- Who Is the "Mother of Exiles"?Jewish Aspects of Emma Lazarus's "The New Colossus"
This article exposes the influence and expression of Emma Lazarus's Jewish background and literary heritage in her renowned sonnet on The Statue of Liberty, "The New Colossus." Despite no explicit reference to Jews or Judaic sources, the poem's profoundly Jewish character is disclosed through a close look at the context in which it emerged, its place in Lazarus's biographical and artistic development, and its actual content. "The New Colossus" would seem to give voice to local aversion to the presumptuous French gesture of bestowing Liberty upon America by rejecting its original symbolism and suggesting one that transforms the Statue into a New World heroine. However, Lazarus wrote the poem when her energies and writing were primarily devoted to championing the cause of Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe in the early 1880's. Moreover, a record of its commission clearly reveals that she was enticed to write the sonnet on the basis of this concern. Thus, in the work itself, Lazarus shrewdly stated her case for the American intake of Jewish immigrants by not referring to them directly and attempting instead to compel her audience to live up to a Hebraic definition of America as redeemer of persecuted peoples. It is claimed that Lazarus ventured this feat by drawing her image of the Statue from a Jewish tradition that viewed the biblical matriarch Rachel as "Mother of Exiles."
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 standA mighty woman with a torch, whose flameIs the imprisoned lightning, and her nameMother of Exiles. From her beacon-handGlows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes commandThe air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries sheWith 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!"
The works of few Jewish writers among the nations have reached the canonical status attained in Americana by the last four and a half lines of Emma Lazarus's "The New Colossus." However one might judge their literary quality, it is arguable that a majority of Americans, and perhaps an even [End Page 231] larger group of English-speakers around the world, will almost automatically recognize these lines and associate them with America's leading symbol, the Statue of Liberty. While the majority of those who recognize these lines might not be capable of actually reciting them by heart, or even of indicating the title of the sonnet in which they are found, the name of its author, or the date of its composition, they would still, in most cases, assume that these lines speak for Liberty itself.1
The question remains, however, as to whether Emma Lazarus's Jewishness had anything at all to do with the actual content and widespread popularity of "The New Colossus." Indeed, the fact that the poem includes no explicit reference to Jews, Judaic sources, or events in Jewish history would seem to suggest that its substance and history go well beyond the influence and scope of something Jewish in Lazarus's life and letters. Nevertheless, in what follows, I shall argue that the poem's allusions are profoundly bound up with the Jewish biography and literary heritage of its author, and I will suggest that this Jewish influence must be taken into account as a factor in the poem's renown.
While one might naturally assume that "The New Colossus" would not include Jewish references, it is quite surprising to discover that the poem makes no real mention of the Statue of Liberty as well. Ironically, one could never know from the verses that are most commonly associated with the Statue that there is a giant edifice called Liberty Enlightens the World standing in the New York harbor, that it was fashioned as the Roman goddess Libertas, and that...