Page 162 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 44

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
hour.” This is something of a reverse Henry James story in which
the Jew is the ardst-hero, rather than the ubiquitous Jamesian
Jew as charlatan art-dealer.
A year earlier, in 1878, Emma also had written a poem dedi­
cated to her uncle, Reverend Jacques J. Lyons, the
hazzan
of
Shearith Israel. It is subtitled “Rosh-Hashanah 5638.” The poem
tries to blend Hellenism and praise of nature with the liturgical
language and ritual symbols of Judaism. But the somewhat con­
fused poem can be compared instructively with her earliest poem
on a Hebrew subject — “The Valley of Baca” (1872), subtitled
Psalm-XXXI V— in which there is an overt reference to Christ: “I
saw a youth pass down the vale of tears; / His head was circled
with a crown of thorns.” In 1872 such an image signifies Emma
Lazarus’ universalist humanist ideas. The poem would be pub­
lished later in the volume
Songs of a Semite
where it would take on
a quite ironic meaning. Moreover, during these years she contin­
ued to translate, from the German of Michael Sachs and Abra­
ham Geiger, Hebrew poetry of the Golden Age of Spain. She had
begun the project somewhat reluctantly in 1877, in response to
the request of Rabbi Gustav Gottheil of Temple Emanuel in New
York for her participation in the preparation of a new Reform
prayer book. She agreed, with these cautionary words: “I will
gladly assist you as far as I can, but that will not be much. I shall
always be loyal to my race, but I feel no religious fervor in my
soul.” Perhaps her ultimate decision to participate, despite her
misgivings, had something to do with an interest in her own
Sephardic background. In any case, the three poems of 1877 for
Gottheil were followed by some twenty-seven additional transla­
tions done between 1879 and 1881. These may have been
inspired by Heine’s long poem “Yehudah Ha-Levi,” and
undoubtedly by this time she was beginning to identify her strug­
gle to reconcile Hebraism and Hellenism with Heine’s similar
effort.
At this same time, in 1878, Emma Lazarus strikes up another
significant literary correspondence — this time with John
Burroughs.27 The correspondence reveals her growing interest
in Hebraism at the expense of Hellenism. For some reason she
had written to Burroughs on March 14th, and his reply indicates
that he enjoys her company very much and would like to see more
27 John Burroughs was a naturalist and popular author o f the period.