Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Lazarus portrait

“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!”

These universally recognized lines from The New Colossus (1883) by Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), the poet laureate of America’s immigrants, were later engraved on the Statue of Liberty (1903) and became an archetypal statement for immigrant rights and freedom, contributing significantly to the belief that America means safety and opportunity for Jews and other “wretched refuse.” Sadly, she died 15 years before her immortal words were inscribed at Lady Liberty’s feet.


Lazarus, who virtually created the role of the American Jewish writer, is perhaps best known for creating a highly cultured expression of Jewish-American identity for new “masses.” Whether she was writing searing essays about antisemitism, soaring sonnets or scholarly poems about art and literature, she was read by more American readers than any other Jewish writer of her time. She manifested a thorough knowledge of Jewish history and literature, and her writing is often characterized by the tension between Jew and American, ancient and modern, and freedom and oppression. Having inherited a rich pride in her Sephardic heritage, she often wrote about the medieval scholars and poets of the land of her ancestors. Decades before the dawn of the twentieth century, she succeeded in both becoming a prominent female writer and in creating the archetype image of an American Jewish writer.

Whether she was writing searing essays about antisemitism, soaring sonnets, or scholarly poems about art and literature, Lazarus was read by more American readers than any other Jewish writer of her time. Decades before the dawn of the twentieth century, she succeeded in both becoming a prominent female writer and in creating the archetype image of an American Jewish writer.

The Lazarus family traced its ancestry back to America’s first Jewish settlers; except for one of her great-grandfathers on the Lazarus side, who was from Germany, the rest of her ancestors were originally from Portugal and were among the twenty-three Portuguese Jews who arrived in New Amsterdam after fleeing from the Inquisition in Recife, Brazil. Her progenitors were founders of both the Touro synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, and of the Sephardic Shearith Israel synagogue in New York, where her uncle, J. J. Lyons, served for nearly forty years as chazzan and spiritual leader.

Emma’s father, Moses, was a prosperous sugar refiner who not only had little interest in Judaism or the Jewish community but also actively sought to integrate his family into Christian society. He moved in wealthy Christian circles, was admitted into the exclusive Union club, and founded the elite Knickerbocker club together with the Astors and the Vanderbilts.

First page of original article published by Lazarus in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine eulogizing her friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who died on April 27, 1882.

However, Moses played an important role in launching his daughter’s literary career by publishing her first book, Poems and Translations (1866), which she sent to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who became her mentor, supporter, critic and lifelong friend.

While Emma’s pious ancestors and relatives were actively involved with the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue, her immediate family was effectively exiled by the extended Lazarus kin because it was no longer religiously observant, and she would later confirm that her family had been “outlawed.” Unsurprisingly, she grew up with little knowledge of her heritage; like her father, she effectively integrated into upper Christian society and observed Christmas with her many Christian friends. In 1877, she noted that “my religious convictions … and the circumstances of my life have led me somewhat apart from my people.”

Nonetheless, Emma strongly self-identified as a Jew and she became an activist for Jewish causes after the Russian pogroms of the early 1880s that marked a turning point in both her personal identity and her poetry. She became America’s first celebrity returnee to Judaism – her references to Jews suddenly turned from “they” to “we” – and in her poetry she emphasized the tragic plight of Diasporan Jews, as she responded to Russian antisemitism with some of her most powerful work.

For example, within days of writing The New Colossus, she wrote a far lesser-known companion sonnet, 1492, in which she linked the fate of Jewish exiles from the Spanish Inquisition to that of the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” in the United States. In “Russian Christianity vs. Modern Judaism” (May 1882), she denounced Russian antisemitism and issued a heartfelt plea on behalf of Russian Jews. In An Epistle to the Hebrews, a series of fifteen open letters written from November 1882 through February 1883, she discussed the Jewish problems of the day, urged a technical and Jewish education for Jews, and challenged assimilated American Jews to give generously in support of Eastern European Jewish refugees – while also warning them about their vulnerability as Jews, even in the United States.

