Emma Lazarus

LAZARUS, EMMA (1849-1887), U.S. poet, best remembered for her sonnet engraved on the Statue of Liberty. Born into a New York Sephardi family, she began writing verse in her teens. These conventional and melancholy poems appeared in 1866 and attracted the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson, to whom she dedicated her second volume, Admetus and Other Poems (1871). This was followed by a novel, Alide: an Episode of Goethe’s Life (1874), and by a historical tragedy, The Spagnoletto (1876). Her translations of poems by Heinrich Heine (1881) were accompanied by a biographical study. Emma Lazarus’ interest in Jewish problems was awakened by George Eliot’s novel, Daniel Deronda, with its call for a Jewish national revival, and was reinforced by the Russian pogroms of 1881-82. Inspired with a new and sacred cause, she began publishing translations of the great medieval Spanish-Jewish poets such as Judah Halevi and Solomon ibn Gabirol (1879), basing herself mainly on the German adaptations of Michael Sachs. She was impressed by the Russian-Jewish refugees whom she encountered when she joined immigrant relief workers on Ward’s Island, and energetically defended these “foreigners” against their detractors, who included some assimilated American Jews. Her essays in the Century Magazine (1882) in reply to anti-Semitic attacks praised her fellow Jews as pioneers of progress and expressed her joy in belonging to a people that was the victim of massacres rather than their perpetrator. Emma Lazarus’ next important work, dedicated to the memory of George Eliot, was The Dance to Death, a verse tragedy about the burning of the Jews of Nordhausen in Thuringia during the Black Death. This appeared in Songs of a Semite (1882), which also included other passionate Jewish poems such as “The New Ezekiel” and the Zionist “Banner of the Jew.” An Epistle to the Hebrews (1882-83) set forth her ideas and plans for the reinvigoration and deepening of Jewish life by a national and cultural revival in the twin centers of the United States and the Holy Land. The prose poems of By the Waters of Babylon (1887) were a further demonstration of her prophetic insight. Emma Lazarus, who corresponded with the eminent poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was the author of “The New Colossus,” a sonnet expressing her belief in the United States as the haven of Europe’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Composed in 1883, this was engraved on a memorial plaque and affixed to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903. After her death, her sister prohibited the inclusion of “anything Jewish” in the collected edition of Emma Lazarus’ works that appeared in 1889.