It is hardly surprising that on August 2 2017, when U. S. administration spokesman Stephen Miller tried to defend President Trump’s policies of restricting refugees and immigrants, the first reaction of the press was to contrast that mean-spirited attitude with the words of welcome etched onto the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty “Give me your tired, your poor, \ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, \ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore."
Somewhat more surprising was Mr. Miller’s retort, to the effect that the poem in question was a later addition and not integral to the original statue. I’m not certain how relevant that point was to the issue at hand—but it does happen to be true.
Another fact that was not given conspicuous emphasis in the discussions was the Jewish identity of the poem’s author, Emma Lazarus (1849-1887). She was the scion of Jewish families that been in America since pre-Revolutionary times; her mother’s lineage from Germany and her father’s of Sephardic origin. The Lazarus family proudly identified as Jews and were active members of New York’s venerable Congregation Shearith Israel Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, though Emma claimed to find little that was personally relevant in the traditional rituals and liturgies of her ancestral religion.
Indeed, the complicated relationships between Lazarus, her sonnet, her Judaism and the statue make for a fascinating story.
Emma Lazarus was an acclaimed poet with ambitions of finally putting American literature on the international map. She belonged to the most prominent literary milieus in America and abroad and was respected by the likes of Turgenev, Browning and Henry James.
As is well known, the Statue of Liberty was a gift to America from the people of France—well, not exactly. For one thing, its original name was not really the “Statue of Liberty,” but rather “La Liberté éclairant le monde” (Liberty enlightening the world), with its implied sentiment that Liberté is a supremely French spécialité (if one ignores such minor detours as the Reign of Terror or the Napoleonic empire) that is being generously shared with the less enlightened folk of the world.
And then there was the matter of the statue being a gift—that was not entirely accurate either. The French authorities insisted that the pedestal be provided and paid for by the recipients. It was in this respect that Emma Lazarus came to be involved in the project. The inclusion of her poem “the New Colossus” on the pedestal was expected to serve as a lucrative attraction for potential donors in a fund-raising drive to pay for the pedestal.
The statue project had originally been formulated in 1865 by the French statesman and jurist Edouard de Laboulaye who hoped that it would somehow inspire the French themselves to fulfill their highest ideals.
The lady whose likeness is represented is the Roman goddess Libertas. The sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, also had in mind another image from classical mythology, namely the Colossus of Rhodes, that huge representation of the sun-god that was counted among the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Bartholdi derived especial satisfaction from the fact that his bronze creation would be larger than the original Colossus. In the popular consciousness, the Statue of Liberty did come to be associated with the Colossus, and that association lies at the root of Lazarus’s consenting to adorn the statue with a poem called “the New Colossus.”
When she was first approached in late 1883 about providing a poem that could be auctioned off for the “Bartholdi Pedestal Fund,” Lazarus would have nothing to do with it. After all, she was not some commercial jingle-writer who could produce masterpieces on demand; and in any case she had little sympathy for the triumphalist grandeur that was embodied in the enormous brazen image. A recent visit to Europe had left her profoundly underwhelmed by the debris of French ideologies.
What ultimately persuaded her to take on the task was when her recruiter, the author Constance Harrison (who sometimes wrote under the name “Refugitta”), presented it to her as a personal challenge: it would give her an opportunity to subvert the statue’s purpose in ways that represented her own version of authentic American values.
In the end, this subversive goal was what defined the true theme of her famous sonnet. The lady with the torch in New York harbour was “
like the brazen giant of Greek fame, / With conquering limbs astride from land to land.” As stated in her poem (which contains no mention of the statue’s original French ideal of “Liberty”), America is not stirred by colossal grandeur or pompous professions of abstract ideals. Instead, it honours the caring “Mother of Exiles” who compassionately welcomes the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
It would appear that Emma Lazarus’s vision of an America that embraced wretched masses of destitute foreigners was as controversial then as it is now. There were plenty of reasons for oppressed and starving Europeans to be fleeing to the shores of the New World—but Emma Lazarus felt a particular closeness to the plight of the Jews who were escaping from Czarist Russia and European anti-semitism in what was beginning to emerge as one of the most massive waves of migration in modern history. (Among those migrants would be the Jewish forebears of White House spokesman Stephen Miller who were fleeing from Belarus). Lazarus’s personal encounters with Jews who suffered dreadful persecution also inspired her to recommend (prior to the emergence of the political Zionist movement) the creation of a haven for oppressed Jews in their historic homeland.
Like several other genteel Jewish ladies of her generation, Emma took a personal role in visiting and assisting the new arrivals; and she made use of her literary skills and political connections to plead on their behalf against those who were either indifferent to their suffering or ideologically committed to a narrower definition of who should be counted as “real” Americans. The early 1880s witnessed the enactment of the first American legislation defining various kinds of undesirables who were to be filtered out by means of a bureaucracy newly created for the purpose.
There has hardly been a single discussion about immigration policy in which the Lazarus sonnet has not been cited; including, for instance, the 1996 episode of the Simpsons in which Police Chief Wiggum began to enforce Springfield’s new immigration restrictions: “Here’s the order of deportations. First we’ll be rounding up your tired, then your poor, then your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
Lazarus’s “New Colossus” poem contains no explicitly Jewish references.The only detail that might be interpreted as a Jewish image is the epithet “Mother of Exiles,” which is reminiscent of Jeremiah’s poignant depiction of the matriarch Rachel “weeping for her children refusing to be comforted.” This should not be misconstrued as an indication that the author was ignorant of or indifferent to Hebrew tradition. Quite the contrary—her oeuvre is replete with poems on Jewish topics, not only about the familiar biblical themes that are part of western civilization’s shared heritage, but also about figures who were of distinctively Jewish relevance, such as Bar Kokhba, Rashi, Judah Halevi and Ibn Gabirol. She was an avid student of Jewish history and literature, and a considerable portion of her published work is devoted to translations (usually via German) of Hebrew literary classics. Her interest in Jewish culture tended to gain intensity when provoked by persecution, anti-semitism or the appropriation of noble Jewish values by Christians.
The poet J. R. Lowell confided to Emma Lazarus in 1883, “I liked your sonnet about the statue much better than I like the statue itself … your sonnet gives its subject its raison d’être.”
Subsequent history has certainly validated that assessment.