful, with no religious implications, and I suppose some Christians might be offended by the stanza in “Fog” in which both the child Jesus and the child Napoleon are used to glorify mother love.

In his cradle slept and smiled
                                        Thus the child
Who as Prince of Peace was hailed.
Thus anigh the mother breast
                                        Lulled to rest,
Child-Napoleon down the lilied river sailed.

But crown-of-thorn symbolism is used effectively in both “Epochs” and “By the Waters of Babylon”: “Under its branches a divinely beautiful man, crowned with thorns, was nailed to a cross.” I think no Christian poet has done a much better job of suggesting the healing, comforting effect of a cathedral than Emma Lazarus in “St. Michael's Chapel,” and in the novel Alide both this and the winning atmosphere of the pastor's house are sympathetically presented. Alide herself had “the constant chastity, the exalted faith, the meek submission of the nun,” though she found enough scope for the expression of these qualities in the family circle so that “there was no need for her to retire behind the grated walls of a convent.” As for the cathedral: “The sudden transition from the brightness of the noonday streets to this tender twilight, the vast space of the inclosure, the exquisite beauty of the slender reed-like pillars supporting the lofty vault above, the awe-inspiring associations connected with the venerable Minster caused a deep religious adoration to take entire possession of the simple girl's breast.” It seems entirely appropriate then that when Alide comes upon the penitent Lucinda kneeling in the church, she should ask her, “Are you not my sister in Christ?” but it is perhaps more surprising that in her article on Disraeli, Emma Lazarus should include not only Jesus but Saint Paul among the great, “first-class,” spiritually minded Jews.

The climactic position she gives Bayard's advice to the artist Sergius Azoff whom he has just saved from suicide in her short story “The Eleventh Hour”17 would seem to indicate that it expresses her own philosophy:

“I do not consider [life] either a boon to be eternally grateful for, or a burden to be laid aside at pleasure. I consider it a difficult duty which has been imposed upon us without consulting our desire. The world seems to me an immense working-place,—a factory if you will,—where each of us has his special task assigned, which he cannot honorably shirk. A certain amount of labor has to be accomplished, for some universal end which we cannot conceive.”

Bayard adds that he believes the truth about America to lie midway between the roseate utopian dreams which Azoff entertained when he came over and his bitter disillusionment later, and he is sure that art and beauty will ultimately thrive here, though at present he cannot tell what form they will take.

This seems more stoical than religious (indeed Emma Lazarus says much the same thing in “Epochs”), but I do not wish to suggest that I consider her incapable of religious feeling. In her first book, Niagara Falls is a great altar, where the earth “must needs send up her thanks to Him above / Who did create her,” and “Remember” was inspired by Ecclesiastes 12:1. Judging by the number of times she refers to it, the Bible story that interested her most must have been that which relates Jacob's wrestling with the angel. “Influence” celebrates the power of a mother's prayer. The girl whose spiritual pilgrimage is recorded in “Epochs” tries “to reach with groping arms outstretched in prayer, / Something to cling to,” so that she may lift herself “above disaster” and make her will “at one with God's, accepting his decree,” while the mystic Saint Romualdo has achieved

The power completely to detach the soul
From her companion through this life, the flesh;
So that in blessed privacy of peace,
Communing with high angels, she can hold,
Serenely rapt, her solitary course.

But the most interesting of all Emma Lazarus's poems from the point of view of her religious attitude and development is an uncollected piece called “Outside the Church,” which appeared in the Index, an organ connected with the Free Religious Association of Theodore Parker and others, on December 14, 1872, and which Louis Ruchames has interpreted18 as indicating that she herself had tried and failed to find the satisfaction of her spiritual needs in organized religion and found it instead in a Transcendental communion with nature.

O Mother Church, what solace, what reply,
Hast thou for me? No, I have stood within
The cloistered limitations of thy walls,
With honest efforts, earnest piety,
Imploring refuge from distress and sin,
The grace that on thine own elected falls.
Wearied of these increasing doubts of mine,
Harassed, perplexed, with one great longing filled,
To hear the mastering word, to yield, adore,
Conquered and happy, crying, “I am thine!
Uplift, sustain, and lead me like a child,
I will repose in thee forevermore.”

All this to no avail. “To me the ancient oracles were dumb,” and “the message did not come,” though the speaker realized that others had received it. But upon his (or her) emerging,

And lo! the spring-tide beauty of the earth
Touched tenderly the chord unreached, unguessed,
And all my spirit melted in a prayer.

Here, “in this free prospect, 'neath the open sky,”

Here where I stand, religion seems a part
Of all the moving, teeming, sunlit earth;
All things are sacred, in each bush a God;
No miracle accepts the pious heart,
Where all is miracle; of holy worth
Seems the plain ground our daily feet have trod.

In this atmosphere,

All earth-born troubles wane and disappear,
And I can feel, against my reveries,
That not alone I stand outside the church.

Whether or not the persona in this poem is to be identified with Emma herself, it does not stand alone in the Lazarus canon. In “August Moon,”

“Jove, Osiris, Brahma pass,
Races wither like the grass. …
Yet at Nature's heart remains
One who waxes not nor wanes.
And our crowning glory still
Is to have conceived his will.”

Tannhäuser, having been rejected by the pope, throws away the “leaden burden” of the cross about his neck on the Campagna and turns to what seems quite in harmony with Transcendentalism.

“O God! I thank Thee, that my faith in Thee
Subsists at last, through all discouragements.
Between us must no type nor symbol stand,
No mediator were he more divine
Than the incarnate Christ. All forms, all priests,
I put aside, and hold communion free
Beneath the empty sky of noon, with naught
Between my nothingness and thy high heavens—
Spirit with spirit.”

Emma Lazarus had no patience with those of her coreligionists who clung to “antiquated ceremonials” and “repudiated with holy horror the word reform.” These people might consider themselves the “props and pillars of Judaism,” but to her they were its “living disgrace.” For “if our people persist in entrenching themselves behind a Chinese wall of petrified religious forms, the great modern stream of scientific philosophy will sweep past them, carrying Humanity to new heights, and will leave them far in the rear.” She offended the orthodox when she declared that industrial training was now more important for Jews than the Hebrew language and laws, synagogue worship, or circumcision. Her idea of the Sabbath was that it should be a day of joy, more like the Catholic than the Calvinistic Sunday. But if her views were Transcendentalist, they were also, to her own way of thinking, thoroughly Jewish, and she saw herself in the prophetic tradition. Indeed, Jews had less excuse for obscurantism than other religious bodies, for “the simplicity of their creed enables them more readily and naturally to throw off the shackles of superstition and to enlarge the boundaries of free speculation than any other sect. Considering their religion from the highest standpoint, their creed today is at one with the latest doctrines of science, proclaiming the unity of the Creative force.” Was it not Isaiah who swept away “the whole rotten machinery of ritualism, feasts and fasts, sacrifices, oblations, and empty prayers. The prophets no longer call upon the children of Israel to go forth and make war upon nations whose lands they shall possess and inherit, but they are allied to the cause of ‘bringing justice to the nations,’ of ‘establishing justice to the end of the earth’”?

The reader may remember that we asked ourselves awhile back whether Emma Lazarus's Jewish activities in her final phase were racial, religious, or humanitarian. In the light of such utterances as I have just quoted, this question both answers itself and loses its meaning. God chose the Jews, but He chose them not for themselves but to bring the whole world to the knowledge of Himself; thus the idea of humanity “as a grand whole towards whose common weal every individual must strive … dawned upon the mind of man about two centuries before the birth of Jesus, and was the natural result of the fusion of Greek and Hebrew thought.” Indeed, the God of the Hebrews has already become the God of “two-thirds of the inhabited globe,” for what is Christianity except Judaism adapted to the mind of the West or Islam but Judaism adapted to the Arab world? And at this point racism in its ordinary acceptation melts away and religion and humanitarianism are one.


  1. Though hardly anybody else has ever rated this novel very highly, Turgenev evidently meant what he said; he mentioned Emma Lazarus to Thomas Wentworth Higginson when the latter visited him.

  2. Stedman did his best to make up for Emerson's neglect by including six poems, including three on Jewish themes, in his American Anthology, and Charles W. Moulton also gave Emma Lazarus a place in his Library of Literary Criticism.

  3. “Emerson's Personality,” Century 24 (1882): 454-56. “The death of Emerson rounds into a perfect orb one of those radiant lives scattered at wide intervals through history, which become the fixed stars of humanity.” Within his bounds, he was “one of the most searching, discriminating, fresh, and delicate of critics,” and “his praise, when he bestowed it, was royal, almost overpowering the recipient by its poetic hyperbole.” The only entries she makes on the debit side are his comparative ignorance of Heine and Swinburne and his failure to appreciate Poe and Shelley. Emerson's influence seems obvious in “Links,” the only piece from Poems and Translations reprinted in the collected poems:

    The little and the great are joined in one
    By God's great force. The wondrous golden sun
    Is linked unto the glow-worm's tiny spark;
    The eagle soars to heaven in his flight;
    And in those realms of space, all bathed in light,
    Soar none except the eagle and the lark.

    See also Max I. Baym, “Emma Lazarus and Emerson,” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 38 (1949): 261-87.

  4. Samuel A. Golden, “An Unpublished Emma Lazarus Letter,” Boston Public Library Quarterly 10 (1958): 54-55.

  5. Lippincott's Magazine 16 (1875): 175-78.

  6. “Tommaso Salvini,” Century 23 (1881-82): 110-17; “Salvini's ‘King Lear,’” ibid. 26 (1883): 88-91; “Barnay as ‘Mark Antony,’” ibid., p. 312.

  7. Lippincott's 18 (1876): 157-58; ibid. 26 (1880): 83.

  8. “The Jewish Problem,” Century 25 (1883): 602-11.

  9. Aaron Kramer, “The Link Between Heinrich Heine and Emma Lazarus,” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, no. 45 (1956-57), pp. 248-57, attempts to trace the development of Emma Lazarus's own Jewish consciousness in her changing response to Heine as shown by the poems she chose to translate. He believes that when she speaks of Heine's “fatal and irreconcilable dualism” and the conflict in him between Hellenism and Hebraism, she is dealing with her own problem and that Heine served as a link between her and the Jewish poets of mediaeval Spain. See also Vogel, Emma Lazarus, chap. 9.

  10. She did not give up her devotion to classicism without a struggle (insofar as she ever did give it up); see Vogel's further discussion of the matter, Emma Lazarus, pp. 109-11. What is probably her fullest statement of what she valued in fiction is in her remarks upon Eugene Fromentin's only novel, Dominique, Critic 1 (1881): 364-65.

  11. Critic 1 (1881): 164.

  12. Since Longfellow anticipated Emerson's “American Scholar” in both his commencement oration on “Our Native Writers” and his article on “The Defence of Poetry” in the North American Review for January 1832, this is not strictly accurate. For a somewhat detailed consideration of this matter, see chap. 8, “The Old and the New,” in Edward Wagenknecht, Longfellow: A Full-Length Portrait (Longmans, Green, 1955). It would be interesting to know whether Emma Lazarus ever learned that Bret Harte was partly of Jewish ancestry.

  13. See Vogel, Emma Lazarus, chap. 10, for an interesting attempt to trace this development.

  14. Century 23 (1882): 939-42.

  15. “Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism,” Century 24 (1882): 48-56.

  16. Lippincott's 19 (1877): 229-30.

  17. Scribner's Monthly 16 (1878): 252-56.

  18. “New Light on the Religious Development of Emma Lazarus,” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, no. 42 (1952-53): pp. 81-88.

Diane Lichtenstein (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7304

SOURCE: Lichtenstein, Diane. “Words and Worlds: Emma Lazarus's Conflicting Citizenships.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 6, no. 2 (fall 1987): 247-63.

[In the following essay, Lichtenstein considers Lazarus's identities as a marginalized Jewish-American and female writer.]

Unlike Virginia Woolf who proclaimed that as a woman she had no country and wanted no country,1 Emma Lazarus believed passionately in her rightful place within the Jewish and American nations; even more passionately, she wanted to be counted among the citizens of the American literary nation. Despite her beliefs and wishes, however, Lazarus was an alien in the nations she fervently defended. As a woman in Victorian America, for example, she could not vote. As a Jew, she was vulnerable to anti-Semitism. And as a Jewish woman, she was not entitled to the privileges of men, according to Orthodox Jewish law. In spite of these actual and potential limitations on her freedom, Lazarus wrote poetry, essays, and fiction in which she strongly articulated her belief that she could and would be an American Jewish citizen.2

It is appropriate to reexamine Emma Lazarus's work this year, for 1987 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the author's death and follows by a year America's celebration of the Statue of Liberty, which has been empowered by Lazarus's poem, “The New Colossus.” Through this poem, the Statue has been glorified to articulate symbolically the ideals that America believes it represents. The poem itself transforms the outsider, the “homeless” newcomer, into an insider who brings new vitality to her/his adopted nation. And, in retrospect, the poet ironically became the insider she wanted to be by valorizing the outsider.

Lazarus deserves our attention for at least three reasons: she is an author whose work has been largely ignored at least in part because of her gender and religion; she provides us with an alternative model of women's lives because she used her words, rather than her assigned female roles, to affirm her American and Jewish citizenships; and 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, the American literary nation.3

As numerous critics have pointed out, this struggle to belong to literary America was not unique to Jews or women. As Alfred Kazin has explained, modern American writers felt alienated on their own native ground, experiencing a “nameless yearning for a world no one ever really possessed.”4 However, Kazin and others have not noticed that a writer such as Emma Lazarus, who because of her gender and ethnicity could not take a “native ground” for granted, would never find easy access to the dominant American literary culture.

Lazarus was born into an old, wealthy Jewish American family on July 22, 1849. Her father, Moses, was descended from a Sephardic (Spanish or Portuguese) Jewish family, and her mother, Esther Nathan, was the daughter of respectable German Jews.5 Moses was a successful sugar merchant who made sure that his family was comfortable in the fashionable sections of New York and Newport, Rhode Island. He also made sure that his seven children received rigorous educations. Although there are few direct references to her education, Emma, the fourth child, probably was tutored in mythology, music, American poetry, European literature, as well as German, French, and Italian.

As an assimilated American Jewish woman, Lazarus was powerfully affected by the dominant white, middle-class, Christian American culture, as well as by the Sephardic and German Jewish American cultures. More specifically, she was affected by ideals for women that not only established correct behavior but also defined their citizenship. The “True Woman,” the idealized Christian Victorian woman, whose “sphere was the hearth and nursery,”6 served her country by keeping her corruptible men uncorrupted and by rearing the next generation of “moral, trustworthy statesmanlike citizens.”7 The “Mother in Israel,” the idealized Jewish woman who was modeled on Deborah in the Old Testament (Judges 5:7), also reigned over the home. However, she served her Jewish nation by creating in that home a refuge where the family could keep Kosher and celebrate holidays such as Passover without apology or fear, as well as by instilling in her children the knowledge of customs and pride in ancient traditions, all of which would offer protection against anti-Semitism and insure the survival of the Jews.

Although she was affected by these female ideals, Lazarus did not demonstrate her citizenship through them. With her proud belief that as an American she was privileged to enjoy many freedoms and that as a Jew she had a rich ancient heritage, she chose to include herself in both her nations through her words. She was not the only Jewish woman who wrote, but she was one of the only ones who was not a writer and a wife, mother, educator, or caretaker. Like Deborah, she would fight against those who sought to annihilate the Jews. Yet unlike the more conventional Mother in Israel, she would fight with words, aiming her attack at Christians who did not understand or accept Jews and against Jews themselves who had become complacent and therefore vulnerable to anti-Semitism. In the context of her social world, her decision to write and not to act as a mother or a wife was defiant.

Although Lazarus did not often make the home, or women, the subject of her writing, she shared with the Protestant “literary domestics” “an identity in common with other women … even though their experiences were uncommon.”8 However, unlike these “literary domestics,” described by Mary Kelley in Private Women, Public Stage, Lazarus exhibited very little conflict about stepping into the public world of letters; she knew, with surprising sureness, that she wanted to be a citizen of the American literary nation.

She also knew that such citizenship was difficult to obtain. In her poem “Echoes,” she acknowledged the difficulty inherent in being a female author:

Late-born and woman-souled I dare not hope,
The freshness of the elder lays, the might
Of manly, modern passion shall alight
Upon my Muse's lips, nor may I cope
(Who veiled and screened by womanhood must grope)
With the world's strong-armed warriors and recite
The dangers, wounds, and triumphs of the fight;
Twanging the full-stringed lyre through all its scope.
But if thou ever in some lake-floored cave
O'erbrowed by rocks, a wild voice wooed and heard,
Answering at once from heaven and earth and wave,
Lending elf-music to thy harshest word,
Misprize thou not these echoes that belong
To one in love with solitude and song.(9)

The speaker of the poem, who recognizes the disadvantage she is under by not sharing “dangers, wounds, and triumphs” of battles with men, turns her own experiences into assets, valorizing “elf music” and the “echoes” that the female poet sings. However, as is too often the case with women's art, the valorization seems like a poor rationalization for limitations. The word “veiled” in line five suggests the way in which women were “screened” by their domestic duties, as well as the need for a female artist to hide her work and even conceal her true story in a palimpsest, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have argued.10 Moreover, the title of the poem, “Echoes,” suggests the subterranean nature of women's writing. An echo's sound is an after-effect, a by-product, whose tone grows fainter with each repetition. With this speaker, Lazarus admitted that women artists must compromise in order to be heard at all. Yet she did not compromise in her belief that she could and would be an American author. Behind the veil and screen of Lazarus's womanhood surged a compelling confidence.11

Lazarus's only two works of fiction, Alide: An Episode of Goethe's Life (1874) and “The Eleventh Hour” (1878), articulate the same tensions and frustrations that the author experienced as a woman artist. Alide is based on Goethe's autobiographical writing in which the author chronicled his experience of falling in love with a country woman, Fredericka Brion (Alide Duroc in the novel). Goethe and his lover part after they realize that she is not his spiritual or intellectual equal. Lazarus develops Goethe as a “great” man whose “simplest action [is] fresh and original,” who is “generous of … soul,” and who “shed[s] a peculiar glory upon whatever claims [his] regard.”12

We can feel Alide's pain in giving Goethe up, and yet it is Goethe, the man, with whom Lazarus seems to have sympathized and identified. Goethe had the ability and the right to break earthly bonds in order to find the fulfillment of his artistic capacities. It is the “great” male writer, whose calling was so powerful and privilege was so sure, whom Lazarus admired and envied.

“The Eleventh Hour,” which was published in Scribner's magazine, traces the alienation and bewilderment of a young Romanian artist who has left his European home to experience the American liberty he had dreamed of. Once again, Lazarus's sympathies lie with the male artist who, in this case, is also an alien because of his nationality and temperament. Sergius is disappointed not only by the seeming sham of American freedom, but also by the state of art in this young nation. Dick Bayard, the husband of one of Sergius's art students, tries to explain, “‘America is a country where art and beauty must and will thrive, though in the present transition-period of upheaval and reconstruction, it is impossible to discern what forms they will assume.’”13 Through Dick, Lazarus urged herself and other American artists to be patient and, more subtly but more importantly, to cultivate America's unique artistic expression.14

Lazarus had little liking for the women in the story, as we see in her treatment of Ellen Bayard. The author called her an “arch-woman, simple and cunning, vain and disinterested, noble and petty, capable of entering with ardent enthusiasm into the thoughts and feelings of others, yet always retaining in the fervor of her generous emotion an undefined pleasant consciousness of her own sympathetic qualities” (p. 244). And still she is better than most of her wealthy New York sisters who also dabble in art. Lazarus seems to have needed to distance herself from Ellen, from the woman she might have become, who used her creativity not to paint or write seriously, but to spin fantasies of her power over men. Lazarus did not want to be the dabbler in art or the manipulator of men. She wanted to be Sergius Azoff (or Goethe), who, despite his foreignness and differentness, could find a powerful outlet for his spirit.

Unlike her fictional character, however, Lazarus was a woman; to others, this meant that she was supposed to embody traits of the True Woman and the Mother in Israel.15 Even her sister Josephine, herself a progressive thinker and writer, called Emma a “true woman, too distinctly feminine to wish to be exceptional, or to stand alone and apart, even by virtue of superiority.”16 Josephine, as well as American literary notables such as John G. Whittier and John Hay, who commented on Lazarus's gentleness and retiring personality,17 seem to have accepted the persona Lazarus created in “Echoes.” Ironically, that persona permitted Lazarus entry into the American literary nation by “veiling” or protecting her. As long as the “screen” projected an image of propriety, Lazarus could write as she wanted to. For the first years of her career, she used male artists as role models in order to achieve a more powerful voice.18 Later, however, she dispensed with these straw men and discovered her own authority.

Although others saw her first as a woman, and then as a writer, an American, or a Jew, Lazarus viewed her identity as an author as primary, and it was through this role that she both came to accept herself as a Jew and affirm her Americanness. Many scholars have debated when and why Lazarus became a public spokesperson for Jews. Some claim that she always had a Jewish consciousness,19 while others argue that the Russian Pogroms of the early 1880s incited her to reclaim her Jewish identity.20 However, the significant question is not when Lazarus embraced a public Jewish persona; it is, rather, how she used words to create a compromise among her Jewish, American, and female citizenships and, especially, to enfranchise herself.

An early poem that exhibits Lazarus's process of using words to establish national loyalties and mediate conflicts is “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport” (1867). Lazarus's poem echoes Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport,” following, as it does, the same meter and stanzaic structure. It is clear that the eighteen-year-old Lazarus was inspired more by a male American poet's words than by heartfelt devotion to her people. Lazarus emulated Longfellow's poem in order to validate her own American literary voice. In addition, she felt more comfortable approaching a Jewish topic after a venerated American poet had blessed it, and she could keep some distance from the Jewish subject by describing it through an acceptable American literary form.

Yet it is this Longfellow poem that attracted Lazarus's attention. And where Longfellow's speaker stands in “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport,” contemplating the demise of the Jewish nation, Lazarus's speakers stand “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” in the “sacred shrine” that is “holy yet.”21 The Jews and their “consecrated spot” are still living, still powerful. Even at this young age, Lazarus was modifying traditional American literature, embarking on a literary career that would eventually find its greatest strength in a symbiosis of American and Jewish forms and subjects.

A decade after Lazarus wrote “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” Gustav Gottheil, the Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in New York, asked Lazarus to translate and write hymns for a new collection. Lazarus translated “three of the Hymns,” but, she concluded, “As for writing hymns myself, ‘the flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak.’ I should be most happy to serve you in your difficult and patriotic undertaking, but the more I see of these religious poems, the more I feel that the fervor and enthusiasm requisite to their production are altogether lacking in me.”22 In writing these hymns, Lazarus was following formulae but was not infusing the words with feelings. She still found it more comfortable to keep some distance from her Jewish identity.

The disparity between exterior and interior would shrink in the next decade, as we can see in “The Dance to Death,” a five act poetic tragedy published in 1882 but, according to Lazarus, written “a few years” earlier.23 Although the tragedy is an imitative dramatization of Richard Reinhard's prose narrative, Der Tanz zum Tode (1877), it “implie[d] rare gifts of sympathy and discernment,” according to a contemporary review in Lippincott's.24

“The Dance to Death” tells the story of the Jews who were condemned to die in Nordhausen, Germany, in 1349, for an outbreak of the plague. What makes the drama so powerful is the courage and dedication of the Jews. When they realize that the edict for their death will stand, they ask their assassins to build a pyre, upon and around which they will dance as they burn to death. In Act V of the poem, these defiant Jews will die proclaiming their devotion to God:

                                                                                                    Ours is the truth,
Ours is the power, the gift of Heaven. We hold
His Law, His lamp, His covenant, His pledge.
Wherever in the ages shall arise
Jew-priest, Jew-poet, Jew-singer, or Jew-saint—
And everywhere I see them star the gloom—
In each of these the martyrs are avenged!

(II, 165)

Lazarus is one of these “Jew-poets” or “Jew-singers,” seeking revenge for the medieval Jews of Nordhausen. By writing “The Dance to Death,” she took on the responsibility for avenging the unwarranted deaths of countless Jews, and she thereby became a part of Jewish history and affirmed her citizenship in the Jewish nation. Lazarus had written to “the Editors of the American Hebrew” on May 25, 1882, that she thought “it would be highly desirable” to publish “The Dance to Death,” “now, in order to arouse sympathy and to emphasize the cruelty of the injustice done to our unhappy people.”25 Lazarus's words were her form of action as well as her passport into the Jewish nation.

Three essays, which appeared over a ten month period in The Century, crystallize the way in which Lazarus used her words to become a public spokesperson for Jews. In the first of these, “Was the Earl of Beaconsfield a Representative Jew?” (April 1882), Lazarus discussed Herr Georg Brandes's study of Benjamin Disraeli. Brandes had decided that Disraeli was not a representative Jew because “‘the Jewish mind has revealed itself in far more affluent and nobler forms than in Disraeli's comparatively limited mental range.’”26 Lazarus contested Brandes's argument with her own definition of “representative,” suggesting that it did not mean the greatest example of a Jew, but rather the “epitome of the race features common to both [Spinoza and Shylock]” (p. 939). Disraeli, who was not a “first-class man,” was actually narrow, ignorant, arrogant, and ambitious, but also intelligent, morally courageous, talented, and energetic, according to Lazarus (p. 942). Embodying the worst and the best of Jewish traits made Disraeli “representative.”

The two essays that followed were less equivocal. Instead of apologizing for Jews, Lazarus began explaining and defending them. In “Russian Christianity vs. Modern Judaism” from the May 1882 issue of The Century, she responded to an essay by Madame Z. Ragozin, a Russian woman. Ironically, Ragozin's article, “Russian Jews and Gentiles,” which blamed the Jews for their own persecution in Russia, had appeared in the same issue with Lazarus's “Was the Earl of Beaconsfield a Representative Jew?”

Throughout her refutation of Ragozin's arguments, Lazarus controlled her anger: “Of these horrors [heard from Jewish immigrants to America about pogroms and life in Russia], no one in whose veins flows a drop of Jewish blood can speak with becoming composure.”27 Lazarus was making a personal plea for an accurate understanding of Russian Jews and their situation, and she was publicly including herself among those who could feel the agony of her fellow Jews.

In the third Century essay, “The Jewish Problem” (February 1883), Lazarus was even more forthright in her conviction that she was a spokesperson for Jews. The “problem” is that “this scattered band of Israelites, always in the minority, always in the attitude of protestants against the dominant creed, against society as it is, seem fated to excite the antagonism of their fellow-countrymen.”28 The “problem” is “as old as history and assumes in each age a new form,” Lazarus informed her Century audience (p. 602).

The solution? The founding of a state in Palestine for Jews by Jews. Lazarus stressed, however, that she was talking about a global (particularly Russian) problem; American Jews had been accepted in their adopted nation, for the most part, and would have no need to leave for Palestine. It was actually incumbent upon these privileged Jews to help their less fortunate coreligionists find a new home.

Despite her proclamation that American Jews were relatively safe and secure, Lazarus recognized, in the third Century essay, that

even in America, presumably the refuge of the oppressed, public opinion has not yet reached that point where it absolves the race from the sin of the individual. Every Jew, however honorable or enlightened, has the humiliating knowledge that his security and reputation are, in a certain sense, bound up with those of the meanest rascal who belongs to his tribe, and who has it in his power to jeopardize the social status of his whole nation.

(p. 608)

Lazarus expected more from America than narrow-mindedness and found it difficult to accept anti-Semitism from the American citizens she respected. Yet the new vision she gained from learning about the Russian pogroms forced her to reassess her own status in America, and she found it vulnerable.

Clearly, Lazarus came to accept her Jewish identity through writing about Jews. In reaction to Brandes's and Ragozin's words, she became a more outspoken Jew. And with her own words, she would continue to fight in behalf of Jews and claim her rightful place in the Jewish nation. Ironically, her strategy for declaring citizenship in the Jewish nation should have made her more of an alien. It was through acting as a Mother in Israel that she should have been granted citizenship. But Lazarus stretched the parameter of this role, playing the part of Deborah, with her pen as a weapon. She also played the part of the Mother in Israel by using her pen as an instrument of education and mediation. For the predominantly non-Jewish readers of the three Century essays, Lazarus articulated careful, logical arguments to explain and ameliorate the negative stereotypes of Jews.

In her role of educator, Lazarus also felt compelled to address other American Jews, to enlighten them about both their privileged status in America and their vulnerability. She spoke to American Jews in her series An Epistle to the Hebrews, which appeared in The American Hebrew between November 1882 and February 1883, the same period during which the Century essays were published. In the fifteen Epistles, Lazarus appealed to American Jews to reflect upon their history and to understand their present and future conditions so that they might preserve their special identities.

In letter number five, she explained that Jews needed to understand their history because without accurate information, they would have no grounds upon which to refute Christian prejudices and would therefore believe negative stereotypes. Lazarus pointed out in this same letter that many Jews wished to conform to standards set by Christians, but that they did so at great cost. In the preceding letter, she had stated that Jews are the “Intensive form of any nationality whose language and customs they adopt. … Whether owing to our circumstances or our character, we reflect the general color of the people who surround us, and usually succeed in giving it a shade deeper dye.”29 The author warned that such complete assimilation could be detrimental if Jews also conformed to the anti-Jewish sentiments of the adopted nation. Jews, she said, actually need to be more tribal, not, as many had suggested, less: “we have not sufficient solidarity to perceive that when the life and property of a Jew in the uttermost provinces of the Caucasus are attacked, the dignity of a Jew in free America is humiliated. … Until we are all free, we are none of us free” (p. 30). The implicit message to Lazarus's Jewish readers was to conform but not to forget. This was a warning that Lazarus herself had recently begun to heed.

Throughout the Epistles, Lazarus used the pronoun “we” instead of the “they” she had used in her other essays. This was an obvious rhetorical strategy, useful in convincing the Jewish readers of The American Hebrew to listen to her, one of their own. The “we” was also a signal that Lazarus was surer of her Jewishness and eager to claim it as her own.

The same new confidence is evident in the volume of poetry that was published by The American Hebrew in 1882. Songs of a Semite included “The Dance to Death,” as well as seven original poems, one translation and two imitations of Heinrich Heine, and translations of three Spanish Hebrew poets. The title of the volume and the publisher were public proclamations that Lazarus wanted to be identified as a Jewish poet.

In several poems from the collection, Lazarus translated historical Jewish figures and past glories of the Jewish people into contemporary situations in order to inspire nineteenth-century Jews to fight new battles against Russian pogroms and worldwide prejudice. “The Crowing of the Red Cock” suggests a way for Jews to fight these battles—not with swords, but with the courage to forget. The Jew is not a coward,

          Who singly against worlds has fought,
For what? A name he may not breathe,
          For liberty of prayer and thought.
The angry sword he will not whet,
His nobler task is—to forget.

(II, 3-4)

What the Jew must forget is the pain of the “lust of mobs, the greed of priest, / The tyranny of kings, combined / To root his seed from earth again” (II, 3-4). Lazarus herself seems to have wanted to forget this history in order to reconcile her Jewish consciousness with her secular outlook, but to forget she first had to remember.

