Emma Lazarus, “Mother Of Exiles” – for Shabbat Cherut, Friday, July 3, 2020

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Pretty much all of us recognize these words written by poet Emma Lazarus in 1883. The sonnet was composed for the art and literary auction that was to raise money to build the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal – and the plaque containing these words remains on display inside that pedestal to this day.

But many of us don’t know much about the author, other than the fact that she was a Jewish-American woman. So, in honor of our Independence Day Sabbath, our Shabbat Cherut, our Shabbat of Freedom, I’d like to tell you more about her.

Emma Lazarus was about as American as any Jew could be. Her father’s family traced itself back to America’s very first Jewish settlers, who had come to the colonies from Spain and Portugal in the middle of the 17th century.[1] The Lazaruses were originally from Portugal. They were cultured and they were rich. Her father, Moses, was a successful sugar merchant who provided the best life, and the best education, for all seven of his children. Moses was proud and supportive of Emma’s early attempts at writing poetry – so much so that he privately published a volume of her work to send to his friends. And – because, why not? – Moses also sent a copy to the famous writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, who thought Emma’s writing quite brilliant. He became her mentor and friend, and she dedicated the main poem in her second published collection to him.

Moses Lazarus ran in the most exclusive circles in New York, hobnobbing with the Astors and the Vanderbilts, and going so far as to build his family their own summer “cottage” – a euphemism for the grand estates in Newport, Rhode Island, to which New York’s wealthy retired in the summer.

And the fame of “The New Colossus” is directly linked to Emma’s life among the elite. After her death, it was her best friend, Georgina Schuyler, who led the effort to have the words immortalized at Liberty Island. Georgina Schuyler – of those New York Schuylers, and – yes – the great-granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton.

Emma Lazarus led quite the charmed life, didn’t she? But where is that life in her poetry? She didn’t write about lunch at the Knickerbocker Club with the Astors or summers in Newport with the Vanderbilts, or shopping with the Schuyler sisters. Her greatest poems are about poverty and loss. They focus on themes of exile and loneliness. Of what it means to be a stranger, to be treated as the “other.”

What in the world would Emma Lazarus know of such things?

As it turns out, quite a lot.

I mentioned before that the Lazarus family traced its lineage back to the Sephardic Jews who were very first group of Jews to settle in the Colonies. They became privileged and well-respected even though they were Jewish. They lived well in port cities like New Amsterdam (later New York) and, to the south, in Baltimore, Savannah, and Charleston, South Carolina, where religious tolerance of Jews paved their way.

But let’s not forget why the Sephardic Jews left their home countries. The Jews of Spain and Portugal who did not embrace Catholicism after the pogroms of 1391 were being forcibly converted in the century that followed. And those who refused were expelled – from Spain in 1492, and from Portugal five years later. But even those who did convert – and their children and their grandchildren — were persecuted and tortured during the Spanish Inquisition, lest they be practicing Judaism in secret, as indeed some did.

Seeking religious tolerance they were unlikely to find in Europe, many of these secret Jews emigrated to colonies in the New World: To the Dutch West Indies, to Brazil, and eventually to New Amsterdam.

But in 1654, when twenty-three Jews migrated from Brazil to New Amsterdam, Governor Peter Stuyvesant didn’t want them, and he tried to deny them residence. The only reason they got to stay was because his bosses at the Dutch West India Company overruled him.

So Emma Lazarus knew that she came from people who had been forced to flee their homeland and wandered in exile. She even wrote about it in her poem “1492” – a year both of Jewish exile and of Christopher Columbus’s inaugural mission from Spain:

Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,

Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,

The children of the prophets of the Lord,

Prince, priest and people, spurned by zealot hate.

Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state.[2]

But those were ancient family stories by the late 1800’s. What she saw in New York opened her eyes to the desperate lives of the millions of Jews who were arriving from Eastern Europe and Russia with no support, no money, and just a little bit of hope.

Lazarus did not look on this enormous wave of immigration from afar. She started to work with detained refugees who were being held on Ward’s Island in the upper reaches of Manhattan’s East River. Ward’s Island was the place in New York where the unwelcome were sent. It was home to an immigration station and a huge hospital for sick and destitute immigrants – as well as the New York City Asylum for the Insane.

Lazarus recognized how little she had in common with these Jews, and how little her life of privilege prepared her to deal with them. She would joke, “What would my society friends say if they saw me here?”

But that didn’t stop her from writing powerfully and regularly about the plight of her fellow Jews. In her poetry and her newspaper essays, Lazarus spoke out against the persecution and pogroms of Jews across Europe, and she laid bare the growing antisemitism in America. She promoted the cause of Zionism and of a Jewish home in the ancestral land of Israel. She published translations of the works of great medieval Jewish like Judah ha-Levi and Solomon ibn Gabirol, who lauded the greatness of the Jewish people. And her own poems reflected these themes.

