Emma Lazarus

Presented by David P. Stern on 27 October 1998 in Greenbelt, Maryland

Notes:  (1) The Newport poems are quoted in their entirety,
           even though only a few stanzas of each were actually read
                (2) Although this discussion can be presented separately,
when given it was preceded by a discussion of Lech L'cha.
(3) See postscript at the end.                        


      Most of us have personal passions, and one of mine is books. I love books. You could say, it's a very reasonable passion for a Jew: after all, are we not called "people of the book"?

      In any case, three weeks ago, on a trip to Pennsylvania, I discovered a fantastic bookstore--it is on highway 100 north of Wilmington, Delaware, in a big brick barn dating (I believe) to 1830. The insides of that barn hold four cramped floors, full of little twisty passages and filled with second-hand books, on shelves, on crates, in nooks and crannies.

      Audrey remained waiting downstairs, and by the time we left, I had spent more money and much more time than expected. But all she said was "You owe me big time for this."

      However, if you love books, time and money don't count. What counts are the treasures you discover--a Hebrew concordance to the bible, John Hersey's novel on the Warsaw Ghetto ("The Wall")--and a slim book, the poems and writings of Emma Lazarus. The poem "Gifts" read here earlier (reproduced at the end of this web page) was in that book. Unfortunately, her writings are no longer easy to find, it takes luck to find them anywhere, especially in a barn in Pennsylvania.

      Who was Emma Lazarus? She was born in New York, to a wealthy Jewish sugar manufacturer--born in 1849, which meant, she grew up in the era of the Civil War. That was before the great wave of Jewish immigrants arrived here, at a time when Jews counted for no more than perhaps 2 per 1000 of the American population. They felt free, were fairly prosperous, were not pressed to assert their Jewish identity and some were already drifting away from their traditions. Sounds familiar?

      Emma Lazarus was educated at home, and her tutors made her aware of what now might be called the diversity of cultures, including her own. She learned other languages and translated their poetry, and she wrote her own poems as well.

      Later in life she translated from German the poems of Heinrich Heine, who may have been her favorite--Heine the baptized Jew, who all his life remembered his Jewish heritage and wrote about it; she might have felt like that too, caught between great cultures. She became a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who helped her develop her own style, and she was known to other poets and writers.

      In 1879 persecutions of Jews in Russia began, getting worse in 1881. Refugees began arriving, the first of the great migration of Russian Jews, and these events greatly sharpened Emma's Jewish consciousness. From there to her early death in 1887--of cancer--she was very much concerned with Jewish culture and tradition, and wrote many essays and poems--about the Macabees, Bar Kochva, Rashi and so on, also translated from Hebrew the works of Spanish poets such as Ibn Gvirol.

      For us, it is easy to speak of "Judaism as an emerging civilization." In the time of Emma Lazarus, in America, this civilization was barely in evidence. Religion--yes, holidays and ancient prayers: but it took a poet to translate those old traditions into a living language.

      From the slim book I selected one poem, written at age 18, about the old Touro synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest synagogue on the North American continent, the synagogue which George Washington once visited. By the time of Emma Lazarus, the Jewish community of Newport had dwindled away, and the building was empty and dark: her poem writes about memories, in an old temple which has fallen silent:


    In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport     (27 July 1867)

    Here, where the noises of the busy town,
    The ocean's plunge and roar can enter not,
    We stand and gaze around with fearful awe,
    And muse upon the consecrated spot.

    No signs of life are here: the very prayers,
    Inscribed around are in a language dead,
    The light of the "perpetual lamp" is spent
    That an undying radiance was to shed.

    What prayers were in this temple offered up,
    Wrung from sad hearts that knew no joy on earth,
    By these lone exiles of a thousand years,
    From the fair sunrise land that gave them birth!

    Now as we gaze, in this new world of light,
    Upon this relic of the days of old,
    The present vanishes, and tropic bloom
    And Eastern towns and temples we behold.

    Again we see the patriarch with his flocks,
    The purple seas, the hot sky o'erhead,
    The slaves of Egypt--omens, mysteries--
    Dark fleeing hosts by flaming angels led.

    A wondrous light upon a sky-kissed mount,
    A man who reads Jehovah's written law,
    'Midst blinding glory and effulgence rare,
    Unto a people prone with reverent awe.