“The Choice,” which was first published in The American Hebrew and reprinted in The American Israelite in May 1884, reveals Lazarus in the act of remembering. Dreaming, the speaker of the poem hears a phantom say:

                                                                                                                        “Soul, choose thy lot!
Two paths are offered; that, in velvet-flower,
Slopes easily to every earthly prize.
Follow the multitude and bind thine eyes,
Thou and thy sons' sons shall have peace with power.
This narrow track skirts the abysmal verge,
Here shalt thou stumble, totter, weep and bleed,
All men shall hate and hound thee and thy seed,
Thy portion be the wound, the stripe, the scourge.”

(II, 15)

The spirit who chooses the “grim path,” turns toward the speaker and reveals himself as “Disgraced, despised, immortal Israel.” He has chosen the “narrow track” to bear witness to God's Law and light. Lazarus conveyed here not only the pain and trials Jews have suffered throughout the centuries in the name of God and for their beliefs, but her own difficult journey as well. Having followed the easy path of the assimilated, wealthy, insulated Jew in the early part of her life, she could appreciate how hard it was to turn later into the more dangerous fork of publicly avowed Judaism. The poem articulates both the private “choice” Lazarus made as well as the collective choice made by Jews.

There is no question that by the 1880s, Lazarus considered herself a citizen of the Jewish nation; this citizenship had become a subject of her poetry as well as a major focus in her life. Despite the thirty-five-hundred-year-old Jewish traditions and laws that “exempted women from all positive religious obligations, like communal prayer,”30 Lazarus did earn respect from Jews for her writings in behalf of Jews. Cyrus L. Sulzberger, a prominent Jewish philanthropist, expressed a common feeling when he wrote,

no words of praise can be too great for one who … voluntarily returns to the old household, publicly proclaiming herself one of its members, and bringing to it not alone a heart filled with sympathy, but the pen of a prophet to arouse the moral sense of Jew and Gentile. It was an act of heroism on the part of Emma Lazarus, performed at a cost she alone could know—thus to put herself at the head of a cause which was so unpopular in the general world.31

Although Lazarus met Eastern European Jewish immigrants at Ward's Island and helped establish agricultural communities as well as the Hebrew Technical Institute, it was with her pen that she fought most valiantly in behalf of Jews; her pen was also her most effective means of including herself in her Jewish nation.

We must remember, however, that Lazarus's “interest in literature was not limited to Jewish topics even after she became ‘all Israel's now.’ She was a stout advocate of an American national literature.”32 A self-identified American writer on the one hand and an increasingly outspoken Jew on the other, Lazarus could not ignore either nationality: she had to cultivate each to its fullest. She would not have been as effective in behalf of Jews if she had not believed deeply in America's freedoms or if she could not have expressed herself as a writer, and she could not have been as moving a writer if she had not discovered how important her Jewishness was.

Because she understood herself as an author, not as a True Woman—a mother or a wife—Lazarus sought access to the American nation through the world of American letters. The figure from whom she requested the most help in her difficult journey was Ralph Waldo Emerson.33 The two probably met soon after the appearance of Lazarus's first volume of poetry, Poems and Translations, Written between the Ages of Fourteen and Sixteen, in 1866. Between 1866 and Emerson's death in 1882, the two corresponded. In two early letters, dated February 24 and April 14, 1868, Emerson established himself as Lazarus's mentor; in the first letter, he wrote that her poems had “important merits,” and in the second, “I should like to be appointed your professor” in both reading and writing.34 For the next few years, he carried out his role, advising the young poet about what to read and how to improve her poems.

For her part, Lazarus admired Emerson for his embodiment of the American spirit, and she respected the influence he had had on American literature. As she wrote in her 1882 Century essay, “Emerson's Personality,” Emerson was

the antithesis of all that is mean and blameworthy in our politics and pursuits, for he also is the legitimate outcome of American institutions, and affords an eternal refutation of the fallacy that democracy is fatal to the production and nurture of the highest chivalry, philosophy, and virtue.35

Two years later, in 1884, Lazarus wrote a sonnet for the opening of the Concord School of Philosophy.36 In the poem, she named Emerson “Master and father” and called herself one of his “children.” The first eight lines detail the impact Emerson had on Lazarus and other American writers:

As, when a father dies, his children draw
          About the empty hearth, their loss to cheat
          With uttered praise and love, and oft repeat
His own familiar words with whispered awe,
The honored habit of his daily law—
          Not for his sake, but theirs, whose feebler feet
          Need still his guiding lamp, whose faith, less sweet,
Misses that tempered patience without flaw—

His disciples miss his guidance and patience, but because his “presence [is] in the sacred air,” they do not weep that he is gone. A daughter of this American spiritual father, Lazarus imbibed the sage's instruction on life, nature, and art. Like a dutiful daughter, she would continue to exalt the father's work and influence. To Lazarus, Emerson was the American spirit, and she revered him for this Americanness.

With these accolades on Emerson, Lazarus attempted to strengthen American literature itself and her own chosen vocation as an American author. But she also sought Emerson's approval to validate her identity as an American writer as well as to reassure herself that she was a worthy interpreter of American experiences. After all, if the American literary father thought highly of her work, then it must be “American” and valuable.

Lazarus's trust in Emerson was intricately connected to her identity as an American author and, therefore, as an American. Thus, his decision not to include any of her poems in his anthology Parnassus (1874) shook her confidence, as well as her attitudes about America.37 Lazarus recovered her confidence, but her feelings for Emerson changed permanently; never again would she idolize her mentor as an infallible god. And, even more importantly, she would never again completely trust America's rhetoric of equality for all. In an indirect but powerful way, Emerson's rejection compelled Lazarus to see that she was different in the world of American letters, not so much because she was a woman, but because she was a Jew.

She never relinquished her strong belief in America's ideals or literature, however. In her 1881 essay “American Literature,” for example, which appeared in The Critic, Lazarus set out to defend American literature against George Edward Woodberry's claim (in the May issue of the Forthrightly Review) that America had no tradition and that America's poets had left no mark; Lazarus, who felt strongly that there were, indeed, an American tradition and respectable American authors, wrote that Emerson had given rise to an American “school of thought and habit of life.”38 Writers who had been trained in this school included Hawthorne, Whitman, Lowell, Holmes, and Stowe. Lazarus concluded with the claim that “the literary history of the past fifty years compares favorably with the past fifty years in England—the only period with which it can, with any show of justice, be compared” (p. 164). Lazarus took a defensive stance in the essay, feeling compelled to prove the viability and worth of American literary figures, as well as of American values and experiences. In justifying American literature, she was justifying her own identity as an American author.

In this same period of fruitful Jewish and American literary production, Lazarus wrote an essay on Longfellow, which appeared in The American Hebrew in 1882, advised E. Clarence Stedman on the manuscript for his essay “Poetry in America” (Scribner's, August 1881), and corresponded with Thomas Wentworth Higginson to thank him for his appreciation of “American Literature.”39 She also exchanged letters with John Hay to discuss her translations of Heinrich Heine40 and with William James.41

When Lazarus died in 1887, many American literary figures wrote to The American Hebrew to express their sorrow and their admiration for the author. Obviously, Emma Lazarus the writer was known and respected. And yet, “being a Jew had certainly distinguished her in the literary world of Victorian America. She was that still exotic figure, that object of Christian curiosity, ‘the Jew’—and to descendants of the New England Puritans, straight out of their bible.”42 John Hay, for example, noted that Lazarus's death would be felt by Jews and American literary figures; he wrote that Lazarus's death “is not only a deep affliction to those of her own race and kindred; it is an irreparable loss to American literature … her place is already secure among our best writers. …”43 John J. Whittier similarly praised Lazarus's talents as a poet, but at the same time stressed her Jewishness: “With no lack of rhythmic sweetness, she has often the rugged strength and verbal audacity of Browning. Since Miriam sang of deliverance and triumph by the Red Sea, the Semitic race has had no braver singer.”44 To some American authors, Lazarus was unique because she was a Jew. In the early years of her career, she would have objected to the label. But in later years, she had come to value her Jewish identity as an integral component of her life and writing. Lazarus had transformed her differences from a barrier to a gateway into the nations she loved.

Lazarus achieved a resolution between her Jewish and American identities in the last decade of her life, when she wrote powerfully about Jews at the same time that she wrote about her belief in America and American literature. This resolution can be seen in her contributions to the Century magazine. “Emerson's Personality,” the eulogy for the dean of American letters, appeared in July 1882, “Was the Earl of Beaconsfield a Representative Jew?” in April, and “Russian Christianity vs. Modern Judaism,” in May. To regular readers of the magazine, Lazarus would have been known as an essayist concerned with Jewish issues as well as American literature. She had become an insider, contributing not only “Jewish” pieces to a mainstream periodical, but the commemorative piece on one of America's most venerated literary figures.

Her best known contribution to mainstream American literature is “The New Colossus,” which “represents a summary and a climax of Emma Lazarus's lifelong literary endeavors.”45

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!”

(I, 202-03)

The famous Statue of Liberty becomes, through Lazarus's imagination, a symbol of what America has meant to Jews, as well as to other “huddled masses.” It also becomes a symbol of womanhood that defies traditional stereotypes of passivity and demureness. This “mother” is a “mighty woman” who promises not the easy comforts of gold-paved streets but the challenges of economic, political, and social freedoms. She is not the sentimentally glorified True Woman whose mothering took the form of gentle guidance and warm consolation but is, rather, the Victorian woman whose majestic strength supplied a nation with courage. She also personifies Deborah, the original Mother in Israel who valiantly defended her Jews, as well as the nineteenth-century Jewish woman who created for her family a refuge from a potentially hostile world. The Mother of Exiles is a regnant figure from whom both Americans and Jews could draw strength.

By glorifying America's welcome of the “homeless” and by combining the two images of ideal womanhood into a single, more powerful figure, Lazarus effectively reconciled her multiple nationalities. Clearly not a conventional Jewish or American woman, Lazarus did not define herself through the roles of wife or mother. As a woman who consciously chose a public Jewish identity, at the same time that she was known as an American author, she forged a unique model of the American Jewish woman who could use her words to legitimize her identities.

In contrast, because she was white, middle-class, and Christian, Virginia Woolf had a firm native ground upon which to stand when she loudly articulated her feelings that as a woman she was excluded from male activities and privileges. This native ground provided her with her own privileged position: being able to examine her society as both an insider and an outsider (a woman).

Lazarus, on the other hand, was not as secure in America as Woolf was in Britain and, therefore, could not claim her native ground with as much authority. As a result, Lazarus was concerned not only with her femaleness, but with other forms of marginality, other differences that made her an outsider in her nations. Being a woman made her by definition an alien, in American and Jewish ideology that define male as normative. To become an insider, Lazarus used powerful words to convey her deepest loyalty to the best of both nations and, ironically, strengthened her “outsider” status so that it would become valuable. “The New Colossus” is the culminating symbol of this process, valorizing as it does the status of the alien who finds in America a home, a native ground composed of many alien grounds.


  1. Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966), p. 109.

  2. In 1893, Mary M. Cohen wrote an essay entitled “Emma Lazarus: Woman; Poet; Patriot” (Poet-Lore, 5, 320-31). I am grateful to this early critic for her attempt to understand the major components of Lazarus's life and writing.

  3. The “valued” literary world was not inhabited by popular writers such as sentimental poets, most of whom were women, but by the white men whose tastes and political views influenced what was to be considered “serious” literature. Many scholars have begun to examine this exclusiveness; see, for example, Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

  4. Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1942), p. ix.

  5. Samuel J. Hurwitz in Notable American Women (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971) states that both of Lazarus's “parents were descended from Sephardic Jews who had come from Portugal to the New World in the seventeenth century,” p. 377.

  6. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Hysterical Woman: Sex Roles and Role Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America,” Social Research, 39 (1972), 656.

  7. Nancy Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman's Sphere” in New England, 1780-1935 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), p. 94.

  8. Mary Kelley, Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. xi.

  9. Poems of Emma Lazarus, 2 vols. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1888), I, 201. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text by volume and page number.

  10. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

  11. Eve Merriam, in Emma Lazarus: Woman With a Torch (New York: Citadel, 1956), p. 12, says that Lazarus wrote this at the age of twenty-one. Dan Vogel, in Emma Lazarus (Boston: Twayne, 1980), p. 95, records the manuscript date as 10 October 1880, when Lazarus was thirty-one.

  12. Emma Lazarus, Alide: An Episode of Goethe's Life (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1874), pp. 102-03.

  13. Emma Lazarus, “The Eleventh Hour,” Scribner's, 16 (1878), 256. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  14. The poem “How Long?” also focuses on the need for America to develop its own unique literary forms. Poems of Emma Lazarus, I, 54.

  15. H. E. Jacob, in The World of Emma Lazarus (New York: Schocken, 1949), stresses the daughter role of both of these ideals; Jacob bases his interpretation of Lazarus's life on his observation that she was overly attached to her father.

  16. Josephine Lazarus, “Biographical Sketch of Emma Lazarus,” in Poems of Emma Lazarus, I, p. 9.

  17. American Hebrew, 33 (9 December 1887), pp. 67, 70.

  18. Although there were Jewish women writing in America before and during Lazarus's own lifetime, there is no evidence that she knew of or emulated these authors.

  19. Critics who argue for Lazarus's early Jewish consciousness include: Albert Mordell, “The One Hundredth Birthday of Emma Lazarus,” Jewish Book Annual, 7 (1948-49), 79-88; Morris Schappes, Emma Lazarus: Selections from her Poetry and Prose (New York: Cooperative Book League, Jewish-American Section, International Workers Order, 1944); Dan Vogel, Emma Lazarus (Boston: Twayne, 1980).

  20. Critics who argue for Lazarus's “conversion” include: Charles Angoff, who claims that it was George Eliot's Daniel Deronda that inspired Lazarus, Emma Lazarus: Poet, Jewish Activist, Pioneer Activist (New York: Jewish Historical Society of New York, 1979); Rachel Cohen, “Emma Lazarus,” Reform Advocate, 1927 (Chicago), pp. 184-89; Murray Frank, “Emma Lazarus: Symbol of Liberty,” Chicago Jewish Forum, 1948, pp. 251-56; Hertha Pauli, “The Statue of Liberty Finds Its Poet,” Commentary, 1 (1945), 56-64.

  21. Emma Lazarus, “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” Admetus and Other Poems (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1871), pp. 160-62.

  22. Morris Schappes, ed., Letters of Emma Lazarus (New York: New York Public Library, 1949), pp. 19-20.

  23. Letter to American Hebrew, 25 May 1882, in Letters of Emma Lazarus, p. 35. Lazarus dedicated the drama to George Eliot, “the illustrious writer, who did most among the artists of our day towards elevating and ennobling the spirit of Jewish nationality.”

  24. Lippincott's, 31 (1883), 216.

  25. Letter to American Hebrew, 25 May 1882, in Letters of Emma Lazarus, p. 35.

  26. Emma Lazarus, “Was the Earl of Beaconsfield a Representative Jew?” Century, 23, (1882), 939. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  27. Emma Lazarus, “Russian Christianity vs. Modern Judaism,” Century, 24 (1882), 54.

  28. Emma Lazarus, “The Jewish Problem,” Century, 25 (1883), 602. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  29. Emma Lazarus, An Epistle to the Hebrews (New York: Federation of American Zionists, 1900), p. 21. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  30. Charlotte Baum, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel, The Jewish Woman in America (New York: New American Library, 1975), p. 4.

  31. Cyrus L. Sulzberger, “Emma Lazarus as a Jew,” American Hebrew, 33 (1887), 79.

  32. Louis Harap, The Image of the Jew in American Literature (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1974), p. 297.

  33. For a full discussion of Lazarus and Emerson, see Max I. Baym, “Emma Lazarus and Emerson,” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 38 (1948-49), 261-87.

  34. Letters from Emerson to Lazarus, 24 February and 14 April 1868, in Ralph L. Rusk, Letters to Emma Lazarus in the Columbia University Library (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), pp. 3, 4.

  35. Emma Lazarus, “Emerson's Personality,” Century, 24 (1882), 456.

  36. Emma Lazarus, untitled poem for the opening of the Concord School of Philosophy on 23 July 1884, included in “Emerson and the Concord School,” The Critic, OS 5, No. 31 (1884), 55.

  37. For Lazarus's response to Emerson, see Letters of Emma Lazarus, pp. 11-12.

  38. Emma Lazarus, “American Literature,” The Critic, OS 1, No. 12 (1881), 164. Subsequent references will be cited in the text.

  39. See Letters of Emma Lazarus, pp. 67, 29.

  40. See George Monteiro, “Heine in America: The Efforts of Emma Lazarus and John Hay,” Turn-of-the-Century Women, 2 (1985), 51-55.

  41. See Letters to Emma Lazarus, pp. 48-49.

  42. Alfred Kazin, “The Jew as Modern Writer,” Commentary, 41, No. 4 (1966), 37.

  43. John Hay, “An Irreparable Loss to American Literature,” American Hebrew, 33 (1887), 70.

  44. John G. Whittier, “A Brave Singer,” American Hebrew, 33 (1887), 67.

  45. Dan Vogel, Emma Lazarus, p. 159.

Saul S. Friedman (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8602

SOURCE: Friedman, Saul S. “Emma Lazarus: American Poet and Zionist.” In Women in History, Literature, and the Arts: A Festschrift for Hildegard Schnuttgen in Honor of Her Thirty Years of Outstanding Service at Youngstown State University, edited by Lorrayne Y. Baird-Lange and Thomas A. Copeland, pp. 220-46. Youngstown: Youngstown State University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Friedman examines Lazarus as a proponent of human rights and a significant precursor of Zionism.]

Born in New York City on July 22, 1849, Emma Lazarus merits a place of honor among the transcendentalist poets of the nineteenth century.1 She was an intimate of America's intellectual elite—William James, Ellergy Channing, Henry Ward Beecher, William Cullen Bryant, Louisa May Alcott—a devotee of Thoreau and Emerson.2 In dedicating one of her longer epics to Emerson (whom she called “the font of wisdom and goodness”), she wrote, “To how many thousand youthful hearts has not his word been the beacon, nay more, the guiding star that led them safely through periods of mental storm and struggle.”3 Emerson reciprocated this admiration, edited her early works, and facilitated their publication during the postbellum period in such journals as Century, Lippincott's, and Scribner's.4

Critics said of those early poems that they were charged with an inner heat and glow.5 They were happy paeans to nature. She wrote of her summer home on Long Island Sound “by a fresh, soft breeze o'er-blown. … The semi-circle of its dark, green grove / The luminous grasses, and the merry sun,” of Paris with its chiming bells and thrilled masses proclaiming the birth of an heir to the throne of France. She listened to the compositions of Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, and Schumann and dedicated a tone poem to “disembodied Ariel.” “'Tis good to be alive,” she wrote, “to see the light / That plays upon the grass, to feel (and sigh / With perfect pleasure) the mild breezes stir / Among the garden roses, red and white, / With whiffs of fragrancy.”6

But the quiet young girl who visited the Emersons at Concord in 1876 and meditated at Thoreau's hut in Walden lived in a dimension beyond this circle. Like Rebecca Graz (the model for Sir Walter Scott's Rebecca in Ivanhoe), Ernestine Rose (the Polish-born keynoter of the first national women's rights convention in American in 1850), Lilian Wald, Henrietta Szold (founder of Hadassah), Rose Sonnenschein, Marie Syrkin, the poets Jessy Sampter and Irma Lindheim, and a legion of other women who have contributed significantly to human rights, Emma Lazarus was a Jew. Her family, of Sephardic-Portuguese ancestry, was one of the most illustrious in New York,7 but Emma grew up with little appreciation of her father's Orthodox Judaism. She wrote in 1877, “My religious convictions (if such they can be called) and the circumstances of my life have led me somewhat apart from our people.”8 Rejecting E. C. Stedman's suggestion that she draw upon her Hebrew heritage for inspiration, she commented, “I am proud of my blood and lineage, but Hebrew ideals do not appeal to me.”9

Like many Jews since emancipation, she was “in two divided streams.” Her own words, expressed in a Rosh Hashanah poem for 1883, described the tensions she felt between “rushing sunward” toward assimilation and “homeward” to her Jewish people. She could not ignore the latter.10 “Wherever there is humanity,” she had written, “there is a theme.”11 When Rabbi Gustav Gottheil of Temple Emanu El requested her help in translating Jewish hymns from the German, she reluctantly agreed.12 She retained a fierce pride in her Sephardic ancestry, noting later, for example, that Disraeli (himself a Sephardic Jew) was not the descendant of ghetto pariahs and pawnbrokers, but of “princes, prophets, statesmen, poets and philosophers.”13 In America, the Sephardic Jewish community could trace its roots in the New World back beyond the introduction of the Inquisition to Peru in 1519.14 At midcentury, however, a heavy influx of refugees from Germany and Hungary threatened to engulf it. To preserve the heritage of her people, Emma Lazarus set about learning Hebrew. Her object was to translate the works of medieval Jewish poets in Spain and later to study their counterparts in Germany. Her translations of the ballads of Heinrich Heine, completed by 1881, are still considered unparalleled.15

The year 1881 proved to be a fateful one for Emma Lazarus personally and for the mass of four million Jews struggling to survive in the Russian Pale of the Settlement. On March 13, 1881, Tsar Alexander II, known as the reformer tsar, the only Russian monarch to attempt any kind of major political reform and a man at least not notably hostile toward Jews, was assassinated by a group of terrorists, one of whom was Jewish. In America, an idealistic Emma Lazarus condemned the murder of “this crowned martyr resting in peace,” as she termed the tsar:

Well, it is done! A most heroic plan
Which after myriad plots succeeds at last
In robbing of his life one poor old man,
Whose sole offense—his birthright—has but past
To fresher blood, with younger strength recast.(16)

“What men are these,” she asked, “who, clamoring to be free, / Would bestialize the world to what they be?” And then, shamefaced, she answered her own question: “Our kind, our kin, have done this thing. We stand / Bowed earthward, red with shame, to see such wrong. …”17

“Would the act loose a million Russian chains?” she asked rhetorically. The answer came in the bloodiest wave of pogroms in Russia since the days of the Cossack Hetman Chmielnicki in the seventeenth century. The sterile word “pogrom” was translated into reality of Elisavetgrad, Kiev, Odessa, Warsaw, and Balta, with drunken muzhiks carrying off furniture which had not been staved in—Torah scrolls lying in the mud amidst the down of feather quilts—human beings disemboweled or skewered outside kosher butcher shops—a child crushed against a wall, its hand still clutching what once had been a rag doll. In all, 167 Jewish communities were ravaged by pogromchiks, $80,000,000 in property damage was done, and 100,000 families were reduced to beggary. And when the government, which had orchestrated these atrocities with a view toward drowning potential revolution in Jewish blood, established commissions to probe the causes of the massacres, their findings blamed the pogroms on “Jewish provocations.”18

In America, a nearly identical apologia charging the Jews with persecution of the Russian people was authored for Century in April, 1882, by a Russian noblewoman, Madame Ragozin.19 The editor of the journal, Richard Watson Gilder, suggested that an outraged Emma Lazarus reply to the Ragozin article. The result, “Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism,” must stand as one of the finest rebuttals to anti-Semitism. Her article is timeless, for there are many striking parallels to the polemics of this present age, when Zionists, not Jews, are attacked. Madame Ragozin had hastened, of course, to emphasize the dualism which operates among the Jewish people. There were, after all, she conceded, many Jews who were well-behaved (as for example, the Karaites) and they were tolerated in Russia. Madame Ragozin had not meant to attack those “exceptional” or “good” Jews. No, it was not the “Jews of the Bible,” but “the Jews of the Talmud to whom we object,” she said.

Madame Ragozin's sources for the deliberate Jewish plan to persecute Christians included an expurgated version of the Talmud, cited out of context by an apostate Jew, Jacob Brafmann, and a secret book, Le Livre du Kahal, published in St. Petersburg in French and Russian in 1869, thirty-five years before the first appearance of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (the latter still a handy device for Jew-baiters in all lands.) If there were unfortunate incidents as at Elisavetgrad, said Madame Ragozin, they were spontaneous and were prompted by the Jews who were “sucking the blood out of the people,” through public houses which kept the Russian masses drunk and through a monopoly of the butcher trade which saw Jews deliberately selling spoiled meat to Gentiles.

“The old foe simply wears a new face,” wrote Emma Lazarus. Then she added, “Were Madame Ragozin's (or Brafmann's) statements ten times true, rather than the stale and flimsy libels which they are, they would bear no relation whatever to the deeds she attempts to explain. … ‘It is not … the oppression of Jews by Russians [which Americans need consider or act upon]—it is … the oppression of men and women by men and women: and we are men and women.’”20

Back in Russia, the Jews were further debased by a wave of inhuman decrees known as the May Laws. The few who could vote were now disfranchised. All Jews were ordered to register in their shtetls before May 3, 1882, or be driven from their homes. Wholesale expulsions did in fact take place—from the border (for no Jew could live within thirty-five miles of this taboo zone), from Moscow (where Jewish girls could stay only if they were registered as prostitutes and could prove they were plying their trade), from a host of grimy little Anatevkas. Jews were forbidden to trade on Sundays or Christian holidays or to use Christian names. Jewish artisans lost the protected status of their craft. A watchmaker could be dismissed for selling a fob, a baker for offering someone a cup of coffee. And the numerus clausus, a quota of three percent Jewish student admissions, was clamped on all educational institutions.21 For the millions of Jewish Luftmenschen who were pressed to the ghettos of Vilna, Warsaw, Kiev, or Bialystok, there to wonder where their next meal would come from, the alternative to starvation was clear. Two million Jews became part of the more than twenty-seven million souls who fled from autocracy between 1880 and 1910, seeking a haven in the United States. It was to these poor souls that Emma Lazarus, working among the immigrants at Ward's Island,22 dedicated her “New Colossus” in 1883:

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!”(23)

“The New Colossus” was one of the most glorious visions of what America should have been and never was. The theme of a lamp of hope burning with justice and purity throughout all the generations was one which recurred often in the poems of Emma Lazarus. But even before the appearance of this poem, she had made her commitment to her Jewish people complete. She became a teacher in the Temple Emanu El Religious School and underwrote assistance for indigent Jewish students to complete their college educations. She was keenly interested in any project which might alter the image of the Jew as shopkeeper and usurer. “Upon every Jewish school and asylum in the land, religious or secular, should be grafted a system of instruction in some productive industry,” she wrote.24 When bands of courageous young Jews from Southern Russia calling themselves Am Olam (Eternal People) established agricultural settlements in New Jersey, Louisiana, Oregon, and the Dakotas, she contributed money to their ill-fated projects.25 She met regularly with Dr. Gottheil and other members of the Jewish community, to seek homes and jobs for refugees, to explore the possibility of establishing a technical institute for Jewish immigrants.26 And she carried on a regular correspondence with Laurence Oliphant, the British colonial figure sympathetic to the plight of the several thousand Chalukah Jews in Jaffa and Jerusalem.27

In the spring of 1882, Emma Lazarus began sending poems and essays to Philip Cowen, editor of the weekly American Hebrew. She did so, she explained, “to arouse sympathy and to emphasize the cruelty of the injustice done to our unhappy people.”28 For his part, Cowen was thrilled that a poet of her stature would be willing to publish in a parochial Jewish magazine. Collectively titled Songs of a Semite, those poems demonstrate, as do the essays, deep understanding of what Jews call the Galut, the Exile or Diaspora.

“Where is the Hebrew fatherland?” Emma Lazarus asked.

Well-nigh two thousand years hath Israel
Suffered the scorn of man for love of God;
Endured the outlaw's ban, the yoke, the rod,
With perfect patience.
Each crime that wakes in man the beast
Is visited upon his kind.
The lust of mobs, the greed of priest,
The tyranny of kings combined.
To root his seed from earth again,
His record is one cry of pain.

And yet the Jew has remained steadfast in adversity—“maligned, misknown, / [he] Bows his meek head and says, ‘Thy will be done!’”29

With prescience, Emma Lazarus wrote bitterly of the world's reluctance to countenance a revival of the Jewish nation. In a poem titled “The World's Justice,” she wrote,

If the sudden tidings came
                    That on some far, foreign coast,
Buried ages long from fame,
                    Had been found a remnant lost
Of that hoary race who dwelt
                    By the Golden Nile divine,
Spake the Pharaoh's tongue and knelt
                    At the moon-crowned Isis' shrine—
How at the reverend Egypt's feet,
          Pilgrims from all lands would meet!

The same would be true if scions of the Babylonians or Assyrians suddenly presented themselves—“pilgrims from all lands would meet.”

Yet when Egypt's self was young,
                    And Assyria's bloom unworn,
Ere the mythic Homer sung,
                    Ere the Gods of Greece were born,
Lived the nation of one God,
                    Priests of freedom, sons of Shem …
.....Half the world adores their God,
                    They the living law proclaim
And their guerdon is—the rod,
                    Stripes and scourgings, death and shame.
Still on Israel's head forlorn,
Every nation heaps its scorn.(30)

The denial of basic human rights to the Jew was all the more ironic because the Jewish people had not asked much from Providence or their fellow man. “‘O World-God, give me wealth,’ the Egyptian cried. / His prayer was granted” and slaves built for him palaces and pyramids high as heaven. “‘O World-God, give me beauty,’ cried the Greek” and sculpture, the lyre, marble was his reward. “‘O World-God, give me power,’ the Roman cried” and the vast world was chained captive to his chariot.

“O Godhead, give me Truth!” the Hebrew cried.
His prayer was granted; he became the slave
Of the Idea, a pilgrim far and wide,
Cursed, hated, spurned, and scourged with none to save.
The Pharaohs knew him and when Greece beheld,
His wisdom wore the hoary crown of Eld.
Beauty he hath forsworn and wealth and power.
Seek him to-day, and find in every land.
No fire consumes him, neither floods devour;
Immortal through the lamp within his hand.(31)

(Italics mine.)

Though her people had been shut up within the darkened walls of the ghetto, Emma Lazarus knew they possessed the seeds of greatness. “Jews need Education, Enlightenment, Reformation,” she wrote, “a sweeping out of the accumulated cobwebs and rubbish of Kabbalah and Talmud, darkening their very windows against the day, and encrusting their altars and their hearths with the gathered dust of ages.”32 In her epic “By the Waters of Babylon,” composed in Europe in 1883-84, she pointed out the contributions of Maimonides, Halevi, Moses Mendelssohn, ibn Ezra, ibn Gabirol, and Heine, and said that the ghetto Jew was like a chrysalis ready to bloom:

  1. Long, long has the Orient-Jew spun around his helplessness the cunningly enmeshed web of Talmud and Kabbala.
  2. Imprisoned in dark corners of misery and oppression, closely he drew about him the dusty, grey filaments, soft as silk and stubborn as steel until he lay death-stiffened in mummied seclusion.
  3. And the world has named him an ugly worm, shunning the blessed daylight.
  4. But when the emancipating springtide breathes wholesome, quickening airs, when the Sun of Love shines out with cordial fires, lo, the Soul of Israel bursts her cobweb sheath and flies forth attired in the winged beauty of immortality.33

The twentieth century would prove to be the testing ground of Jewish vitality, she predicted, as emancipated Jews would find their place among revolutions, politics, finance, music, wherever they could find a field for their practical ability or love of liberty. (Indeed, the chrysalis has bloomed. Sons and daughters of tailors, draymen, and grocers, the offspring of Jewish immigrants are doctors, rabbis, lawyers, psychologists, engineers, operatic singers.)

