Illustration by Art Seiden

Jewish Heroes and Heroines in America

from Colonial Times to 1900:


Emma Lazarus: A Poetess And Helper Of lmmigrants

by Seymour "Sy" Brody

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses..." is part of "The New Colossus," a sonnet written by Emma Lazarus that expresses her belief in the United States as the haven of Europe's masses yearning to breathe the fresh air of democracy. The sonnet, written in 1883, is engraved on a memorial plaque that was affixed to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903.

Emma Lazarus was bom on July 22, 1849, in New York City. She was the daughter of Esther and Nathan Lazarus, Sephardic Jews, who were wealthy and devoted to the family. Emma Lazarus was educated by private tutors. In her early life she was very precocious. She composed many poems and, in 1867, in her teen years, she had a volume of poems, titled Poems and Translations, published.

She continued to write poems and essays that attracted the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a leading American poet and essayist. He invited her to spend a week at his home in Concord, Massachusetts. They had a life-long correspondence. She also corresponded with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Lazarus had a thorough knowledge of Jewish history and literature. She kept herself apart from writing about Jewish themes. Even when her Poems and Ballads of Heinrich Heine appeared, she considered him, in her introduction, as being more of a German than a Jew. She stopped being a pleasing litterateur when she read George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda, which called for a national Jewish revival. Her interest in what was happening to the Jews of the world was further reinforced with the Russian pogroms of 1881-82.

Lazarus started to translate the works of Jewish poets. She wrote essays and commentaries attacking and responding to the anti-Semites of the day. The precociousness of her youth was gone and her maturity as an adult woman came to the fore with her concern for the plight of the immigrants and Jews.

She became especially interested in the plight of the Russian-Jews as she encountered them on Wards Island, where they landed from overseas, and where she did volunteer work. In her writings, Lazarus set forth her ideas and plans for the rebirth of Jewish life by a national and cultural revival in the United States and in the Holy Land.

In 1883, Lazarus went to Europe, where she was acclaimed for her poems and writings. She was at the prime of her life and at the peak of her writing career when she was stricken with cancer. Lazarus was only 38 years old when she died. She will always be remembered for her work and concem for the "huddled masses" who came to this country to be free, the interests of Jews, and her poems and essays.

This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes and Heroines of America, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.

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