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Emma Lazarus, the author of the magnificent sonnet, “The New Colossus,” engraved in the base of the Statue of Liberty, died at 38 on this date in 1887. Lazarus was born to a Portuguese Sephardic Jewish family in New York, and her writing, pursued from an early age, attracted the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson and other literary luminaries. She was moved by George Eliot’s 1876 novel, Daniel Deronda, to take an interest in Jewish identity issues; she was soon translating Jewish poets into English and serving as a teacher to the “huddled masses” of Ashkenazic Jews who began arriving in New York at the start of the great period of Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe. Lazarus also called on Jews to form a homeland a full decade before the birth of the Zionist movement.
“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!’ ” —Emma Lazarus
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.