Two Jews acted independently to write a beautiful inspirational song about America’s embrace of the least, last and lost: a wealthy privileged woman from New York, and a generation later, a poor and persecuted Russian immigrant.
Emma Lazarus was born in 1849, the fourth of seven children, to Moses and Esther Lazarus, both who came from wealthy Sephardic Jewish families with American roots going back to the 1600’s. Her parents made sure this bright girl was educated by private tutors where she learned French, German and Italian. Though they sheltered her from outside contacts, her father printed her first book, Poems and Translations, when she was seventeen. Four years later, she published Admetus and Other Poems. The latter included a poem, “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport”, one of her earliest expressions of her Jewish consciousness. Admetus caught the eye of Ralph Waldo Emerson and they began a lifelong friendship through correspondence and visits. Thus began her involvement with the outside world. She traveled to Europe and met with literary giants Henry James, Robert Browning and Thomas Huxley. She continued writing both prose and poetry to some critical acclaim, but it was rather romantic and conventional.
In the 1880’s her writings took on a new vitality. Violent anti-Semitism broke out in Russia and Germany. Apparently this godless hate was not confined to Europe. When a journalist defended the pogroms in Century Magazine, Lazarus replied with “Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism” in the next issue. She began her own crusade for her people and Emma’s writings began a call for Zionism, especially in Songs of a Semite published by American Hebrew in 1882 and a poetic play, The Dance to Death, which celebrated the courage of Jews who were executed in Germany in 1349 for allegedly causing the plague. Now she was a vociferous self-identified Jew and ardent American. She organized relief efforts for the immigrants, who were mainly Jews, coming into Ward’s Island.
“The New Colossus” came out in 1883 for an auction to raise money for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. The old Colossus of course, was the legendary gigantic statue of Apollo at Rhodes. Her sympathy for the laboring poor, women, immigrants and the oppressed was apparent in all her writings, but was most succinctly epitomized in this sonnet. It certainly reflected her experiences working with the refugees on Ward’s Island. That poem eventually was struck in bronze and fixed to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty before its dedication in 1886.
Emma Lazarus died of cancer in 1887 at the young age of 38, just six months before the birth of Israel Baline in a totally different culture. Israel was the youngest of five children of Moses Baline, an Orthodox Jewish cantor in Russia. Often such work was handed down to each generation, so as no surprise, his grandfather and great-grandfather were also cantors. After the pogroms there resulted in the torching of the Baline home and their imminent capture and execution, the Baline family fled. Immigrants from Russia and Germany had become so numerous that Ward’s Island couldn’t accommodate the intake. The government moved the processing of the thousands of immigrants each day in 1891. So in 1893, the Balines arrived on Ellis Island with no money and speaking only Yiddish. No doubt the Statue of Liberty was one of the first things they saw of America.
The family settled in a tenement in the lower East side of Manhattan at a time when such overcrowded tenements were becoming a national scandal. They lived with bad air and no light. The parents took what jobs they could, his father as a kosher meat inspector, his mother doing laundry. Israel was only five, but he was smart and industrious. In order to fit into American life, he eventually took the name Irving Berlin. He sold newspapers and wrote songs. Oddly, he never learned to read music or play comfortably on the white notes of the piano, a reversal of the usual difficulties most people have, for the black keys, or anything other than the key of C major, usually provide the challenge.
The composer of “God Bless America” obviously felt indebted to his adopted country. He wrote the music for many successful Broadway musicals, but one, Miss Liberty, a story of the statue, in 1949, turned out to be a dud. Only one song is still alive today, “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor.” The lyrics came from the last few lines of Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus”. It may not directly discuss God or any religion, but it reflects the heart of God as creator and lover of each of us, and America’s responsibility to look out for those in need. As a side note, her poem had been put to music by Gordon Jenkins three years earlier and included in a Decca record, Manhattan Tower. Berlin’s version eventually prevailed. Now, as I read those lyrics, the lives of Berlin and Lazarus have so much greater meaning. Though it includes those seeking refuge from economic or political problems, the background of this song now makes it more a song of freedom of religion for me.
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-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.