Emma Lazarus – Author of the Famous Sonnet on the Statue of Liberty – “The New Colossus”

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Raising the Voices of Jewish Women:
A Special Monthly Series by the Society for Classical Reform Judaism.

Until the twentieth century, the voices of Jewish women – accounts of their lives, accomplishments and impact on Jewish life  – have largely been missing from our history books. The reason is clear. History has been recorded, almost exclusively, by men. Women were not considered equal to men and were denied the access and opportunity to become rabbis, college professors, and leaders in educational and other community organizations within their Jewish and secular communities. Despite these obstacles, some women became respected and recognized  for their extraordinary contributions to Jewish life and to their countries.

While tremendous strides have been made toward full equality between men and women within the Reform Jewish Movement and within the United States, much work is yet to be done..  As part of this work, the Society has created this series to highlight the lives of Jewish women past and present, so that their voices will never again be lost, marginalized, or forgotten. Some of the women we portray did not formally identify with a particular denomination of Judaism, but they identified strongly with their Jewish heritage and lived lives that advanced the core Reform Jewish ethic and American ideal of equality and justice for all.  They are role models that do and will inspire girls and women for generations to come.

May, 2017

Honoring and Remembering Emma Lazarus,
The First Important American Jewish Author

Emma Lazarus (18491887)

In 1883,  at the young age of thirty-four, Emma Lazarus wrote these famous words, now engraved in bronze and mounted on the Statue of Liberty:


“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!”


Emma’s words captured the heart of the immigrant experience.  Men, women, and children were fleeing the oppression and persecution in their homelands, leaving everything they knew behind, risking their lives to journey to a new and far away land where they hoped and prayed they could live, love and care for their families in peace.  Lazarus did not have this experience herself. Her ancestors were Sephardic (Spanish-Portuguese) Jews who were among the first American Jewish settlers.  Her father was a wealthy sugar merchant and supported Emma. He gave her a world class private education and promoted her work.  When Emma was just 17, he financed the publication of her first book of poetry.

Although her own family was not affiliated with a synagogue, she always felt connected to her heritage.  Yet, it wasn’t until she learned about the violent pogroms in Russia, and saw and helped the Russian Jewish refugees arriving on New York’s shores, that she became deeply connected to her Judaism and began using her actions as well as her gift of words to help. In 1883, Lazarus founded the Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews.  Unfortunately, the organization folded a year later, but Emma continued to help by devoting her time to the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society.  She visited the frightened new immigrants while they were held at Ward’s Island. She gave money, food and clothing to help them begin their new lives.

Lazarus experienced discrimination firsthand, not only as a Jew, but also as a woman. Emma spoke about women poets, describing limitations imposed them that were not imposed on men.  Women were not taken seriously in matters of  “dangers, wounds, and triumphs” of war and must therefore transform her own “self music” and “echoes” into song. In spite of these obstacles, she succeeded in becoming a well-known and respected writer, who corresponded and made friendships with some of the literary greats of her time, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Browning, and Henry James.

In 1883, Emma was asked to donate a poem to help raise funds to build the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.  Lazarus at first declined the request, but a friend persuaded her to participate.  Moved by her personal experiences of anti-Semitism and her devotion to working with Russian Jewish refugees, she wrote “The New Colossus.”  The Statue of Liberty was not intended to serve as “The Mother of Exiles,” but as a beacon of hope for immigrants. It was a project totally conceived by the French people as a token of their admiration of the American democratic way of life.  Yet, unofficially, it became so because of the streams of immigrant ships landing on American shores.

Fellow poet James Russell Lowell praised “The New Colossus,”  saying that “Lazarus gave the statue its raison d’etre,” and added that he liked it better than the building itself.  Unfortunately, Emma died of an unknown illness a year after the Statue was completed.  In her obituary, the New York Times referred to her as “an American Poet of Uncommon talent,” but did not mention her poem, “The New Colossus.”  Her powerful sonnet soon disappeared from public consciousness.

Fortunately, 20 years later, Georgina Schuyler, an arts patron and one of Emma’s friends, lobbied to have Lazarus’ words mounted on the Statue of Liberty.  She succeeded, and in 1903, “The New Colossus” was engraved in bronze and placed on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. Her words are just as powerful today as they were when she wrote them.  They are a symbol of American freedom and the hope of the American dream of freedom and justice for all.

Here is the complete text of “The New Colossus.”


              “THE NEW COLOSSUS”

                  (November 2, 1883)

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With 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!”


Read more about Emma Lazarus’ life as a poet, an ardent Zionist, an engaging friend, and more.  Go to the Jewish Women’s Archive.  They have the largest collection of information about Jewish women in the world, and their “stacks” continue to grow.  They are also a fabulous resource for educational materials and programs.  The American Jewish Archives is tremendous as well – the largest collection of American Jewish history, with stacks of rare books and documents.  It is the premier library for American Jewish history scholars and researchers. They hold a wealth of documents about Emma Lazarus.

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  • May 9, 2017, 3:16 pm

    Thank you for this and your future articles to honor the many women who have devoted their lives to making a difference. Looking forward to learning about others whose unique talents paved the way to make this a better world.