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America’s First Cultural Jew

Emma Lazarus has been having a good run recently. Eighteen months ago — some 117 years after her early death from Hodgkin’s disease — John Hollander’s judicious selection of her poetry demonstrated that she was one of the most talented American poets of the 19th century, and far and away the best Jewish one. And now, Esther Schor’s intelligent, passionate and deeply sympathetic literary biography argues that Lazarus is a vitally important — even prophetic — writer, “more of our time than her own.”

In her own time, though, Lazarus enjoyed considerable success. The educated daughter of a wealthy, well-assimilated Sephardic family, she wrote fiction, poetry, translations (most significantly of Heine), polemical essays and plays, not to mention straight journalism. Her early verse, published when she was just 16, elicited the admiring, though somewhat condescending, attention of the aging Ralph Waldo Emerson. Turgenev sent her a mash note from Paris after reading her novel “Alide.” By the time she was in her early 30s, she was publishing in and had been reviewed by the most prominent journals — both Jewish and gentile — of her day. An erudite and socially ambitious woman, she could count among her friends Henry James, Robert Browning and William Morris. She was famous enough for the New York Herald to hail her as “one of New York’s most widely known literary women.”

Despite all this, her reputation came to rest on a throwaway, a sonnet she composed to help raise funds for the Statue of Liberty — and then soon forgot. This poem, “The New Colossus,” is generally remembered for the lines it attributes to the “Mother of Exiles” herself: “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore….” These sentiments, though noble in all senses — they are both patrician and generous — belong to a style of public poetry that became unfashionable by the end of World War I. Not surprisingly, Lazarus’s stock fell.

In the 1940s and ’50s, her name was kept alive by the “Emmas,” members of the Women’s Division of the Jewish Section of the International Workers Order who underwrote a slim edition of her work. The “Emmas” were probably the only ones who remembered that Lazarus wrote more than “The New Colossus.” They borrowed as their motto her great rallying cry, “We are none of us free if we are not all free.”

Schor wants us to remember where that bracing sentiment — and many others beside — comes from. Unlike Hollander, she is not particularly interested in convincing us of Lazarus’s poetic ability. Although she obviously thinks that Lazarus was a fine poet (she includes some of her work in an appendix), and although she provides some admirable readings of Lazarus’s verse, Schor clearly wants us to see that Lazarus’s achievement goes beyond the turning of a rhyme or the structure of a sonnet. Lazarus’s importance rests on the identity that she was able to fashion from her complex situation as both an American and a Jew.

Lazarus really came into her own in the later 1870s, when she decided to confront the rise of American antisemitism and thus the meaning of her own Judaism.

While she was staunchly opposed to the traditional practices of religion, Lazarus was fiercely proud of her Jewish inheritance. Like many other modern and modernizing Jews of the period, she redefined Judaism by spiritualizing it. She purged it of the rituals of observance and located its essence in “monotheism, purity of morals and brotherly love.” In her articles and in her poetry, she championed a secular, ethical Judaism that she derived from the spirit of Isaiah and Ezekiel. In this way, she could espouse both a strong sense of Jewish particularity and an equally strong commitment to universal justice.

This sense of justice, which she prescribed both for Jews and for America at large (hence her belief that the United States itself should serve as the stepmother of all exiles), was put to the test by the great wave of Russian Jewish immigration that followed the pogroms of 1881. Lazarus wrote about immigrants and worked hard on their behalf. But she was also severely bothered by “the shuffling gait, the ignominious features, the sordid mask of the son of the Ghetto” (as she put it in a prose poem titled “By the Waters of Babylon”). She felt that the traditional constrictions on Jewish life — the “cunningly enmeshed web of Talmud and Kabbala” on the one hand and antisemitic oppression on the other — had deformed the Jewish culture of Eastern Europe. While she argued that the key to reformation lay with “manual labor, artisanal production, and physical exertion,” she was not sure that immigration to the United States would do the trick for the Ostjuden. American society was “utterly at variance with their time-honored and most sacred beliefs.” The wretched refuse would therefore need another place to go. It was necessary to promote Jewish settlement in Palestine.

