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 lightening, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Gloves world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin-cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!"
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-tossed to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
of us recognize these famous words as the inscription for
the Statue of Liberty. Yet few know that this poem, "The
New Colossus," was written by Emma Lazarus, a major Jewish
American literary figure.
Lazarus was born in 1849 in New York City, the fourth of
seven children of Esther and Moses Lazarus. Her family were
descendents of Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition
who arrived in America even before the American Revolution-her
father could trace his ancestry back to the first twenty-three
Jews who settled in New York in 1654. Her family was part
of the rich society of uptown Manhattan that included elegant
homes, private tutors, and literary salons. Emily received
a private education that included exposure to classical
literature, poetry, and romance languages. She loved reading
and, as a teenager, began writing verse, first published
by her family. Her poetry was good enough to attract the
attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who encouraged her writing.
In her writing career, Lazarus published numerous poems,
essays, and letters, as well as translations of major collections
of poems. She was an important figure in New York's elite
literary circles, and corresponded with many important American
writers and intellectuals of the time.
from Russia about the vicious anti-semitic pogroms of 1881
and 1882 kindled an awakening of Lazarus' commitment to
Judaism. When she first met escaping Eastern Europe refugees,
she could hardly believe they were Jews. Poor, sick, and
uneducated, these immigrants were very different from the
upper class New York Jews in her social circle. She became
particularly enraged at assimilated American Jews who seemed
embarrassed by the unsophisticated Jewish refugees. At that
time, many American Jews did not want to associate with
these newcomers, because they were afraid that these "different
Jews" would reflect badly on the status of their own
Jewish community in the United States, and would compromise
their success in assimilation into American culture.
stopped writing poetry temporarily to assist the arriving
Russian Jewish immigrants, often giving them money, food
and clothing to help alleviate their poverty. She organized
a project to train Jews in industrial trades, which later
became the Hebrew Technical Institute. She attended rallies
to raise money for Russian Jews and wrote about them in
poems and essays. "Until we are all free, we are none
of us free," she pointed out.
Emma Lazarus chose to identify herself as a Jewish American
writer. She began to write passionate Jewish poems and essays
in support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, thirteen years
before Theodore Herzl founded the Zionist movement. Her
best work, a book entitled Songs of a Semite, consisted
of Jewish themed poems and lyric drama that celebrated ancient
and modern Jewish courage and advocated the idea of a Jewish
nationality. She studied Hebrew and translated classic Hebrew
poems of the great literary figures of Spain's golden age
of Judaism, including Judah HaLevi and Solomin ibn Gabirol;
many of her translations later were incorporated into standard
prayer books. Her works regularly appeared in the Jewish
press, including the weekly magazine, American Hebrew.
New Colossus," was written in 1883 for a fundraiser
auction to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. This
sonnet was auctioned in a benefit sale for $21,500, a sum
unheard-of for a short piece of poetry. In this verse, Lazarus
contrasts the Statue of Liberty with the Greek Colossus
of Rhodes, a venerable warrior. Instead, the guardian of
America's gateway is a strong, but nuturing woman, the Mother
of Exiles. Lazarus' vision of the United States as a haven
for the refugees of Europe and Russia was the inspiration
for the poem, in which America is depicted as the golden
land of hope and opportunity for the oppressed.
Lazarus died in 1887, 4 years after composing the sonnet,
at the age of 38. In 1903, her poem was engraved on a metal
plaque, and attached to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
Two of her life's dreams became reality in the next century:
her American dream of the huddled masses of Jewish immigrants
successfully integrating into American society and her Jewish
dream of a Jewish homeland that would accept all persecuted
recent documentary about the Statue of Liberty, written
by Ken Burns, opens with a recitation of "The New Colossus."
Yet, despite crediting all the architects, builders, and
politicians associated with creating the monument he fails
to mention Emma Lazarus' name! The events of September 11,
2001 deepen our appreciation of the freedoms and opportunities
we enjoy in the United States, ideas symbolized by the Statue
of Liberty and its inscription, written by Emma Lazarus.