Great-grandfather Samuel Lazarus had joined with Gershom Mendes Seixas in organizing Kalfe Sedakah a society for the relief of those stricken by yellow fever in the epidemic of 1798, and had himself fallen victim to it. His son, Eleazar S., American-born son of German Ashkenazic immigrants, became the leading authority on Sephardic liturgy in the first half of the nineteenth century. Eleazer also served as parnas (president) of the Shearith Israel Congregation, as did his eldest son, Samuel, who, like his father, would on occasion lead the service in the synagogue.
Emma Lazarus, Poems and Translations, New York, 1866. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
The second son, Moses, married Esther Nathan, the daughter of an aristocratic Sefardi family and made his fortune in the sugar refining business. They raised six daughters. Private tutorial schooling, stressing literature and languages, was provided for the Lazarus children; Hebrew education was not. Like others in their group, the Lazarus family relegated their Jewish religious life to the formal, occasional expression that good manners required.
Daughter Emma early displayed literary gifts, and in 1866 her proud father published "for private circulation," Poems and Translations, "written between the ages of fourteen and sixteen." This 207-page volume of thirty "original pieces" and translations from Heine, Dumas, and Victor Hugo, the dutiful daughter dedicated to her father. The poems betray no Jewish knowledge or interest. Twice she quotes biblical verses from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, as epigraphs to poems, but the poems themselves lack Jewish content. "The Holy of Holies" is a young girl's lament of betrayal by a friend-nothing of religious sentiment, and no sensitivity to the special meaning of "Holy of Holies" in the Jewish religious tradition.
Ralph Waldo Emerson befriended her and became a guide and mentor, and Emma dedicated her Admetus and Other Poems to him. Of Admetus, The Boston Transcript wrote: "Emma Lazarus is a new name to us in American poetry, but 'Admetus' is not the work of a 'prentice-hand'; few recent volumes of verse compare favorably with the spirit and musical expression of these genuine effusions of Emma Lazarus." The great Russian novelist Turgenev wrote to her about her prose romance Alide: "An author who writes as you do is not a pupil in art anymore; he is not far from being himself a master."
For all the praise, spiritual unease troubled the young poet, an emptiness which the Judaism of her father and her uncle could not fill. The uncle, the Reverend Jacques Lyons, hazzan-minister of Shearith Israel, dispensed a proper, decorous, liturgy-centered religion which neither stirred her soul nor satisfied her heart.
Emma Lazarus, Admetus and Other Poems, New York, 1871. General Collection.
When her friend Edmund C. Stedman, poet and critic, suggested that she turn to the Jewish tradition as a source of inspiration, she replied, as Stedman later remembered, that "although proud of her blood and lineage, the Hebrew ideals did not appeal to her." When Rabbi Gustav Gottheil invited her to contribute to a hymn book he was compiling, she replied: "I will gladly assist you as far as I am able; but that will not be much. I shall always be loyal to my race, but I feel no religious fervor in my soul."
What finally aroused her fervor was the plight of her people. The Russian pogroms of 1881, which followed on the assassination of Czar Alexander II, brought terror-stricken survivors to America. Emma Lazarus's first response was to go to Ward's Island to see what she might do for the hapless men, women, and children who crowded its facilities. The "loyalty to race" was not so much a kinship with preceding generations, but a bond with those of her generation who needed her and her gifts.
She began to read the literature of her people, to study the Hebrew language, and to associate more and more with Jews. When an article appeared in The Century Magazine justifying the pogroms, blaming the victims, and defending the czarist government, Lazarus responded with an impassioned defense of Judaism and the Russian Jew, entitled "Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism," in the May 1882 issue of the magazine.