For some, unfortunately, the price of liberty was very great. Almost a century ago, Emma Lazarus warned of impending massacres beyond the scope of tsarist pogroms.34 Not generally recognized as a playwright, she had written a drama, “The Dance to Death,” dealing with the massacre of the Jews at Nordhausen in 1349. The Jews had been accused of poisoning wells during the Great Plague. But the real reason for their extermination in this town, which was to become the site of a major Nazi concentration camp, was the desire of one Christian merchant to gain control of the Jew Susskind's property. In a particularly touching moment, Susskind's son, Reuben, asks his father a question:

Reuben: Shall the smoke choke us, father? Or the flame
                              Consume our flesh?
Susskind:                                                                                I know not, boy. Be sure
                                        The Lord will temper the shrewd pain for those
                                        Who trust in Him.
Reuben:                                                                                May I stand by thy side
                                        And hold my hand in thine until the end?(35)

(Italics mine.)

Seventy years later than these words, the following was taken from the testimony of a German officer who witnessed the mass killing of Jews in the Ukraine:

I heard no complaints, no appeal for mercy. I watched a family of about eight persons, a man and a woman, both about fifty, with their grown up children, about twenty to twenty-four years old. An old woman with snow-white hair was holding a little baby in her arms, singing to it, and tickling it. The baby was cooing with delight. The couple were looking at each other with tears in their eyes. The father was holding the hand of a boy about ten years old and speaking to him softly; the boy was fighting his tears.36

(Italics mine.)

In “The Dance to Death,” the principal figure Susskind tries to sustain his doomed brethren with a speech that calls out over centuries of bloodbaths:

… I see, I see
How Israel's ever-crescent glory makes
These flames that would eclipse it, dark as blots
Of candle-light against the blazing sun.
We die a thousand deaths—drown, bleed and burn;
Our ashes are dispersed unto the winds.
Yet the wild winds cherish the sacred seed,
The waters guard it in their crystal heart,
The fire refuseth to consume. It springs,
A tree immortal, shadowing many lands,
Unvisited, unnamed, undreamed as yet.
Rather, a vine, full-flowered, golden-branched,
Ambrosial-fruited, creeping on the earth,
Trod by the passer's foot, yet chosen to deck
Tables of princes. Israel now has fallen
Into the depths, he shall be great in time.
Even as we die in honor, from our death
Shall bloom a myriad heroic lives,
Brave through our bright example, virtuous
Lest our great memory fall in disrepute.
Is one among us brothers, would exchange
His doom against our tyrants,—lot for lot?
Let him go forth and live—he is no Jew.
Is one who would not die in Israel
Rather than live in Christ—their Christ who smiles
On such a deed as this? Let him go forth—
He may die full of years upon his bed.
Ye who nurse rancor haply in your hearts,
Fear ye we perish unavenged? Not so!
To-day, no! nor to-morrow! but in God's time,
Our witnesses arise. Ours is the truth,
Ours is the power, the gift of Heaven. We hold
His Law, His lamp, His covenant, His pledge.
Wherever in the ages shall arise
Jew-priest, Jew-poet, Jew-singer, or Jew-saint—
And everywhere I see them star the gloom—
In each of these the martyrs are avenged!(37)

(Italics mine.)

It is almost as if Emma Lazarus had been present when the gates of Europe's charnel houses were opened in 1945. In her poem “The New Ezekiel,” she wrote of human skeletons.

What, can these dead bones live, whose sap is dried
          By twenty scorching centuries of wrong?
Is this the House of Israel, whose pride
                    Is as a tale that's told, an ancient song?
Are these ignoble relics all that live
                    Of psalmist, priest, and prophet? Can the breath
Of very heaven bid these bones revive,
                    Open the graves and clothe the ribs of death?
Yea, Prophesy, the Lord hath said, Again
                    Say to the wind, Come forth and breathe afresh,
Even that they may live upon these slain,
                    And bone to bone shall leap, and flesh to flesh.
The Spirit is not dead, proclaim the word,
                    Where lay dead bones, a host of armed men stand!
I ope your graves, my people, saith the Lord,
                    And I shall place you living in your land.(38)

From November 1882, through February 1883, Emma Lazarus penned sixteen articles for the American Hebrew. Collectively titled Epistle to the Hebrews, they were, she thought, among her most significant works. She reproached her brethren for passively accepting the insults which their adversaries had thrown up to them—that Jews were of little consequence in the development of civilization, that they could make no contribution in any field but peddling and money-changing, that the Jews were excessively “tribal.” Emma Lazarus pointed out that when the Gentile claimed a Jew could not be a philosopher, the Jews produced Philo, Maimonides, and Spinoza. When the Gentile said the Jew could not be a statesman, the Jews produced Disraeli and Gambetta. And now, in her own day, the cry was “a Jew cannot be an agriculturist.” Ignoring for one moment the historical proscriptions against land-owning which prevented Jews from entering agriculture, Emma Lazarus agreed that hers was an age in which antipathy to manual labor was one of the great social diseases of man. She called upon the Jews to become masons, farmers, carpenters, “warrior mechanics” on a par with those ancients who had rebuilt and defended the temple in the days of Ezra. Sounding much like A. D. Gordon, she reminded her people that even the Talmudic sages had taken time to study only in their leisure hours “when their agricultural pursuits would allow them a vacation.”39

To the charge that the Jewish people were exclusivist or tribal, she noted that the other two Western religions, Christianity and Islam, worshipped “our tribal God.”40 If anything, Jews should be faulted for being too universalist. Judah Halevi had once likened the Jewish people to the heart in a body representing mankind. Being the seat of life, the heart felt first and it felt most whenever any part of the body of man was afflicted. Elie Wiesel also would argue in Beggar in Jerusalem that the reason for the ceaseless persecution of Jews was that they were the conscience of mankind. Like Halevi before her and Wiesel after, Emma Lazarus recognized the special obligation of her people to humanity:

Every student of the Hebrew language is aware that we have in conjugation of our verbs a mode known as the intensive voice, which by means of an almost imperceptible modification of vowel-points, intensifies the meaning of the primitive root. A similar significance seems to attach to the Jews themselves in connection with the people among whom they dwell. They are the intensive form of any nationality whose language and customs they adopt.41

Continuing, she wrote, “I do not hesitate to say that our national defect is that we are not tribal enough. We have not sufficient solidarity to perceive that when the life and property of a Jew in the uttermost provinces of the Caucasus are attacked, the dignity of a Jew in free America is humiliated.” The aristocratic woman from New York who had studied Romance languages as a child had also learned the meaning of the ghetto Jew's Yiddish street jargon—“vos vetzayn mit Klal Yisroel vetzayn mit Reb Yisroel” (whatever happens to Israel also happens to Mr. Israel)—for she wrote, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” American Jews could not remain indifferent to the cries of their “barefoot, beggared brothers and sisters,” for they shared more than a common creed or common history with the Jew peddler who was forced to run from Slavonic mobs. She appealed to those American Jews who were trying to shrink from their identity, saying, “It will be a lasting blot upon American Judaism—nay, upon prosperous Judaism of whatever nationality—if we do not come forward now with encouragement for the disheartened and help for the helpless, or if we neglect this opportunity to dignify our race and our name by vigorous, united, and disinterested action. To fail in such an attempt is no disgrace—the disgrace is in not undertaking it.”42

For Emma Lazarus the solution was clear, and it was not that all oppressed Jews should come to America. She fretted that such masses would “bulwark themselves in citadels of isolation”—new ghettos—or that they would “fall victim to apostasy.” Rather, she embraced the concept which only vaguely had been expressed in her early poem on the Touro Synagogue: a return of Jews to the “fair sunrise land that gave them birth.” Students and intellectuals of the BILU and Choveve Zion movements in Europe were already implementing such a plan. Once more, Emma Lazarus sounded the call for a new Ezra who would build up “our national, physical force.”43 She had no elegant name for her dream of a Jewish commonwealth which would be planted “early in Palestine,” but Zionism it was. And like Brandeis, who also argued that immigration to the new Jewish state would be voluntary rather than mandatory, she cautioned, “The most ardent supporter of the scheme does not urge the advisability of an emigration en masse of the whole Jewish people to any particular spot.”44

If the last phrase was designed to allay fears of assimilated Jews in America, it failed. Almost immediately Emma Lazarus was attacked by a number of critics, including Cyrus Sulzberger, the prestigious coeditor of American Hebrew. In Philadelphia, Rabbi Sabato Morais used his pulpit to denounce her as a false messiah who would provoke Gentile wrath by her essays. Dr. Abraham Isaacs, editor of the weekly Jewish Messenger, called her a “problematic champion” who had proposed a scheme which no right-thinking person could embrace.45 Emma Lazarus disdained any form of dialogue with these men, telling her editor Cowen that she preferred to treat Isaacs with “silent contempt” and Morais with “perfect indifference.” Instead of replying, in her final article of the series for American Hebrew she wrote,

My chief aim has been to contribute my mite towards arousing that spirit of Jewish enthusiasm which might manifest itself:

First, in a return to the world pursuits and broad asylum of physical and intellectual education adopted by our ancestors.

Second, in a more fraternal and practical movement towards alleviating the suffering of oppressed Jews in countries less favored than our own.

Third, in a closer and wider study of Hebrew literature and history; and finally, in a truer recognition of the large principles or religion, liberty and law upon which Judaism is founded, and which should draw into harmonious unity Jews of every shade of opinion.46

To have any hope of success such a message could not be limited to the small English-speaking sector of American Jewry. Gentile support had to be enlisted as well. In January, 1883, Henry George had scolded her: “I did not propose to you to write songs for your people, but for the people.47 And so Emma Lazarus returned to the pages of Century for her last eloquent statement on the Jewish problem. Her essay “The Jewish Problem” demonstrated that she was not only a first-rate poet, playwright, and political commentator but a worthy historian as well. After a long, depressing survey of Jewish history which was based on the writings of Heinrich Graetz,48 she concluded,

The melancholy and disgraceful fact being established that, in these closing decades of the nineteenth century, the long-suffering Jew is still universally exposed to injustice proportioned to the barbarity of the nation that surrounds him, from the indescribable atrocities of Russian mobs, through every degree of refined insult, to petty mortifications, the inevitable result has been to arouse most thinking Jews to the necessity of a vigorous and concerted action of defense. They have long enough practiced, to no purpose, the doctrine which Christendom has been content to preach and which was inculcated by one of their own race—when the right cheek was smitten, to turn also the left. They have proved themselves willing and able to assimilate with whatever people and to endure every climatic influence. But blind intolerance and ignorance are now forcibly driving them into that position which they have so long hesitated to assume. They must establish an independent nationality.49

(Italics hers.)

“All suggested solutions other than this of the Jewish problem are but temporary palliatives,” she wrote, since “neither we nor our immediate descendants can hope to see humanity at that point of perfection where the helpless and submissive victim will be respected.” And to strengthen her case, she drew at length from George Eliot's Daniel Deronda,50 a novel which had championed the return of the Jews to the Holy Land:

“The idea that I am possessed with,” says Deronda, “is that of restoring a political existence to my people; making them a nation again, giving them a national center, such as the English have, though they, too, are scattered over the face of the globe. That is a task which presents itself to me as a duty; * * * I am resolved to devote my life to it. At the least, I may awaken a moment in other minds such as has been awakened in my own.51

(Italics hers.)

Emma Lazarus concurred with Mordecai's vision of the revival of Eretz Yisroel as she quoted further:

When our race shall have an organic center, a heart and brain to watch and guide and execute, the outraged Jew shall have a defense in the court of nations, as the outraged Englishman or American. And the world will gain as Israel gains. For there will be a community in the van of the East which carries the culture and the sympathies of every great nation in its bosom; there will be a land set for a halting place of enmities, a neutral ground for the East as Belgium is for the West. Difficulties? I know there are difficulties. But let the spirit of sublime achievement move in the great among our people and the work will begin.52

The question was not whether the Jews would establish an independent nation, but when. “Where so many minds are considering how best to overcome the obstacles,” wrote Emma Lazarus, “the problem must sooner or later be solved, and when the hour strikes, the man will not be missing.”53 Once more she called upon her generation of Jews to furnish not a messiah, but a new Ezra. It was a cry which she would sound over and over again, and which found its richest expression in her “Banner of the Jew”:

Wake, Israel, wake!
.....Let but an Ezra rise anew,
To lift the Banner of the Jew!
.....No hand for vengeance but to save,—
A million naked swords should wave.
.....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.(54)

In the summer of 1883, Emma Lazarus journeyed with her sisters to Europe for the first time. Upon her return to the United States, in August 1884, she fell ill with cancer. Six months later her beloved father died. For the next three years she travelled back and forth across the Atlantic to Italy, because relatives thought “better weather” would improve her health. Then in July 1886, her physical health broken, she returned to New York. To the end, she was cognizant of the parallel between her own condition and that of the bed-ridden German-born Jewish poet Heine in his last days. But unlike Heine she indulged in no self-pity; rather she was working on a poem to Rembrandt when she died on November 19, 1887. Although only thirty-eight, she was already well acquainted with death. She had written earlier,

Come closer, kind, white, long-familiar friend,
Embrace me, fold me to thy broad, soft breast.
Life has grown strange and cold, but thou dost bend
Mild eyes of blessing wooing to my rest.
So often hast thou come, and from my side
So many hast thou lured, I only bide
Thy beck, to follow glad thy steps divine.
Thy world is people for me: this world's bare.
Through all these years my couch thou didst prepare.
Thou art supreme love—kiss me—I am thine!(55)

On November 25, 1887, American Hebrew published a special black-bordered issue dedicated to the memory of Emma Lazarus. There were tributes from Browning, Moses Montefiore, Mary Mapes Dodge, John O'Reilly, John Hay, C. A. Dana, John Burroughs, Joseph Gilder, Minot Savage, and Walt Whitman. The latter had never met Emma Lazarus, but he wrote of her,

Her songs of the Divine unity repeated on the lips of her own people, in all zones and continents, have been heard round the world. Since Miriam sang of deliverance and triumph by the Red Sea, the Semitic race has had no braver singer. The “Crowing of the Red Cock,” written when the Russian sky was red with blazing Hebrew horror, is an indignant and forceful lyric worthy of the Maccabean age. Her “Banner of the Jew” has the ring of Israel's war trumpet. Well may those of her own race and faith lament the loss of such a woman. They will not sorrow alone. Among the mourning women at her grave, the sympathizing voice of Christian daughters will mingle with the wail of the daughters of Jerusalem.56

There is no question of Emma Lazarus' station as a poet. Henrietta Szold called her “the most distinguished literary figure produced by American Jewry and possibly the most eminent poet among Jews since Heine and Judah Loeb Gordon.”57 She was not, however, a feminist,58 as some would characterize her. Rather, she was a shy, retiring “father's girl,” too timid even to read her essays in public.59 Her biographer concedes that while some of her ideas coincided with those of the early feminists (on the need for religious reformation and the concept of a more humane Sunday), “Emma Lazarus took no part in the organized movement for women's rights.”60

Her commitment was not to women's rights, but to human rights. Because of her own background and the contemporary horrors faced by the Jewish people, she addressed herself first to the rights of the Jewish people.61 Among Jewish scholars, her role in Jewish history has yet to be defined. Some in their essays on Zionism have ignored her altogether.62 Others have lauded her verses of “national pathos” written to her Jewish people in “the vale of tears.”63 Still others, like Melvin Urofsky, have labelled her a hopeless romantic:

If Emma Lazarus hoped in some way to sound the opening note to a nationalistic Jewish revival in America, her vision remained constricted by a romanticized ideal of the past. Ancient Israel provided her model, while the method of the nineteenth century nationalism aroused her passions. But she failed to take into account the fact that the Jewish experience in America had been far different from that of Europe.64

It is true that Emma Lazarus did not incite the Jewish masses of Europe to shatter their ghetto walls and emancipate themselves. She did not create a Jewish state, nor did she forestall the Holocaust. In her own day, only a fraction of the Jews in America even read her works. She was a romantic, a poet. But every people's liberation movement begins with intellectuals, the dreamers who sacrifice themselves to rouse the consciousness of their people.65 Emma Lazarus wrestled with the dilemma which faces every Jew in what she termed “lands familiar with the blessings and delights of liberty”—the problem of assimilation. Says Israel Goldberg, “Emma Lazarus was not anxious to forget. She was anxious to remember.”66 Thirteen years before the publication of Theodor Herzl's Judenstaat (1887), she called for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.67 Her “Banner of the Jew” was adopted at Basle in 1897 in the form of the Mogen David standard. That standard was derided by assimilated Jews for more than fifty years until 1948, when it became, as Emma Lazarus predicted, a symbol of the resurrected bones of Ezekiel.

Long ago, Emma Lazarus anticipated the charge of double loyalty and other slurs against her Jewish people. She stated that there could be no incongruity between her love of her Jewish people and love of America, for “a good Jew and a good American have the same ideals.”68 These bonds were expressed in one of her last essays, where she dealt with the messianic revolt of Simon Bar Kochba. “In that little Judaic tribe,” she wrote, “I see the spiritual fathers of those who braved exile and death for conscience's sake, to found upon the New England rocks, within the Pennsylvania woods, over this immense continent, the Republic of the West.” In the defeated, despised, and ignored Bar Kochba, she saw “a Mazzini, a Garibaldi, a Kossuth, a Washington.” The ideals which the Jewish leader had fought for, which her Jewish people stood for, were the same ideals upon which this nation was based—“the idea of protest, of revolution against moral tyranny, of inviolable freedom, of thought and conscience.”69


  1. Although fully appreciated by her Jewish kinsmen as their “poet laureate” in America, Emma Lazarus was not rescued from oblivion by the Cambridge History of American Literature until 1920.

  2. Her circle of friends also included the famed actor Tommaso Salvini, the English socialist William Morris, and the Brownings. Robert Browning sent her a fascinating letter in June, 1883, wherein he referred to his wife's Bible in Hebrew terms. … Letters to Emma Lazarus, ed. Ralph Rusk (New York: Columbia Univ. Press 1939), 65.

  3. From the Preface to Admetus and Other Poems (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1871).

  4. For the correspondence between Emma Lazarus and Emerson see The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph Rusk (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1939), vol. 6, passim. Only once is there a hint of some “disappointment,” after Emerson neglected to include any of her writings in a collection titled Parnassus. For some of Emma Lazarus' early work, see “Agamemnon's Tomb,” Scribner's 14 (1877): 47; “Destiny,” Scribner's 18 (1879): 751; “Eleventh Hour,” Scribner's 16 (1878): 242; “Guardian of the Red Disk,” Scribner's 20 (1880): 695; “Influence,” Scribner's 18 (1879): 592; “Mater Amabilis,” Scribner's 15 (1878): 716; “Off Rough Point,” Scribner's 15 (1878): 254; “Success,” Scribner's 17 (1879): 712; and “Taming of the Falcon,” Scribner's 19 (1880): 196.

  5. Emma Lazarus, Poems and Translations (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1867) and Alide: An Episode of Goethe's Life (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1874). William Cullen Bryant, for one, said that her poems were “better than any verses I remember to have seen written by any American girl of eighteen.” Allen Lesser, Weave a Wreath of Laurel: The Lives of Four Jewish Contributors to American Civilization (New York: Coven Press, 1938), 55.

  6. See poems titled “Long Island Sound,” 1:211; “Destiny,” 1:212; and “Afternoon,” 1:142, in The Poems of Emma Lazarus, a special two-volume collection edited by her sisters (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1889). Unless otherwise cited, all poems are from volume 1 or volume 2 of this commemorative edition.

  7. Emma Lazarus was a direct descendant of famed Revolutionary War Rabbi Gershom Seixas and also a first cousin to Benjamin Cardozo. Her father, once a prosperous sugar merchant, belonged simultaneously to Shearith Israel and the Knickerbocker Club.

  8. The Letters of Emma Lazarus, 1868-1885, ed. Morris Schappes (New York: Public Library, 1949), 21.

  9. Stedman, editor of Lippincott's, made the suggestion early in 1878. Lesser, Weave a Wreath of Laurel, 59.

  10. Joseph Lyons offers an excellent analysis of her private turmoil. “In Two Divided Streams,” Midstream 7 (Autumn 1961): 78-85.

  11. Emma Lazarus was convinced that long periods of time must lapse before the national songs of a people could be sung, and she offered Robert Burns and the Scots as one example. Eve Merriam, Emma Lazarus: Woman with a Torch (New York: Citadel Press, 1956), 54-55.

  12. The Berlin-born rabbi had been impressed by her poem “In a Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” published in 1868. When he asked her if she would do more work on the hymnal, she responded, “The flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak.” Merriam, Emma Lazarus, 46. Privately, she confessed, “I feel no religious fervor within me.” Leonard Twynham, “Emma Lazarus—Champion of Israel,” Opinion 9 (April 1939): 19.

  13. Emma Lazarus, “Was the Earl of Beaconsfield a Representative Jew?” Century 23 (April 1882): 941.

  14. Lee Friedman, Jewish Pioneers and Patriots (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1955), 73-80.

  15. Poems and Ballads of Heinrich Heine, trans. and ed. Emma Lazarus (New York: R. Worthington, 1881).

  16. “Sic Semper Liberatoribus,” 1:161.

  17. Ibid., 161-2. Later that year, Emma Lazarus vigorously condemned the assassination of President Garfield, in her poem “Sunrise,” 1:191-95.

  18. Ismar Elbogen, A Century of Jewish Life (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1944), 202-10; and Louis Greenberg, The Jews in Russia, vol. 2 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1944).

  19. Madame Ragozin (no first name listed), “Russian Jews and Gentiles,” Century 23 (April 1882): 905-20.

  20. Emma Lazarus, “Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism.” Century 24 (May 1882): 56. Lazarus borrowed this last phrase from a speech delivered by former Secretary of State William Evarts at Chickering Hall, protesting the persecution of Jews in Russia. Before publishing this article, she consulted Michael Heilprin, founder of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a scholar and master of twelve languages.

  21. Elbogen, A Century of Jewish Life, 210-223.

  22. As early as the summer of 1881, she had written various Jewish journals protesting the poor food and housing, the uncleanliness and lack of education for children in the New York islands accommodating immigrants. Merriam, Emma Lazarus, 85.

  23. “The New Colossus,” 1:202-3. Her friend Evarts had approached her on behalf of the Pedestal Fund. There was to be a public auction and Longfellow, Whitman, Twain, and Harte all had promised to contribute something of a literary nature. Her poem brought $1500. Later, James Russell Lowell, America's ambassador to Great Britain, wrote her, “I liked your sonnet about the statue much better than I liked the statue itself. But your sonnet gives its subject a raison d'être which it wanted before quite as much as it wanted a pedestal. You have set it on a noble one, saying admirably just the right word to be said, an achievement more arduous than that of the sculptor.” Merriam, Emma Lazarus, 126. For the story of the statue itself see Ernst Basch, “E. B. Ashton,” I Lift My Lamp (New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1948).

  24. Merriam, Emma Lazarus, 85.

  25. She was particularly interested in the fate of the nearby colony at Vineland, New Jersey. When somebody suggested that it be renamed Washington, she offered instead Moses (for Mendelssohn), Beaconsfield, Abarbanel, Montefiore, or Eliot. Philip Cowen, Memories of an American Jew (New York: International Press, 1932), 341-42. All of these colonies failed by 1885. See Simon Dubnov, History of the Jews, trans. Moshe Spiegel (S. Brunswick: T. Yoselof, 1973), 5:642-45.

  26. Trips were arranged to MIT and the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia to secure information in setting up the Hebrew Technical Institute. Cowen credits Emma Lazarus for this innovation (Memories of an American Jew, 336-37), and his view is echoed by Lesser, Weave a Wreath of Laurel, 64; and Merriam, Emma Lazarus, 110. See also Richard Gottheil, The Life of Gustav Gottheil: Memoir of a Priest in Israel (Williamsport: by the author, 1936).

  27. Writing in The Nineteenth Century (August 1882), Oliphant had suggested that the United States might use its good offices with the Tsarist government to alleviate the persecution of Russian Jews. In turn, both countries would work to bring pressure upon the Ottomans to open Palestine to Jewish settlement. See Letters to Emma Lazarus, 51-52.

  28. Letters of Emma Lazarus, 1868-1885, 35.

  29. “Supreme Sacrifice,” 2:17; “The Crowing of the Red Cock,” 2:3; “Supreme Sacrifice,” 2:18.

  30. “The World's Justice,” 2:16-17. It was not the first time that Emma Lazarus had protested the world's callousness toward the Jews. In May 1882, the Philadelphia YMHA held a special memorial meeting for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who had died that spring. Literary contributions were invited and one came from Emma Lazarus. Longfellow had visited the Newport Synagogue and written, “What once has been shall be no more … the dead nations never rise again.” In her own essay, Emma Lazarus responded, “The rapidly increasing influence of the Jews in Europe, the present universal agitation of the Jewish question hotly discussed in almost every pamphlet, periodical and newspaper of the day, the frightful wave of persecution directed against the race, sweeping over the whole civilized world and reaching its height in Russia, the furious zeal with which they are defended and attacked, the suffering, privation and martyrdom which our brethren still consent to undergo in the name of Judaism prove them to be very warmly and thoroughly alive, and not at all in need of miraculous resuscitation to establish their identity.” “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,” in Emma Lazarus: Selections from Her Prose and Poetry, ed. Morris Schappes (New York: E. Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women's Clubs, 1967), 100.

  31. “Gifts,” 2:20-21. In her essay “M. Renan and the Jews,” published by American Hebrew, October 24, 1884, she makes the same point: “Not for the mere survival of this little band of martyrs and victims was the miracle of their endurance prolonged; but because the seed of truth which they alone cherished through fire and blood had not yet borne its highest, sweetest and ripest fruit.” See Emma Lazarus: Selections from Her Prose and Poetry, 98.

  32. Arthur Zeiger, “Emma Lazarus and Pre-Herzlian Zionism,” in Early History of Zionism in America, ed. Isidore Meyer (New York: Theodore Herzl Foundation, 1958), 91.

  33. “By the Waters of Babylon,” 2:64-66.

  34. She was not alone. In 1883, the Russian Zionist Moses Lilienblum was offering his people the choice of assimilation and the destruction of Judaism, emigration to Palestine for a renaissance of Israel, or remaining in their present state to face the prospect of various pogroms and “not be safe even against a major holocaust,” The Zionist Idea, ed. Arthur Hertzberg (New York: Atheneum, 1971), 177.

  35. “The Dance to Death,” 2:155.

  36. Malcolm Hay, Europe and the Jews (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960): 9.

  37. “The Dance to Death,” 2:163-65.

  38. “The New Ezekiel,” 2:14-15.

  39. See An Epistle to the Hebrews (New York: P. H. Cowen, 1900).

  40. Emma Lazarus indicated that Renan's conclusion that the Western world had adopted the religion of Isaiah, the ideal Jewish religion, sent “a thrill of exultation through the veins of every Jew.” See the essay noted above, “M. Renan and the Jews.”

  41. “Epistle to the Hebrews,” American Hebrew 13 (Feb. 2, 1883): 137. See Isaac Husik on Judah Halevi, A History of Medieval Jewish Philosophy (New York: Atheneum, 1969), 164; and Elie Wiesel, A Beggar in Jerusalem (New York: Random House, 1970), 113.

  42. “Epistle to the Hebrews,” American Hebrew 14 (May 9, 1883): 50-51.

  43. Like Herzl, Emma Lazarus was concerned about the piling up of Jews in ghettos in large cities where they might be exploited or might even turn to crime. Zionism seemed the logical outlet for the masses which had to be freed from Tsarist oppression, and she found no incongruity between Zionism and her love of America, both of which were predicated on freedom from oppression and liberty of thought. Similar views were expressed a generation later by Justice Brandeis. See Marnin Feinstein, American Zionism 1888-1904 (New York: Herzl Press, 1965), 17-20.

  44. Merriam, Emma Lazarus, 104-105.

  45. Dr. Isaacs denounced her proposals because they coincided with the demands of the German racist Adolph Stoecker and the anti-Semitic Congress held at Dresden that year. See Jewish Messenger 53 (January 28, 1883): 4.

  46. “Epistle to the Hebrews,” American Hebrew 13 (Feb. 2, 1882): 137.

  47. Letters to Emma Lazarus, 35.

  48. Heinrich Graetz was the most distinguished Jewish historian of the nineteenth century. His works are considered basic to the study of Jewish history. See Graetz, History of the Jews in six volumes (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1898).

  49. “The Jewish Problem,” Century 25 (February 1883): 609-10.

  50. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (Edinburgh and London: Blackwood, 1876). The Semiticist Richard Gottheil says of George Eliot, “No Christian and perhaps no Jewish writer has struck the high note of pathos and enthusiasm as has George Eliot in her novel Daniel Deronda (1876).” Gottheil, Zionism (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1914), 43.

  51. “The Jewish Problem,” 610.

  52. Ibid.

  53. Ibid.

  54. “The Banner of the Jew,” 2:10-12. In fairness, it must be noted that a similar poem calling for a united Jewish movement was written by Adah Menken at the time of the Mortara Affair in 1858. H. E. Jacob, The World of Emma Lazarus (New York: Schocken, 1949), 141.

  55. “Age and Death,” Century 27 (November 1883): 53; cf. “Youth and Death,” ibid.

  56. Cowen, Memories of an American Jew, 345, contains a photo of the original.

  57. Henrietta Szold, “Emma Lazarus,” The Jewish Encyclopedia 7 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1904): 652.

  58. Mary Cohen applauds her as “our sister in faith” who “personally had done much to ennoble womanhood,” “Emma Lazarus: Woman, Poet, Patriot,” Poet Lore 5 (1893): 320, 322. Libby Benedict's essay “Emma Lazarus,” in The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia 6 (New York: UJE Inc., 1942): 568-69, is more subdued.

  59. Jacob, The World of Emma Lazarus, 28.

  60. Merriam, Emma Lazarus, 103. Genteel Victorian evaluations were offered by Isaac Markens in The Hebrews in America (New York: by the author, 1888), 260-61, and the editors of Century, “Emma Lazarus,” 36 (October, 1888): 884. The latter wrote, “To be born a Jewess was a distinction for Emma Lazarus and she in turn conferred distinction upon her race. To be born a woman also lends a grace and a subtle magnetism to her influence.”

  61. Emma Lazarus's younger sister Annie subsequently denounced attempts “on the part of some of her public to overemphasize the Hebraic strain of her work, giving it thus a quality of a sectarian propaganda which I greatly deplore.” It should be noted, however, that Annie was the least reliable source concerning her elder sister. She referred disdainfully to Philip Cowen as her sister's “Jewish editor,” later converted to Roman Catholicism, settled in Rome, and tried to purge “anything Jewish” from her sister's works. Jacob, The World of Emma Lazarus, 208-9.

  62. Gustav Gottheil and Max Nordau, Zionism and Anti-Semitism (New York: Scott Thaw, 1904); Barnett Litvinoff, To the House of Their Fathers: A History of Zionism (New York and Washington: Praeger, 1965); Gottheil, Zionism; and Hertzberg, The Zionist Idea.