    The pride of luxury's barbaric pomp,
    In the rich court of royal Solomon--
    Alas! we wake: one scene alone remains
    The exiles by the streams of Babylon.

    Our softened voices send us back again
    But mournful echoes through the empty hall;
    Our footsteps have a strange, unnatural sound,
    And with unwonted gentleness they fall.

    The weary ones, the sad, the suffering,,
    All found their comfort in the holy place,
    And children's gladness, and men's gratitude
    Took voice and mingled in the chant of praise.

    The funeral and the marriage, now, alas!
    We know not which is sadder to recall;
    For youth and happiness have followed age,
    And green grass lieth gently over all.

    And still the shrine is holy yet,
    With its lone floors where reverent feet once trod.
    Take off your shoes as by the burning bush,
    Before the mystery of death and God.

That story ended happily--in the 1890s the synagogue re-opened, and today it is a national historical site, its picture even appeared on a postage stamp.

      But there is a second reason for selecting this poem. Emma Lazarus corresponded with old Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who had written a very similar poem, titled "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport." Longfellow only briefly mentions the synagogue, but it is a similar scene--of old memories in a place now abandoned and silent.

      It makes it interesting to listen to the two poems side by side. They almost say the same thing, but not quite. Longfellow is the outsider--to him the Jews are a peculiar nation, a phenomenon of history: they came, they lived here, they are gone, a nation that will be no more (listen to his last stanza, in particular).

      To Emma Lazarus, they are still her own people. Their memory remains alive even when they are gone, the synagogue remains holy even when it is empty. Let us then listen--first to Longfellow:


    The Jewish Cemetery at Newport
          by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

    How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves,
          Close by the street of this fair seaport town,
    Silent besides the never-silent waves,
          At rest in all this moving up and down.

    The trees are white with dust, that o'er their sleep,
          Wave their broad curtains in the south wind's breath,
    While underneath such leafy tents they keep,
          The long mysterious Exodus of Death.

    And these sepulchral stones, so old and brown,
          That pave with level flags their burial place,
    Seem like the tablets of the Law, thrown down
          And broken by Moses at the mountain's base.

    The very names recorded here are strange,
          Of foreign accent and of different climes:
    Alvares and Rivera interchange,
          With Abraham and Jacob of old times.

    "Blessed be God! for He created Death!"
          The mourner said, "and Death is rest and peace";
    Then added, in the certainty of faith,
          "And giveth Life that never more shall cease."

    Closed are the portals of their synagogue,
          No Psalms of David now the silence break,
    No Rabbi reads the ancient Decalogue
          In the grand dialect the Prophets spake

    Gone are the living, but the dead remain,
          And not neglected; for a hand unseen,
    Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,
          Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.

    How came they here? What burst of Christian hate,
          What persecution, merciless and blind,
    Drove o'er the sea--that desert desolate--
          These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?

    They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure,
          Ghetto and Judenstrass, in mirk and mire,
    Taught in school of patience to endure
          The life of anguish and the death of fire.

    All their life long, with the unleavened bread,
          And bitter herbs of exile and its fears,
    The wasting famine of the heart that fed,
          And slaked its thirst with Marah of their tears.

    Anathema maranatha! was the cry
          That rang from town to town, from street to street;
    At every gate the accursed Mordecai
          Was mocked and jeered, and spurned by Christian feet.

    Pride and humiliation hand in hand
          Walked with them through the world where'er they went
    Trampled and beaten were they as the sand
          And yet unshaken as the continent.

    For in the background figures vague and vast
          Of patriarchs and prophets rose sublime
    And all the great traditions of the Past
          They saw reflected in the coming time.

    And thus forever, with reverted look
          The mystic volume of the world they read,
    Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book
          Till life became a Legend of the Dead.

    But ah! what once has been shall be no more!
          The groaning earth in travail and in pain
    Brings forth its races, but does not restore
          And the dead nations never rise again.

    Longfellow died on March 24, 1882, and Emma Lazarus wrote an appreciation of him for the Longfellow Memorial Meeting of the Young Men's Hebrew Association. It appeared in The American Hebrew of April 14, 1882, and it also commented on his Newport poem, as follows:

              It is scarcely necessary to recall to Jewish hearers the well-known lines in "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport," wherein Longfellow's tender humanity finds sweet and pathetic expression. These lines, in their almost colloquial simplicity, and their use of sacred, legendary or symbolic terms for purposes of homely illustration, are very characteristic of his method ...

