“Emma Lazarus” by Esther Schor— A Woman for All Seasons

Schor, Esther. “Emma Lazarus”, Nextbook Schocken, 2008.

A Woman for All Seasons

Amos Lassen

Most of us know Emma Lazarus as the woman who wrote “The New Colossus”, the poem on the Statue of Liberty. In this biography of the poet, we learn that she was as ardent Zionist and a feminist as well as a famous Jewish writer.

Esther Schor had access to Lazarus’ personal letters and from them she is able to tell us what Lazarus was all about. She was born in America in 1849 to a rich Sephardic family and she, at 17, published her first volume of poetry and while her family was not religious, Lazarus had strong feelings for Judaism, Jewish history and the idea of peoplehood. She felt strongly about the Jews of Eastern Europe who had come to America although she shared nothing with them.

Until this book saw the light of day, Lazarus’ reputation was based only on “The New Colossus”. We learn that she was very smart and had once been the protégé o Ralph Waldo Emerson and was in contact with Henry James and Robert Browning. She was a Zionist before the concept even existed. We learn of her philanthropy and her championing of Russian Jewish refugees and she was the kind of woman that many yearn to be. She struggled with the creation of an identity in which Jewish and American were side by side.

Most of her poetry is impressive and she was also a reviewer and an essayist. She tried to show that it was possible to be both Jewish and secular as well as literary yet she was not religious. We can find Jewish themes in most of her writings which is interesting as she indeed was secular. She wrote about social justice and ethics. Religiously, I suppose, she would be classified as a Theist.  Her “By the Waters of Babylon” is regarded as the first prose poem that was written in English and it expresses her views on Judaism.

It is too bad that Lazarus is almost forgotten and perhaps this book will make people aware of her. Several of her poems are included as well as an extensive bibliography.

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