In “The Banner of the Jew,” Lazarus calls on Jews to remember their glorious history and their divine calling:

Oh 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![3]

In The Dance to Death: An Historical Tragedy, Lazarus evokes her own family’s exile as she transports the despised Jews of her time into the pogrom-gripped Europe of 1391, as Jews prepare for death and martyrdom:

Oh let us die as warriors of the Lord.

The Lord is great in Zion. Let our death

Bring no reproach to Jacob, no rebuke

 To Israel. Hark ye! let us crave one boon

 At our assassins’ hands; beseech them build

 Within God’s acre, where our fathers sleep,

A dancing-floor to hide the fagots stacked.

Then let the minstrels strike the harp and lute,

 And we will dance and sing above the pile,

 Fearless of death, until the flames engulf,

 Even as David danced before the Lord.[4]

These words were published in 1882, when Lazarus was 33 years old, A year later, she wrote “The New Colossus” – her most elegant and emphatic poetic statement of the struggle of Jewish immigrants, and the open arms with which America ought to be embracing them.

It is also, I think, the ultimate statement of Emma Lazarus’s own Jewishness. The fact is that her father Moses all but abandoned the faith of his fathers, for which he and his children were made pariahs in the Lazarus family. He was determined to be accepted and treated as a peer by the Christian elite of New York – exemplified by the Vanderbilts, the Astors and the Schuylers. And that meant making sure that his children had Christian friends almost exclusively.

But Emma was always aware that they referred to her as a “Jewess.” And she knew anti-Jewish prejudice lay just beneath the surface of such polite society. “I am perfectly conscious,” she wrote, “that this contempt and hatred underlies the general tone of the community towards us.”[5]

So I believe that she also was perfectly conscious of how Jewish she had made “The New Colossus” – weaving together clear Jewish historical references with her clarion call to America to aid the Jews of her own time as a timeless moral imperative.

In a 2011 article for Lilith magazine entitled “Is The Statue of Liberty Jewish?” poet Alexandra Gold parsed out some of the Jewish references in its verses.[6] Here are a few of her literary observations and some of my own:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, with conquering limbs astride from land to land:

Here, notes Gold, Lazarus clearly contrasts Jewish oppression by the ancient Greeks – including the evil Antiochus Epiphanes, the mortal enemy of the mighty Maccabees in the story of Chanukah – with what ought to be welcome and religious tolerance in America.

A mighty woman with a torch.

Not a man like that “brazen giant” but a woman with a torch, lighting the way of welcome as the “Mother of Exiles.” Jews, of course, are the world’s ultimate exiles – forced (like her own family) to move from place to place around the globe and never feeling completely safe. I would add, as well, the words from the prophet Jeremiah, of the matriarch Rachel, weeping as her children are exiled from their land. Lady Liberty’s visage was meant to be stoic. But it also could be seen as sadness for what these millions of immigrants have endured to reach her shores.

I lift my lamp.

Here, Gold writes, we see a reference to the ner tamid, the eternal light over the ark in each and every Jewish congregation – a reminder of God’s redemptive presence in our midst as well as throughout our history.

But I also see what Jews bring to the rest of humanity. “For mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is a light,” we read in the Book of Proverbs (6:23). And the Jewish people ourselves – we are “or l’goyim” in the words of the prophet Isaiah (49:6):

“For God has said: ‘It is too little that you should be My servant In that I raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel: I will also make you a light of nations, that My salvation may reach the ends of the earth.”

Emma Lazarus would die at the age of 38, just four years after she wrote The New Colossus. In this poem, she leaves behind a handful of verses that perfectly embody all of her passions and her hopes for the United States: A nation that must open its arms to the most threatened and frightened and destitute of the world – and a nation that would ultimately be judged on the fulfillment of this promise.

Kein yehi ratson. On this Shabbat Cherut, on which we celebrate our cherished freedoms, let this be God’s will. Let it be our own. And let it be the will of our country. As we say together: Amen.


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Much of the history noted in this sermon comes from “Emma Lazarus” in the Jewish Women’s Archives. Accessed at https://jwa.org/womenofvalor/lazarus

[2] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46790/1492

[3] Emma Lazarus, Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death, and Other Poems (New York: The Office of The American Hebrew, 1882), p. 56.

[4] https://www.bartleby.com/400/poem/2266.html

[5] From the jwa.org web article. See Note #1.

[6] Alexandra Gold, “Is The Statue of Liberty Jewish?” Lilith Magazine. Accessed at https://www.lilith.org/print/?pid=4362&type=article.

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