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Remembering Emma Lazarus, A Legacy in Reform Liturgy

Remembering Emma Lazarus, A Legacy in Reform Liturgy

Most people, if they’ve heard of her at all, connect Emma Lazarus to the most famous phrases of her sonnet, “The New Colossus” – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” written to help raise money for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal fund in 1883. But poems she translated and composed before that generated another kind of legacy.

Although both her paternal Lazarus and maternal Nathan families had long been influential leaders of the Orthodox Congregation Shearith Israel (known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue), it was Rabbi Gustav Gottheil of the Reform synagogue Temple Emanu-El who first called her into service.

The year was 1876, one year before Gottheil’s plea to women in the congregation to make themselves useful to those less fortunate. With this sermon, the synagogue’s sisterhood emerged, setting a precedent for sisterhoods nationwide. Gottheil asked Emma to translate the work of medieval Spanish Hebrew poets for a hymnal he was developing. She balked for two reasons. First, she did not want to translate from the German versions he handed her. Second, she confessed she felt no real connection to the Jewish people.

Despite her family’s involvement in Shearith Israel, including an uncle who served as its religious leader, Emma was raised in a household where religious traditions played little to no role. Her father, Moses, opted instead for founding membership in New York City’s Union Club and the Knickerbocker Club. How and why Moses disconnected is not documented; his own father helped to translate Hebrew for Shearith Israel’s prayer books in 1817 and 1825.

Emma hired a tutor, Louis Schnabel, who taught in Temple Emanu-El’s Hebrew school, to teach her the ancient language. She wanted to be able to translate from the original. Gottheil also invited her to visit the newly arrived Russian-Jewish immigrants, arriving at the rate of 2,000 a day in New York City. They traveled to Ward’s Island, a temporary shelter, to assess conditions and to help however they could. It was these immigrants who provided the inspiration for “The New Colossus.”

Gottheil did not publish his hymnal until Emma was already consumed by Hodgkin’s disease in 1886. The prayer book contained not only four translations, but also two original compositions, which no biographer to date has mentioned. However, Gottheil appeared to distribute the work of translating Hebrew poets. He himself translated a few, as did two other women, Addie Funk and Deborah Kleinert-Janowitz.

Emma was certainly not the only original contributor of poetry. Penina Moïse (1797-1880) of Charleston, S.C., wrote many hymns for Congregation Beth Elohim, and seven are included in Gottheil’s book. Gottheil also chose selections from Emma’s first mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and from William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Robert Burns. While Gottheil’s “anthology” was inclusive, Emerson’s 1874 anthology of the best American poems decidedly excluded any of Emma’s work (which provoked her to dash off an angry letter to him).

Whether appreciated or not, the Jewish community chose to make Emma one of its own. For example, other congregations celebrated Emma’s poetry, too. The rabbi at the Forty-Fourth Street Synagogue, Temple Shaaray Tefila, read Emma’s translation from the eleventh-century Andalusian Hebrew poet Solomon ibn Gabirol, “Almighty is man,” during Yom Kippur services in the fall of 1882. A soprano performed it well before “Give me your tired” was set to music by Irving Berlin in 1949.

I share with you this poem in my own celebration of Emma Lazarus:

Emma Enlightening the World

Not like the brazen giant in New York Harbor,
not as large as Ellen Emerson’s description,
her lips silenced but for the ivy-covered
plaque at her petite feet.
I’d think her grave would loom larger,
I’d think there’d be directions.
I want to shout, “This is Emma, the Emma!”
She is the one who opened the golden door,
She is the one who gave the statue her voice.
I snap photos of her name and situation,
the now-famous sonnet.
I place a rock on her headstone,
recite a prayer. A moment of silence.
A homeless dog barks, protecting the gates of sunset.

Barbara Krasner recently completed a month of research on Emma Lazarus as the 2015-2016 Natalie Feld Memorial Fellow, Jacob Rader Marcus Center, American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati. She teaches creative writing in New Jersey.

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