The history of the Jews in North America often reflects the “melting pot” character of its citizenry. This was particularly true of the early Sephardic settlers who maintained their Jewish identity but were rather casual about their religious practice. Such was the family of the famed American poet Emma Lazarus (1849 – 1887).

The fourth of seven children born to Moshe and Esther Lazarus, Emma’s family originated in Portugal, but settled in New York during the colonial period. Initially, Emma’s poetry and writing reflected the strong influence of the transcendentalists, and she was a great admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson. However, this great interest seems to have diminished after a week in Concord, MA.

Two major factors appear to have influenced Emma Lazarus’ transformation from a poet who happened to be Jewish to a Jewish poet. The first was Daniel Deronda (1876, written by George Eliot, a non-Jewish writer) a novel which not only portrayed a wide range of Jewish characters, but also had strong nationalist (pre-Zionist) sentiments. The second was the large influx of Eastern European Jewish refugees fleeing Russian pogroms. When Emma volunteered to help the refugees, her preconceived notions of her co-religionists were rapidly transformed. Emma began to write about Jewish causes and to express pride in her Judaism. She also became a firm believer in a Jewish return to Zion.

Emma Lazarus is best known for her poem “The New Colossus,” which was chosen as the inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty (“…Give me your tired, your poor…”).

In 1887, Emma Lazarus, age 38, passed away from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

March is Women’s History Month.

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