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Emma Lazarus

LAZARUS, EMMA (1849–1887), U.S. poet, essayist, and activist. Lazarus was born in New York on July 22, 1849, to Moses Lazarus, a wealthy industrialist of Sephardi heritage, and his wife Esther Nathan Lazarus of Ashkenazi background. Both sides of her family had been in America since the Revolution. Lazarus, who was educated at home by private tutors, was originally attracted to classical and romantic art and literature. During the course of her career, she struck up tutelary relationships with important male writers, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson, and including Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Henry James. Her early works included Poems and Translations: Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Sixteen, published privately by her father in 1867, a novel Alide: An Episode of Goethe's Life (1874), and a historical tragedy, The Spagnoletto (1876), as well as a translation of poems by Heinrich *Heine, accompanied by a biographical study. By the time she wrote her best-known poem, "The New Colossus" (1883), a hymn to America, the "Mother of Exiles," she had repudiated the glorification of male conquering power, aestheticism, and empty ceremony and asserted instead the power of womanhood, the comfort of motherhood, and the Hebraic prophetic values of compassion and consolation. Lazarus began her return to Jewish tradition in the late 1870s, studying Hebrew and reading Graetz's History of the Jews and George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda, with its plea for a Jewish national revival. Lazarus began to publish translations of the medieval Spanish-Jewish poets, *Judah Halevi, Solomon ibn *Gabirol, and others. The Russian pogroms of 1881 and the May Laws of 1882 fired both her social consciousness and her poetic imagination, prompting a series of essays in American journals, especially in Century Magazine (May 1882), where she replied to an antisemitic article by a Russian journalist, Madame Z. Ragozin. "The Dance Unto Death," a verse tragedy about the burning of the Jews of Nordhausen during the Black Death appeared in Songs of a Semite (1882), dedicated to George Eliot, "the illustrious writer who did most among the artists of our day towards elevating and ennobling the spirit of Jewish Nationality." Lazarus's series of 14 essays, ironically entitled "Epistle to the Hebrews," written from November 1882 to February 1883, were intended to "bring before the Jewish public… facts and critical observations… to arouse a more logical and intelligent estimate of the duties of the hour." Lazarus also involved herself in the practical work of helping new immigrants adjust to America, founding the Hebrew Technical Institute for Vocational Training. In 1883 she sailed to London, armed with letters of introduction from Henry James to well-placed people in England, Jews and non-Jews, who might help her in her effort towards the establishment of a Jewish national home-land. A decade before Theodore *Herzl launched the Zionist movement, Lazarus argued in poetry and prose for Palestine as a safe haven for oppressed Jews everywhere. Lazarus, who never married, died of cancer at the age of 38. After her death, her sister, Josephine Lazarus, prohibited the inclusion of "anything Jewish" in the collected edition of her works that appeared in 1889. "The New Colossus," with its famous image of "huddled masses yearning to breathe free," was engraved on a memorial plaque and affixed to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903.


C.S. Kessner, "From Parnassus to Mount Zion: The Journey of Emma Lazarus," in: Jewish Book Annual (1986–87); Idem, "The Emma Lazarus-Henry James Connection: Eight Letters," in: American Literary History, 3 (1991). D. Lichtenstein, Writing Their Nations: The Traditions of Nineteenth Century American Jewish Women Writers (1992); R. Rusk (ed.), Letters to Emma Lazarus in the Columbia University Library (1939); M. Schappes (ed.), The Letters of Emma Lazarus, 186885 (1949). B. Roth Young, Emma Lazarus in the World: Life and Letters (1995).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.