Emma Lazarus is the woman responsible for penning the words now engraved on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty and etched into the hearts of millions of immigrants to the United States.
Her most famous work, The New Colossus, written in 1883, has served as an American melting pot inspiration for years. Its most recognizable line, “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” has served over the years as a call to action for immigration from poorer and less opportune nations around the world. The sonnet has been everything from a show tune to a battle cry and continues to move generations of Americans.
Lazarus was born on July 22nd of 1849 in New York City to Moses and Esther Lazarus. Her family traces their heritage back to the first few Jewish settlers to come to the United States, the Sephardim Jews, from Spain and Portugal.
From an early age, Emma was recognized as gifted with words and studied both literature and several foreign languages. Her early poems and essays attracted the attention of the famed Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the elder became a mentor to Lazarus. Their correspondence and mutual respect lasted until Emerson’s death in 1882.
She had over fifty original poems and sonnets published in periodicals, as well as three chapbooks, a novel, and a play.. She also became known for her translations of the works of German poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Heinrich Heine. Her adaptations of Heine’s work earned the praise of many of the generation’s most esteemed writers and critics and propelled her to the forefront of American literature.
Although she had always written of Jewish themes, her interest in Judaism and the perils of its people became prominent after waves of anti-Semitism swept Europe and Russia in the 1870’s and 80’s. Her 1882 work, Songs of a Semite, has often been hailed as her greatest work.
She often worked with Russian immigrants of the Pale of Settlement, teaching them English and giving them the means to establish themselves in the US. The plight of these Jews inspired Lazarus to advocate for the eradication of anti-Semitism, which she felt was present everywhere, even in the States. In the 1880’s Lazarus became recognized as a forerunner in the Zionist movement (thirteen years before the term was coined by Nathan Birnbaum), calling for a new nation, writing, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free."
In 1885, shortly after the death of her father, Lazarus traveled for the first time to Europe. There she witnessed the persecution of Eastern European Jews first hand. She returned to continue her advocacy of Zionism in 1887.
Lazarus returned early from her second European tour severely ill and died shortly thereafter, in 1887. It is believed the cause of her death was Hodgkin's disease. She was 38.
After her death, many European and American essayists and critics hailed her death as a loss both to the Jewish movement and to American prose.
Posthumously, Emma Lazarus’ legacy has continued to grow as her work is consistently recognized as homage to Zionists and other Jews, as well as many immigrants to the United States. The Federation of American Zionist had her early work Epistle to the Hebrews reprinted in 1900. In 1903 The New Colossus was engraved and affixed to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. In the 1950’s the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs were formed in the United States. The organization celebrates Jewish culture and persists to offer and teach leadership to women in the Jewish community.
The Jewish Women’s Archive, http://www.jwa.org/exhibits/wov/lazarus/
Jacki Lyden at NPR, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6359435