Emma Lazarus

This women’s history month, we want to take some time each week to share with you the story of an important women in U.S. History. Over the four weeks, the women we talk about may be familiar figures with unfamiliar stories and others may be people you’ve never heard of before! We hope that through sharing their story you will gain a new perspective on the women who have made significant contributions to the formation of this county.`

First up, we have the poet Emma Lazarus who lived in the 1800’s. If her name sounds familiar, you might recognize her for her most famous work, “The New Colossus” a poem written in 1883 inspired by the Statue of Liberty. Her work was so moving that several lines are inscribed on a plaque that was placed in the pedestal. We will share more about the significance of this poem, but first, let’s get to know a little about Emma!

Born in 1849, Emma Lazarus was the daughter of the merchant and sugar refiner, Moses Lazarus, and his wife, Esther Nathan. She grew up in a comfortable wealthy family and was given access to great education through private tutors. Her passion for poetry began in her teenage years as she started writing and translating German poems. Thanks to her father’s assistance, her first collection was privately published in 1866, when she was just 17 years old.

In her brief life she devoted much of herself and her writings to advocating for Jewish people, both in the U.S., Eastern Europe, and the world at large. She wrote many poems and works about the plight of the Jewish people and openly critiqued Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport.” She had serial articles published in the journal American Hebrew titled “Epistle to the Hebrews” in which she reminds the American Jewish community that, “until we are all free, we are none of us free.” In addition to being one of the first widely popular Jewish American writers and poets, she was deeply involved in bettering her community and aiding refugees and immigrants.

Let us return to “The New Colossus” and its fame and impact. Best known for the lines “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddle 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!” Earlier in the poem, she refers to the great statue as being named “Mother of Exiles” and in doing so she reveals the heart of America as a place that welcomes the unwanted and provides safety to the marginalized.

Though her work remains beloved and revered, her legacy has been overshadowed by the fame of a single poem. She had a profound impact on the Jewish immigrant community and remains a role model to many aspiring poets for the renown of her literary works. We hope that her story inspires you to learn more about her life and carry on her legacy.

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