Emma Lazarus

Emma Lazarus

(1849 – 1887)

DJ Name: Lazarhythm 

Happy Women’s History Month! To celebrate, we’re going to eat bagels, dream about frolicking around New York City together (like we literally did this month last year ~pre-covid~) and think about our number one gal who towers above all else in the city that never sleeps: Lady Liberty. She’s beauty and she’s grace. She’s Miss welcome to the United States. We’re just two tired, poor girls who are yearning to breathe free… or at least that’s what Emma Lazarus wrote on Lady Liberty’s pedestal.

Besides being a poetess, Emma Lazarus was also often referred to as a jewess because she was the sole Jew in her circle of Christian friends and, later in life, fought against anti-Semitism. When she danced the horah, or to inspire her to pour her heart out in her poetry, Emma put on her AirpodsTM and shuffled up these jams.

Emma Lazarus was born in New York City on July 22, 1849, to Moses Lazarus, a merchant and sugar refiner and Esther Nathan. She was the fourth of seven children in her Sephardic Jewish (which basically means Hispanic Jews, or those who originated from the Iberian peninsula) family, which was fairly wealthy and settled near Union Square in Manhattan. The Lazarus familia could trace its roots back in America to well before the American Revolution — her ancestors were among the first 23 Portuguese Jews who arrived in North America after fleeing the Inquisition from their settlement in Brazil. This wealth and stature placed the Lazarus family in the most upper of crusts in NYC society, and Emma inherited a rich pride in her heritage. Emma and her siblings had a series of tutors throughout their childhood, teaching them American and British literature and several languages including German, French and Italian. But, at heart, Emma was a poet and she didn’t even know it. She read lots of books of poetry and at 11 years old, she wrote her first verses.

In 1866, when Emma was 17, her dad published her first book of poems, titled “Poems and Translations Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Seventeen.” A very descriptive name. (Ummm, Dad?? Where are our published works??) Her book of poems attracted many a critical eye, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, who remained a mentor to her throughout her career and inspired her to continue to hone her sonnet skillz. Their friendship got a little awko taco in 1874, though, when Ralph Waldo published his anthology, “Parnassus,” and he didn’t include any of her works.*side-eye emoji* Undeterred by his shade, Emma wrote more words throughout the 1870s and published “Admetus and Other Poems” in 1871 in which she still dedicated the title poem to none other than her pal, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Then she wrote a novel in 1874 titled “Alide: An Episode in Goethe’s Life” and a play in verse called “The Spagnoletto” in 1876. Between books (no big deal) she also published articles in magazines. That’s a lot of words she wrote! 

Throughout her life, Emma was always in touch with her Jewish roots, but, as she aged, she became a more outspoken activist against anti-Semitism. As one of the first highly successful Jewish American authors, she used her platform to advocate for Jewish refugees and was a bit of a Zionist before the term Zionist was really a thing. She argued for the curation of a Jewish homeland, calling on Jews to find repatriation in modern-day Palestine (Israel was founded in 1948, several decades after she died). Lazarus helped establish the Hebrew Technical Institute which provided vocational training to Jewish immigrants, and she also volunteered with the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society employment bureau and formed the Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews. She witnessed the tumultuous arrival of Jewish refugees in her work on the front lines, and wrote about it not so much between the lines as she continued to put pen to paper and published a few more collections of poetry, in particular Songs of a Semite; The Dance to Death and Other Poems. 

It was in 1883, after her return from a brief LITerary trip in Europe, that an opportunity to become a prose pro was presented to Emma. Rumor on the street was that the French wanted to gift a large statue of a fry to the U.S. as a symbol of their bff-hood. JK. That’s not the (liber)tea.  A gift was involved, though. Any guesses? You got it: The Statue of Liberty. As a way to celebrate the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, France wanted to give the U.S. a one-of-a-kind sculpture, statue, or art piece in 1876 that would commemorate the lasting friendship between the people of the two nations. However, funds needed to be raised so Lady Liberty didn’t arrive until 1886. The French provided the pieces, but the U.S. needed to provide a pedestal upon which she could stand. Teamwork made the dream work. While the French raised funds for the statue, the U.S. needed to do the same for a massive, supportive stand. Insert: DJ Lazarhythm and her sick verses. 

Emma was a poetess who was put to the poetest. She was asked to write an original poem that would be auctioned off at the “Art Loan Fund Exhibition in Aid of the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund for the Statue of Liberty” AKA a fancy name for a fundraiser. At first, she declined. Then she said, “Wait a minute! I got an idea!” And thus came to be her monumental poem, “The New Colossus” which was later inscribed into the pedestal of the monument itself. She wrote about the plight of refugee immigrants, specifically those who were Jewish with whom she worked, and called attention to how the U.S. in all of its land of the free and home of the brave should:

“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!”

Afterwards, this sonnet was published in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and the New York Times. 

Emma took another trip across the shining sea to Europe to participate in social reform. While there she met up with many a writer and stayed there from 1885 – 1887 (that’s dreamy). Sadly, Emma was extremely sick in the late 1880s. After her return to New York City, she passed away on November 19, 1887, most likely from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She is buried in the Big Apple’s backyard of Queens at Congregation Shearith Israel’s Beth Olom Cemetery. Over time “The New Colossus” and Emma herself faded from public focus. However, 17 years after her death, her good pal Georgia Schuyler found a book with “The New Colossus” in it while perusing a bookshop. She rallied poets and pals to launch an effort that would resurrect the long lost work, and just a few years later the words of Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” were inscribed into the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. 

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