A half year later, The Century published her essay, "The Jewish Problem," which is particularly noteworthy for its Zionist stance. In a milieu in which Jewish national aspirations were denounced as contrary to the highest expression of Judaism and suppressed out of fear of accusations of dual loyalty, she hailed the Zionism espoused in George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda. With high anticipation Lazarus greeted the colonies being planted in the Holy Land and took seriously English writer and traveler Laurence Oliphant's formulation of the Jewish problem as a choice for Jews of: "race-extinction by marriage in countries which are too civilized to attempt massacre, or of separation in a young nationality." She closed her article by quoting the views of a young Russian Jew on this subject, "for they sum up the desires and ambitions of the nation":
what they [the Jews] need is to be once more consolidated as a nation.... Let them organize with sufficient strength under a competent leader, and establish their central government.... In their present wretched condition the Jews have grown old.... But a new life will be instilled in them by such an achievement; and once more incorporated as a fresh and active nation, they will regain youthful vigor and power.
In 1883, celebrating America as the "Mother of Exiles" from whose beacon-hand glows worldwide welcome, Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus" to aid the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund. That sonnet, now inscribed on the pedestal of Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, has America proclaiming:
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!
In devoting the rest of her brief life to Jewish causes, Emma Lazarus found new inspiration, writing such poems as "The Banner of the Jew," for The American Hebrew:
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!
"The New Ezekiel" sang of dead bones which "twenty scorching centuries of wrong" produced, but:
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.
Emma Lazarus, Songs of a Semite .... New York, 1882. General Collection.
In 1882, Songs of a Semite, The Dance to Death and Other Poems, by Emma Lazarus, was published in New York by The American Hebrew A five-act tragedy in verse, the "Dance to Death" is dedicated to the memory of George Eliot, "the illustrious writer, who did most among the artists of our day towards elevating and ennobling the spirit of Jewish nationality." The play is a passion-laden retelling of a fourteenth-century tale of Jewish martyrdom and heroism. In it, Susskind von Orb, a Jew, exhorts his coreligionists who have chosen martyrdom:
Fear ye we perish unavenged? Not so!
Today, no! to-morrow! but in God's time,
Our witnesses arise. ours is the truth,
Ours is the power, the gift of Heaven. We hold
His Law, His lamp, His covenant, His pledge.
Wherever in the ages shall arise
Jew-priest, Jew-poet, Jew-singer or Jew-saint--
And everywhere I see them star the gloom--
In each of these the martyrs are avenged!
This eighty-page volume also contains poems on Jewish themes and translations from the medieval Hebrew poets Solomon ibn Gabirol, Judah HaLevi, Moses ben Ezra, and it brims with the author's religious fervor and national pride.
In a series of articles in The American Hebrew, which bore the title "An Epistle to the Hebrews," she makes her contribution "towards rousing that spirit of Jewish enthusiasm" and offers a program to the American Jews for the revival of that spirit:
First, in a return to the varied pursuits and broad system of physical and intellectual education adopted by our ancestors; Second, in a more fraternal and practical movement towards alleviating the sufferings of oppressed Jews in countries less favored than our own; Third, in a closer and wider study of Hebrew literature and history; and finally in a truer recognition of the large principles of religion, liberty, and law upon which Judaism is founded, and which should draw into harmonious unity Jews of every shade and opinion.
Emma Lazarus did not complete her thirty-ninth year. Her sister Josephine, her senior by three years, and a gifted writer in her own right, lovingly gathered up her poems, to be published in two volumes as The Poems of Emma Lazarus, Boston and New York (1888). An appreciation (though unattributed, the work of Josephine) states:
What Emma Lazarus might have accomplished, had she been spared, it is idle and even ungrateful to speculate. What she did accomplish has real and peculiar significance. It is the privilege of a favored few that every fact and circumstance of their individuality shall add lustre and value to what they achieve. To be born a Jewess was a distinction to Emma Lazarus, and she in turn conferred distinction upon her race.
Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991). Portrait (1887) depicting the poet in the last year of her short life, was engraved by T. Johnson from a photograph by W. Kurtz. Prints and Photographs Division.