        Jewish readers will not be so willing to accept the concluding stazas of his poem:

      And thus forever, with reverted look
            The mystic volume of the world they read,
      Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book
            Till life became a Legend of the Dead.

      But ah! what once has been shall be no more!
            The groaning earth in travail and in pain
      Brings forth its races, but does not restore
            And the dead nations never rise again.

       The rapidly rising influence of the Jews in Europe, the present universal agitation of the Jewish question.... the frightful wave of persecution directed against the race... the suffering, privation and martyrdom which our brethren still consent to undergo in the name of Judaism, prove them to be very warmly and thoroughly alive, and not at all in need of miraculous resuscitation to establish their nationality.

      One cannot end a discussion of Emma Lazarus without mentioning her most famous lines, the sonnet of which part is engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty. She wrote it in 1883 as part of the drive to raise funds for the pedestal of the statue--the statue itself was the gift of France, but the pedestal was provided by the American people. What is often overlooked is that although the statue went up in 1886, it was only in 1903, long after Emma Lazarus had passed away, that the words were inscribed next to the statue. Here is the entire poem--titled, "The New Colossus":

    The New Colossus

    Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
    With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
    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 of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"




    "O World-God, give me Wealth!" the Egyptian cried.
    His prayer was granted. High as heaven, behold
    Palace and Pyramid; the brimming tide
    Of lavish Nile washed all his land with gold.
    Armies of slaves toiled ant-wise at his feet,
    World-circling traffic roared through mart and street,
    His priests were gods, his spice-balmed kings enshrined
    Set death at naught in rock-ribbed charnels deep.
    Seek Pharaoh's race today and ye shall find
    Rust and the moth, silence and dusty sheep.

    "O World-God, give me Beauty!" cried the Greek.
    His prayer was granted. All the earth became
    Plastic and vocal to his sense; each peak,
    Each grove, each stream, quick with Promethean flame
    Peopled the world with imaged grace and light.
    The lyre was his, and his the breathing might
    Of the immortal marble, his the play
    of diamond-pointed thought and golden tongue.
    Go seek the sun-shine race, ye find today
    A broken column and a lute unstrung.

    "O World-God, give me Power!" the Roman cried.
    His prayer was granted. The vast world was chained
    A captive to the chariot of his pride.
    The blood of myriad provinces was drained
    To feed that fierce, insatiable red heart.
    Invulnerably bulwarked every part
    With serried legions and with close-meshed code,
    Within, the burrowing worm has gnawed its home
    A roofless ruin stands where once abode
    The imperial race of everlasting Rome.

    "O Godhead, give me Truth!" the Hebrew cried.
    His prayer was granted; he became the slave
    Of the Idea, a pilgrim far and wide,
    Cursed, hated, spurned, and scourged with none to save.
    The Pharaohs knew him, and when Greece beheld
    His wisdom wore the hoary crown of Eld.
    Beauty he hath forsworn, and wealth and power.
    Seek him today, and find in every land.
    No fire consumes him, neither floods devour;
    Immortal through the lamp within his hand.


        "Emma Lazarus Selected Poems," edited by John Hollander, was published in April 2005 by Penguin Press, USA ( xiii + 148 pp, $20.00).
        Robert Pinsky, reviewing it in "Poet's Choice" in the "Book World" supplement of the Washington Post (5.22.05), cites "The New Collossus" and also a sonnet titled simply "1492", the year which marked both the exile of Spain's Jews and the discovery of a continent where many of their descendants found refuge:

    Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,
    Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,
    The children of the prophets of the Lord,
    Prince, priest and people, spurned with zelot hate.

    Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state,
    The West refused them, and the East abhorred.
    No anchorage the known world could afford,
    Close-locked was every port, barred every gate.

    Then smiling thou unveil'dst, O two-faced year
    A virgin world where doors of sunset part,
    Saying, "Ho, all who weary, enter here!
    There falls each ancient barrier that the art
    Of race or creed or rank devised, to rear
    Grim bulwarked hatred between heart and heart!"


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 22 May 2005