Her renown and popularity were such that she was able to reach a wide-ranging audience and to become a leading spokeswoman for the interests of the American Jewish community. Deeply moved by the struggles of the refugees, she became a passionate advocate for Jewish immigration to the United States, and she established her own fund to facilitate their settlement and employment. With thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Russia and arriving in New York each month, she visited them at the Schiff Refuge on Ward’s Island and other impoverished neighborhoods; taught them English at the YMHA; helped the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to assist the immigrants; and helped to establish the Hebrew Technical Institute. She also founded the Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews, on behalf of which she traveled to England and France to meet with Jewish leaders to raise money (1882), but the organization failed to generate sufficient financial support and it failed a year later.

However, even while embracing her Judaism and Jewish immigration, she remained a bitter critic of Orthodox practice and Orthodox Jews. On one hand, she insisted that the new Jewish immigrants become fully acculturated Americans, and on the other hand she argued that this was not possible. As she wrote in “An Epistle to the Hebrews: Education, Enlightenment, Reformation,” what was needed was “a sweeping-out of the accumulated cobwebs and rubbish of Kabbalah and Talmud, darkening their very window against the day and incrusting their altars and their hearts with the gathered dust of ages.”

She believed that the largely Orthodox East European Jews would prove unable to adapt to modern American culture, would ultimately create on these shores the same regressive ghettoes that they had left behind, and would “rationalize overnight a religious belief grown stagnant beneath the undisturbed superstitions of the medieval age [which] would be fatal, even if it was possible.”

In The Banner of the Jew, Lazarus urged the Jews to:

Wake, Israel, wake! Recall to-day
The glorious Maccabean rage …
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!

In Songs of a Semite (1882), which many considered the earliest volume of Jewish American poetry and which many critics characterize as her best work, she publicly proclaimed her identity as a Jewish poet and, in The Banner of the Jew, she writes:

The Jewish problem is as old as history and assumes in each age a new form. All the magnanimity, patience, charity and humanity which the Jews have manifested in return for centuries of persecution, have been thus far inadequate to eradicate the profound antipathy engendered by fanaticism and ready to break out in one or another shape at any moment of popular excitement.

In response to a critical review of Songs of a Semite, in which an anonymous author accused the Jews of materialism, seeking to live a hedonistic life and living insular lives with indifference to their fellow men, she wrote:

I don’t know and I don’t wish to know who my friendly critic is, but all I can say against him is that I wish he could be a Jew for 24 hours, and he would then understand that neither materialism nor indifference prevents Jews from decrying their persecution. They have never had a long enough interval of security or equality to be able to utter a lamentation without risk of bringing down on themselves again the immemorial curse. Even I have been criticized by my own people for what many consider the want of tact and judgment in speaking so freely.

Her proposed solution was a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael and, decades before the term “Zionist” was even created, she was a Zionist who called upon Jews to unite to create a Jewish national home. Thus, in her prophetic The Jewish Problem (February 1883) – which preceded Herzl’s seminal The Jewish State by over a decade – she observed that Jews, always a minority, “seem fated to excite the antagonism of their fellow countrymen” and again proposed a Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael as the solution. Similarly, in Epistle to the Hebrews, she described Eretz Yisrael as “a home for the homeless, a goal for the wanderer, a nation for the denationalized. Such is the need of our generation … the call is too distinct for misconstruction, and too loud to remain ignored and unanswered.”

In The New Ezekiel, my favorite Lazarus poem, she writes:

What, can these dead bones live, whose sap is dried
By twenty scorching centuries of wrong?
Is this the House of Israel, whose pride
Is as a tale that’s told, an ancient song?
Are these ignoble relics all that live
Of psalmist, priest, and prophet? Can the breath
Of very heaven bid these bones revive,
Open the graves and clothe the ribs of death?

Yea, Prophesy, the Lord hath said. Again
Say to the wind, Come forth and breathe afresh,
Even that they may live upon these slain,
And bone to bone shall leap, and flesh to flesh.
The Spirit is not dead, proclaim the word,
Where lay dead bones, a host of armed men stand!
I ope your graves, my people, saith the Lord,
And I shall place you living in your land.

Lazarus’s passionate advocacy for Jewish repatriation to Eretz Yisrael earned her the enmity of both Reform Jews, who accused her of dual nationality, and right-wing Orthodox Jews, who were keenly critical of her secular patriotism. Moreover, her Zionism and her return to Judaism confounded and mortified her family, who could not understand why she would embrace the very “backward” people that the family had endeavored to flee all their lives.