  63. Dubnow, History of the Jews, 654. See also Nahum Sokolow, A History of Zionism (New York: Ktav, 1969), 1:242-43.

  64. Melvin Urofsky, American Zionism from Herzl to the Holocaust (Garden City, New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1976), 45.

  65. A list of examples might include the Greeks Rhigas Pheraios and Adamantios Koraes, the Germans Achim Arnim and Ernst Von Arndt, the Russians Pavel Pestel and Schevchenko, the Arabs Butrus Bustani and Abdel Rahman Kawakebi, and even the great Jewish figure Theodor Herzl himself, who died at the age of forty-four after committing his life to the concept of Zionism.

  66. Israel Goldberg, “Rufus Learsi,” Fulfillment: The Epic Story of Zionism (New York and Cleveland: World, 1951), 37.

  67. Wrote Philip Cowen, “Herzl's Judenstaat, then freshly before the public—almost a generation before it was made the Zionist's creed—was thoroughly discussed by her in the ‘Epistle.’” Cowen, Memories of an American Jew, 337. Adds Henry Feingold, “She played a role in bridging the gap between the mystical, often Christian-inspired Zionism of antebellum American Jewry and the practical political Zionism of the twentieth century.” Feingold, Zion in America: The Jewish Experience from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Twayne, 1974), 203.

  68. Lesser, Weave a Wreath of Laurel, 65.

  69. “The Last National Revolt of the Jews,” written for the American Hebrew, November 14, 21, and 28, 1884, in Emma Lazarus: Selections from Her Poetry and Prose, 103.

Carole S. Kessner (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Kessner, Carole S. “Matrilineal Dissent: The Rhetoric of Zeal in Emma Lazarus, Marie Syrkin, and Cynthia Ozick.” In Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing, edited by Ruth R. Baskin, pp. 197-215. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Kessner focuses on the development of Lazarus's Jewish consciousness as reflected in her writing.]

… Emma Lazarus's early years did not suggest that she would become a prototype for the modern Jewish woman writer, nor that she would become a Jewish nationalist in her poetry, a proto-Zionist in her aspirations, nor a socialist sympathizer in her politics,1 nor assertive in her self-confidence as a woman. She was born on July 22, 1849, to Moses Lazarus, a wealthy sugar industrialist of Sephardic background, and his wife, Esther Nathan Lazarus, who was of Ashkenazic background. Both sides of the family had been in America since the Revolution. The Lazarus family lived in a fashionable section of New York City and summered in the popular watering spot of Newport, Rhode Island. Emma was educated at home by private tutors, and studied the curriculum thought suitable for well-educated young American ladies of upper-class status. In the introduction to two volumes of selected poems published posthumously in 1889, two years after her death, Emma's sister Josephine tells us that in Emma's early years, Hebraism was only latent, and it was “classic and romantic art that first attracted her. … Her restless spirit found repose in the pagan idea—the absolute unity and identity of man with nature, as symbolized in the Greek myths.”2 … [T]his is the very subject matter that was to be roundly rejected in “The New Colossus.”3 Certainly something profoundly transforming happened to Lazarus between the first volume of poems published privately in 1867 by her father, and Songs of a Semite: “The Dance Unto Death” and Other Poems, published in 1882, which has as its dedication: “In profound veneration and respect to the memory of George Eliot, the illustrious writer who did most among the artists of our day towards elevating and ennobling the spirit of Jewish Nationality.”

During the course of her career, Lazarus struck up tutelary relationships with male writers; the first and most influential was Ralph Waldo Emerson, but she also became acquainted with such figures as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Ivan Turgenev, the naturalist John Burroughs, Edwards Clarence Stedman, and finally Henry James. All of these men encouraged her, yet most were honest enough to suggest that she needed to find her own voice. In 1871 she published Admetus and Other Poems. The major poems of this volume are both curious and suggestive—“Admetus,” “Orpheus,” “Lohengrin,” and “Tannhäuser”—comprising two Greek myths and two medieval German legends about women who sacrificed themselves for the sake of men, and three accounts of poetic singers. Emma, it appears, was struggling to find her own voice, but looking in the wrong place.

As time went on she began more and more to reveal an awareness of her own traditions. She studied the Hebrew language and Graetz's History of the Jews, translated the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine and the medieval Jewish poets of Spain, and began writing a few poems on Jewish subjects. Still her commitment to Judaism was more historical than spiritual, as she wrote in 1877 to Rabbi Gustave Gottheil, who had asked her to contribute hymns to a new Reform hymnal he was preparing for publication: “I cheerfully offered to help you to the extent of my ability, and was glad to prove to you that my interest and sympathies were loyal to our race, although my religious convictions (if such they can be called) and the circumstances of my life have led me somewhat apart from our people.”4 In 1878, Lazarus began a correspondence with the naturalist and popular author John Burroughs on the subject of Matthew Arnold's Hellenism as opposed to Whitman's Hebraism, a topic of increasing interest to her. Burroughs wrote in response to Lazarus's claim that Arnold is cold and lacks spontaneity: “Yes, Whitman is Hebraic, so is Carlyle, so are all the more vital literary forces of our century, I think.”5 It is interesting to see a similar perception in Ozick's interest in the distinction between Hebraism and Hellenism in her famous remark that the nineteenth-century novel in its moral seriousness is a Judaized novel.6

At this very time in Emma Lazarus's life, when she was searching for an authentic way to express her increasing Jewish consciousness, two related events occurred to fire her poetic imagination and social conscience. These were the Russian pogroms of 1881, and the increasingly harsh and restrictive anti-Jewish Russian legislation, epitomized in the May Laws of 1882. The result was mass immigration of East European Jews to the United States. Until this moment, Lazarus's interest in Judaism was mainly philosophical, and there was no active cause to which she could attach herself. But at this crux in history she responded immediately and passionately, and she was drawn into active battle, fighting on three fronts as poet, as political essayist, and as social activist.

Yet the transformation of Emma's consciousness was not quite complete. There was to be a critical moment. In April of 1882 Emma Lazarus published an essay, “Was the Earl of Beaconsfield a Representative Jew?” in Century magazine. In this still cool, rationalist, universalist assessment of Benjamin Disraeli, she concludes that indeed he is a representative Jew, “but he is not a first-class man.” “His qualities,” she asserts, “were not those of the world's heroes; he possessed talent rather than genius. … Moses, Jesus, St. Paul, the prophets, Spinoza bear glorious testimony to the existence of first-class men. But centuries of persecution and the enforced narrowness of their sphere of action … have developed among the Jews a national character other than that of the above named scions of the race.”7 Lazarus's lament is for want of a great moral spiritual leader. She herself is on the threshold of accepting her own challenge. By some quirk of fate, in the same volume of Century there was to appear an article by Madame Z. Ragozin, a Russian journalist; Ragozin's essay was a defense of the mobs who were perpetrating the pogroms and a vicious attack upon Jewish character.8 Before printing this article, George Gilder, the well-known liberal editor of Century Magazine, showed it to Lazarus, who immediately wrote an outraged response for the May 1882 issue. Gone is the cool detachment of the Disraeli essay; in its place is moral passion, irony, caustic wit, superb scholarship, rhetorical strategy, and a clear expression of her own identification as a Jew connected to all other Jews.9 To Madame Ragozin's charge that there are two kinds of Jews, that a “vast dualism essentially characterizes this extraordinary race,” Lazarus answers: “The dualism of the Jews is the dualism of humanity; they are made up of the good and the bad. May not Christendom be divided into those Christians who denounce such outrages as we are considering, and those who commit or apologize for them? Immortal genius and moral purity, as exemplified by Moses and Spinoza, constitute a minority among Jews, as they do among the Gentiles.”10

Jesus and Paul are now absent from Lazarus's list of heroes; gone is her naive lament for the Jewish failure to produce “moral purity and immortal genius.” This essay, entitled “Russian Christianity Versus Modern Judaism,” is the first of a stream of polemical pieces in defense of her subject and in challenge to her people that Emma Lazarus would write over the next few years of her brief life. She had finally hit her stride, and she revealed it in a vigorous, muscular, prose—a prose style that elsewhere has been identified as the “rhetoric of zeal.”11 This double-edged rhetoric, which alternates between an extravagance born of idealism and devastating rapier thrusts, is characteristic of the zealous writer from the biblical prophets through John Milton to the passionate polemicists of the 1960s. Only the idealist with a high sense of moral purpose can turn the carpet over to expose the rough underside of moral indignation; the cynic has only one texture.

This, of course, belies the words of so many of Lazarus' admirers, including her sisters, who insisted that she was the consummate shy, restrained Victorian woman. She was not. All she lacked was an appropriate object for the passion of her “late-born woman-soul,”12 a legitimate focus for the intensity of her moral and aesthetic passion. She found it in the wedding of her identification with her people and her decision to speak and act for them. She embodied it in poetry that rejects the high diction of the past and is charged with the prophetic urgency of the call for return to the land of Israel, and in vigorous prose, especially in the series of fourteen essays ironically entitled Epistle to the Hebrews, written from November 1882 to February 1883, in which she undertook to “bring before the Jewish public … facts and critical observations … to arouse a more logical and intelligent estimate of the duties of the hour.”13

Lazarus's commitment toward social justice, however, was not expressed in words alone, for she involved herself in the practical task of helping the new immigrants to resettle, and she was responsible for the founding of the Hebrew Technical Institute for Vocational Training. Moreover, in a series of twelve letters written to the influential political economist E. R. A. Seligman just before her trip to England in 1883, Lazarus desperately tried to form a Committee for the Colonization of Palestine. Seligman was uncooperative, and the venture appears to have failed.14

Lazarus sailed to London in 1883, armed with letters of introduction from Henry James to well-placed people in England, Jews and non-Jews, who could help her in her work toward the establishment of a Jewish national homeland.15 Thus, a decade before Herzl's launching of political Zionism, Emma Lazarus would argue in a poetic voice of her own and in powerfully persuasive prose for the land of Israel as a safe haven for oppressed Jews everywhere. It should be noted, however, that at no point did Lazarus advocate resettlement for all Jews.16


  1. In 1881 Lazarus wrote a sonnet “Progress and Poverty,” inspired by Henry George's book by that name; she spent a day with the socialist-craftsman humanitarian William Morris at his workshop in 1883, and in her essay, “The Jewish Problem,” The Century (February 1883), she wrote, “The modern theory of socialism and humanitarianism erroneously traced to the New Testament has its root in the Mosaic Code.”

  2. The Poems of Emma Lazarus, ed. Josephine Lazarus, 2 vols. (Boston, 1889), 1:3. “The New Colossus” is found in Poems 1:202-3.

  3. The rejection of “paganism” also became a major theme for Lazarus's literary “granddaughter,” Cynthia Ozick, whose fascination with the theme of Hebraism versus Hellenism was first announced in print in “America: Toward Yavneh,” Judaism (Summer 1970), 264-82, and later embodied in the title of her short story “The Pagan Rabbi.”

  4. The Letters of Emma Lazarus, 1868-1885, ed. Morris U. Schappes (New York, 1949), 333.

  5. Letters to Emma Lazarus in the Columbia University Library, ed. Ralph L. Rusk (New York, 1939), 30.

  6. Ozick, “America: Toward Yavneh,” 272.

  7. Reprinted in Emma Lazarus: Selections from Her Poetry and Prose, ed. Morris U. Schappes (New York, 1944), 60.

  8. Madame Z. Ragozin, “Russian Jews and Gentiles,” Century Magazine 23 (1882), 919.

  9. Analogous essays by Marie Syrkin and Cynthia Ozick include Marie Syrkin's rigorously argumentative “Who Are The Palestinians?” Midstream (January 1970), and Ozick's uncompromisingly tough “All the World Wants the Jews Dead,” Esquire (1974).

  10. Schappes, Selections, 69.

  11. Thomas Kranidas, “Milton and the Rhetoric of Zeal,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature 6 (1965), 423-32.

  12. The first seven lines of Lazarus's poem “Echoes,” Poems, 1:201, adumbrate the ideas in “The New Colossus”:

    Late-born and woman-souled I dare not hope,
    The freshness of the elder lays, the might
    Of manly, modern passion shall alight
    Upon my Muse's lips, nor may I cope
    (Who veiled and screened by womanhood must grope)
    With the world's strong armed warriors and recite
    The dangers, wounds, and triumphs of the fight.
  13. Prospectus for the fourteen essays under the general title “An Epistle to the Hebrews,” American Hebrew (November 3, 1882).

  14. Twelve unpublished letters from Emma Lazarus to E. R. A. Seligman held in the Columbia University Library.

  15. Carole S. Kessner, “The Emma Lazarus—Henry James Connection: Eight Letters,” American Literary History 3:1 (Spring 1991), 46-62.

  16. As she wrote in “Epistle to the Hebrews,” Schappes, Selections, 82: “For the most ardent supporter of the scheme does not urge the advisability of an emigration en masse of the whole Jewish people to any particular spot. There is not the slightest necessity for an American Jew, the free citizen of a republic, to rest his hopes upon the foundation of any other nationality soever, or to decide whether he individually would or would not be in favor of residing in Palestine.”

Bette Roth Young (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12619

SOURCE: Young, Bette Roth. “The Work,” “Jewish Themes,” “A Jewish Polemic.” In Emma Lazarus in Her World: Life and Letters, pp. 28-42, 52-63. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Young offers a thematic survey of Lazarus's works, beginning with her interest in heroism and culminating in her treatment of Jewish subjects and polemic against anti-Semitism.]

When we look at additional subjects for Emma's poetry and prose, we find a significant number of artists, heroes, and great men who transcended geography and time: medieval French King Robert Capet; mythic heroes Admetus, Orpheus, Lohengrin, and Tannhauser; the Talmudist, Rashi; Spanish artist José Ribera; German authors Goethe and Heine; Shakespearean actor Tommaso Salvini; virtuoso pianist Rafael Joseffy, composer Ludwig van Beethoven; French authors Eugène Fromentin and Henri Regnault; British author and artist William Morris; American authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; political leaders President James Garfield, Czar Alexander, and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Furthermore, Lazarus used her heroes to discuss her concerns about life and art. We find recurrent themes in her works that deal with destiny and greatness, odd subjects for a reclusive dreamer.

Could it be that Emma Lazarus identified with her characters, the heroes about whom she wrote? Could she have been living vicariously through them? She seems to suggest this as the only role appropriate for women in “Echoes,” a short poem she wrote in 1880:

Late-born and woman-souled I dare not hope,
The freshness of the elder lays, the might
Of manly, modern passion shall alight
Upon the Muse's lips, nor may I cope
(Who veiled and screened by womanhood must grope)
With the world's strong-armed warriors and recite
The dangers, wounds, and triumphs of the flight;
Twanging the full-stringed lyre through all its scope.
But if thou ever in some lake-floored cave
O'erbrowed by rocks, a wild voice wooed and heard,
Answering at once from heaven and earth and wave,
Lending elf-music to thy harshest word,
Misprize thou not these echoes that belong
To one in love with solitude and song.(1)

Less than two years after this poem was written, Emma began her aggressive campaign in behalf of beleaguered East European Jews. We will see that her public reclamation of her Jewishness was not a sudden response to the excesses of the hour, but an evolutionary journey. From the first, we witness her need for a faith, a belief system that she could adopt, a teleology with which to handle the age. Her involvement with concepts like Destiny would ride in tandem with her problem with the Church, a problem that would come down to earth with an immediacy she could not ignore, in the anti-Jewish excesses in Europe. Her attention to current events would help her deal with the cosmic problems she addressed as a young woman.

Emma lived in a particularly anomic period in the nation's history. The Civil War, which she experienced as an adolescent, was followed by an industrialization out of control. Secular messianism competed with religious doctrine in an attempt to provide answers to social problems and teleological questions.

The country's anomic sense of self extended to the cultural arena, even though a genteel aristocracy of arts and letters, Gilder, Stedman, and other friends of Lazarus, tried to preserve old values. The sense of a historical void permeated the essays of thinkers like George Woodberry and Edmund Stedman, who lamented the fact that this country had no noble history, no inspiration for a uniquely American culture.2

Emma addressed herself to that issue with great passion in an essay in the 18 June 1881 number of the Critic and in a letter to Stedman. She told him that she had “never believed in the want of a theme, wherever there is humanity,” she said, “there is the theme of a great poem.” But she protested too loudly, perhaps, and in the end she found another people, another history for her grand theme.3

Implicit in Emma's work is her infatuation with heroism. She articulated this in an early letter to Helena Gilder in reference to Turgenev's Virgin Soil:

I am sure Mr. Gilder has the same idea about it that I have. Why do you find it so sad & depressing? To me it is hopeful, not because it ends with a marriage & the chief characters in whom our sympathy is enlisted, turn out ardently happy, but because the whole book is so permeated with an atmosphere of aspiration & heroism. Whenever I look into it or think of it I am reminded of a verse in the Koran that promises to the faithful—“one of the two most excellent things, martyrdom or victory.” Viewed in this light, even Nedzhdanoff ceases to be a failure, & his suicide becomes a noble necessary act. In that little band of enthusiasts of which he is leader, there is nothing mean.4

Emma would find in Jewish Nationalism a noble and heroic cause, a focus for her passion. But we are ahead of our story.

“Bertha,” Emma Lazarus' first long poem, covers fifty-five pages and was written before she was seventeen years old. Historical figures carry her message. Robert Capet, son of tenth-century French King Hugh Capet, and his wife Bertha are her central characters. The Pope discovers these two star-crossed lovers are cousins and orders the marriage annulled. They refuse to obey his decree and are excommunicated. Bertha, however, gives birth to a son, who is kidnapped by the abbot of the nearby monastery and is drowned. The child is replaced with a grossly deformed infant in the care of the abbot. Bertha, believing the child to be her own, retires, in penance, to a convent. There, in a bridal gown, she prostrates herself on the altar and dies. From the first, the Church was a grotesque villain for the young Emma.5

“Tannhauser” is included in Emma's second published volume of verse, Admetus and Other Poems. Her hero's conflict is explicitly with the Church; his descent into Venusberg is an attempt to find spiritual peace. He wishes he could “kneel and hail the Virgin and believe.” His description of Christianity leaves little room for doubt about his displeasure or about Emma's:

The world is run by one cruel God,
Who brings a sword, not peace. A pallid Christ,
Unnatural, perfect, and a Virgin cold,
That gives us for a heaven of living gods,
A creed of suffering and despair, walled in
On every side by brazen boundaries,
That limit the soul's vision and her hope
To a red Hell or an unpeopled heaven.
Yet I am lost already,—even now
Am doomed to flaming torture by my thought
O Gods! O Gods! Where shall my soul find peace?(6)

When Tannhauser rejects Venus and her bacchanal, he becomes a penitent ascetic whose pilgrimage to Rome is informed by an obsessive need for expiation of the sin of his orgy with Venus. But he finds a brutal and unforgiving Pontifical College, as excessive in their hatred as is Venus in her love, a stark contrast to Tannhauser's self-enforced penury. Rather than forgiveness, they offer self-righteous rebuke. Having been rejected, he comes then, alone, to the “broad of the Campagna” and suddenly snaps the “Cord that held the cross about his neck,” flinging it far from him. The “leaden burden” flung, he kneels and cries,

O God! I thank Thee, that my faith in Thee
Subsists at last, through all discouragements.
Between us must no type or symbol stand,
No mediator, were he more divine
Than the incarnate Christ. All forms, all priests,
I part aside, and hold communion free
Beneath the empty sky of noon, with naught
Between my nothingness, and thy high heavens—
Spirit with spirit.(7)

Tannhauser dies, “His fleshly weeds of sin forever doffed.” At the end of the poem, “Tannhauser lay and smiled, for in the night / The angel came who brings eternal peace.” And he is forgiven. “The pastoral rods had borne green shoots of spring, / and leaf and bloom. God is merciful.” Tannhauser is the first of Emma's exiles who find peace outside the Church.8

In fact, “Outside the Church” is the title of Lazarus' fifteen-stanza poem published in the Index, the journal of the Free Religious Association, in 1872. She appealed to “Mother Church” for the “utter peace” the liturgical chants inspired, asking for “refuge from distress and sin, / the grace that on thine own elect falls,” and longing with one great wish to “hear the mastering word, to yield, to adore, / conquered and happy, crying ‘I am thine!’” And she waited, “but the message did not come; … the lifeless rites no comfort could impart.” It was only “outside the Church,” beneath the open sky, that Lazarus found her “religion,” a part “of all the moving, teeming, sun-lit earth.” “O simple souls,” she cried, “who yearn with no reply, / too reverent for religion, ye may find / All patience, all assurance life can bring / In this free prospect, 'neath the open sky!”9

Many who study Emma Lazarus have seen this poem as evidence of Lazarus' whole-hearted acceptance of transcendentalism. But as Dan Vogel says, “Lazarus came to Nature by a process of elimination.”10

But Lazarus would extend her dialogue with the Church in an unequivocal attack. When we examine her poetry, we see a preoccupation with Christian anti-Semitism, strange business for a woman whose best friends were Christian. Her argument with the Church finds its way into her long poems and into her plays. In defending the East European Jews in later work, she takes an apologetic position, blaming their “faults” on centuries of Christian anti-Semitism.

We have no biographical data to tell us why anti-Semitism was such an issue in Lazarus' work, but we have the literary record to support this contention. Although she seems to have been comfortable as a Jew in a Christian milieu, her writing suggests a conflict in her thought. She is almost brazen in her exposure of a corrupted clergy, a primitive dogma, and a barbaric Christian populace. We could say, perhaps, that her early works were only fantasies, typical of the time. But in her Jewish polemic, she transferred these issues from what appeared to be medieval fantasy to “current events,” making it mandatory to take her early work seriously. Although she used fantasy and myth before 1880, her message remained the same when she brought the subject into her own era.

Perhaps the most explicit example of Lazarus' rejection of Christian doctrine is seen in one of her Jewish poems, An Epistle, published in the American Hebrew in June 1882. It is subtitled “From Joshua ibn Vives of Allorqui to His Former Master, Solomon Levi-Paul de Santa-Maria, Bishop of Cartagena, Chancellor of Castile, and Privy Councillor to King Henry III of Spain.” The author tells us that in the poem she has done “little more than elaborate and versify the account given in Graetz's History of the Jews … of an Epistle actually written in the beginning of the 15th century by Joshua ben Joseph ibn Vives to Paulus de Santa Maria.”11

In the epistle, Joshua ibn Vives, a Jew, asks his former Jewish mentor and now Jew-baiter, Paulus de Santa Maria, why he chose to convert to Christianity. With sarcasm and irony, ibn Vives rejects three motives—ambition, doubt, and fear. In questioning the fourth motive, conviction, Lazarus leaves no doubt as to her own opinion of Christianity. Through ibn Vives, she says that she will not argue about the “Virgin's motherhood” or the resurrection, she who knows “not how mine own soul came to earth, / Nor what should follow death.” And man can never know “even in thought the height and girth / Of God's omnipotence; … but that He should dwarf Himself to us—it cannot be!”12

Lazarus looks at the works of nature and sees in them the wonder of God:

The God who balances the clouds, who spread
          The sky above us like a molten glass,
The God who shut the sea with doors, who laid
          The corner-stone of earth, who caused the grass
Spring forth upon the wilderness, and made
The darkness scatter and the night to pass.

“That he should clothe Himself with flesh, and move,” she challenges, “Midst worms a worm—this sun, moon, stars disprove.” The epistle ends with ibn Vives bending his “exile-weary feet” to his former “boyhood guide,” whom he implores to teach him the “invisible to divide, / Show me how three are one and One is three!” He cries, “How Christ to save all men was crucified, / Yet I and mine are damned eternally.”13

We do not know when this poem was actually written, but it is evidence of the enduring enmity Lazarus felt for Christianity. On 3 October 1882, she wrote to her friend Rabbi Gustav Gottheil after reading an excerpt in the New York Times of a talk he had given. She asked him if he had really said “as was reported in yesterday's Times that ‘the Christian Church is a noble and vital institution.’ I hope not!” she exclaimed.14

Emma's problem with both Christian doctrine and Christian anti-Semitism served as a negative motivation for much of her poetry. But a more positive impetus for her creativity came with her need to explicate her ideas about the interrelationship of her concepts of Destiny, Nature, and Talent.

In her only novel, Alide (1874), Lazarus' central character, Goethe, is a great man called by Destiny to develop his talent. He is the author's voice. He expounds upon Shakespeare to articulate a concept of Destiny. “Shakespeare's plots,” he says, are “no plots. All his plays turn upon the hidden point which no philosopher has yet seen and defined, in which the peculiarity of our Ego, the pretended freedom of our will, clashes with the necessary course of the whole.”15

Lazarus had more interest in the concept of free will than its use as a literary construct. In a letter to her friend Tom Ward, she wrote that she had “never seen the ‘free will’ problem stated in a more satisfactory way than in a translation I lately read of an Indian poem.” Her transcription echoes Goethe's words:

Man follows the bent of his will, subdues or is led by his passions, respects life or ruthlessly snaps it, bows to the law of his conscience or willfully lives in rebellion. He says to himself, “I am free!” He says true; he is free to grow noble, he is free too to work his undoing. But let him act as he will he is a tool in the hands of Destiny, used to perfect the fabric of life. There are sons of the night & their portion is blackness; there are sons of the Dawn & the daylight is theirs; both are workers for Destiny—from the labors of both issues harmony. But of evil comes good, but not for the doer of evil; he has earned for himself sorrow, that he did freely; he has worked for the good of the universe—that he did blindly in obedience to the hidden pleasure of Destiny!16

In this passage, Lazarus seems to see man as a puppet whose strings are pulled by an invisible Destiny. But her construct has another facet: Destiny is a controlling force calling individuals with talent to greatness.

Goethe is an artist who must follow his calling whatever the moral consequences. He is a necessary cog in Destiny's wheel. In Goethe's analysis of Hamlet's renunciation of Ophelia, the author uses Shakespeare to elucidate her concept of the overriding duty of talent. He feels that Hamlet sincerely loved Ophelia “before the beginning of the play”:

She was the sweetheart of his boyhood, the companion of his hours of recreation. But from the moment that his capacities are disclosed to him by the revelation from another world, he is bound by the highest duty of man—that which he owes to himself—to discard everything that can cramp or impede the development of his own nature, and the fulfillment of the sacred office to which he is called. The beauty and sweetness of Ophelia's character cannot be exaggerated, yet she is no mate for Hamlet. He simply outgrows her; or rather, in binding himself to her, he has underestimated his own powers, and after these have been supernaturally revealed to him, it is impossible for him to return to his earlier position.17

In hearing this pronouncement, Alide (Friederike Brion) realizes that, like Hamlet, Goethe has a higher duty to his art. She renounces him for the sake of his talent. Critics view Alide's renunciation of Goethe the poet as an expression of Lazarus' own feeling of martyrdom as a woman. But clearly, her issue is with Goethe, not with Alide, who simply acts as she must in Lazarus' thought system. As Dan Vogel wrote, Goethe is “an Artist and an Artist has a duty beyond the ken of simple innocent country girls.”18

Alide is an example of Lazarus' infatuation with charisma. Her description of Goethe as a “great man” is implicit in her drawings of the other men she chose to spotlight. “It is this faculty of great men which makes their simplest action fresh and original,” she says. “They are generous of their soul. They meet with abundant vitality the demands of every hour, and thus shed a peculiar glory upon whatever claims their regard.” And in describing Goethe, she says, “It needed no keen observer to perceive that ‘nothing he did but smacked of something greater than himself,’ for the magnetism of his personality bore as emphatically the impress of his genius as anything he has left behind.”19

Lazarus believed that talent in designated individuals was crucial for Destiny's grand design and that Destiny demanded obedience. But informing this command was an optimistic worldview. Destiny was Progress, an idea she articulated in her short story “The Eleventh Hour,” published in Scribner's in 1878. Her only other work of fiction, it is a panegyric to that “colossal experiment,” the United States, where one could witness the “execution of divinely simple laws.”20

Sergius Azoff, a disillusioned Romanian artist, is the foil for Richard Bayard, an upper-class New Yorker who in the end saves the artist from suicide. Azoff finds no inspiration as an artist in America and becomes a day laborer. He fails in this pursuit and becomes an “opium eater.” Bayard, quite by accident, reaches him as he is about to end his life. In his gentle rebuke to Azoff, he is Lazarus' voice. Through him, she introduces her somewhat fatalistic concept of “art” as a talent guided by Nature, or Destiny.

Bayard tells Azoff that the world seems to him “an immense working-place, a factory, if you will, where each of us has his special task assigned, which he cannot honorably shirk. A certain amount of labor has to be accomplished for some universal end which we cannot conceive, the law is Progress; in generations we scarcely see a step of advance.”21

For Lazarus, Nature gives each person an unnegotiable place in the universe. Bayard tells Azoff that he is right in saying that Nature has refused him a place “among the diggers and delvers of soil. Nature,” he says, “makes no mistake; she does not create a sensitive, receptive brain, an accurate eye, an uncommon touch, a poet's imagination, an ardent heart of universal sympathies, for the purpose of securing one more beast of burden.”22

Emma Lazarus believed that there were “natural inequalities” in man and in “races,” as we shall see in her Jewish polemic. Ironically, “progressive” Jews have lauded her so-called commitment to the principles of Karl Marx. Although she may have admired the heroism in a Turgenev novel, she disliked social systems that tried to equalize human beings. She stated this in a letter to Thomas Wren Ward, in 1877, telling him that her mind had been “very much exercised by the Railroad Strikes and Communism in general.” She asked him if he agreed that “there is something essentially unjust about the whole theory of Communism[.] I shall never believe in it,” she said, “as long as there are such natural inequalities in the minds & capacities of men.”23

Although Lazarus was concerned with only one fallen individual, one artist, in “The Eleventh Hour,” she generalized her idea to an entire population, her people, the East European Jews, four years later. By then, she ordered the people of the planet into races, in a social construct modeled after those of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. For Emma, Nature or Destiny had been thwarted by a Christian anti-Semitism causing grotesque permutations in the Jewish “race.” In the grand scheme, Jews had been intended for greatness; detoured, they were physically and psychically destroyed.

“The Eleventh Hour” is an ode to the grand possibilities in the American experience. Although Emma Lazarus is known for her devotion to Jewish Nationalism, her belief in the heroism in American history and the viability of an American “culture” was expressed in her poetry, essays, and correspondence. Her celebration of America in “The Eleventh Hour” exhibits an intuitive understanding of and endorsement of the young nation's capabilities.

Bayard tells a disillusioned Azoff that America is midway between “the Utopian fancies you brought here and the gloomy conclusions to which you have arrived now.” He tells Sergius that he has made the “common mistake of most Europeans in bringing the miniature standard of Europe with which to measure and judge a colossal experiment.” Here, he believes, “art and beauty must and will survive,” although it was impossible in that time of transition to determine what forms they would assume. Lazarus through Bayard observed “immense forces at work” building cities of “gigantic scale.” The “prosperity” of the continent would be assured in the “execution of divinely simple laws.”24


Although Lazarites have hardly noticed Emma Lazarus' attention to Jewish themes before 1882, it was in evidence as early as 1867, when she wrote “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport.”25 Modeled after Longfellow's poem “In the Jewish Cemetery at Newport,”26 it is relevant to her later work, because the focus of the piece is on the tragedy of “lone exiles of a thousand years, from the fair sunrise land that gave them birth!” She wrote a number of significant works dealing with the excesses of anti-Semitism before 1882, when she began her overt campaign against anti-Jewish persecution.