And promote it she did. The idea of a Jewish homeland was certainly brewing in the decade before Herzl, but it met with considerable resistance. Such resistance never deterred Lazarus. She wrote vigorously about the cause and even helped found a Zionist organization. Its name spoke to both the problem it sought to address and the solution it proposed: the Society for the Colonisation and Improvement of Eastern European Jews.

In this as in so many other things, Lazarus sounds a lot like a yekke. Not for nothing, then, did she keep looking to Heine as a model. A secularized, secularizing commitment to a purely ethical Judaism was pioneered by German Jews, and she shared with them as well a deep, if somewhat ambivalent, identification with both the Jewish people and the nation of her birth. Like them, too, she found the Ostjuden an embarrassment.

Lazarus’s true originality lay elsewhere, in the fact that she was the first American writer willing to stake her claim as a cultural Jew. As Schor points out, this was a courageous and complicated maneuver. By locating the essence of Judaism in its sense of justice, Lazarus was able to assume a role that was both authentically Jewish and recognizably American: that of a prophet. Hers was the admonitory voice of biblical prophecy, sometimes hectoring, occasionally bitter and usually uplifting. It was a voice devoted to the notion that ethical Judaism could serve America’s calling by championing freedom and the cause of the oppressed.

Schor’s understanding of Lazarus as a latter-day prophet — an heir to both the Jewish and Protestant traditions — cannot be overestimated. It provides a context that makes even Lazarus’s more unpalatable works (such as “By the Rivers of Babylon”) seem vital. It also underscores Lazarus’s refreshing intellectual feistiness, her willingness to let her considerable intelligence be her guide.

At times, though, Schor does not seem willing to let Lazarus remain an innovative, vulnerable and apparently fearless 19th-century heroine. She also wants to portray Lazarus as a solitary visionary who foresaw our particular future. This is the Emma who appears in the peroration of the book:

In her struggle to be American and Jewish, she looked to both sides and belonged to neither. She looked behind her saw that none followed…. She saw and spoke the need for a Jewish homeland when that was lunacy; she saw in the blaze of anti-Semitism a coming apocalypse, when others carried blankets to snuff it out…. Her vision of the modern Jew was shocking, in part because it was so simple — a Jew more fully human than any Jews had ever been. She, a secular Sephardic Jewish poet, invented the role of American Jewish writer… Prophetic indeed, she told America that its complexion would change, along with its soul….she remade America in the image of a Jewish calling — a mission to repair the world….she is returning to us.

There is a more than a touch of hazy wishfulness in all this. Lazarus was not a sole voice calling in the wilderness, though she was definitely a lonely one. I am not sure we can say that she actually foresaw the “coming apocalypse” of the Shoah, and I have to confess that I do not understand what is wrong with trying to snuff out antisemitism. While Schor is probably right that Lazarus “invented the role” of the modern Jewish American writer (her first and perhaps most important follower was her sister’s protégé, Mary Antin), it is not at all clear that the modern, secular Jews among us are really more human than any Jews have ever been.

What is more — and this is important — there is a real difference between saying that something should come to pass and asserting that it actually will. Isaiah and the Oracle at Delphi were not doing the same thing, even though we say that they were both engaged in acts of prophecy. Judaism forbids fortunetelling. Lazarus’s work is about a world that could be, not a world that necessarily would be. The risk of ethics lies precisely in the distance between that “could” and that “would.”

So let us leave her to the Gilded Age. Schor demonstrates with clarity and gusto that Lazarus, the ethical gadfly, was a brilliant, forward-thinking product of her time, place and class. She openly lived and questioned many of the contradictions that her period and her position entailed. If she can speak to us now — and thanks to Schor, I believe she can — it is because these questions and contradictions still worry us. Their survival is the surest sign of their importance and their intractability. If Lazarus is of our time, then it is because she belongs so surely to her own.

David Kaufmann’s review of “Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems” appeared in these pages April 15, 2005. Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.


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