In The Dance to Death (published 1882), a gruesome dramatization about the burning of the Jews in Nordhausen, Germany in 1349 during the Black Death, Lazarus celebrated the courage and faith of the Jews in the face of such slaughter. (She dedicated the play to George Eliot, a passionate pro-Semite “who did most among the artists of our day towards elevating and ennobling the spirit of Jewish nationality.”)

In The Crowing of the Red Cock, she writes:

Across the Eastern sky has glowed,
The flicker of a blood-red dawn,
Once more the clarion cock has crowed,
Once more the sword of Christ is drawn.
A million burning rooftrees light
The world-wide path of Israel’s flight.

Where is the Hebrew’s fatherland?
The folk of Christ is sore bestead;
The Son of Man is bruised and banned,
Nor finds whereon to lay his head.
His cup is gall, his meat is tears,
His passion lasts a thousand years.

Each crime that wakes in man the beast,
Is visited upon his kind.
The lust of mobs, the greed of priest,
The tyranny of kings, combined
To root his seed from earth again,
His record is one cry of pain …

In The Choice (1888), she writes of a dream in which “the spirits unbegot, veiled floating phantoms lost in twilight space,” who offer the Jews a choice: the first option is “to follow the multitude and bind thine eyes [so that] thou and thy sons’ sons shall have peace with power” and the second option is to become G-d’s eternal people. The “disgraced, despised, immortal Israel” choose the second option, even though:

All men shall hate and hound thee and thy seed,
The portion be the wound, the stripe, the scourge.
But in thy hand I place my lamp for light,
Thu blood shall be the witness of my Law,
Choose now for all the Ages!

Lazarus wrote several pieces on Jewish holidays, including The New Year (Rosh Hashana, 5643), in which she beautifully conveyed her vision of a people “rolling homeward to its ancient source.”

In The Feast of Light (see exhibit), a poem about Chanukah which was published in the Friday, December 19, 1930, issue of The Jewish Ledger, she writes

Lazarus’s Chanuka poem.

Kindle the taper like the steadfast star
Ablaze an evening’s forehead over the earth.
And add each night a luster, till afar
An eightfold splendor shine above thy hearth.
Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Blow the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn,
Chant psalms of vic’try till the hearts take fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born.

Remember how from wintry dawn till night,
Such songs were sung in Zion, when again
On the high altar flames the sacred light,
And, purified from every Syrian stain,
The fan-like golden shields were hung,
With crowns and silken spoils, and at the shrine
Stood, midst their conquer tribe, five chieftains, sprung
From one heroic stock, one seed divine …

They rushed upon the spoiler and o’ercame;
Each arm for freedom had the strength of ten.
Now is their mourning into dancing turned,
Their sackcloth doffed for garments of delight;
Week-long the festive touches shall be burned,
Music and revelry wed day and night.

Still ours the dance, the feast, the glorious Psalm,
The mystic light of emblem, and the World …
Chant hymns of vict’ry till the heart take fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born.

Other Jewish works include Judaism: The Connecting Link between Science and Religion (1882); Russian Christianity vs. Modern Judaism (1882); and translations from German of medieval Hebrew poets, which she published in The Jewish Messenger (1879). Although she was far from fluent in Hebrew, she relied on Abraham Geiger’s German translations of works by Jewish medieval poets, including Solomon Ben Judah Gabirol, Abul Hassan Judah Ben Ha-Levi, and Moses Ben Ezra, all of whom shared her Sephardic ancestry.

A quotation from Longfellow’s In the Jewish Synagogue of Newport, originally signed by him.

Lazarus, who frequented Newport at her family’s summer home there, was inspired to write In the Jewish Synagogue of Newport (1867) one of her earliest creative expressions of Jewish consciousness, which she wrote at age 18 in response to The Jewish Cemetery at Newport, a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), a much-beloved American poet whose notable works include Paul Revere’s Ride, The Courtship of Miles Standish, The Village Blacksmith, and Evangeline.