In 1876, Lazarus added two “imitations” to the translation of Heine's “Donna Clara.” All three poems were published in the Jewish Messenger. In this work Emma addressed medieval anti-Semitism, using a cleric as villain. “Donna Clara” is the story of the anti-Semitic daughter of the Alcalde, the mayor of the town, who meets and falls in love with “a handsome unguilty stranger.” He tells her, after hearing her anti-Semitic excesses, that he, her beloved, is the son of the “respected, worthy, erudite Grand Rabbi, Israel of Saragossa.” Here the ballad ends. Lazarus wrote the two additional “imitations” to fulfill the poet's intention to write a trilogy “in which the son, conceived in this illicit moment, grows up hating Jews and then, becoming a Dominican monk, cruelly persecutes them.” Pedro, the lovers' offspring, is the central character of Emma's “Don Pedrillo” and “Fra Pedro.”27

In “Don Pedrillo,” Donna Clara has become a penitent, living like a nun, “first at matins, first at vespers.” Her son is zealous in his hatred of Jews, and coaxes his pet parrot to “speak thy lesson, thief and traitor, / Thief and traitor” croaked the parrot / “Is the yellow skirted Rabbi.” A rabbi whom his mother has befriended confronts the child, chiding him for his “evil words.” Pedrillo replies that it is “no slander to speak evil of the murderers of our Savior.” He is only biding his time till manhood, when he may “wreak all my lawful hatred on thyself.” He tells the rabbi, “[A]ll your tribe offends my senses, / They're an eyesore to my vision, / And a stench upon my nostrils.” He hates these “disbelievers” with their “thick lips and eagle noses.”28

In “Fra Pedro,” Lazarus' ironic treatment of the brutality of the cleric is gentle yet instructive. Pedro has been asked to save Saragossa's “finest physician” from the intended destruction of the Jewish community. He refuses to do so, asserting that should he find a single drop of Jewish blood in his “vein's pure current,” he would not shrink from ending his life to “purge it.” “Shall I gentler prove to others?” he asks. “Mercy would be sacrilegious.” After his statement that he would “exterminate” these Jewish “abominations” and more, the poem ends with the sun dropping “down behind the purple hillside” while “above the garden / Rang the Angelus' clear cadence / Summoning the monks to vespers.”29

Lazarus' imitations are faithful to Heine's verse in both meter and word usage. His poem was written, she said, “not to excite laughter, still less to denote a mocking spirit.” It was written to “render with epic impartiality in this poem an individual circumstance, and at the same time something general and universal, … conceived … in a spirit which was anything rather than smiling, but serious and painful, so much so that it was to form the first part of a tragic trilogy.”30

Heine, we know, confronted anti-Jewish persecution in Germany and, because of that, became an embittered expatriate. But why did the acculturated Emma Lazarus, at that time just twenty-seven years of age, choose to finish Heine's task? This was her first work published in a Jewish journal.

In March and April 1880, Henry Ward Beecher's journal, the Independent, published two long poems by Lazarus. “Rashi in Prague” and “The Death of Rashi” confront anti-Semitism in twelfth-century Prague.31 Rashi is another of Lazarus' great men. He was a legend during his life and is still considered one of the most erudite Talmudists in Jewish history. The poems are fables; her history is out of sequence. Nevertheless, in these works she clarifies her position, painting a landscape of sharp contrast between the brutality of the Christian mob and the serenity of the Jews it destroys.

Rashi enters Prague, in his “wide wanderings,” and is hosted by Rabbi Jochanan and his beautiful daughter, Rebekah. His triumphant welcome on the Jewish streets raises the ire of the duke, Wladislaw, and his bishop. Ruffian soldiers storm the rabbi's house and carry both Rashi and the rabbi to the duke. The bishop recognizes Rashi as the “physician” who miraculously healed him in Palestine, and so both are freed. In “The Death of Rashi,” a Christian stabs him during a Passover seder. Rebekah, who is his wife by this time, feeds him the herb potion that brings him back from the dead. He lives on to continue his good works.

Lazarus' descriptions in the first poem are excessive, as in her account of the destruction of the rabbi's house, for example:

The strong doors split asunder, pouring in
A stream of soldiers, ruffians, armed with pikes,
Lances and clubs—the unchained beast, the mob.
Then, while some stuffed their pockets with baubles snatched,
From board and shelf, or with malignant sword
Slashed the rich orient rugs, the pictured woof
          That clothed the wall.

She polarizes her characters in caricature. Rebekah, the rabbi's daughter, represents the ideal Jewish woman, the “radiant girl” who dared not “lift / Shy, heavy lids from pupils black as grapes / That dart the imprisoned sunshine from their core.” Rashi is the consummate hero:

From his clear eyes youth flamed magnificent;
Force, masked by grace, moved in his balanced frame,
An intellectual, virile beauty reigned
Dominant on domed brow, on fine, firm lips,
An eagle profile cut in gilded bronze,
Strong, delicate as a head upon a coin,
While as an aureole crowns a burning lamp,
Above all beauty of the body and brain
Shone beauty of a soul benign with love.

Duke Wladislaw is a stereotypical anti-Semite who “heard / With righteous wrath his injured subjects' charge / Against presumptuous aliens.” He remembers how Prague

Harbored first,
Out of contemptuous ruth, a wretched band
Of outcast paupers, gave them leave to ply their
Moneylending trade and lease them land
On all too facile terms. Behold! today
They batten on Bohemia's poverty;
They breed and growl like adders, spit back hate
And venomed perfidy for Christian love.

Rashi is Emma Lazarus' first Jewish “exile.” In addition, in this work she returns to Jews as a community in exile. Rashi brings “glad tidings” of his brethren in the Diaspora. He tells of the papal treasurer who is a Jew; the flourishing academies at Babylon, Bagdad, and Damascus; and ben Maimuni, the “pearl, the crown of Israel,” in Cairo, the “second Moses, gathering at his feet the Sages from all over the world.” But he forgets or ignores, according to Lazarus, the “chief shrine, the Exile's Home, whereunto yearned all hearts”:

All ears strained for tidings, someone asked,
“What of Jerusalem? Speak to us of Zion.”
The light died from his eyes. From depths profound
Issued his grave, great voice: “Alas for Zion!”
Verily she is fallen! …
One, only one, one solitary Jew
The Rabbi Abraham Haceba, flits
Ghostlike amid the ruins; every year
Beggars himself to pay the idolaters
The costly tax for lease to hold agape
This heart's live wound; to weep, a mendicant,
Amidst the crumbled stones of palaces
Where reigned his ancestors, upon the graves
Where slept the priests, the prophets, and the kings
Who were his forefathers. Ask me no more!(32)

This poem is complete fable. Rashi died some thirty years before ben Maimuni (Maimonides) was born. From all accounts, he never traveled to Prague. And Lazarus' conception of Zion as bereft of all save one Jew is excessive. From the fall of the Second Temple in 68 a.d., small and often impoverished communities of Jews had lived in Palestine.

The poem is significant for a number of reasons. First, it shows clearly Emma's knowledge of and concern with the problem of Exile for the Jew. Second, she is aware of the longing of her people for a return to their homeland as early as 1880, two years before her active advocacy in their behalf. As a matter of fact, she had been attracted to the Spanish Jewish poets some years earlier. She chose to translate a number of their poems, some of which addressed with eloquent poignancy that longing. The Jewish Messenger in 1879, for example, published her translation of a poem by Judah HaLevi:

Oh, City of the world, with sacred splendor blest,
My spirit yearns to thee from out the far-off West,
A stream of love wells forth when I recall thy day,
Now is the Temple waste, thy glory passed away.
.....Oh! how I long for thee! Albeit thy King has gone.
Albeit where balm once flowed, the serpent dwells
Could I but kiss thy dust, so would I fain expire,
As sweet as honey then, my passion, my desire!(33)

Probably Emma Lazarus' most acclaimed work of fiction is The Dance to the Death, a dramatization of the German prose narrative “Der Tanz zum Tode.”34 In this tragedy, Lazarus magnifies her treatment of Christian anti-Semites. In the terror of the Black Death, the Jews in France have been tortured and burned. Blind Rabbi Jacob Cresselin comes to tell the Jewish community at Nordhausen that they must exile themselves or suffer the same fate. At the same time, Henry Schnetzen is advising Landgrave Frederick to destroy the community, as we know, not because of the plague but because it has been discovered that Prince William is in love with Liebhaid von Orb, the adopted daughter of Susskind von Orb. Schnetzen has no idea that Liebhaid is his own daughter, whom he assumes is dead. This constellation of facts provides the personal tragedy set within the larger tragedy of the immolation of the entire Jewish population in the synagogue. When Schnetzen learns of Liebhaid's true identity, he thinks it a trick and realizes the tragic truth only as the flames engulf her.

Lazarus' characterization of the cleric Prior Peppercorn is a logical extension of that of Fra Pedro. He is terrifying. In the play form, she is able to develop his rage more fully. The prior's speeches are filled with lethal language and show Lazarus' acute perception of a European anti-Semitism rooted in Christian theology. Peppercorn tells the princess, William's mother, that it is better for her son, who has been locked in a palace apartment, “to perish in time than in eternity.”

No question here of individual life; our sight
Must broaden to embrace the scope sublime
Of this trans-earthly theme. The Jew survives
Sword, plague, fire, cataclysm—and must since Christ
Cursed him to live till doomsday, still to be
A scarecrow to the nations. None the less
Are we beholden in Christ's name at whiles
When maggot-wise Jews breed, infest, infect
Communities of Christians, to wash clean
The Church's vesture, shaking off the filth
That gathers round her skirts—A perilous germ!
Know you not, all the wells, the very air
The Jews have poisoned?—Through their arts alone
The Black Death scourges Christendom.(35)

The princess urges Peppercorn to permit Liebhaid to convert and marry her son. Although the prior acquiesces, Liebhaid refuses, even after she has learned of her lineage. Saying that she loves the prince “as my soul,” she proclaims “no more of that” and announces that she is “all Israel's nor—till this cloud passes, / I have no more thought, no passion, no desire. / Save for my people.”36 Lazarites view this speech as autobiographical. Because it was published in Songs of a Semite, at the height of her Jewish campaign, they view Lazarus as a martyr who gave her personal life for her cause. Josephine's essay validates this contention. But the play was written at least two years earlier, when some of the same sources insist her Jewishness was as yet unborn.

Probably one of Lazarus' favorite exiles was Harry [sic] Heine. In addition to her translations of his works, she composed and published two lengthy essays about him. The first, written in 1878, became the introduction to a volume of her translations of his poetry, published in 1881.37 A review in the Century chastised her for failing to consider Heine “from the standpoint of an Israelite, and something authoritative as to the position in Germany, both as a student and exile. … Now that the Judenhetze is once more in Prussia and Russia,” the critic noted, “it is time for a well-informed co-religionist to be heard. … Here is a chance for one so well-fitted by birth, education, and a poetical nature as Emma Lazarus. The main objective would be the consideration of Heine as a Hebrew poet, who used German as his native, and French as his adopted tongue.”38

This criticism is significant, first of all, because it is incorrect. Emma's essay is based on the tragedy of Heine's Jewish birth in a virulently anti-Semitic Germany. Second, Josephine seems to have accepted the Century's criticism. According to her, Emma was “as yet unaware or only vaguely conscious of the real bond between them—the sympathy in the blood, the deep, tragic, Judaic passion of eighteen hundred years that was smoldering in her own heart, soon to break out and change the whole current of her thought and feeling.”39 Biographers address Emma's treatment of Heine from the points of view of the critic in the Century and Josephine Lazarus.

Lazarus' second essay on Heine, published in the Century in 1884, seems purposefully defiant of her earlier critic.40 In “The Poet Heine,” she stated that Heine could be seen as Hellene or Hebrew, but he was above all and only a poet, and she would treat him as an artist in discussing his work. Nevertheless, because the essay was published in 1884, during her “Jewish” phase, Lazarus' biographers have lauded her attention to Heine as a Jew.

Heinrich Heine is known as a renegade from his Jewish heritage. In the first essay, Lazarus tried to correct this assumption, saying that his baptism occurred only after he had exhausted ways to alleviate the restrictions against Jews who wished to become attorneys, a profession for which he was trained. She explained that he then dedicated himself “more entirely to upholding the rights of [his] unhappy brethren.” Eventually, he found it beneath his dignity to live in Germany as a baptized Jew and settled in Paris, a more benign climate for Jews, according to Lazarus.41

Lazarus compares Goethe's Germany to that of Heine. His “cheerful-burgher life” is contrasted to the “gloomy Judengasse” where “squalid, painful Hebrews were banished to scour old clothes.” In this “wretched by-way,” which was “relegated” to Heine, he must be “locked in like a wild beast, with his miserable brethren every Sunday.” And she asks, “How shall we characterize a national policy which closed to such a man as Heine every career that could give free play to his genius and offer him the choice between money changing and medicine?”42

Lazarus deals with Heine's Jewishness when she discusses the “Rabbi of Bacharach,” which, like her works, illustrates the persecutions of their people during the Middle Ages. Heine, “one of the most subjective of poets,” treated his theme “in a purely objective manner,” allowing himself “not a word of comment or condemnation.” And although he painted “the scene as an artist, not as the passionate fellow-sufferer and avenger that he is, … what subtle eloquence lurks in that restrained cry of horror and indignation which never breaks forth.” Lazarus tells us that Heine never signed his Christian name Heinrich, but he never surrendered his love for the country that loathed his people.43

In spite of the Century's criticism in 1882, or perhaps because of it, Lazarus' second essay was informed, not by her need to exonerate Heine as a Jew, but by her purpose to defend his right to be judged as a poet. Lazarus, like Heine, would try to remain objective; her emotion, like his, would bleed through the words. She admitted in 1884 that there was a duality about Heine, whose Greek traits of “laughter and sunshine,” the “intellectual clearness of his vision,” and his “pure and healthy love of art for art's sake,” were in “perpetual” conflict with his “somber Hebrew” side. “A mocking voice, Hebrew, Christian, tragedy, comedy, an adorer of despotism incarnate in Napoleon, an admirer of Communism embodied in Proudhon—a Latin, a Teuton, a beast, a devil, a god!” For Lazarus, Heine was “all and none of these; he is a poet.” And that was how she would “consider him in these pages.” Her discussion of his Jewishness consisted of two sentences explaining that his “home-life and surroundings were strictly Jewish” and that he was baptized “not from conviction, but in order to secure freedom in the choice of a profession, as the German code of that day obliged every Jew to become either a physician or a money-lender.”44

Emma Lazarus felt a kinship with Harry Heine. Although she never experienced the paralysis of Heine's Germany, her sensitivity to Christian anti-Semitism became outrage in 1882. She began dealing with anti-Semitism in 1876, six years before the start of her aggressive campaign in behalf of her co-religionists in the East, and dressed the topic in medieval disguise. By 1882, she lifted the mask, presenting contemporary Christian anti-Semitism to Christian and Jew, with a terrible honesty.


In 1882, Emma Lazarus published a book of poetry that she titled, audaciously, Songs of a Semite. “Anti-Semitism,” a word coined by German anti-Jewish agitator Wilhelm Marr in 1879, came to be a general label for all forms of hostility to Jews throughout history. Marr used it proudly to proclaim his intense antipathy toward Jews.45 Emma took the Semitic label every bit as proudly in public identification with a despised people. From 1882 until her death, she published powerful poetry with Jewish themes. Strident, passionate polemic, the works were written to two audiences, Jewish and Christian. She urged her people to renew themselves, to recapture their past glory, to reclaim their ancestral homeland, and she reminded her Christian readers of their historic and recurring anti-Semitism, as in “The Crowing of the Red Cock”:

Where is the Hebrew's fatherland?
The folk of Christ is sore bestead;
The Son of Man is bruised and banned,
Nor finds whereon to lay his head,
His cup is gall, his meat is tears,
His passion lasts a thousand years.
.....When the long role of Christian guilt
Against his sires and kin is known
The flood of tears, the life blood spilt,
The agony of ages shown,
What oceans can the stain remove
From Christian law and Christian love?(46)

In “The Banner of the Jew” she called on Jews to reclaim their nation:

Oh for Jerusalem's trumpet,
To blow a blast of shattering power,
To wake the sleepers high and low,
And to rouse them to the urgent hour!
No hand for vengeance—but to save,
A million naked swords would wave.
O deem not dead that martial fire,
Say not the mystic flame is spent!
With Moses' law and David's lyre,
Your ancient strength remains unbent,
Let but an Ezra rise anew,
To lift the Banner of the Jew.(47)

Although Emma's poems and essays seem to have been addressed to the same audiences, the essays were both patronizing and apologetic. In her poetry she stood with her people; in her prose she stood above them. She wrote three essays on Jewish themes for the Century and fifteen for the American Hebrew.48 Many assert that her first Century essay, “Was the Earl of Beaconsfield a Representative Jew?,” was an aberration for which she atoned in later essays. They are incorrect. In that piece we find characteristics of the Jew that would remain consistent in her later polemic in defense of her people.

When the Disraeli essay was published in April 1882, the Jewish community was outraged. At first glance, Lazarus seems to have presented “hardly a cliché which the anti-Semite would seriously oppose.”49 The problem with this less-than-flattering essay was that it appeared in the same issue of the Century as that questionable essay by Mme. Ragozin, and Emma would respond to her scathing presentation of Russian Jews exploiting Russian peasants. Emma's portrayal of Disraeli seemed to echoe some of Ragozin's ideas.

Lazarus wrote the Disraeli article in response to a monograph by Georg Brandes in which he asserted that Disraeli was not a representative Jew, that he lacked the “many-sidedness” of the Jew. He lacked the noble qualities of a Spinoza.50 On the contrary, Lazarus asserted that Disraeli had the qualities of both a Spinoza and a Shylock, that as prime minister of England, “poet, novelist, orator, satirist, wit and dandy,” he could lay claim to “many-sidedness of sympathy and mind.” However, Disraeli was not a “first class man,” she asserted.

[H]is qualities were not those of the world's heroes; he possessed talent, rather than genius; he was a sagacious politician aiming at self-aggrandizement; not a wise statesman building his monument in enduring acts of public service, and the study of his career is calculated to dazzle, to entertain, even to amuse, rather than to elevate, to stimulate, or to ennoble.

“But,” she continued, “do all these derogatory facts preclude him from being considered a representative Jew? On the contrary, we think they tend to confirm his title.” Calling Disraeli a “brilliant Semite,” she wrote that his “typical national character” developed from “centuries of persecution.”51

Lazarus contended that “centuries of persecution and the enforced narrowness of their sphere of action” had caused the Jewish “race” to be second rate. For example, much might have been heard of their achievement in the arts, but “among no modern people has the loftiest embodiment of any single branch of creative art been a Jew.” And the “great modern revolution in science” had gone on without their participation or aid. In her opinion, the next hundred years would “be the test of their vitality as a people.” The “phase of toleration upon which they are only now entering” would “prove whether or not they are capable of growth.”52

For Lazarus, Disraeli's Jewishness informed his activities and actions. She noted that he had

in an eminent degree the capacity which seems to us the most characteristic feature of the Jew, whether considered as a race or an individual, … the faculty which enables this people, not only to perceive and make the most of every advantage of their situation and temperament, but also, with marvelous adroitness, to transform their very disabilities into instruments of power.

And he had that “patient humility which accepted blows and contumely in silence.” This was not “the inertia of a broken will, but the calculating self-control of a nation imbued with persistent and unconquerable energy.” Emma said that no other Jewish trait was “more conspicuously exemplified than this in the career of Benjamin Disraeli. It was this which supported him through his repeated defeats before securing a seat in Parliament and again through the disgraceful exhibition of Parlimentary brutality which attended his maiden speech.” On that day, his “peculiar manner and outlandish costume” was, according to Emma, “something deeper than the so-called Oriental love of show. … [I]t is probable that the wily diplomat adopted it deliberately as a conspicuous mark for the shafts of scorn—… to divert attention from the natural race peculiarities of his appearance. The ridicule he foresaw as inevitable; rather let it be poured on the masquerade dress, which could be doffed at will, than upon the inalienable characteristics of his personality.”53

Emma continued her adulation, telling the reader that no Englishman could ever forget that Disraeli was a Jew; therefore “he himself would be the first to proclaim it, instead of apologizing for it.” Rather than “knock servilely at the doors of the English aristocracy,” he “conquered them with their own weapons, he met arrogance with arrogance, the pride of descent based upon a few centuries of distinction, with the pride of descent supported by hundreds of centuries of intellectual supremacy and even of divine anointment.”54

As these passages make quite clear, Emma Lazarus had a chauvinistic attitude about her own Jewishness. Her admiration of Disraeli is equally explicit. “In the attitude which he assumed, politically, socially and aesthetically, toward his race,” she said, “we do not know which to admire more—the daring originality of his position, or the pluck and consistency with which he maintained it.” Emma probably identified with Disraeli, whom she saw as a Jew in Christian society. More significant, however, he was a Sephardic Jew, as was she, and he “knew himself to be the descendant, not of pariahs and pawnbrokers, but of princes, prophets, statesmen, poets, and philosophers, and in his veins was kindled that enthusiasm of faith in the genius and high vocation of his own people, which strikes outsiders as an anomaly in a member of an habitually dispised race.” Moreover, the “narrowness, the arrogance, the aristocratic pride, the passion for revenge, the restless ambition, the vanity and love of pomp of Benjamin Disraeli, no less than his suppleness of intellect, his moral courage, his dazzling talents, and his triumphant energy, proclaim him, to our thinking, a representative Jew.”55

Emma Lazarus presented Disraeli, blemishes and all. Instead of criticizing him, she celebrated his traits as representative of his Jewishness. It was her contention that Disraeli and all modern Jews were products of centuries of oppression. She saw the Jewish “race” as a mutation, a distortion from its pure and heroic state in biblical times. Its survival as a group was a miracle.

At the risk of tarnishing her halo, we must point out that today Emma Lazarus would be known as a racist. Her stereotypical concept of the Jewish “race” is almost as offensive as that of those European anti-Semites she held in such great disdain. As we shall see, the words she used and the ideas she put forth to describe Disraeli do not disappear. On the contrary, her paradigm is well thought out in her subsequent Jewish essays, and was borrowed, in fact, from a woman for whom she had a great deal of admiration and respect, George Eliot.

In her last novel, Daniel Deronda, and in “The Modern Hep! Hep!,” a late essay, Eliot, a philo-Semite, designed a Jewish thought system. Her work would become the basis for future Zionist thought. For Eliot, the potentially “noble” character of the Jews had become corrupted in their effort to survive. It was true, for example, that Jews were ambitious and avaricious. This was the result of de-nationalization. “It is certainly worth considering,” she said, “whether an expatriated, denationalized race, used for ages to living among antipathetic populations, must not inevitably lack some of the conditions of nobleness.”56

Jews as a race had lost their nation, a geographical space in which to reside or to love from afar. Herein lay the problem. “[E]ndowed with uncommon tenacity, physical and mental, feeling peculiarly ties of inheritance both in blood and faith, remembering national glories, trusting in their recovery, abhorring apostasy, … they would cherish all differences that mark them off from their hated oppressors. … Doubtless such a people would get confirmed in vices.” Re-nationalization, on the other hand, had the mystical ability to change the negative character traits of the people who accepted it. “The nobleness of a nation” depended on the “presence of a national consciousness,” as did the nobleness of each individual citizen.57

We do not know when Lazarus first read George Eliot's Jewish works, but she quoted the novel and the essay throughout her own Jewish essays. In Eliot she apparently found a focus for her emotion and her thought. Interestingly, although Eliot has been seen as a philo-Semite, “The Modern Hep! Hep!” displays a chilling racism. Perhaps Emma's knowledge of Eliot's bias strengthened her own concept of the enforced separateness of her Jewish “race” and of herself as a member of that people.

Eliot believed that “[t]he pride which one identifies with a great historic body is a humanizing, elevating habit of mind, inspiring sacrifices of individual comfort, gain, or other selfish ambition, for the sake of the ideal whole; and no man swayed by that sentiment can become completely abject.” Emma could not have said it better. But that “great historic body” had to be protected against “alien” blood. “Let it be admitted,” said Eliot, “that it is a calamity to the English, as to any other great historic people, to undergo a premature fusion with immigrants of alien blood; that its distinctive national characteristics should be in danger of obliteration by the predominating qualities of foreign settlers. … I am all ready to unite in groaning over the threatening danger.”58

Eliot did not advocate sending away those Jews who were “elbowing us in a threatening crowd,” but “our best course is to encourage all means of improving these neighbors,” she said, “and for sending their incommodious energies into beneficent channels.”59 Emma Lazarus was to propose this in her own polemic in 1882-83. “Improving these neighbors” was her objective for those East European Jews who had appeared on her doorstep. For those who remained in Europe, repatriation to re-nationalized Palestine was the only solution. Both Lazarus and Eliot saw re-nationalization, in an age when nationalism was a powerful new concept, as a transcending, cleansing experience for a people seriously flawed.

Although Josephine Lazarus asserted that the impetus for Emma's Jewish polemic came as a result of that “fatal juxtaposition” of her Disraeli essay and Ragozin's piece, her rejoinder just one month later exhibits a knowledge and understanding of East European Jewish history she could hardly have acquired “on the spot,” so to speak.

Ragozin, a Russian expatriate living in the United States since 1874, addressed the “situation” in eastern Europe from a Christian point of view. In a most articulate way, she attempted to prove that the world at large was in error in blaming anti-Semitism for what she saw as the “mild” destruction of Jewish property in Russia. Ragozin used a Jewish convert to Christianity, Jacob Brafmann, as her authority, quoting from his highly questionable treatise The Kahal, an exposé of Jewish communal life. In short, it was Ragozin's contention that because the Jewish community was treated as a state within a state, Jews behaved as if it were one, structuring their community in such a way that the governing body, the kehilla, taxed and terrified its constituency. As a result, Jews in turn exploited their peasant neighbors, selling them spoiled meats, indulging the peasants' alcoholic tendencies with their breweries and inns, and coercing them into borrowing sums of money they could not repay. Therefore, the peasant attacks on the Jewish populace were understandable; the Jews deserved them.60

Lazarus refuted these charges, point by point, in her rejoinder, her second Century essay, “Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism.” Not only did she teach her readers about the dynamics of East European Jewish life, she took issue with Ragozin's whitewash of the brutal pogroms, discussing the means of torture and describing the wholesale destruction of Jewish villages. Nevertheless, she seems to have accepted Ragozin's description of the East European Jewish personality or character.

Ragozin described Russian Jews as “loathsome parasites,” herding together in “unutterable filth and squalor, … a loathsome and really dangerous element,” spreading “all kinds of horrible diseases and contagions.” But this is not the reason they were hated, they were “loathed because their ways are crooked, their manner abject—because they do not stand up for themselves and manfully resent an insult or oppose vexation, but will take any amount and cringe, and go off with a deadly grudge at heart which they will vent cruelly, ruthlessly.” Ragozin called for emancipation for Russian Jews so that they could dissolve their own system of government as well as their exclusive religion that had what she saw as archaic practices. Lazarus took issue with this idea in her rebuttal, pointing out the fallacy in the idea that emancipation would eliminate anti-Semitism. She cited West European countries as examples where emancipation and subsequent political power had caused anti-Semitic excesses.61

Lazarus felt that Jews must reform themselves both occupationally and religiously. This would not cure anti-Semitism, however. Only when Jews had a homeland of their own would anti-Semitism cease. She articulated these ideas in her lengthy treatise, An Epistle to the Hebrews. This series of fifteen essays appeared in the American Hebrew from November 1882 to February 1883. It has been described, with admiration, by one Lazarus scholar as her “mature confession of her faith, the most effective contribution she made to Jewish thought and policy.”62 The series is racist, derogatory, patronizing, apologetic, and harsh. Nevertheless, in these essays her call for a technical education for East European Jewish refugees in the United States, and a repatriation to Palestine for those remaining in Russia, has brought her enduring honor.

Emma Lazarus set herself up, as did Paul, from whom she borrowed her title, as a harbinger of Truth. The word “Hebrews” suggests that she was using Hilton's definition, designating her audience as so-called uptown Jews, many of whom were acculturated to the point of assimilation, as was she. Her desire in addressing her “fellow Jews” was to rouse them through study of their “glorious” past to join her in her mission for re-nationalization of their ancient homeland. For Lazarus, as for Mordecai Ezra Cohen, George Eliot's hero in Daniel Deronda, whom she quoted, Jewish Nationalism apparently was the ultimate charismatic experience. With Eliot, she endowed history with the power to create a conversion experience for all who would study the “full beauty and grandeur of her past, the glory and infinite expansiveness of her future.”63

As in her essay on Disraeli, Lazarus described and explained the flaws of her “race,” the result of centuries of oppression. Because they were now the focus of attention in the “present adversity,” the persecution of her people in Russia was a chance, however, to “look into the mirror held up by well-wishers and enemies alike”; to investigate the situation “coolly, rationally, and impartially.” Wherever a blemish was found, they must “shrink from no single or united effort to remove it.”64

“Judaism,” as Lazarus called it, was both a race and a religion with a divine mission to lift up “our own race to the standard of morality and instruction” in order to “promote the advancement and elevation of the Gentiles.” With unabashed pride, Lazarus boasted that the Jew, with moral and intellectual eminence, would serve as a “beacon-light to others.” She wanted a “nation of priests, … devoted servants of the holy spirit. What is needed,” she said, “as George Eliot said, is ‘the torch of visible community,’—that these few scattered workers be united and reinforced until they represent no longer an insignificant minority, but a resolute and homogeneous nation.”65

Emma Lazarus' concept of “Judaism” was unorthodox to say the least. At that time, there were two branches of Judaism recognized in this country, Traditional and Reform. Traditional Jews observed the 613 commandments, or mitzvot, and believed that when the Messiah came, the land of Israel would witness the ingathering of all Jews, living and dead.

Orthodox Judaism had changed little in the almost two thousand years since the destruction of the Second Temple and the dispersion of the Jews of Israel. Reform Judaism was another story. German Jews who had migrated to the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century had been intensely patriotic in Germany, even though their position in the general community was fragile. When they came to the New World they brought their patriotism with them, embracing the United States with the fervor with which they had loved their homeland. They also brought their ideas about a modernization of their religion.

By the 1880s, Reform Jews had negated almost all of the significant concepts and practices of traditional Judaism in an effort to Americanize the religion. They proclaimed America as their homeland, removing all prayers addressing the return to Zion. They would become anti-Zionists and would hold that position until the Holocaust. They did away with most observances. No longer did they keep kosher, nor did the men wear headcoverings or prayer shawls inside the synagogue. They called their houses of worship temples rather than synagogues. For them, there was no need to return to Jerusalem. Paradise could be found, now, on American soil.

