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Emma Lazarus and Her Jewish Problem

From: American Jewish History
Volume 84, Number 4, December 1996
pp. 291-313 | 10.1353/ajh.1996.0047

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American Jewish History 84.4 (1996) 291-313

"The truth is that every Jew has to crack for himself this nut of his peculiar position in a non-Jewish country."

Emma Lazarus

Less than a month after Emma Lazarus died, one of her editors, Joseph Gilder, memorialized her in an issue of The Critic, his widely read journal of literature and the arts. He wrote that the children of Moses Lazarus "had Christians for playmates and schoolmates and most of Emma's friends were Christian. . . . She died, as she lived, as much a Christian as a Jewess -- perhaps it would be better to say neither one or the other."

This curious interest in Emma's religious affiliation was shared by her close friend, Rose Lathrop, Nathaniel Hawthorne's daughter, who converted to Catholicism in the late nineteenth century and became a nun. She wrote to a mutual friend, Helena deKay Gilder, at least two letters inquiring whether Emma had converted to Catholicism before she died. She certainly hoped that she had.

Emma's friends weren't the only ones interested in the status of her Jewishness. Her sister Annie, who had converted to Anglican-Catholicism, wrote a letter in 1926 to Bernard G. Richards denying his request for the rights to publish her Jewish poems, for which she had the copyright.

There has been a tendency on the part of the public, to over emphasize the Hebraic strain of her work, giving it this quality of sectarian propaganda, which I greatly deplore, for I consider this to have been merely a phase in my sister's development, called forth by righteous indignation at the tragic happenings of those days. Then, unfortunately, owing to her untimely death, this was destined to be her final word.

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) is remembered, of course, as the author of "The New Colossus," the sonnet to the Statue of Liberty. But at the time of her death the poem had fallen into obscurity, where it rested until 1903 when it was engraved on a bronze plaque and installed inside the pedestal of the statue. When she died she was eulogized by both the Jewish and Christian community in a memorial issue of the American Hebrew as a Jewish heroine. As a matter of fact, she called herself a "Semite" in one of her most well-received offerings, "Songs of a Semite."

Since her death Emma Lazarus has been imprisoned in an identity she would scarcely recognize. If Annie Lazarus was sure Emma's Jewishness was just a passing phase, her sister Josephine, unwittingly perhaps, created a Jewish persona for her sister that has followed her into all sorts of biographies, encyclopedia entries and journal essays.

Until recently an essay written by Josephine in 1888 has been the biographical authority, enlarged upon and embellished to suit the fancies of those who wished to remember Emma as a "tragic Jewish priestess" bereft of humor and of love. Why Josephine chose to remember her sister as a sort of Jewish Emily Dickinson is anyone's guess, but the meager collection of primary resources by and about Emma has lent undue importance to her sister's portrait.

Josephine painted Emma as a morose recluse of uncommon talent whose Jewish identity was awakened in 1882 when news of the desperate plight of the Czar's Jews transformed her into a strident activist whose work in behalf of her people captured her imagination and her life. Public protests in London and New York to Russian excesses against the Jews were a "trumpet call that awoke the slumbering and unguessed echoes," stirring her sister to action.

The central issue in a study of Emma Lazarus is her identity as a Jew. Just what kind of a Jew was she? Was her commitment to her people more than a passing fancy? Was it Josephine or Annie who knew the "real" Emma Lazarus? It is not surprising that these women should be at such odds about their beloved sister. When we examine Emma's life we see that her identity was bifurcated from the start. In an age when Christians and Jews in this country lived separate lives, for the most part, Emma...


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