Page 22 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 34

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
acted in the role of Mazeppa, the Ukrainian Hetman, in Henry
Milne’s dramatic adaptation of Lord Byron’s epic.
So many stories were told about her origin, her early years,
her four husbands, and her many lovers, and she herself helped
in spreading fantastic tales about herself. Consequently, her bi­
ographers were long confused and contradicted one another.
With the recent discovery of authentic documents attesting to
her conversion to Judaism in 1857, a year after she married her
only Jewish husband, the musician Alexander Isaac Menken, it
may now be concluded that she was not of Jewish birth. Imme­
diately after her conversion, however, she was fascinated by
her new faith and contributed poems and essays on Jewish
themes to more than two dozen issues of
The American Israelite,
a periodical of Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, the founder of American
Reform Judaism.
The earliest of her poems on a Jewish subject “Hear O Israel”
was reprinted in the slender volume of selected lyrics
Infelicia
(1868), which she dedicated to Charles Dickens and which ap­
peared a few weeks after her death in Paris. I t showed evidence
of Walt Whitman’s influence and followed his free rhythms.
Joaquin Miller, who had felt the impact of her living personal­
ity, wrote of the volume: “If you care for poetry, grand, sublime,
majestic, get this one little book of Adah Isaacs Menken and
read it from lid to lid. It is the best that America has yet to
offer in the line of sublime thought.” Such extravagant praise
was hardly deserved, but her fiery, storm tossed, unconventional
life dazzled contemporaries who were not disposed to judge her
poetry objectively.
Of this triad of women poets, only Emma Lazarus (1849-1887)
entered the permanent treasury of American poetry. She is best
remembered for her sonnet “The New Colossus” engraved on
the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York’s harbor. She
was only seventeen when her first volume of delicate, romantic,
melancholy lyrics was published. These attracted the attention
of Ralph Waldo Emerson, to whom she then dedicated her
second volume,
Admetus and Other Poems
(1871), which in­
cluded Greek, Germanic, and international themes. However,
her Sephardic sensitivity prompted her to avoid touching on
Jewish themes. Medieval heroes, such as Tannhauser and Lohen­
grin, fascinated her but not Yehuda Halevi or Solomon ibn