Reform Jews placed their emphasis on prophetic Judaism. They saw their role much as Emma had articulated, as a “light unto the nations.” But Emma could not have become a member of a Reform Jewish congregation because of her position on Palestine. We know that Emma's solution to the Jewish Problem rested on the repatriation of Jews to their homeland, Palestine. Although she could agree with most of the tenets of Reform Judaism, her idea of a return to Zion would have been challenged.

We would say today that Emma Lazarus was an ethnic Jew. She would have been very uncomfortable with that definition if she could, in fact, have understood what it meant. Lazarus saw herself as a member of a race. But she had no intention of encouraging the perpetuation of the ethnic characteristics of that people. For a variety of reasons, she wanted the East European Jews to become as American as those Americans born here. On the other hand, she wanted American-born Jews not to become aware of their ethnic history, an ethnicity rooted in what she called East European obscurantism, but to become knowledgeable, through study, of their ancient heritage.

Lazarus contended that her race could be saved from the “chronic decadence” that resulted from “luxury, materialism and indifferentism [sic] by sedulously nourishing the sacred fires of historic memory at the same time that we emancipate and fortify our Reason to keep pace with the intellectual advance of the age.”66

We know that Emma Lazarus was honored in the Jewish community as the premier spokesperson for East European Jews. Clearly, her immortal sonnet is addressed to “wretched” refugees. But, interestingly, she saw those from eastern Europe, these “pale and stunted pariahs,” as “unfitted [sic] by nature and education for competition for existence under American conditions.” She took literally the words of Darwin and Spencer, to whom she referred throughout the Epistle. She saw Russian Jews, who had emigrated to these shores, having lived for centuries in the “darkness of a superstitious obscurant religion, in the filth of poverty,” as a group of people desperately in need of education. They must be taught the “Godliness of cleanliness, the dignity of womanhood, the delights of reason, the moral necessity of a broader humanity, the universal charity.”67

Emma's aristocratic cast of mind informed her ideas about education for young Jewish immigrants. She bemoaned the “wretched quality of work performed by the majority of American mechanics and domestic servants,” as well as the “false sense of pride that revolted at the very name of servant, as derogatory to the freeborn American.” She admonished her co-religionists against shunning domestic work, which so many Americans did. And although she saw this as a national problem, she felt that it was an “unhealthy social tendency fraught with even greater danger for the American Jew than for the American Christian.” Jews, Lazarus felt, lived more by their wits than by their hands, a function of years of oppression when all trades were closed save usury. Thus, if they were “as a rule a race of soft-handed, soft-muscled men,” it was not their fault. Now they must return “instantly and earnestly” to the “avocations of our ancestors in the day when our ancestors were truly great and admirable.”68

In an article published in the American Hebrew in October 1882, Lazarus spoke strongly for “employment and education.” It was on both that the survival of the race depended.

Mr. Spencer and Mr. Darwin, not to cite less authoritative names, have pointed out the positively maleficent effects of ignorant philanthropy, and the portentous evils of that short-sighted charity which neglects to take into account the laws of nature and of natural selection. In justice to future generations, in justice to ourselves, in justice to the objects of our sympathy, we must dispense only those gifts which strengthen the character and the mind, and we must study how best to avoid the rush of enfeebling the race by pauperization, and the artificial preservation of the vicious and idle.69

Emma Lazarus' crusade seems to have been uncomfortably frantic. She told East European Jews to reform themselves, and her passion was informed, one must suppose, by fear. The terrible problem for Emma Lazarus was the reality of collective guilt, imposed upon all Jews in a hostile Gentile community that continued to condemn them “as a race for the vices or follies of individual members.” Lazarus knew this was inevitable, even for American Jews; they belonged to a “race whose members are unmistakably recognized at a glance, whatever be their color, complexion, costume or language.”70

An Epistle to the Hebrews, a brutally honest assessment of the Jewish Problem as Emma Lazarus saw it, was reissued by the Federation of American Zionists in 1900, thirteen years after her death, and published again in 1987 as an annotated edition by Lazarus authority Morris U. Schappes.71 The language and ideas are archaic and offensive to a post-Holocaust generation, but Lazarus' treatise is an artifact of her era. Placed in a culture where Darwin and Spencer were the interpreters of a world in which industrialization had run wild, her construct would make sense. With George Eliot as a resource, her words would be taken seriously.

In February 1883, Emma's third Jewish essay, “The Jewish Problem,” was published. Thousands of Christian readers of the Century were edified by this chauvinistic appeal for sympathy. Throughout the piece, Lazarus quoted Christian clergymen for authentic historical accounts of Jewish persecution in Christian Europe. Early on, she referred the reader to Reverend Henry Hart Milman, Dean of St. Paul's, “if it be supposed that I am drawing too dark a picture of Christian atrocities and too partial a presentment of the innocence of my victims.”72

The first part of the essay is a “brief history of the Jews from the Third Century before the Christian Era” to the present. Lazarus acknowledged her “indebtedness to a pamphlet written in 1881 by German Christian, C. L. Beck, entitled ‘A Vindication of the Jews’” from which she had “freely quoted.” Step by step she traced the litany of persecution in each country in Europe and was relentless in her description of the various methods of torture. Her pessimism, even after the emancipation of Jews in western Europe in the early nineteenth century, extended to her own country, where the word “Jew” was “in constant use, even among so-called refined Christians, as a term of opprobrium, and is employed as a verb to denote the meanest tricks.”73

Interestingly, Lazarus had included with the corrected proofs of her essay a letter to Robert Underwood Johnson, one of her editors at the magazine. She thanked him for pointing to her errors in spelling and grammar, and then with sarcasm asked him to thank the appropriate party for the “charming” review of Songs of a Semite. She wished “he could be a Jew for only 24 hours,” she wrote, “& he would then understand that neither materialism nor indifference prevents the Jews from decrying their provocateurs. They have never had a long enough interval of security or equality (if indeed they have ever had the latter) be able to utter a lamentation without risk of bringing down upon themselves again the immemorial curse.”74

The second part of the essay dealt explicitly with the Jewish Problem. Emma Lazarus found a Jewish solution, similar to those of her fellow proto-Zionists in Europe, and agreed with her adversaries who proposed that Jews exit host countries in which they were unwanted residents. She told her Christian audience that Jews, “naturally a race of high moral and intellectual endowments,” may have, however, “superficial peculiarities which excite the aversion of Christians, … the lingering traces of unparalleled suffering.” But Jews, she said, have too long turned the other cheek. They have proved themselves willing and able to assimilate with whatever people and to endure every climactic “influence. But blind intolerance and ignorance are now forcibly driving them into that position which they have so long hesitated to assume. They must Establish an Independent Nationality.”75

“The idea formulated by George Eliot,” she said, “has already sunk into the minds of many Jewish enthusiasts.” Quoting both Daniel Deronda and Mordecai Ezra Cohen throughout the essay, she agreed with their concept of “an organic center,” a homeland, for their “race.” With a “heart and brain to watch and guide and execute, the outraged Jew shall have a defense in the court of nations, as the outraged Englishman or American.”76

Emma Lazarus had a vision. Her treatment of the meaning of Exile, first articulated at the age of eighteen in her poem, “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” became a call to action as she came to know the meaning of Christian anti-Semitism. Her exaltation of “martyrdom” and “heroism” matched her need to recapture a time of grandeur for her people. But Emma lived in the real world where a “colossal experiment” involving masses of people in the organized chaos that was the nation's largest metropolis was being conducted before her eyes. In the midst of this ferment, she faced Jews of an eastern Europe ignored or at least passed by in the modernity of the hour. Her solution, repatriation of East European Jews, would be both realistic and romantic in the eyes of this late nineteenth century New Yorker.

Never in her wildest imaginings could Emma Lazarus have predicted the capacity of that city to accommodate the more than one million East European Jews who would emigrate there between the 1880s and World War I. She would have been astonished to see how rapidly those exiles would adapt their religion and their way of life to American culture.

Emma Lazarus had a great deal to say about the subject of exiles, as we know. But her position was contradictory. Not only was she drawn to Jewish exiles at an early age, she addressed the subject in one of her last published pieces, “By the Waters of Babylon,” which appeared in the Century in 1887, shortly before her death. In the first of these poems, “Exodus (August 3, 1492),” she dealt with the expulsion from Spain, when all of Spain's Jews, Emma's ancestors, were forced either to convert to Catholicism or to leave. Interestingly, she treated these exiles with respect; when she wrote of exiles from eastern Europe, later in the piece, she saw them in a different light. These outcasts with “ignominious features,” and “shuffling gait” wore “the sordid mask of the Ghetto.”77 And we will remember that when she was composing her famous sonnet, she was also working to keep alive her organization for the repatriation of Jewish exiles to Palestine.

Lazarus could rhapsodize over Jewish exiles in history, but those who would be settled in the neighborhood next door were cause for apprehension. We have seen the specter of anti-Semitism that threatened even well-established Jews in the late nineteenth century. Emma was dislocated from her security as a Sephardic Jew, so to speak. Furthermore, she had been dislocated, physically, in that rapidly changing Manhattan environment. Her family had to move uptown in 1877 when a furniture warehouse next door chased them out of their Fourteenth Street home where they had resided for twenty years. They lived on Fifty-seventh Street for only six years and then moved back downtown to Tenth Street.

Perhaps Emma was drawn to exiles because symbolically she was an exile herself. Not only was she uprooted geographically, her own identity was fractured. She was a woman for whom her father had grand professional ambitions, in a world where domesticity reigned supreme; a Jew whose relationship to her Christian friends was ambiguous; an “outlaw” among her own observant Jewish relatives; a northerner with southern connections; and a New Yorker whose close friends, Tom Ward and Rose Lathrop, were New Englanders. Where would she fit in?

We need to say, finally, again, that it is not clear, really, why this woman, who in 1880 felt herself relegated to “elf-music,” would bond to a people with whom she had nothing in common save an opprobrious name. But the Darwinian geist of the era seemed to permit her to see the possibilities of a reversal of the “mutations” caused by centuries of persecution. Lazarus' chauvinistic and enthusiastic endorsement of Jewish history and her belief in man's capacity for change in the “proper” environment led to a self-anointed leadership of her people. She became an Ezra. Her vision of a Jewish state as a palliative for anti-Semitism came to fruition sixty years after her death.

Emma Lazarus was an American original. Born into the constraints of a nineteenth-century Victorian angle of vision, she was made aware of her talent at an early age. She knew that she was expected to take herself seriously. Her parents enabled her to meet the important American and European artists and thinkers of that time. And these intellectuals served to validate her as a young woman to reckon with. This patrician young Jewess found herself as comfortable in Concord or Newport or the capital cities of Europe as she was in Manhattan. But the “quaintness” of Concord, the superficiality of Newport, the dazzling differentness of Europe would never provide the environment demanded by her muse. Only in Manhattan, in the neighborhood of her birth, would she find the backdrop for her short life's achievements.


  1. The poem was written in October 1880 and was not published until 1944, when Morris U. Schappes included it in his collection of Lazarus' work. Morris U. Schappes, ed., Emma Lazarus: Selections from Her Poetry and Prose (IWO Jewish American Section, 1944).

  2. For a fine explanation of these pieces and Emma's response, see Vogel, 107-8.

  3. Lazarus, “American Literature,” 164. She wrote a letter to Stedman some time before December 1881, when Stedman's article “Poetry in America,” which Lazarus discusses, was published in Scribner's. For Lazarus' letter to Stedman, see Schappes, The Letters of Emma Lazarus, 24A.

  4. Letter 2HdeKG.

  5. Lazarus, Poems and Translations, 63-118.

  6. Emma Lazarus, Admetus and Other Poems (1871; reprint, Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Literature House, Gregg Press, 1970), 86.

  7. Ibid., 123-27.

  8. Ibid., 132.

  9. Emma Lazarus, “Outside the Church,” Index, 14 December 1872, p. 399.

  10. Vogel, 87.

  11. Emma Lazarus, “An Epistle,” in Poems 2:45-58, quotation on p. 45.

  12. Ibid., 45, 47-53, 57.

  13. Ibid., 57-58.

  14. Emma Lazarus to Gustav Gottheil, 3 October 1882, Schappes, ed., Letters, no. 37.

  15. Emma Lazarus, Alide: An Episode of Goethe's Life (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1874), 152.

  16. Letter 20TWW. Interestingly, Emma's sister, Josephine, wrote a similar letter to Ward, transcribing the same poem, apparently unaware of Emma's letter. Josephine Lazarus to Thomas Wren Ward, n.d., TWW Papers.

  17. Lazarus, Alide, 153-54.

  18. Vogel, 102.

  19. Lazarus, Alide, 102-103.

  20. Emma Lazarus, “The Eleventh Hour,” Scribner's 16 (June 1878): 252-56.

  21. Ibid., 256.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Letter 7TWW.

  24. Lazarus, “The Eleventh Hour,” 256.

  25. Emma Lazarus, “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” Admetus, 160.

  26. For Emma's thoughts about Longfellow, see her “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,” AH [American Hebrew], 14 April 1882, pp. 98-99.

  27. Heinrich Heine, “Donna Clara,” trans. Emma Lazarus, Jewish Messenger, 18 February 1876, p. 1.

  28. Emma Lazarus, “Don Pedrillo,” Jewish Messenger, 18 February 1876, p. 1.

  29. Emma Lazarus, “Fra Pedro,” Jewish Messenger, 18 February 1876, p. 1.

  30. Ibid.

  31. Emma Lazarus, “Rashi in Prague,” Independent, 25 March 1880, pp. 27-28; idem, “The Death of Rashi,” Independent, 8 April 1880, p. 27. Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac lived in the latter half of the eleventh century. Born in Troyes, France, he established an academy there, where he remained until his death. He was the first of the Jewish scholars in western Europe to write commentary on the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures. His greatest accomplishment was his commentary on the Babylonian Talmud. His work more than any other would be used in medieval Jewish scholarship and after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. See Joan Comay, Who's Who in Jewish History after the Period of the Old Testament (New York: David McKay, 1974), 328.

  32. Lazarus, “Rashi in Prague,” 27.

  33. Judah HaLevi, “Longing for Jersualem,” trans. by Emma Lazarus, Jewish Messenger, 1 February 1879, p. 1.

  34. Zeiger, 43-48.

  35. Lazarus, The Dance to the Death, in Songs, 20-21.

  36. Ibid., 32.

  37. Heinrich Heine, Poems and Ballads of Heinrich Heine, trans. with an intro. by Emma Lazarus (New York: Hurst, 1881).

  38. “Miss Lazarus's Translation of Heine,” Century 23 (March 1882): 785-86.

  39. [Josephine Lazarus,] “Emma Lazarus,” 879.

  40. Emma Lazarus, “The Poet Heine,” Century 29 (December 1884): 210-17.

  41. Heine, trans. Lazarus, ix.

  42. Ibid., xiv.

  43. Ibid.

  44. Lazarus, “The Poet Heine,” 210-11.

  45. For more information on Wilhelm Marr, see Encyclopaedia Judaica (1972), 2: 1015.

  46. Emma Lazarus, “The Crowing of the Red Cock,” Jewish Messenger, 19 May 1882, p. 1.

  47. Emma Lazarus, “The Banner of the Jew,” Critic 2 (18 June 1882): 164.

  48. The three Century essays were “Was the Earl of Beaconsfield a Representative Jew?” (April 1882); “Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism” (May 1882); and “The Jewish Problem” (February 1883). The fifteen essays in the American Hebrew, included in her Epistle to the Hebrews, ran from November 1882 to February 1883.

  49. Zeiger, 109.

  50. Georg Brandes, Lord Beaconsfield: A Study (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1880).

  51. Emma Lazarus, “Beaconsfield, a Representative Jew?” 941.

  52. Ibid., 942.

  53. Ibid., 940.

  54. Ibid.

  55. Ibid., 941.

  56. George Eliot, “The Modern Hep! Hep!” in The Works of George Eliot: Adam Bede, Theophrastus Such, Essays (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, n.d.) 124-43, quotation on 135.

  57. Ibid., 132.

  58. Ibid., 136, 137.

  59. Ibid., 141.

  60. Zénaide Ragozin, “Russian Jews and Gentiles, from a Russian Point of View,” Century 23 (April 1882): 905-20.

  61. Ibid., 918, 920; Emma Lazarus, “Russian Christianity,” 52.

  62. Zeiger, 111-12.

  63. Emma Lazarus, An Epistle to the Hebrews (New York: Federation of American Zionists, 1900); ed. Morris U. Schappes (New York: Jewish Historical Society of New York, 1987): 7.

  64. Ibid., 9.

  65. Ibid., 9, 13-15.

  66. Ibid., 15.

  67. Ibid., 19, 74.

  68. Ibid., 17, 19-20.

  69. Emma Lazarus, “The Schiff Refuge,” AH, 20 October 1882, p. 114.

  70. Lazarus, Epistle to the Hebrews, 79.

  71. See n. 19.

  72. Lazarus, “The Jewish Problem,” 605.

  73. Ibid., 608.

  74. Robert Underwood Johnson Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University. Lazarus' letter is undated.

  75. Lazarus, “The Jewish Problem,” 608-10.

  76. Ibid., 610.

  77. Emma Lazarus, “By the Waters of Babylon: Little Poems in Prose,” Century 33 (March 1887): 801-3.

Shira Wolosky (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5653

SOURCE: Wolosky, Shira. “An American-Jewish Typology: Emma Lazarus and the Figure of Christ.” Prooftexts 16, no. 2 (May 1996): 113-25.

[In the following essay, Wolosky studies Lazarus's poetic references to Christ as they serve to link her Jewish and American identities.]

Emma Lazarus was among the first poets specifically to assert ethnic voice in America, indeed ethnic voice as American. In doing so, Lazarus appeals to a typological rhetoric that, as Sacvan Bercovitch explores, had served from the time of the Puritan landing as a founding ritual of American national identity. Lazarus's rendering of this foundational rhetoric, however, requires a singular restructuring of its basic terms and their distribution, even as she institutes a no less striking reconstruction of her distinctive Jewish commitments. Puritan typology thus becomes a scene of mutual transformation between her American and Jewish identities, one made possible by their convergences but necessary by their disjunctions. This complex interchange comes to focus in the strange, and in many ways volatile, Christ figure that emerges as a center of Lazarus's poetic vision.

“The New Colossus,” written to raise funds for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, remains Lazarus's most forceful and successful poem. In it, Lazarus's multiple identities achieve an especially intricate representation, through a range of rhetorical strategies that persist throughout her later writings. The poem's female gendering finds antecedents in Lazarus's earlier work.1 In “The New Colossus,” this feminine figuration becomes a powerful trope for national identity. Through a pattern of oxymorons, Lazarus asserts a uniquely female power:

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 worldwide 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.”(2)

Mighty / woman, imprisoned / lightning, Mother / of Exiles, mild eyes / command, cries / with silent lips: each oxymoron of feminized modest power acts as bridge, like the Statue herself, by which the alien is made native, the outcast made essential, the weak made strong. The poet, too, is projected as both welcoming hostess and guest-refugee.

This intricate tropology of feminized, naturalized American further represents the specific commitments of Lazarus's Jewish identity. The images for the Statue uncannily recast the biblical text of Deborah (a preferred figure for many nineteenth-century women writers), who is not Mother of Exiles, but Mother in Israel; whose prophetic presence empowers the army of barak, the Hebrew word for lightning; and who is named eshet lapidot, the wife of Lapidoth, which also translates as “woman of the torch” (Judges 4).3 This biblical subtexture, out of the Hebrew that Lazarus had just begun to study in the 1880s, is framed by other Judaic associations. The concluding image of the “lamp” is repeatedly identified with Jewish consciousness in such other Lazarus poems as “The Choice,” “Gifts,” “The Feast of Lights,” and “In Exile.” More suggestive still is the poem's opening image of the brazen giant. Lazarus intends her “New Colossus” to be opposed against the ancient Colossus of Rhodes, pagan statue of the sun god. This figure is not only masculine, conquering and pompous as against the Statue's giant modesty; it is Greek. But for Lazarus, as for Heinrich Heine, whose writings she had been translating since childhood, the opposing counterpart of Greek Hellenism is Hebraism. That the Greek giant acts in the poem as a figure for Europe, then, implicitly contrasts America against it as Hebraic. America as asylum not only welcomes the Jews (among others) that Europe, in a phrase that suggests quotation and not Lazarus's own view, rejects as “wretched refuse.” In contrast against Greek-Europe, America itself emerges as Hebraic site, with its history a mode of Jewish history.

Lazarus's American discourse is thus made commensurate with her Judaic one. Yet this is hardly an alien imposition. The Puritans themselves had done no less. As Jew, Lazarus would in fact have found particular entry into the Puritan rhetoric of typology that identified America as the New Israel and Promised Land, providentially revealed at the very moment of Puritan need and call. Indeed, Lazarus has special recourse to several distinctive, and not entirely congruent, strands in this complex rhetorical tradition. The Puritan venture, figured in typology as a new Exodus of chosen people crossing the sea to found the kingdom of God, was also undertaken in pursuit of religious freedom, consecrating the new world Canaan as haven for the afflicted; “a refuge,” in the words of the Psalmist (9:9), “for the oppressed.” The rhetoric thus supports both asylum and election, a particularist and universalist vision at once.4 If the Puritans were uniquely chosen, so could others be, with America the Promised Land for all who would see it as such.

To be American is in these senses already to be Hebraic. For Lazarus, as later for Horace Kallen, inventor of the phrase “cultural pluralism,” committing herself to America commits herself to her own most potent Judaic antecedents. It would be all but irresistible to recognize herself and her people in the Puritan image of the Israelite in Exodus, even as she would embrace the promise of asylum. But if thus far Lazarus's strategies seem mutually confirming and conforming between the Jewish and American traditions, just how complicated and potentially destabilizing the relation between them remains can be seen in the figure of Christ, which indeed stands at the center of all typology and which the poem also evokes.

Israel Zangwill, in his 1908 play The Melting Pot, hears in the Statue's “Give me your tired, your poor” the language of the Gospels (Matt. 11:28): “When I look at the Statue of Liberty, I just seem to hear the voice of America crying: ‘Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.’” This echo, with its typological associations, is confirmed by another Lazarus sonnet, “1492,” composed at about the same time as “The New Colossus.” This second sonnet presents “1492” as a “two-faced year” in which the Jews of Spain were expelled, but in which America, again feminized as “virgin world” and unveiled as future asylum, was also discovered. As Michael Kramer argues, the linkage between these two events effectively makes the discovery of America an event in Jewish history.5 And here again the “doors of sunset,” opening in asylum, say: “Ho, all who weary enter here.” Lazarus's conflation of Jewish migration to America, Exodus, and Christ occurs elsewhere as well, perhaps most explicitly in a prose poem she wrote shortly before her death at the age of thirty-eight, called “The Exodus (August 3, 1492).” Opening under “the Spanish noon,” it envisions the expulsion from Spain as casting out “dusty pilgrims” then spurned by all the nations; but it also offers a prophetic call to “whisper to the despairing exiles” that, at that very historical moment, “a world-unveiling Genoese” sails “to unlock the golden gates of sunset and bequeath a Continent to Freedom.” And among these Jewish exiles, as the very image of their suffering, is a “youth with Christ-like countenance” who “speaks comfortably to father and brother, to maiden and wife,” while in his breast “his own heart is broken.”

Lazarus here no doubt reenacts a typological ritual shared by many ethnic groups who became American, and for whom, as Werner Sollors discusses in Beyond Ethnicity, the voice of America merges with the voice of Christ.6 For Lazarus to adapt typology to her particular consciousness, tradition, and need, however, requires strenuous revision, and even refutation, of premises fundamental to the Puritan tradition. Lazarus could discover in typology her Jewish identity within and indeed as founding her American one. But if Jewish biblical experience serves as typological ground, it does so only to support a structure that ultimately subsumes it. Especially in the American Puritan context, typology affirms the biblical history as founding pattern. But to valorize as pattern is to subordinate as history. History becomes figure, indeed prefiguration of the Christian transformation that is its fulfillment. In this sense, however, to be fulfilled is to be abolished. No independent historical course outside the pattern of its own subsuming is admissible for the ancient Hebrews. Meaning must pass from the Old Testament to the New, from Judaic letter to Christian spirit, a passage that itself serves as paradigm for redemptive process. Indeed, to allow Jewish history any meaning independent of this figural, typological transformation is sin. As to the Jews, their validity as model is guaranteed only by their relegation to the remote past. Through subsequent history, they remain as figure for resistance, and indeed, betrayal. Refusing its own figuralization, its typological transformation from historical reality to Christian prediction, Judaism refuses integration into sacral and redemptive revelation. Thus, as ground for Christianity, Judaism participates in its sacred history. But as refusing Christian transfiguration, it is antiwitness, renegade, and sinful.

To assert continuous, valid, autonomous historical life on the part of the Jews is then fundamentally to contest Christian sacral history. At issue is a clash of historical claims, as these in turn implicate spiritual meaning and indeed redemptive possibility. This clash becomes Lazarus's central project through all of her later writings. What a poem such as “1492” represents is Lazarus's discovery of history. The very insistence on the expulsion from Spain already radicalizes the poem's typological structure, introducing a moment in Jewish postbiblical history as within providential design. This is enforced in the poem's biblical subtext, which presents the expulsion from Spain in the language of the expulsion from Eden, with Spain driving forth “the children of the prophets” by “flaming sword.” Evoked here is the expulsion into history itself, as a significant event in an ongoing, meaningful design.

The discovery of history, figured in “1492,” was for Lazarus also the crucial moment of her own self-discovery. It is this, even more than specific historical events, that transformed Lazarus from a writer of labored and vague conventional verse into a powerful polemicist. The daughter of wealthy, established, and assimilated Portuguese-German Jews, Lazarus was precocious in languages and letters, publishing at the age of eighteen a first volume of poems and translations. Its private printing by her father can serve as an emblem for Lazarus's female decorum on the one hand, which prevented her throughout her life from reading her own work in public (others performed this office); and on the other, her driving literary ambition. Her elite social-literary circle included Edmund C. Stedman, anthologist and editor; Richard Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine, in which much of her prose writings appeared; Rose Hawthorne, daughter of Nathaniel; Thomas Wentworth Higginson, proctor to Dickinson; and most centrally, Emerson, whom she had met at a party given by Julia Ward Howe's brother, Samuel, in 1866. After their meeting, she sent him verses and volumes, while he in turn offered to act as “your professor, you being required to attend the whole term” (letter, 14 April 1868). Emerson's subsequent omission of any of her poems from his anthology Parnassus was the most traumatic event of Lazarus's early life, and she protested it directly and accusingly in a letter to him: “Your favorable opinion having been confirmed by some of the best critics of England and America, I felt as if I had won for myself by my own efforts a place in any collection of American poets, & I find myself treated with absolute contempt in the very quarter where I had been encouraged to build my fondest hopes” (27 December 1874).7

Lazarus's subsequent change has all the mystery and prepared suddenness of a conversion experience. Lazarus had shown some consciousness of her Jewish identity even before the massacres of Jews in Russia caused their first mass emigration to America. Among her first poems is her “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” a reply to Longfellow's “Jewish Cemetery at Newport,” where she tries to confute his “dead nations never rise again” with, if not full resurrection, then at least a continued sacral presence: “Still the sacred shrine is holy yet. … Take off your shoes as by the burning bush.” Through the 1870s, her rabbi, Gustav Gottheil, had been trying to entice her to contribute some verses to a Reform prayer book (she reluctantly contributed English translations of German versions of medieval Hebrew hymns).8 More crucially still, he introduced her to the just-emerging German and German-Jewish historiography, the new Wissenschaft des Judentums. Finally, he accompanied this elite, decorous young lady to Ward Island, to witness for herself the mass of newly arrived refugees.

It is the new sciences of history that provide Lazarus with weapons for confronting the devastation of “murder, rape, arson, [and] one hundred thousand families reduced to homeless beggary” that she describes in one of her first polemical pieces. Lazarus there is replying to one Mme. Ragozin—collaborator in Putnam's multivolume The Story of the Nations, member of the Oriental Society, of the Societé Ethnologique de Paris, and of the Victorian Institute of London9—who, in an essay called “Russian Jews and Gentiles,” had defended the pogroms as the appropriate response to an alien, subversive, heretical Jewish presence in Russian society. Lazarus's own essay, “Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism,” already in its title alters the historiographic map by which Ragozin had divided all Jewry into “those who followed Jesus, and those who crucified him.”10

Lazarus instead asserts that Jewish history is alive, indeed is “the oldest among civilized nations.”11 This historicist approach to Jewish life, as Yosef Yerushalmi points out, had itself been an innovation of the Wissenschaft movement, whose original group included the young Heine.12 Lazarus makes it the center of such poems as “The World's Justice” and “Gifts,” which contrast Israel against the long defunct kingdoms of Egypt, Assyria, Greece, and Rome. In prose essays, she similarly sets out, as she writes in “The Jewish Problem,” to “review” Jewish history “since the Scriptural age, where ordinary readers are content to close it.” Lazarus, moreover, addresses her historicized vision to Jews no less than Gentiles, “convinced,” as she writes in her Epistle to the Hebrews, “that a study of Jewish history is all that is necessary to make a patriot of an intelligent Jew.”13

The new historiography, both German and Jewish, also provides Lazarus with the basis for rewriting typology. Her task is to find a place for Jews not only in history but in America. But her very assertion of Jewish history contests the position of the Hebrew within American typological configuration. She is thus committed to a historiography that both joins her to and distinguishes her within the American community, and she requires a rhetoric that will allow for both impulses. What Lazarus must do is marshal the power of typological rhetorical patterns, while resisting their historical erasures, and recast the Jew as both antecedent and present, figure and history, type and antitype.

One strategy in this project is to invoke Hellenism as contrast to Hebraism, as she does with the “brazen giant of Greek fame” in “The New Colossus.” In poem after poem, Lazarus adopts a Greek/Hebrew structure that deploys the ancient, dead culture as a contrast underscoring her living one. These poems often feature the Maccabees, the leaders of the second-century b.c.e. Jewish revolt against Greek imperialism and Hellenist culture. In this, Lazarus substitutes a fundamentally different schema for the basic typological progression in which the Old Testament prepares for, but is abolished by, the New Testament that supersedes it. By displacing the rhetoric of Old to New and instituting Greek and Hebrew in its stead, she redefines the configuration of forces defining Jewish identity, exchanging dead letter for living culture.

But Lazarus's most daring and disruptive typological venture concerns the figure of Christ himself. Throughout her later poetry, Lazarus persistently makes Christ the central figure for Jewish history itself. In doing so, she draws on the newly contemporary and still controversial studies of the historical Jesus in his Jewish context. This had become a topic for German and German-Jewish historians alike, beginning with Hermann Reimarus's The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples, a historical reconstruction of the life of Jesus published by Lessing in 1778. It was then elaborated by Jewish figures such as Moses Mendelssohn, Heinrich Graetz, and Abraham Geiger, as well as such Christian scholars as David Strauss and Ernest Renan in his Life of Jesus (1863).14 Lazarus herself wrote an essay for The American Hebrew, “M. Renan and the Jews,” where she presents Renan's view of Judaism as a prophetic religion that “has done much service in the past [and] will serve also in the future”; and that declares Christianity to be “Judaism adapted to Indo-European taste” (163-64). She also cites, in her Epistle to the Hebrews (35), Mark Antokolsky, a contemporary artist whose Ecce Homo portrays Jesus in ancient Jewish costume, with semitic features, side curls and a skullcap.

