Page 154 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 44

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Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse o f your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Contained in this sonnet is the key to the extraordinary history
of Emma Lazarus’ personal journey of self-discovery and self-
expression. Indeed, how did this very young and beautiful, very
American woman come to write an impassioned plea for the
poor, for the immigrant, the oppressed “wretched refuse?” The
answer is suggested in the first eight lines of the sonnet: “Not like
the brazen giant of Greek fame,” it begins; and in this lies a rejec­
tion of the Hellenist heritage of male conquering power, empty
ceremony and aestheticism, and in its place an assertion of the
power of womanhood, the comfort of motherhood, the Hebrew
prophetic values of compassion and consolation.
Emma Lazarus’ early years did not suggest that she would
become a prototype for the modern Jewish woman, nor that she
would become Jewish nationalist in her poetry, proto-Zionist and
socialist in her politics, and assertive in her self-confidence as a
woman. Indeed, in 1880, only five years before “The New Colos­
sus,” she had written another sonnet describing her problem. In
“Echoes” she laments the fact that as a woman she can find no
poetic subject in classical and male themes.
Emma Lazarus was born in New York, July 22, 1849, the fourth
of seven children to Moses Lazarus, an extremely wealthy sugar
industrialist of Sephardic background, and Esther Nathan Laza­
rus whose background was Ashkenazic. They lived in a fashion­
able section of New York City and summered in the popular
watering-spot of Newport, Rhode Island. The Lazarus family