Book Review: Emma Lazarus

Review By: 
Bonny V. Fetterman

Emma Lazarus' poem, "The New Colossus," affixed to the base of the Statue of Liberty in 1903 (twenty-five years after her death), identifies this icon as the "Mother of Exiles." It took time for Lady Liberty to grow into this role. The statue, a gift from France to America, was originally meant to celebrate only the tradition of "Enlightenment." Lazarus' poem-written in 1882 as Russian Jews began to arrive en masse to the U.S.-established the connection between the statue and what she hoped would be their reception. In doing so, she helped establish a new identity for the Statue of Liberty, and a new vision for America:

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!

Esther Schor's biography explores the complicated identity of this Gilded Age poet, the first to identify herself as an American Hebrew [Jewish] writer. A fifth-generation American, born in a wealthy Sephardic family, Lazarus published her first book at seventeen and ambitiously courted leading writers of her time. In her relationships with these luminaries she tolerated a certain level of genteel antisemitism (Emerson and Henry Adams), but she bristled against its nastier forms (Longfellow and Hawthorne). Though not at all interested in religion, she always referred to herself as a proud Jew.

A moment of truth came with the outbreak of the Russian pogroms in 1881-82. Lazarus answered an antisemitic article by Madame Z. Ragosin in theCentury ,an influential literary magazine, with a powerful article of her own. She followed this with a series of essays in the American Hebrew , a Jewish weekly, entitled "Epistle to the Hebrews," which argued for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine for refugees fleeing outbreaks of antisemitism in Europe. Lazarus was a lone advocate for a Jewish national home (over a decade before Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement) and, as such, withstood blistering attacks from both American Reform and traditionalist Jewish leaders. At the same time, she continued to remind a reluctant American Jewish community of its responsibility for the Russian immigrants; she herself founded a vocational school for them and taught English on Ward's Island.

At the time of her death (at thirty-eight), her sisters regarded her Jewish interests as a phase and left out the Jewish poems from published collections of her writings. Schor's portrait serves to restore the centrality of Jewishness in Emma Lazarus' life and work, showing how she consistently put her literary reputation on the line to defend the Jewish people.

Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.