In the summer of 1852, Longfellow brought his family to Newport for a vacation and, while walking the local streets, he became captivated by the old Jewish cemetery, which he visited on July 9, 1852. As he wrote in his diary:

Here we are, in the clover-fields on the cliff, at Hazard’s house; near the beach, with the glorious sea unrolling its changing billows before us. Here, in truth, the sea speaks Italian; at Nahant it speaks Norse. Went this morning into the Jewish burying ground, with a polite old gentleman who keeps the key. It is a shady nook, at the corner of two dusty, frequented streets, with an iron fence and a granite gateway …

Founded in 1677, the Jewish Cemetery is the second oldest in the United States. Nonetheless, at the time of Longfellow’s visit to Newport with his family, it was logical for him to consider it strange to find a Jewish cemetery there. Newport had been financially devastated during the Revolution, when the British occupied the town and seized ships and other resources. After the successful resolution of the war, most prosperous merchants left for cities such as New York and Savannah, which by then had displaced Newport as a commercial center. The Newport community was left behind by the rapid forces of industrialization, and successful Jewish merchants had moved on as well, so that by the time of Longfellow’s visit, there were very few Jews there. However, by the time he wrote The Jewish Cemetery two years later, the old seaport town had begun to attract members of Boston’s intellectual elite.

Longfellow began his poem by expressing his surprise at finding a synagogue – which he describes as being “a shady nook, at the corner of two dusty, frequented streets” – in an old New England port town. However, this was not surprising, since neither Portsmouth (where he grew up), nor Cambridge (where he lived), nor Boston, nor any other New England town or port, had a colonial-era Jewish community. “How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves, Close by the street of this fair seaport town …” Today, the synagogue remains the oldest surviving synagogue building in the United States.

Longfellow’s poem was a sensitive portrayal of the place and its people, as he included tender references to “Hebrews in their graves,” knowledgeable mentions of Jewish religious practices, and sympathetic references to Jewish persecution. As a former language professor at Harvard, he could read and write Hebrew, and his musings on what might have led the first Jews to Newport in the 17th century indicate that he knew a bit of their history. In the tradition of 18th-century English contemplative poetry, he both paints a physical portrait of the cemetery and explores his ruminations, but it is the final – and controversial – line that has caused the poem, and the cemetery, to be remembered:

But ah! what once has been shall be no more!
The groaning earth in travail and in pain brings forth its races, but does not restore,
and the dead nations never rise again.



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In The Jewish Synagogue of Newport, however, which echoes Longfellow’s poem in form and meter, Lazarus concentrates on the synagogue and its continuing living power and famously argues that while the Jews may be down, they will nonetheless exist forever, concluding that “the sacred shrine is holy yet.” Thus, while Longfellow wrote from the perspective of cynicism and old age and as a non-Jewish outside observer, Lazarus considered the same subject from the perspective of youth and as an insider raised within the Jewish community with confidence in the eternity of the Jewish people.

When Lazarus became active on behalf of Russian Jewish refugees, she again condemned Longfellow’s poem, and in an 1882 essay she excoriated his final stanzas, arguing that the Jewish people’s current suffering in Eastern Europe, “proves them to be very warmly and thoroughly alive.” Ironically, she had developed a friendship with Longfellow, frequently corresponded with him and, upon his death, eulogized him in the April 4, 1882, edition of The American Hebrew.

Signature, closing from a letter: “Sincerely yours, Emma Lazarus, 18 West Tenth Street, Dec. 20th 1883.” Lazarus autographs are extremely rare because of her death at an early age and the great demand.

Lazarus was tragically cut down by illness at the age 38, just as she reached the height of her literary powers, and she was buried in Beth Olam Cemetery in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. Grand tributes from leaders in the world of publishing and literature were published but, among all her eulogists, only the editor of the American Hebrew mentioned her Zionism. Indeed, many family members and friends, who could never come to terms with Emma’s interest in Judaism, sought to minimize her Jewish identity. For example, Annie Lazarus Johnston, her sister who had converted to Anglican-Catholicism, denied a publisher’s request to publish Emma’s Jewish poems, writing, “There has been a tendency on the part of the public to over emphasize the Hebraic strain of her work, giving it this quality of sectarian propaganda, which I greatly deplore.” Nonetheless, Emma’s pro-Zionist and pro-Jewish work, which comprises a critical portion of her oeuvre, is recognized as among her greatest and most important work.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].