The Magazine

A Jewish Heroine

There's more to Emma Lazarus than the Statue of Liberty.

Nov 20, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 10 • By ABBY WISSE SCHACHTER
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Emma Lazarus

by Esther Schor

Schocken, 368 pp., $21.95

Ask a random sampling of people to identify Emma Lazarus, and chances are you'll hear that she wrote the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty. (That is, if you get any responses beside blank stares.) Ask the same group who Anne Frank was and you'll get a lot more information.

The fame and hero worship of Frank, compared with the near complete ignorance of Lazarus, came home to poet Esther Schor at a recent pageant at her daughter's school. The students were dressed in costumes for an annual Wax Museum, as Schor recounts, all representing the theme "People Who Made a Difference." Among Leonardo da Vinci, George Washington, and Malcolm X, Schor found that three different Jewish girls had dressed as Anne Frank. No one had chosen Emma Lazarus.

As Schor makes clear in the prologue of her new biography, this book is a response to those three Anne Franks. Yes, she, too, was given Diary of a Young Girl when she was young, and yes, she, too, found in it a heroine she loved and admired. But Schor admits that Frank was her heroine for the wrong reasons: "I loved Anne Frank neither for hoping nor dying but for being so shameless, so unlovable."

With Emma Lazarus, Schor is trying to show us a different Jewish heroine. "A woman of action," Schor writes, "a secular, nationalist Jew; a spinster with a sharp eye for sexual innuendo, unafraid to face her own longings." Indeed, as Schor proves, Emma Lazarus should finally take her place and be celebrated as one of the great heroines of Jewish history.

Born in 1849 in New York, to a well-established and wealthy Sephardic family, Emma was the fourth child of Moses and Esther Lazarus, and at least a fourth-generation American Jew. The Lazaruses were firmly part of the New York Jewish establishment, while their relationship to Judaism was quintessentially American: They kept a selection of Jewish edicts, but not all, and among the extended Lazarus family they were less active members of their synagogue, Temple Emanu-El.

It might have been predictable had Lazarus turned out to be more poet than Jew; but far from being assimilated or unaffiliated, Lazarus was, instead, a firebrand for Jewish causes and used her writing talents to withering effect when it came to challenging anti-Semitism. In her 1880 poem "Raschi in Prague," she hit a theme she would return to more than once; Jews are the way they are because of Christian persecution. As Raschi declares in the poem, the Jews

are what ye have made

If any among them be fawning, false,

Insatiable, revengeful, ignorant, mean--

And there are many such--ask your own hearts

What virtues ye would yield for planted hate,

Ribald contempt, forced, menial servitude,

Slow centuries of vengeance for a crime

Ye never did commit?

As Lazarus explained it to Ellen Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, she considered herself a "new world Jew: Progressive, unencumbered by ancient laws and customs, and free to move unabashed in a wider, American world." Her passions for both America and the fate of the Jewish people would be a source of pride and trouble for Lazarus throughout her career.

Her greatest Jewish awakening and the reason she championed the cause of immigration--leading her to write "The New Colossus"--was the influx of Russian Jewish exiles in the early 1880s. She visited the refugees who fled Russian pogroms on March 26, 1882, the Jewish festival of Purim. As she wrote in an unsigned dispatch for the New York Times,

Never before were the prayer of gratitude and the impulse of joy more genuine, more appropriate and more solemn than on this day of March (Adar) 1882, when after a new exodus, and a new persecution by the seed of Haman, these stalwart young representatives of the oldest civilization in existence met to sing the songs of Zion in a strange land.

Emma Lazarus became one of New York's more ardent advocates for saving the Jews. She favored immigration to the United States and encouraged other Americans to embrace her view. She even invoked some of the imagery that would make her famous years later: "Every American must feel a thrill of pride and gratitude in the thought that his country is the refuge of the oppressed," she wrote in 1882, "the 'home of hope to the whole human race,' and however wretched be the material offered to him from the refuse of other nations, he accepts it with generous hospitality."

Lazarus also endorsed the idea of a nationalist solution to the Jewish problem: a Jewish state. As an early advocate of what would become Zionism, she was ahead of most American Jews, and was criticized for it. She began a weekly column in the American Hebrew that took up her new "dogma," the need for a new Jewish state in Palestine. As Schor explains, neither her fellow Jews nor a wider Christian audience were receptive to the idea.

But she wasn't all polemics. Lazarus also had a terrific sense of humor, as illustrated by a comment written from London, to a friend regarding her still being single at the advanced age of 33. "I am bitterly disappointed," she wrote, "in not seeing the slightest prospect of marrying Sir Moses Montefiore--as I had hoped. He is approaching his 99th birthday & has not made any advances to me & I fear there is no time to be lost."

This volume is part of a series called "Jewish Encounters," and that's just what it is. It's an encounter with a passionate, stubborn, jocular Jewish American heroine. Schor wants us to "get to know" Emma Lazarus, and with this volume, we can and we should.

Abby Wisse Schachter is an editor at the New York Post.