to be an
One of the first successful Jewish American authors, Emma Lazarus was a member of the late nineteenth century New York literary elite and was recognized in her day as an important American poet.
Her father recognized his young daughter’s talent and began to encourage her work. In 1886, when Emma was seventeen, he privately published her first book. Her second book was published in 1871 to excellent reviews. Throughout the 1870s, Lazarus published poetry in popular magazines. By 1882, over 50 of her poems and translations had appeared in mainstream periodicals. Emma’s early poems and translations show she had a strong classical education and a mastery of German and French. Her famous lines of “The New Colossus” sonnet cast in brass and mounted at the base of the Statue of Liberty, captured the nation’s imagination and continues to shape the way we think about immigration and freedom today.
"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land..."
About the same time, 1881-1882, a wave of Jewish refugees from Russia and Europe, who were fleeing persecution, were coming to the United States in great numbers. Lazarus took up the defense of these persecuted people and began to work for the relief of immigrants but she, herself, was not and immigrant.
"Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lighting, and her name
Mother of Exiles..."
She was fifth generation American, the daughter of a Sephardic Jewish family, a very wealthy family in New York. She had no need to roll up her sleeves and work for these immigrants, but that is what she did.
"From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame..."
She advocated for them in the press. She taught them English. She tried to get them jobs and training. She wrote bold, powerful poetry and essays protesting the rise of antisemitism and arguing from Russian immigrants’ rights. She was one of the fiercest advocates.
As a Jewish American woman, Emma Lazarus faced the challenge of belonging to two often conflicting worlds, her ancestry and her elite class. In her work, she moved between celebrating Greek myths and legendary Hebrew scholars. And as a woman she dealt with unequal treatment in both. These difficult experiences lent power and depth to her work and created a complicated identity. She believed in both the ideals of art for art’s sake and poetry that called for social justice.
“'Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!' cries she
With silent lips..."
When the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, no one said a word about welcoming immigrants, this was a symbol of liberty. In 1883, before the statue landed on America’s shores, she was selected to create a written piece for auction to raise money for the construction of the grand pedestal it would be displayed on but the poem was not part of the original design, installation or dedication of the statue.
“Give me your tired..."
In writing this sonnet, she took her plea for her life long support of immigrants, to the nation.
your poor. What she did was completely recast the meaning of the statue.
"Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."
Call it predictive intuition or prophetic envisioning, she was putting words to America’s announcement to the world that it was renouncing imperialism, that it was renouncing tyranny and that it would accept those who had been cast out or refused by their distant shores.
"The wretched refuse of your teeming shore..."
What she began to understand about this statue is that it was facing outward, not inward, but outward from the United States. She saw it as a beacon, a welcoming sign to those entering a new life on American shores.
"Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!..."
Over the years, the sonnet has become part of American culture, inspiring everything from an Irving Berlin show tune to a call for immigrants’ rights.
"Until we are all free, we are none of us are free."