Emma Lazarus, an American Patriot

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.

 

Jewish women and hymnody

Thank you, Kerry Hollander, for helping me.

Jewish women have not been as active in writing hymns as their Christian counterparts, perhaps because until recently, ordained cantors were all men.  Sacred song was more traditional, primarily from the Orthodox point of view, and generally in Hebrew.  However, in the past century and a half, there has been what seems to me a blossoming of Jewish song from women.

Before 1800, most writings of Jewish women were private letters and prayers for home use.    By the mid nineteenth century, published poetry by Jewish women began appearing.  One of the better known of American Jewish poets was Penina Moise (1797-1880) from Charleston South Carolina.   She began her work with embroidery and lace making to help support her family.  Later, she was known for her poetry.  Her biggest claim to fame was as the main author of the first American Jewish hymnal, Hymns Written for the Use of Hebrew Congregations, published in 1842 for Congregation Beth Elohim, to which she belonged.  Her hymns, like those of most Christian women of the era, were written as poems and later adapted into song.   She wrote over 190 hymns.  The Union Hymnal, published in 1897 and still used after several revisions, has more of her hymns than of any other author.

Another poet who was familiar to me as the author of “The New Colossus” now inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, was Emma Lazarus (1849-1887).  She was a Sephardic Jew from a wealthy family with long American roots.   Though her identity as a Jew was strong even in childhood, it intensified after 1881 when thousands of Russian Jews fled to America from the pogroms.  Thus, we see the inspiration of her poem, later set to music by a Russian Jewish immigrant, Irving Berlin.

In the twentieth century, before and especially after 1948, Jewish women in Israel, as well as elsewhere, did write hymns and poems.  After 1948, the influx of thousands of Jews into Israel also brought an influx of various cultural and spiritual heritages.    Yemenite women, in particular, wrote and sang songs in the vernacular that were adopted generally as part of Israeli culture.

I, though, am most interested in Jewish women who write in English.  Debbie Lynn Friedman (1951-2011) and Julie Silver, who still writes, have penned lovely hymns and inspirational songs in both English and Hebrew.  They are just two examples of the now increasing visibility of Jewish women hymn writers.

Sources:

Umansky, Ellen and Ashton, Diane, eds.  Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality.  Boston:  Beacon Press.  1992.