Lazarus is, if not the first, then certainly among the first to represent Jesus in literature in these historicist terms, although doing so becomes important in twentieth-century Jewish literature, as David Roskies recounts.15 Lazarus, moreover, goes beyond reclaiming Jesus as Jew and actor in Jewish history. She makes Christ her defining figure of Jewish identity, with the Jews, as a historical people, themselves the body of Christ. Thus, in “The Crowing of the Red Cock,” she asks:

Where is the Hebrew's fatherland?
          The folk of Christ is sore bestead;
The Son of Man is bruised and banned,
                    Nor finds whereon to lay his head.
His cup is gall, his meat is tears,
His passion lasts a thousand years.

Jesus' Jewish identity makes the Jews the “folk of Christ.” But he also, through the figure of “The Son of Man,” represents them throughout a history seen as prolonged “passion.” “The Valley of Baca” similarly presents Jewish historical travail through the figure of a “youth” whose head is “circled with a crown of thorn.” In “The Supreme Sacrifice,” Israel, enduring “the scorn of man” for two thousand years, “Bows his meek head” and confesses “Thy will be done.” “Raschi in Prague” is “featured like the Christ,” and in “The Death of Raschi,” the great rabbi, having been martyred by Christians, on the “third day” is said to have risen from the dead, “the life returned,” a wonder to be believed “knowing the miracles the Lord hath wrought / In every age for Jacob's seed.”

Lazarus here undertakes a significant redistribution of forces within typological construction. She gains entry into typology at a different point. And she reverses its fundamental direction, values, indeed its whole redemptive process and pattern. To identify the Jews with Christ is to lift them out of their anticipatory, prefigural role and place them instead at the very nexus of transfiguration itself, in the position of fulfilling revelation. The truth of this revelation is then not transferred from but rather realized through them. The sacred and divine moment is retained in their continuing nationhood rather than eclipsing it. And Christ becomes an extension of the prophetic figure of the Suffering Remnant, the “remnant lost,” as Lazarus names it in “The World's Justice,” confirming rather than displacing Jewish prophecy and providential history.

Christian claims are at the same time severely displaced. Instead of emerging as the people of Christ, the Christian becomes their persecutor through history. The crucified becomes the crucifiers; and those long accused as crucifiers become the crucified. Not Jews, but Christians, betray Christ. Thus, Lazarus concludes her translation of “The Dance to Death,” a play depicting the destruction of a German-Jewish community by its Christian citizens during the Black Plague, with a cry of Jewish martyrs to the “cruel Christ” against the Christian “child murderer.” As she sums up in “The Crowing of the Red Cock,” “When the long roll of Christian guilt / Against his sires and kin is known. … What oceans can the stain remove / From Christian law and Christian love?”

Lazarus's rewriting of typology here clearly emerges as a species of polemic, the central mode of all her later writings, as indeed of the historiographical arguments that posed Jesus' historical ties to Judaism against the Pauline theology emphasizing his repudiation of it. And Lazarus is fully conscious that her revised version directly contests and is incompatible with the main tradition that she nevertheless attempts to invoke and enlist. This can be seen in a series of poems written through the rhetoric of antisemitism, including “The Guardian of the Red Disk”; two ballads on Jewish persecution that she wrote to complete a project initiated by Heine; and, most rigorously, in the poem “Epistle.” There, as she explains in a note, Lazarus rewrites a letter to Paulus, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who had achieved high office in the Church and become active in its persecutions of the Jews of Seville, which she had come across in Graetz's multivolume History of the Jews (1853-75). The poem systematically reviews Christian beliefs regarding Christ's mission, contrasting it against a Jewish reading of these beliefs in light of their own history. As she quotes from Graetz: “Christianity gives itself out as a new revelation in a certain sense completing and improving Judaism. … Where [in Christian history] is the truth and certainty of revelation?”

Lazarus's own polemic is, of course, enlisted in defense of Jewish identity in history. Yet her position remains a complicated one. Her very model of history emerges as the clash of stances and conflicting claims—a clash that her writing in many ways reproduces rather than resolves. The Christic imagery that she adopts allows her to negotiate a Jewish identity within American culture. But if she thus rewrites typology, she is also rewritten by it. Christ as encompassing center of history and culminating image is, after all, an odd figure for Jewish identity, not unlike the Christian one. Lazarus's reversals are in this sense unstable. Her work in other ways enacts, without resolving, conflicts within her multiple identity. Lazarus, in fact, institutes not one typology, but two. Alongside the figure of suffering sacrifice, Lazarus introduces a contrary one of Jewish assertion, awakening, and heroism. This finds its ultimate expression in her vision, adopted from George Eliot, of a Jewish restoration in the national homeland of Palestine. Incipient Zionism becomes a central feature of Lazarus's prose, from “The Jewish Problem,” where she declares “all suggested solutions other than this of the Jewish problem [are] but temporary palliatives” (611), through her Epistle to the Hebrews, where she repeatedly urges “the signs of a momentous fermentation” (32), and the “prophetic intuition” of the “revival of the idea of a Restoration” (46).

This Zionist commitment emerges in such poems as “The Banner of the Jew” and “The Feast of Lights,” where the Maccabean revolt becomes a call to Israel to “wake” and “recall to-day / the glorious Maccabean rage,” to “Chant psalms of victory till the heart takes fire, / The Maccabean spirit leap new-born.” Most powerfully, “The New Ezekiel” transmutes the graveyard of two millennia of history into a prophetic scene of national rebirth:

Yea, Prophesy, the Lord hath said. Again
                    Say to the wind, Come forth and breathe afresh,
Even that they may live upon these slain,
                    And bone to bone shall leap, and flesh to flesh.
The Spirit is not dead, proclaim the word,
                    Where lay dead bones, a host of armed men stand!
I ope your graves, my people, saith the Lord,
                    And I shall place you living in your land.

Lazarus here comes closest to realizing a Hebrew poetics in which history and biblical text act as ethnic voice, spoken as a prophetic “word” that unites, rather than opposing, “flesh” and “Spirit,” history and pattern.

Yet a question remains, even here, as to which land she has in mind: America or Palestine? For Lazarus does not relinquish her claim on America as the Promised Land. Indeed, she is careful to make clear in her Epistle that her Zionist program is not intended for American Jews: “There is not,” she assures her readers, “the slightest necessity for an American Jew, the free citizen of a republic, to rest his hopes upon the foundation of any other nationality soever” (41). It is only the problem of the Eastern European Jews that Zionism solves, since “their colonization en masse in the United States is impracticable” (44). Her “plea for the establishment of a free Jewish State has not the remotest bearing upon the position of American Jews”; for “wherever we are free, we are at home” (72).

To Lazarus, these two Promised Lands are complementary, not competing. Nevertheless, their several claims lead to rhetorical ambivalence, if not confusion, in her verse. The poem “In Exile” celebrates the journey of refugees from the Egypt of Russia not to Palestine, but to Texas, there to enjoy the “freedom to love the law that Moses brought” and “to drink the universal air.” But in having the refugees “link Egypt with Texas in their mystic chain,” Lazarus is unclear whether she intends their journey as one of exile or of exodus. “The New Year” tells how

In two divided streams the exiles part,
                    One rolling homeward to its ancient source,
One rushing sunward with fresh will, new heart.
                    By each the truth is spread, the law unfurled.

Two streams, two homecomings: nonetheless, the journey that the poem depicts as the fulfillment of “the Prophet's promise” is the one from the Russian “steppes” to the American “Sierras” (a somewhat confused geography), in a rhetoric that realizes Moses' plea to Pharaoh through a “New Colossus” image of American asylum:

To snow-capped Sierras from vast steppes ye went,
                    Through fire and blood and tempest-tossing wave
For freedom to proclaim and worship Him,
                                                                      Mighty to slay and save.

Lazarus's ambivalence finally derives both in herself and in her America. She firmly articulates an ideal that allows participation in American life while retaining distinctive ethnic identity: “To combine the conservation of one's own individuality with a due respect for the rights of every other individuality is the ideal condition of society, but it is a foolish perversion of this truth to deduce therefrom the obligation to renounce all individuality” (Epistle, 13). Yet her work poses questions regarding the extent to which ethnic identity is implicated and absorbed by American cultural forces, as well as its place in an American society where, as Joshua Fishman writes, ethnicity remains a “secret” that somehow has “to exist and yet not to exist, to be needed and yet to be unimportant, to be different and yet to be the same, to be integrated and yet to be separate.”16 Even “The New Colossus” has a polemical context, to assert as much as to confirm the American welcome to the huddled masses. As John Higham recounts, it was written at a time when the mass immigration from Eastern Europe intensified nativist agitation—a problem Lazarus acknowledges in her Epistle. It was, moreover, only after the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 had put an end to mass immigration, and in the face of renewed persecutions in Hitler's Europe, that the poem was enshrined at the Statue's entrance, in 1945.17 The two traditions so carefully intertwined in the poem of asylum and election, universalism and nationalism, remained conflictual in the political history of immigration.

Lazarus herself was no immigrant, but an American expressing her ethnic vision through the rhetoric of her native country. She throughout her career wrote for both Jewish and American audiences; and resolutely dismissed what she calls, in her essay on Renan, “the whole rotten machinery of ritualism, feasts and fasts, sacrifices, oblations and empty prayers” for a rational, historicized national identity and a prophetic tradition consistent with, and founding, “universal religion.” The result is a discourse in which the American and the Judaic remain conjunctive and disjunctive at once. The contrastive pressures of the rhetorics that she adopts can be seen when she lauds America as “a society where all differences of race and faith were fused in a refined cosmopolitanism” (Epistle, 73), or when, at the very moment she calls for national restoration in “The Jewish Problem,” she hastens to add: “From this statement I exclude American Jews, who have lost color and individuality, and are neither Jew nor Gentile.” Here Lazarus reverts to a Pauline language that, while apparently universalist, is highly typological and acts to subsume every identity into the unity of Christ, as it is written: “But now also put off all these. … And have put on the new man. … Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, … but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:8-11). The logic of typological rhetoric carries Lazarus at such moments to an erasure of Jew and Greek within a unified identity that remains, however, essentially Christian, rather than allowing her to assert her distinctive, but related, Hebrew and American identities.18 In general, however, she tries to sustain in her typology, Jewish and Christian readings of biblical history that share common ground but are also incompatible. The result is a poetic that seems half confused, half prophetic; one which yearns, as Lazarus writes in a poem dedicating herself to the spirit of prophecy (“To Carmen Sylva”), to speak both “for poet David's sake” and also “for his sake who was sacrificed—his brother Christ.”


  1. See Diane Lichtenstein's analysis of Lazarus in Writing Their Nations (Bloomington, Ind., 1992), p. 38. A further aspect of the poem's feminine tropology may be at work in that one model for the Statue was the Virgin Mary. See Marvin Trachtenberg, The Statue of Liberty (New York, 1976).

  2. Lazarus poems are cited from: The Poems of Emma Lazarus, 2 vols. (Boston, 1889); and Emma Lazarus: Selections from Her Poetry and Prose, ed. Morris U. Schappes (New York, 1967).

  3. Diane Lichtenstein does make this association with Deborah, but does not develop it, p. 37. I wish here to thank Menachem Blondheim, who suggested this further elaboration; and especially Michael Kramer, to whom I am indebted for his extreme generosity in sharing with me Lazarus materials he had collected as well as ideas developed in this paper.

  4. I here specifically refer to Sacvan Bercovitch's essay “The Ends of Puritan Rhetoric” in The Rites of Assent (New York, 1993). However, Bercovitch's many writings on the Puritan structure of American culture, including typology, serve as the background for this essay as a whole.

  5. My thinking is based here on Michael Kramer's discussion of this poem in “How Emma Lazarus Discovered America in ‘1492,’” unpublished manuscript. Kramer also explores the relation between Christian and Jewish typology in “New English Typology and the Jewish Question,” Studies in Puritan American Spirituality 3 (Dec. 1992): 97-124.

  6. Werner Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity (New York, 1986), pp. 84, 51.

  7. Letters to Emma Lazarus, ed. Ralph Rusk (New York, 1939), p. 4; and The Letters of Emma Lazarus 1868-1885, ed. Morris U. Schappes (New York, 1949), p. 11.

  8. Lazarus's letters to Rabbi Gottheil show a strong resistance to involvement in Jewish affairs, cultural or otherwise, as Heinrich Jacob discusses in The World of Emma Lazarus (New York, 1949), p. 80, where he notes that Lazarus strangely denies having done any translating. See also Louis Harap, The Image of the Jew in American Literature (Philadelphia, 2d ed., 1978), who quotes Lazarus to Rabbi Gottheil: “The more I see of these religious poems, the more I feel that the fervor and enthusiasm requisite to their production are altogether lacking in me” (p. 286). In a similar vein, Edmund Stedman reports having said to Lazarus: “There is a wealth of tradition you are heir to and could use as a source of inspiration,” to which she replied that she was “proud of my blood and heritage, but Hebrew ideals do not appeal to me” (Harap, p. 289).

  9. Jacob, World of Emma Lazarus, p. 113.

  10. Zinaida Alexeievna Ragozin, “Russian Jews and Gentiles,” The Century Magazine, vol. 23, vol. 1 (Nov.-Apr.): 905-20, p. 909.

  11. Emma Lazarus, “Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism,” The Century Magazine, vol. 24, vol. 2 (May-Oct.): 48-56, p. 49.

  12. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (New York, 1989).

  13. Emma Lazarus, “The Jewish Problem,” The Century Magazine, vol. 25, vol. 3 (Nov.-Apr.): 602-11, p. 602; Emma Lazarus, An Epistle to the Hebrews, Centennial Edition (New York, 1987), p. 8.

  14. Ziva Amishai-Maisels reviews this historiography as a background to the figure of Jesus in Jewish art in: “The Jewish Jesus,” Journal of Jewish Art 9 (1982): 85-104.

  15. David Roskies, Against the Apocalypse (Cambridge, Mass., 1984).

  16. Joshua Fishman, Language Loyalty in the United States (The Hague, 1966), p. 73.

  17. John Higham, “The Transformation of the Statue of Liberty,” Send These to Me (New York, 1975). At the time of the sonnet's writing, there was no statue standing in New York Harbor; and the project as a whole was intended as a monument to Franco-American friendship, not asylum. As James R. Lowell wrote to Lazarus, “I liked your sonnet on the Statue much better than I like the Statue itself. But your sonnet gives its subject a raison d'être which it wanted before quite as much as it wanted a pedestal.”

  18. It seems relevant here to point out that there is as yet no collected works of Emma Lazarus. The Lazarus sister, Annie, who controlled the copyright of her writings, declined permission when Bernard Richards in 1926 asked to edit a complete works. Herself having converted to Catholicism, she felt, as she wrote to Richards, that while Emma's “politico-religious poems are technically as fine as anything she ever wrote, they were nevertheless composed in a moment of emotional excitement, which would seem to make their theme of questionable appropriateness today. … There has been, moreover, a tendency, I think, on the part of some of her public, to overemphasize the Hebraic strain of her work, giving it thus a quality of sectarian propaganda, which I greatly deplore, for I understood this to have been merely a phase in my sister's development. … Then, unfortunately, owing to her untimely death, this was destined to be her final word” (World of Emma Lazarus, p. 209).

Bette Roth Young (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Young, Bette Roth. “Emma Lazarus and Her Jewish Problem.” American Jewish History 84, no. 4 (December 1996): 291-313.

[In the following essay, Young discusses Lazarus's literary response to anti-Semitism and her proposed solution to the problem of Diaspora Jews in An Epistle to the Hebrews.]

“The truth is that every Jew has to crack for himself this nut of his peculiar position in a non-Jewish country.”

Emma Lazarus

Less than a month after Emma Lazarus died, one of her editors, Joseph Gilder, memorialized her in an issue of The Critic, his widely read journal of literature and the arts. He wrote that the children of Moses Lazarus “had Christians for playmates and schoolmates and most of Emma's friends were Christian. … She died, as she lived, as much a Christian as a Jewess—perhaps it would be better to say neither one or the other.”1

This curious interest in Emma's religious affiliation was shared by her close friend, Rose Lathrop, Nathaniel Hawthorne's daughter, who converted to Catholicism in the late nineteenth century and became a nun. She wrote to a mutual friend, Helena deKay Gilder, at least two letters inquiring whether Emma had converted to Catholicism before she died. She certainly hoped that she had.2

Emma's friends weren't the only ones interested in the status of her Jewishness. Her sister Annie, who had converted to Anglican-Catholicism, wrote a letter in 1926 to Bernard G. Richards denying his request for the rights to publish her Jewish poems, for which she had the copyright.

There has been a tendency on the part of the public, to over emphasize the Hebraic strain of her work, giving it this quality of sectarian propaganda, which I greatly deplore, for I consider this to have been merely a phase in my sister's development, called forth by righteous indignation at the tragic happenings of those days. Then, unfortunately, owing to her untimely death, this was destined to be her final word.3

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) is remembered, of course, as the author of “The New Colossus,” the sonnet to the Statue of Liberty. But at the time of her death the poem had fallen into obscurity, where it rested until 1903 when it was engraved on a bronze plaque and installed inside the pedestal of the statue. When she died she was eulogized by both the Jewish and Christian community in a memorial issue of the American Hebrew as a Jewish heroine. As a matter of fact, she called herself a “Semite” in one of her most well-received offerings, “Songs of a Semite.”4

Since her death Emma Lazarus has been imprisoned in an identity she would scarcely recognize. If Annie Lazarus was sure Emma's Jewishness was just a passing phase, her sister Josephine, unwittingly perhaps, created a Jewish persona for her sister that has followed her into all sorts of biographies, encyclopedia entries and journal essays.

Until recently an essay written by Josephine in 1888 has been the biographical authority, enlarged upon and embellished to suit the fancies of those who wished to remember Emma as a “tragic Jewish priestess” bereft of humor and of love. Why Josephine chose to remember her sister as a sort of Jewish Emily Dickinson is anyone's guess, but the meager collection of primary resources by and about Emma has lent undue importance to her sister's portrait.

Josephine painted Emma as a morose recluse of uncommon talent whose Jewish identity was awakened in 1882 when news of the desperate plight of the Czar's Jews transformed her into a strident activist whose work in behalf of her people captured her imagination and her life. Public protests in London and New York to Russian excesses against the Jews were a “trumpet call that awoke the slumbering and unguessed echoes,” stirring her sister to action.5

The central issue in a study of Emma Lazarus is her identity as a Jew. Just what kind of a Jew was she? Was her commitment to her people more than a passing fancy? Was it Josephine or Annie who knew the “real” Emma Lazarus? It is not surprising that these women should be at such odds about their beloved sister. When we examine Emma's life we see that her identity was bifurcated from the start. In an age when Christians and Jews in this country lived separate lives, for the most part, Emma Lazarus seems to have insinuated herself into Christian society with dignity and grace. At the same time, however, she mounted an assertive campaign against Christian anti-Semitism, medieval and modern.

As Joseph Gilder noted, Emma Lazarus' best friends were Christian. Except for her numerous sisters, she seems to have had no close Jewish friends.6 On the other hand, for at least two years in her life, 1882 and 1883, she “plunged wrecklessly” into what she called the “Jewish Question” and the “Jewish Problem” in a self-assured attempt to solve it.7

An attempt to define Emma's Jewishness is problematic. She uses the words “Jew” and “Judaism” interchangeably and asserts that the Jewish people is both a religion and a race.8 The nicest thing that can be said about Emma's concept of Judaism is that it is abstract. It bears no resemblance to rabbinic Judaism and only a distant similarity to Reform Judaism. At times it is almost unintelligible.

In an essay which appeared in both the New York Sun and the American Hebrew she wrote:

The gradual elevation and refinement of the Hebrew concept of God from anthropomorphism to pure spiritual proves how it may adapt itself without danger to human thought. It is not like every other religion hampered by mythology or legend. The idea of the unity of the creative force and the necessity of moral law—these are its sacred treasures, acquired by the intuitive wisdom of its forefathers and neither assailed nor reached by all the revolutions of modern science … this faith, capable of infinite expansion and subtilization, may go hand in hand with science, strong and steadfast as herself, to very brink of the unknowable and the unthinkable.9

If Emma's Judaism is amorphous, her commitment to her people is enigmatic. Why did Emma Lazarus bother with Judaism or the Jewish people at all, and just when did she begin to pay attention to them? Some would agree with Josephine Lazarus that her sister was “born-again,” a Jew who recaptured her Jewish identity at the age of 33. If we look at the calendar of the events in her life until that time little would suggest that she had much to do with Jewishness, however we define it—cultural, religious, or ethnic—until then. On the other hand, when we examine her work we see an early aversion to Christianity, a passionate contempt for medieval Christian anti-Semitism and a surprisingly broad knowledge of Jewish history.

Emma Lazarus was born in New York City, lived there all of her life, and died there in 1887. Her family tree was deeply rooted in American soil. Both her father's family, the Lazaruses, and her mother's family, the Nathans, had come to Manhattan before the American Revolution. Her father, Moses Lazarus, a wealthy sugar merchant, was a renegade from the Orthodox ritual of the Sephardic Jewish community, apparently the first in his family to rebel. With membership in both the very exclusive and gentile Union and Knickerbocker Clubs and a summer home in Newport, Rhode Island, long before Jews were welcome there, Lazarus seems to have had little interest in Judaism, the Jewish community or his own Jewishness.10

Lazarus did have an interest in securing for Emma a place in the American literary landscape. He nurtured her gift for poetry and translation, subsidizing the publication of her work when she was seventeen years old. Moreover, he saw to it that she met the foremost American scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson, soon thereafter.11 Emerson became the first of many late-nineteenth-century thinkers to become her friend.

Her father's hand continued to be seen in that relationship. When Emma wrote to Emerson inviting him to visit, her father added a note of his own.12 Perhaps we should call Moses Lazarus a “stage father.” It is safe to assume that in those early years it was he who arranged introductions to such notables as the internationally acclaimed Anton Rubenstein and the Italian Shakespearean actor Tomasso Salvini.

By the time she was twenty-five Emma was corresponding with such luminaries as Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev with a self-confidence that belied her young years.13 Her father had taken her seriously at an early age; she was not surprised when others did so as well.

The year 1876 was a defining one for Emma. It was then that she met Richard Watson and Helena deKay Gilder, key figures in American culture at the turn of the century. We don't know how she met this couple, but they seem to have taken up where her father left off. They welcomed Emma into their extended family and into their circle of friends. The Gilders knew everybody who was anybody. Their “Friday evenings” were legendary. Politicians, artists, actors, and authors from the United States and Europe would gather there. Emma was regularly in attendance.

Emma met Richard Gilder when he was editor of Scribner's. He immediately published her work. In 1882 she followed him to the Century Magazine, which became under his stewardship the most widely read journal of culture, history and the arts in the United States. Emma was a not infrequent contributor. Even more important, she became a part of the inner circle of artists and critics who shaped American aesthetic values and opinion in the late years of the nineteenth century. One scholar has said that era was not the Gilded Age but the “Gilder Age.”14

The discovery of over one hundred letters to Helena and Richard Gilder from Emma and her sisters Josephine, Sarah and Annie provides new insight into Emma's life and thought.15 They reveal not the recluse her sister Josephine painted but a very busy young woman who participated fully in the cultural life of her city. There is little to distinguish her from her gentile friends. She observed Christmas, for example, and spent erev shabbat not at home but at the Gilders' fabulous Friday evening salons.16

Emma's intellectual life, however, tells another tale. We first see the Church as a grotesque villain in “Bertha,” her fifty-five page poem written before she was seventeen years old. Based on historical fact, the poem tells the story of star-crossed cousins of the tenth century French prince Robert Capet and his wife, Bertha. After refusing to obey orders from the abbott to annul their marriage they bear a child, whom the abbott switches with one that is deformed. Bertha flees to a nunnery and dies.17 Lazarus' aversion to Christian clerics would continue in later work.

We see an interest in Jewish themes in “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” written in 1867 when Emma was eighteen years old. In it Emma perceptively portrays the tragedy of the Jew in exile, foreshadowing, perhaps, her later passionate commitment to a Jewish home in Palestine.

What prayers were in this temple offered up,
Wrung from sad hearts that knew no joy on earth,
By these lone exiles of a thousand years,
From the fair sunrise land that gave them birth …
Alas! we wake: one scene alone remains,—
The exiles by the streams of Babylon.(18)

In 1876, the year she met the Gilders, Emma published in the Jewish Messenger her translation of Heinrich Heine's unfinished poem Donna Clara, which she completed. In Donna Clara Heine portrays Christian anti-Semitism which Emma enlarges upon. Donna Clara, a Spanish anti-Semite, meets and falls in love with a “handsome knightly stranger.” She tells him that she loves him,

          oh my darling,
And I swear it by our Savior,
Whom the accursed Jews did murder
Long ago with wicked malice.

They make love, and as he is about to leave, Donna Clara asks his name.

I, Señora, your beloved,
Am the son of the respected
Worthy, erudite Grand Rabbi
Israel of Saragossa.

In Emma's sequel Donna Clara has had a child, Pedro, who has no idea that he is Jewish and becomes a rabid anti-Semitic cleric. He is unremitting in his hatred toward Jews. At one point he tells a rabbi:

All your tribe offends my senses,
They're an eyesore to my senses
And a stench upon my nostrils.

In decreeing the destruction of the Jewish community, Fra Pedro will not save even Saragossa's finest physician. He says that if he found a single drop of Jewish blood in his veins, he would not shrink from ending his life to purge it.19

Emma continues her polemic against medieval Christian anti-Semitism in two poems about Rashi, which appeared in 1880 in The Independent, Henry Ward Beecher's paper, widely read by Christians across the country. “Rashi in Prague” and “The Death of Rashi” are set in Czechoslovakia in the twelfth century. In these two poems Emma's righteous Jews are contrasted to the Christian anti-Semites she loathes, and Rashi is idealized:

From his clear eyes youth flamed magnificent;
Force masked by grace, moved in his balanced frame,
An intellectual, virile beauty reigned
Dominant on domed brow, on fine, firm lips, …
Above all beauty of the body and brain,
Shone beauty of a soul benign with love.

In contrast, Duke Wladislaw remembers how Prague

          harbored first,
Out of contemptuous rhythm a wretched band
Of outcast paupers, gave them leave to ply their
Moneylending trade and least them land …
They breed and growl like adders, spit back hate
And venomed perfidy for Christian love.(20)

These explicit denunciations of medieval Christian anti-Semitism were only the beginning of Emma's published accusations, not only against medieval anti-Semitism but against the Christian anti-Semitism of her own time. All the while she seems to have been perfectly comfortable in the drawing rooms of her Christian intimates in Manhattan and Newport, Lenox and Concord, Massachusetts.

These poems reveal a knowledge of and empathy for medieval Jewish history. Her play “The Dance to the Death,” written in 1880 and published in Songs of a Semite in 1882, continues her expose of Christian anti-Semitism in Nordhausen, Germany, at the time of the Black Death. It is the gruesome story of the Jews of that city who were crowded into their synagogue and immolated. Once again, Lazarus exhibits a knowledge of the virulent anti-Semitism and Christian theology which would precipitate such an event. Placing in the mouth of another Jew-hating Christian cleric are words that would appear again in Hitler's diatribes; Prior Peppercorn is the logical extension of Fra Pedro:

No question here of individual life; our sight
Must broaden to embrace the scope sublime
Of this trans-earthly theme. The Jew survives
Sword, plague, fire, cataclysm—and must since Christ
Cursed him to live till doomsday, still to be
A scarecrow to the nations. None the less
Are we beholden in Christ's name at whiles
When maggot-wise Jews breed, infest, infect
Communities of Christians, to wash clean
The Church's vesture, shaking off the filth
That gathers round her skirts—A perilous germ!
Know you not, all the wells, the very air
The Jews have poisoned?—Through their arts alone
The Black Death scourges Christendom.(21)

In 1881 Emma Lazarus published a poem in Scribner's, “Sic Semper Liberatoribus, March 13, 1881,” extolling the virtues of the fallen Czar of All the Russias, Alexander I. “What alien current urged on to smite him dead, / Whose word had loosed a million Russian chains?”22

In 1882, just one year later, Emma seems to have become acquainted, perhaps for the first time, with the experience of East European Jews. It was then that she became the self-appointed spokesperson for her tempest-tost people. She began to write stirring poetry such as “The New Ezekiel,” “The Banner of the Jew,” and “The Crowning of the Red Cock.” In these poems Emma recalls the martyrdom of her people through the ages and calls upon them to regenerate themselves:

Oh for Jerusalem's trumpet now,
To blow a blast of shattering power,
To wake the sleepers high and low,
And rouse them to the urgent hour!
No hands for vengeance but to save,
A million naked swords should wave.(23)

Emma's interest in her East European people was in itself not unusual. We know that she was sensitive to Christian anti-Semitism. Furthermore, many Christians had decried the plight of her people in public meetings and in writing. As she wrote to her friend Rose Hawthorne,

The Jewish Question which I plunged into so wrecklessly & impulsively last Spring has gradually absorbed more and more of my time & heart—It opens up such enormous vistas in the Past & Future, & is so palpitatingly alive at the moment—being treated with more or less ability & eloquence in almost every newspaper & periodical you pick up—that it has about driven out of my thought all other subjects—24

The Czar's Jews had become a popular cause. But not only did Emma become an advocate for her people, she assumed their beleagured identity. Not that she moved to the Lower East Side, learned Yiddish and adopted their lifestyle, although she did help young immigrant girls at the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society, a short-lived German-Jewish helping institution, and was at Ward's Island, the holding place for immigrants who were not permitted to enter the United States, on the day of the great riot by inmates protesting the living conditions there.25 But she became the injured party, railing against what she saw as the hostility to the immigrants she championed as well as to herself. Where did her self-proclaimed injury come from?

Emma's personal relationships with her Christian friends were noteworthy for their reciprocity. From her correspondence with Helena Gilder we know that she accepted their friendship with enthusiasm and that she welcomed the opportunity to know the Gilders' Christian friends. Henry James and Emma Lazarus had high regard for each other. James and Helena deKay had been childhood friends in Newport. It was James who introduced Emma to his Jewish friends, the Leonard Montefiores and Lady Francis Goldsmid, as well as those he shared with the Gilders when Emma was in England. And it was Emma's friend Georgina Schuyler who saw to it that the sonnet was placed in the pedestal in Emma's memory.26

In spite of these and other unequivocal friendships with Christians, Emma's Jewish identity rested on her defensiveness as a Jew. That is, in spite of her myriad Christian friends, she was not immune to Christian enmity. We could say that it was in the air. With the rise of Nativism in the last quarter of the nineteenth century in the United States came the specter of anti-Semitism. In 1877 one of the most infamous incidents occurred when Joseph Seligman was excluded from the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Seligman had come to this country from Germany in 1837 and with his family established a banking empire with branches in England, Germany, and France. He had frequented the Grand Union Hotel for years. The hotel was owned by department store magnate A. T. Stewart. When Stewart died management of the hotel was turned over to Judge Henry Hilton, who did not like Jews. His exclusion of Joseph Seligman became a national incident.

