Page 164 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 44

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ness, two related events occurred that fired her poetic and social
imagination: 1) the Russian pogroms of 1879 and the concomi­
tant infamous May Laws of 1881; 2) the resultant mass emigra­
tion of Eastern European Jews to the United States. As Morris
Schappes has observed, until the Jews began to come in droves to
America, Emma Lazarus’ interest in Judaism was mainly philo­
sophical.32 She had no active “cause” to which to attach herself.
The anti-Semitism that she had dealt with in her medieval verse
drama “The Dance to Death” was a reaching into the past in sym­
pathy with her own tradition in order to, as it were, manufacture
a connection. At that time the gesture was a passive one. But at
this crux in Jewish history, Emma’s passionate response drew her
into an active battle. There was important work to be done as
poet, as political essayist, and as social activist.
By this time Judaism had not been, as her sister was to put it, “a
dead letter”33 to her. Preparation was already in process. Jewish
auto-didact, Emma had begun to study the Hebrew language, to
read Graetz’s
History of the Jews,
to read Hebrew literature, and
perhaps most important — to read George Eliot’s novel
in which the great English woman made an impassioned
and reasoned defense of the need for a Jewish homeland and
nation in Palestine. Thus the transformation of Emma’s con­
sciousness was not accomplished, as some critics would have it, in
one single event; but there was, in fact, a critical moment. In April
1882 Emma Lazarus published an essay, “Was the Earl of
Beaconsfield a Representative Jew?” in
magazine. In this
still cool rationalist, universalist assessment of Benjamin Disraeli,
she concludes that indeed he
a representative Jew — but he is
“not a first class man.” His qualities, she asserts, “were not those of
the world’s heroes; he possessed talent rather than genius. . . .
Moses, Jesus, St. Paul, the prophets, Spinoza bear glorious testi­
mony to the existence of first class men. But centuries of persecu­
tion and the enforced narrowness of their sphere of action . . .
have developed among the Jews a national character other than
that of the above named scions of the race.”34 Emma Lazarus’
lament is for the want of a great spiritual moral leader. She, her­
32 Morris U. Schappes, ed.
Emma Lazarus: Selections from Her Poetry and Prose,
(New York, 1944), pp. 11, 12. Hereinafter referred to as Morris Schappes.
33 Josephine Lazarus, p. 19.
34 Morris Schappes, p. 60.