Page 155 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 44

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KESSNER / FROM PARNASSUS TO MOUNT ZION
143
was aware of its Jewishness, but not observant, and as Emma her­
self was to write in 1883, she “was brought up exclusively under
American institutions, amid liberal influences, in a society where
all differences of race and faith were fused in a refined cosmopol­
itanism.”4This is not surprising; for the aristocratic Lazarus fam­
ily, on both sides, had been in America since the Revolution. In
1849 the Jewish population of the United States was no more
than 50,000 — about one half of one percent. In New York, the
population was about 16,000. There was little overt anti-Semitism
— but this comfortable condition inevitably encouraged assimila­
tion and social aspiration to the extent that for the Lazarus family
and so many others, religious observance had become a matter of
perfunctory synagogue attendance, and secular education was
emphasized over Jewish education. Consequently, the education
of Emma Lazarus was a matter of private tutoring in which she
studied the curriculum for well educated young American ladies
of upper class status.
Of these early years we have the reminiscences of her sister
Josephine, who provides an introduction to the two volumes of
selected poems that were published in 1889, two years after
Emma’s death. Although some of what Josephine says is ques­
tionable, we can assume that her description of the very young
Emma is fairly accurate. Josephine Lazarus writes, “She was a shy,
sensitive child, with strange reserves and reticences, not easily
putting herself
en rapport
with those around her. Books were her
world from her earliest years.”5Josephine goes on to point out a
“profound melancholy” in the earliest poems her sister wrote and
ascribes this common adolescent darkness to “a deeper root;
something of birth and temperament is in it, — the stamp and
heritage of a race born to suffer.” Emma’s sister tells us that at this
point Hebraism was only latent, and it was “classic and romantic
art that first attracted h e r . . . . Her restless spirit found repose in
the pagan idea, — the absolute unity and identity of man with
nature, as symbolized in the Greek myths.”6This, the very subject
that ultimately is to be rejected in “The New Colossus.”
4 “An Epistle to the Hebrews,”
American Hebrew,
February 9, 1883, p. 149.
5 Josephine Lazarus, ed. and introduction to
The Poems o fEmma Lazarus
: 2 vols.
(Boston, 1889), p. 3. Hereinafter referred to as Josephine Lazarus.
6
Ibid.