In defense of his position Hilton made clear what he thought of “Seligman Jews.” The words that appeared on page one of The New York Times are chilling. He differentiated between so-called Hebrews, good Jews, Sephardic Jews such as Emma's family, the Nathans, and “Seligman Jews.” Calling him a “sheeney,” he says the Seligman Jew is

of low origin, and his instincts are all of the gutter—his principles small—they smell of decayed goods, or of decayed principles. But he has extracted cash out of his gutter, his rags, his principles, and he shoves his person upon respectability … He is shoddy, false, squeezing,—unmanly.

In spite of strong protest, Hilton refused to change his position. Soon other hotels and resorts followed suit.27

While we have no knowledge that Emma or her family personally experienced this kind of anti-Semitism before she began her crusade for East European Jews in 1882, we can be sure that she knew about the Seligman affair. In 1883, six years after the incident occurred, she involved Seligman's son, Edwin Robert Anderson Seligman, in her endeavor to rescue her people.28

Emma witnessed two other incidents of defamation of Jews in print, one of which touched her personally. How strongly she reacted appears in two letters she wrote in 1883, one to a gentile, Century Magazine associate editor Robert Underwood Johnson, and the other to the editor of the American Hebrew, Philip Cowen. In the first instance, Emma's own work was the impetus for the attack. An unflattering portrayal of Jews had appeared in the Century in an anonymous review of her recently published Songs of a Semite. Emma Lazarus had proclaimed publicly with that title her identification with her despised people. The slender little volume included her strident Jewish poetry and “The Dance to the Death.”

While the criticism of her book did not attack Emma personally, it was obviously meant for her eyes to see. The critic says that Jews have never defended themselves, had never fought back. Rather, they are

when speaking of them as a whole—given to materialism, and, when protected by the laws of a country quite content to feather their nests & and live that opulent, pleasure-seeking life which is full of the kindly offices of those who love their families, but is little inclined to look beyond or above.29

Emma answered with an angry, sarcastic retort.

What a charming notice the Century has given my “Songs of a Semite.” I appreciated very much its warm and sympathetic tone. I don't know & I don't wish to know who my friendly critic is—but all I can say against him—is that I wish he could be a Jew for only 24 hours—& he would then understand that neither materialism nor indifference prevents the Jews from decrying their persecutors. They have never had a long enough interval of security or equality (if indeed they have ever had the latter) to be able to utter a lamentation without risk of bringing down upon themselves again the immemorial curse. Even I have been much criticized by my own people for what many consider the want of tact & judgement in speaking so freely.30

The article was not the first in the Century to be critical of Jews, not the first to which Emma had responded. In April 1882 an expatriate Russian, Zenaide Ragozin, published a scathing attack of Russian Jews, “Russian Jews and Gentiles, from a Russian Point of View.”

Ragozin, a recent Russian expatriate to the United States, addresses the situation in Russia from a Russian Christian's point of view. Using Jacob Brafmann's infamous “expose” of Jewish communal life, The Kahal, it is her thesis that because the Jewish community is treated as a state within a state it has no regard for the dominant culture and exploits its peasant neighbors, selling them spoiled meat, encouraging their alcoholic tendencies and coercing them into borrowing money they could not pay back. Any excesses against them are to be expected and are deserved.

Ragozin describes Russian Jews in the standard stereotypical way. “Loathsome parasites,” they herd together in “unutterable filth and squalor. … A loathsome and really dangerous element” which spreads “all kinds of horrible diseases and contagions.”31 Ragozin's rhetoric sounds like the medieval language Emma had exposed in her earlier work.

Emma's rejoinder, “Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism,” appeared in the next issue of the Century. She refutes Ragozin's charges point by point and provided her Christian readers with the dynamics of East European Jewish life as she sees it. Quoting Jeremiah, she asserts

That the Jew should ever form a ‘hostile state within a state’ is rendered impossible by a solemn Biblical injunction commanding fidelity to the ruling government: ‘And seek the welfare of the city whither I have banished you, and pray in its behalf unto the Lord, for in its welfare shall ye fare well.’32

The folks at The Century Magazine were Emma's friends and yet in the space of a year that journal had published two attacks on Jews, one aimed indirectly, we must conclude, at Emma. Of course, these were not the particular incidents that compelled her to act. Her campaign had begun sometime before the essays appeared. Just how many other slights had she contended with?

In her letter to Cowen Emma responds to an article in the New York Sun written by one Frank Wilkeson stereotyping Jews in the cotton states in the South. According to Wilkeson the Jews in the South were ruining Southern planters by foreclosing on their estates. The article generated a number of letters from both Christians and Jews, most refuting Wilkeson's charges.

Emma replies that she is “perfectly conscious” that the contempt and hatred expressed in the article “underlies the general tone of the community toward us” (underlining in original). She reiterates her contention that, when she would “even remotely hint at the fact that we are not a favorite people” she is “accused of stirring up strife and setting barriers between the sects.”33

If we look at Emma's friendships more closely we see that she was labelled as a Jew by some of her acquaintances and friends. For example, when Thomas Wentworth Higginson met her in Newport in 1872 he had written his sisters to ask if they had ever heard of “any poems by Emma Lazarus? She is a rather interesting person and her volume of poems are better received in England than here.” He went on to say that she was a “Jewess; they are very rich and in fashionable society in New York.” And Henry James wrote to his sister Alice, in the summer of 1882 that he “met and fell in love with Emma Lazarus: a poetess, a magaziness, and a Jewess.”

Ellen Emerson wrote to her niece upon meeting Emma: “Then think of what nuts it was to me, old S. S. teacher that I am, to get at a real unconverted Jew (who had no objection to calling herself one, and talked freely about ‘Our Church’ and ‘we Jews’).”34 We know nothing to indicate that Emma was aware of any of this. Was she, perhaps, the token Jew? Whatever her status, during those years in which she was so involved with her Jewish polemic Emma maintained her Christian friendships. She sent copies of “Songs of a Semite” to her friends Henry George, William Wetmore Story and Rose Lathrop, for example.35

Emma felt comfortable enough about her Jewishness to brag to Helena Gilder from London in 1883 that her “own people—the Jews—receive [her] with open arms” and that she thought the reason Robert Browning was so good to her was that he was a “great enthusiast of the Jews.” She met and dined with no less than forty British dignitaries, artists and thinkers, most of whom were Christian.36 She seems to have been able to glide effortlessly from her campaign against Christian anti-Semitism into the welcoming arms of Christian Great Britain.

If Emma's life seems to have been bifurcated, her thought seems at times even more conflicted. An important example is her feelings about her beloved Jewish exiles. In 1883 Emma's friend Constance Cary Harrison had asked her to contribute a poem to a literary portfolio that would be included in an art auction organized to raise money for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. At first she declined, saying she could not “write to order.” Harrison prevailed upon her, telling her to imagine what the statue would mean to her East European immigrant Jews at New York harbor. Several days later Emma sent “The New Colossus” to the auction. It was the only offering to be read on the evening of the gala and was then largely forgotten.37

One would assume that the tired, poor and huddled masses in Emma's poem were her tempest-tost East European Jews. At the same time she was writing her sonnet to the Statue of Liberty, a poem defining that lady as a “Mother of Exiles,” she was trying to keep alive her fledgling organization, the Society for the Improvement and Emigration of East European Jews. It was the purpose of this organization to raise enough money to send great numbers of East European Jews to resettle in Palestine. A precursor to Herzl's Zionism, it survived for less than two years.

Emma organized the Society in February 1883. The only record of its existence is found in her letters to Edwin Robert Anderson Seligman. This tiny organization included some interesting people: the economist Edwin Robert Anderson Seligman (1862-1939) and Socialist Daniel DeLeon (1861-1914), who were graduate students at Columbia University; Seligman's cousin, DeWitt Clinton Seligman; Frederic deSola Mendes (1859-1927), spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarey Tefillah in New York City; and Nathan Bijur (1862-1930), who would become a distinguished New York Supreme Court jurist and play a leading role in the resettlement of East European Jews to the United States. Attorney Julius J. Frank (1852-1931) would become active in the B'nai B'rith and was one of the founders of the Young Men's Hebrew Association of New York. Emma refers in her letters to Seligman to a Mr. Rice, probably Professor Isaac Leopold Rice (1850-1915), who lectured at Columbia in the School of Political Science. She also refers to a Mr. Ullmann, perhaps Nathan Ullmann, art editor of the American Hebrew. Mrs. Minnie Louis, one of the three women to belong, founded the Downtown Sabbath School in 1886. (It became the Hebrew Technical School for Girls.) Many saw Emma as the inspiration behind the drive for technical education for Jewish children. An unidentified sister, probably Josephine Lazarus, was the third woman in the Society.38

These people were young; all were in their twenties or thirties. We don't know how or why Emma came to choose most of them—none were national Jewish leaders at that time. This would be a problem, because Emma had grand—or one might say grandiose—plans for her group. She would need all of the heavyweights she could get.

Agreeing that the “Re-Colonization of Palestine was the only solution possible of the Jewish Problem of Eastern Europe,” the Society wished to “extricate our unfortunate co-religionists from their present untenable position.” They would seek the cooperation of Jews and Christians alike.39 Although she was probably the only member of her group whom the rest of the world had heard of at the time, Emma contacted such international sources for funding as Baron Maurice de Hirsch and the Alliance Israelite Universelle, for assistance and advice. She was held in such high esteem that both the baron and the Alliance responded with several ideas. Nevertheless, the society struggled for survival. It was unable to agree even on a plan put forth by Baron de Hirsh which, Emma said, was “couched in the most generous terms & does not involve the expenditure on our part of a single penny.” Although Emma had the prospect of promising assistance, members of her group seem to have been unable to commit themselves to the project.40

Emma's solution to the Jewish Problem had appeared at least a decade too soon. Her tiny group was probably too inexperienced to know how to energize others in support of their effort. There may have been another problem, hinted at in one of Emma's letters to E. R. A. Seligman: the question of double loyalty. In one of her first letters to him Emma describes the results of the first meeting, which Seligman could not attend because of eye problems. She states their objectives, their desire to rescue East European Jews, and tells him that they plan to draw up a circular to be distributed to interested Jews and Christians. Emma and De Leon will be the authors of this pamphlet, and they want Seligman to join with them in this endeavor.

Now, does all this sound very incendiary? I detect in your note a lingering spark of mistrust—& I can most sincerely reassure you that no slightest grain of political purpose underlies or is in any way connected with our scheme. Mr. DeLeon & Mr. Rice would be as thoroughly opposed to anything in that direction as you are yourself—& I am certain that all such misgivings would have forever vanished from your mind if you could have been with us last evening.41

Through the years, of course, the question of double loyalty has been a recurring issue when American Jews considered the restoration of the Jewish State. Emma was sensitive to this concern. She addresses it more than once in An Epistle to the Hebrews, a series of fifteen essays which appeared in the American Hebrew from November 3, 1882, to February 23, 1883:

[u]tterly false and groundless is the assumption that a strict allegiance to the spirit of Judaism, a thorough interpenetration with her historic memories and poetic traditions, need conflict in any way with the Jews' duties or sentiments as citizens of a non-Jewish state. On the contrary, an intensifying of the noblest Hebrew spirit would tend to make better citizens, inasmuch as it would surely make better men. … To Jeremiah and Samuel Judaism owes its faculty of existing on foreign soil.42

Emma Lazarus articulated her solution to the Jewish Problem in the Epistle before she established her Society. Most of what she says is not new. She admits borrowing from at least three precursors to Herzl: Leo Pinsker, George Eliot and Laurence Oliphant. She refers to them frequently throughout her work. Oliphant and Eliot were recognized and respected gentiles who advocated a Jewish home in Palestine. They would give Emma's work authority.

Arthur Zeiger convincingly demonstrates that Emma relied heavily on Eliot, Pinsker and Oliphant. He traces the influences these proto-Zionists had on her work and asserts that most of her writing is derivative.43 What is important here is not that Emma borrowed from others or that she used their writings as proof-text but that she took it upon herself as a prominent American Jew to articulate and communicate what she saw as a solution to the Jewish Problem. The Jewish community saw Emma Lazarus as a celebrity of sorts because of the high status she enjoyed in the Christian world. Because she was so well thought of in both, her words would be read.

In earlier essays Emma refers to Jews as “they”; in the Epistle she refers to them as “we.” As Zeiger notes, “Throughout she speaks as a Hebrew to Hebrews.”44 While her essays in the Epistle, written for a Jewish audience, are preachy and patronizing, Emma clearly places herself as leader of her people, us against the Christian community.

Our adversaries are perpetually throwing dust in our eyes with the accusations of materialism and tribalism, and we, in our pitiable endeavors to conform to the required standard, plead guilty and fall into the trap they set.45

Lazarus' attitude toward the Jews she wishes to save is informed as much by what she is against as by what she is for. She strongly disapproves of orthodoxy in both Judaism and Christianity, each of which has degraded her East European people, who have entrenched themselves “behind a Chinese wall of petrified religious forms,” sunk in the “squalor and ignorance of ghetto-life.” They need to be taught the “Godliness of cleanliness, the dignity of womanhood, the delights of reason, the moral necessity of a broader humanity, the universal charity.”46

Emma accepts the pejorative portrait even philo-Semites like Eliot had given Jews. In fact, she elaborates upon it. The flaws in the Jewish character are not due to race but to the unjust anti-Semitic legislation of the dominant culture as well as an obscurantist Judaism based, she believed, on superstition.47 The healthy vitality of the Jewish people was “gagged and stifled, this useful productiveness was paralyzed by the tyranny of Christian legislation.”48 She goes on to ask, “What shall be done for those unfortunate creatures who groan under the double tyranny of despotism and ignorance?”49

But Emma's polemic is informed by more than sympathy. The specter of collective Jewish guilt haunts the pages of the Epistle.

The persistence of the Jewish type and the extremes of animosity and admiration which it still persistently excites, make it idle to repeat the hackneyed question whether Judaism be a race of a religion. It is both.50

“Even in free America,” Emma writes, “we have not yet succeeded everywhere and at all times in persuading the non-Jewish community to accept or reject us on our personal merits.”51 Jews must

look into the mirror held up to us by well-wishers and enemies alike, to investigate coolly, rationally and impartially our situation and the nature of the reproaches that are cast upon us. Wherever a show of justice is to be found for these reproaches, we must shrink from no single or united effort to remove it.52

Emma believes strongly, for instance, that Diaspora Jews need to train their children in the industrial arts and crafts. She feels that in the United States, “deliberately instilled” into the American mind is a “false pride that revolted at the very name of ‘servant,’ as derogatory to the dignity of a free-born American, and that despised the honorable claims of manual labor.”53

“Antipathy to manual labor is one of the great social ills of our age and country, [upon] every Jewish school and asylum in the land, religious or secular, should be grafted a system of instruction in some branch of productive industry.”

This antipathy, “this unhealthy social tendency,” is an even greater danger to the American Jew than to the American Christian, for in a “materialistic” country like the United States Jews are “stigmatized with a reproach of materialism.” Because their

descent differs from that of the majority of their fellow-citizens, they are frequently taunted with alienism, in defiance of truth and history, and are thus made the convenient scape-goat for reproaches that justly belong to the whole nation.54

The Epistle is a collection of poorly organized essays. Though they were published serially, each essay stands on its own. These highly emotional newspaper pieces were written by Emma as political propaganda in her campaign to gather support for her “scheme,” as she called it, to rescue the Jews of Eastern Europe as well as those in Central Europe who needed help. Collective guilt demanded collective responsibility by emancipated Jews for Jews in trouble, anywhere.

The real issue for Emma is not Jews in the Diaspora: her focus is on the Jews of Eastern and Central Europe who are subject to such relentless discrimination. She offers the following three remedies:

  1. Internal reform based upon higher education. Emma called it “improvement” in naming her Society;
  2. Emigration to more enlightened and progressive countries; and
  3. Repatriation and autoemancipation in Palestine.

For Emma, internal reform is in reality religious and spiritual change. What is needed is

Education, Enlightenment, Reformation; a sweeping out of the accumulated cobwebs and rubbish of Kabala and Talmud, darkening their very windows against the day and incrusting their altars and their hearths with the gathered dust of ages.55

On the question of emigration, “The New Colossus” notwithstanding, Emma, like Leon Pinsker, felt that while “enlightened” western countries would welcome “some” emigres from Eastern Europe, they would limit the number they would admit.

Their colonization in groups or en mass in the United States is impracticable. No nation in the world, however liberal its constitution, however hospitable its character, could absorb so immense a heterogeneous body as the Jews of the persecuted districts of Eastern Europe and Northern Africa would form.56

Moreover, she asserts that East European refugees would be unable to adjust to modern American culture and end up creating regressive ghettos like those they had left behind in Russia: to “rationalize overnight a religious belief grown stagnant beneath the undisturbed superstitions of the medieval age, would be fatal, even if it were possible.”57

“Of all the mad and hopeless projects that have been tried upon these unfortunate creatures,” she declared, surely the maddest was the one which assumed, that issuing in a helpless condition from the Oriental seclusion of Ghetto life they could adapt themselves upon touching American soil to the exigencies of “the most progressive country in the world.”58

She says that Oliphant had pointed out that East European Jews were “unfit by nature and education for competition in the struggle for existence under American conditions.”59 In Palestine they could gradually ease into religious reform to then become artisans, warriors and farmers.

However abstract her definition of Judaism might have been, repatriation in Palestine which would lead to autoemancipation was the concrete cornerstone of Emma's manifesto:

A home for the homeless, a goal for the wanderer, an asylum for the persecuted, a nation for the denationalized. Such is the need of our generation, and whether it be voiced in the hissing denunciations of Anti-Semitism, in the enthusiasm of helpful Christian advocates, or in the piteous appeal from Hungary and Galicia, from Bessarabia and Warsaw, the call is too distinct for misconstruction, and too loud to remain ignored and unanswered.60

For Emma the only solution to the Jewish Problem was repatriation of East European Jews to a recolonized Palestine. This was not just emigration to a geographical space, it was a return to the land of their ancestors and would have the power of regeneration. Jews needed to look back to their biblical history, before the exile, when their forbears worked by the sweat of their brown and defended their country from harm.

The race of the Maccabees and of Bar-Kockba, in whose army no soldier was permitted who could not uproot a tree as he rode, the splendid race of scholars, warriors, artists and artisans, [had] dwindled into the pale and stunted pariahs of Ghetto and Judenstrasse.

The remedy, then, was “an instant and earnest return to the avocations of our ancestors in the days when our ancestors were a truly great and admirable people.”61

“It is clearly not the fault of the Jews,” she continues, “that they are today as a rule a ‘race of soft-handed, soft-muscled men.’” Life in exile had generated this condition where they were prohibited from owning land, and confined to mercantile pursuits.62

A major piece of Emma's plan is the critical role Western Jews would have to play in the process. Her position on Western Jews is the most contradictory part of her thesis. On the one hand, we know that she wrote of American Jews who had been subject to stereotyping and defamation. As a matter of fact, Emma had drawn her own blemished portrait of her own Jewish countrymen flawed due to their position in a country dominated by Christians. On the other hand, she tells her reader that

there is not the slightest necessity for an American Jew, the free citizen of a republic, to rest his hopes upon the foundation of any other nationality soever, or to decide whether he individually would or would not be in favor of residing in Palestine. … From those emancipated countries of Europe and America where the Jew shares all the civil and religious privileges of his compatriots only a small band of Israelites would be required to sacrifice themselves in order to serve as leaders and counselors.63

Emma probably took this position for several reasons. First, as discussed earlier, the question of double loyalty and patriotism needed to be dealt with. Second, and maybe most important, was the question of just which new Moses would lead this legion into the promised land. Emma agrees with her hero, George Eliot, that only a “Western Jew” who is emancipated, enlightened and acceptable in the eyes of the gentiles, will be suitable.64

Third, Emma knew that without financial help from the West her goals would never be accomplished. The united effort of American and “free” European Jews was needed

in deliberating upon the ways and means of securing the proper asylum and contributing the sums necessary for its purchase and establishment, Here in America should be organized an energetic society of intelligent and patriotic Jews to act in concert with the Israelitish Alliance of Europe.65

The last of the fifteen epistles appeared on February 23, 1883. On February 5 of that year Emma held the first organizing meeting for her Society. The Epistle was a blueprint for action. Unfortunately, Emma Lazarus was no Theodore Herzl. She had many of the right ideas, but despite the fact that her father might have given her an overweening image of herself, despite the fact that when she spoke people listened she was the wrong age, the wrong sex, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

The Epistle does not present its author in the best light. It reveals her as a judgemental, acculturated Jew who accepts at face value the Christian's portrait of her people, notwithstanding her apologia. Had Emma Lazarus ever really gotten to know and understand them, she might not have so readily stereotyped them. Her plans for her Jews are remedies for what she and others, like Pinsker, sees as a social disease. As emotional as is her rhetoric, in reality, Emma sees East European Jews as clay to be cast in her desired image: They would have no control over their own lives; she would mold them to her specifications.

The last meeting of the Society for the Improvement and Emigration of East European Jews was held in December 1884. It was a last gasp. In April of that year Emma had written to fellow member Edwin Robert Anderson Seligman:

Alas! alas! I fear the Society will never rise from its ashes—& it makes me sad to think of the high hopes with which I organized it a year ago. I am still awaiting a promised letter from Mr. Kann in reference to Baron Hirsch—But even this, I am afraid would not be insufficient to resuscitate our dispirited energies. The only thing we have proved is that the Western Jews have hard enough work on their hands in taking care of themselves, & that the Eastern Jews will have to look out for their own interests!66

At the end of May 1885 five months after Emma's organization had failed, she sailed to Europe with her sisters. They planned to be away for eighteen months. In January 1887 she lay bedbound in Paris, too ill to move. In July her sisters brought her home. She died there on November 19, 1887. She was 38 years old.

Emma Lazarus' Jewish identity was conflicted at best. Her amorphous theology was matched by her ambivalent feelings about the Jews whom she desired to rescue. Her love for her people, expressed passionately in her poetry, was worship from afar. For those at hand it was anything but unconditional. With her insistence that the East European Jew be changed to fit the standards of the acculturated American Jew, Emma Lazarus was as narrow-minded as the Orthodox Jews she wished to change. She seems to have been motivated more by fear than by love.

Emma reflects the nativism of her time in her attitude to immigration to this country. She had little belief in the ability of the human spirit to adapt or change or in the ability of this country to absorb and use the talents of its newcomers.

Was Emma's commitment to her Jewishness only a phase, as her sister Annie suggested? Or would she have been a “presence” at the Basle Congress, as a recent Lazarus essayist has written?67 There is no evidence to suggest that Emma Lazarus would have become a part of the Jewish community, notwithstanding her impressive Epistle. She set herself up as a leader, both in organizing her little Society and in her writings, not unusual considering the position in which her father has placed her. Emma was the only one of the seven children her father “groomed to be noticed.”

Had Emma Lazarus lived, would she have wanted to or have been able to recapture her status as a “Jewish celebrity,” to quote the London Chronicle, after her return from Europe? Finally, what would have been her Jewish agenda? Would she have followed the lead of a Henrietta Szold or of a Lillian Wald? Would she have felt compelled to play for higher stakes, in the world of men? Would she have been able to do so?

In some ways Emma Lazarus resembles Theodore Herzl, whose mother “crowned” him at an early age. He, too, saw himself as an aristocrat, a cut above, and separated himself from the people he wished to rescue. It will be remembered that he intended to proclaim himself king and demanded that German, not Hebrew, be the national language.

Because Emma Lazarus died so young and because her letters are so few, her diaries nonexistent, and information about her so sparse, her biography can end only with questions. What we do know is that she continues to be recognized as an American-Jewish heroine because of her immortal sonnet, a sonnet inextricably connected to the statue and the immigrant. Somewhere in her psyche Emma must have known the power of her words, because in 1886, when transcribing her poems into a notebook, she placed “The New Colossus” on the first page.68 More impressive is the foresight Emma Lazarus exhibited in her perception that the reclamation of an ancestral home could change the way a people thinks about itself, that a pariah people could transform itself into a community of artisans, warriors and scholars, and could make a desert bloom.


  1. Critic 26 (1887): 293-94.

  2. Rose Hawthorne Lathrop to Helena deKay Gilder, n.d., Helena deKay Gilder Papers, Private Collection, Tyringham Mass.

  3. Annie Lazarus Johnston to Bernard G. Richards, 25 February 1926, Papers of Bernard G. Richards, Jewish Theological Seminary Library.

  4. Emma Lazarus, Songs of a Semite (New York, 1882).

  5. [Josephine Lazarus,] “Emma Lazarus,” Century 36 (October 1888): 875-84.

  6. Emma had a brother, Frank, and five sisters: Sarah, Josephine, Mary, Agnes and Annie. The unmarried sisters lived together until their marriages or their deaths.

  7. See Emma Lazarus to Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, Letter 5, 23 August 1882, in Bette Roth Young, Emma Lazarus in Her World, Life and Letters (Philadelphia, 1995), 192. See also Emma Lazarus, “The Jewish Problem,” The Century Magazine 25 (1883): 602-11.

  8. Epistle 9.

  9. Emma's essay, “The Connecting Link between Science and Religion,” appeared in the New York Sun, 27 August 1882, and in the American Hebrew, 1 September 1882.

  10. For a discussion of Emma's family see Young, 6-7, 43-45.

  11. Emma met Emerson at the home of her father's banker, Samuel Gray Ward. Emerson was her mentor and friend until his death in 1882. Emma visited the Emerson family in Concord, Massachusetts, twice.

  12. Emma Lazarus to Ralph Waldo Emerson, 27 June 1868, in The Letters of Emma Lazarus, 1868-1885, ed. Morris U. Schappes (New York, 1949), 391 (hereafter cited as Schappes).

  13. For Emma's friendships with Turgenev and Salvini, see Letters to Emma Lazarus in the Columbia University Library, ed. Ralph L. Rusk (New York, 1939) (hereafter cited as Rusk), and Schappes. For a wonderful description of Emma's meeting with Rubenstein see Young, 49-50.

  14. For a thorough rendering of Richard Watson Gilder and the Century Magazine see Arthur John, The Best Years of the Century: Richard Watson Gilder, Scribner's Monthly, and Century Magazine, 1870-1909 (Urbana, 1981). For information on the “Gilder Age” see Herbert F. Smith, Richard Watson Gilder (New York, 1970), 13.

  15. The letters were located by the author in the attic of the Gilder summer home at Four Brooks Farm at Tyringham, Mass.

  16. In Young see Emma Lazarus to Thomas Wren Ward, Letter 15, 181; and Emma Lazarus to Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, Letter 1, 187. See also in Young Emma Lazarus to Edwin Robert Anderson Seligman, Letter 5, 205.

  17. Emma Lazarus, Poems and Translations: Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Seventeen (Boston, 1867), 63-118.

  18. Emma Lazarus, “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” in Emma Lazarus, Selections from her Poetry and Prose, ed. Morris U. Schappes (New York, 1978), 32.

  19. Heinrich Heine, “Donna Clara,” trans. Emma Lazarus, Jewish Messenger 929 (1876): 1. Emma's translations of Judah Halevi and Ibn Gabirol appeared on the front page of the Jewish Messenger every week from January 17 to February 14, 1879 and sporadically thereafter.

  20. “Rashi in Prague” and “The Death of Rashi” appeared in the Independent on 25 March 1880 and 8 April 1880, respectively. Emma's work first appeared in the Independent in May 1876 when her poem “Vashti, a Fragment,” was published on page 1.

  21. Songs of a Semite, 20-21.

  22. “Sic Semper Liberatoribus, March 23, 1881,” Scribner's (June 1881): 178.

  23. “The Banner of the Jew.” All three poems were included in Songs of a Semite.

  24. See Emma Lazarus to Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, Letter 5, in Young, 192.

  25. For more of Emma's involvement with her immigrants see the Memorial Issue of the American Hebrew, 9 December 1887.

  26. See Henry James' letter to Emma Lazarus in Young, 210-17. For an interesting account of the sonnet's journey to the pedestal see correspondence between Georgina Schuyler, Richard Gilder and the Lazarus sisters, microfilm, Richard Watson Gilder Papers, New York Public Library.

  27. For an account of the Seligman/Hilton affair see Young, 46-47.

  28. See E. R. A. Seligman/Lazarus correspondence in Young, 201-9.

  29. “Miss Lazarus's ‘Songs of a Semite,’” Century 25 (1883): 471-72.

  30. Emma Lazarus to Robert Underwood Johnson, n.d., papers of Robert Underwood Johnson, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

  31. Zenaide Ragozin, “Russian Jews and Gentiles from a Russian Point of View,” Century 23 (1882): 906-20.

  32. Emma Lazarus, “Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism,” Century 24 (1882): 48-56.

  33. Emma Lazarus to Philip Cowen, Letter 54, in Schappes, 433.

  34. For a discussion of Emma as others saw her, see Young, 44. For Henry James' impressions see Young, 210-17.

  35. See letters to and from William Wetmore Story and Henry George in Rusk and Schappes.

  36. See Young, Emma Lazarus to Helena deKay Gilder, Letter 27, 106; and Letter 29, 110.

  37. For more information see the American Hebrew, 9 December 1887.

  38. Young, 258-60.

  39. Ibid., 202.

  40. Ibid., 208.

  41. Ibid., 203.

  42. Emma Lazarus, An Epistle to the Hebrews (New York, 1987), 13 (hereafter referred to as Epistle).

  43. See Arthur Zeiger, “Emma Lazarus: A Critical Study” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1951); and Arthur Zeiger, “Zionism and Emma Lazarus,” in Early History of Zionism in America, ed. Isadore S. Meyer (New York, 1958), 77-108.

    George Eliot, a British Christian, was one of the first Western thinkers to propose a return to a Jewish national home in her novel Daniel Deronda and in an essay, “The Modern Hep! Hep!” Emma read both and quoted from them extensively in her Epistle.

    Laurence Oliphant, another British Christian and an eccentric, espoused Jewish nationalism in several books as well as in essays published in widely read British journals. Emma corresponded with him and quoted him frequently in her work. For their correspondence see Rusk and Schappes.

    Leo Pinsker's Auto-Emancipation was published in Germany in 1882. Emma read it and quoted him as well. See the Epistle, 34.

  44. Ibid., 77.

  45. Epistle, 29-30.

  46. Ibid., 74.

  47. Eliot's portrayal of Jews in her essay, “The Modern Hep! Hep!” is apologetic but harsh. Like Emma she feels that their emigration in great numbers to any country would cause an anti-Semitic backlash and defends her position.

  48. Epistle, 19.

  49. Ibid., 79.

  50. Ibid., 9.

  51. Ibid., 78.

  52. Ibid., 9.

  53. Ibid., 17.

  54. Ibid., 22.

  55. Ibid., 74.

  56. Ibid., 44.

  57. Ibid., 76.

  58. Ibid., 77.

  59. Ibid., 76.

  60. Ibid., 65.

  61. Ibid., 20.

  62. Ibid., 19.

  63. Ibid., 41.

  64. Ibid., 14.

  65. Ibid., 45.

  66. Young, 207.

  67. Alan Appelbaum, “An American Zionist in the '80's,” unpublished manuscript.

  68. Emma's notebook is located in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society.

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