Journal

Echoes of Emma Lazarus

by | Jul 20, 2014 | Editorial

July 22nd is the birthday of American poet Emma Lazarus (1849-1887). She was the fourth of seven children in a Sephardic Jewish family whose New York roots went back to the colonial period. She was related to Benjamin
Cardozo, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and was a correspondent of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

After the Russian anti-Semitic pograms of 1881 she became deeply concerned about the plight of the thousands of poor Ashkenazi Jews immigrating from the Russian Pale of Settlement to New York. She began to advocate on their behalf and helped establish the Hebrew Technical Institute in NY to help the refugees become self-supporting.

In 1883, she wrote her most famous work, a sonnet written for an auction to raise funds to build the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. The sonnet, entitled “The New Colossus,” appears on a bronze plaque in the pedestal, placed in 1903. Its last lines are among the most famous of the American poetry canon.

“…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-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I can never read those extraordinary lines of poetry without crying. My grandparents were among those “tired,” “poor,” “huddled masses,” “the wretched refuse” of Eastern Europe who came here “yearning to breathe free.” And that lamp atop the statue was the gateway to what they called the “Goldena Medina,” Yiddish for the Golden Land.

My maternal grandmother came in 1922 at the age of 24 with her mother and a sister, fleeing horrible brutality at the hands of the Cossacks. Those stories about people getting off the boat and kissing the ground are not apocryphal. My grandmother did just that, and told me about it, over and over in my childhood, in her heavily accented English. “I kiss the ground,” she would say. “I see det statue, det Lady, and I kiss the ground.”

For her and thousands like her, that statue meant the difference between life and death, between freedom and fear, between near starvation and the possibility for a better life for their descendants.

To this day, I cannot talk to my own grandchildren about the Statue of Liberty without crying. I buy them books about it and as I read they’ll say, “This is the part where Nana cries.” They’re right. I cry tears of gratitude for the sheer miracle of it. The golden door welcomed us and still does. G-d bless America.

Cardozo, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and was a correspondent of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

After the Russian anti-Semitic pograms of 1881 she became deeply concerned about the plight of the thousands of poor Ashkenazi Jews immigrating from the Russian Pale of Settlement to New York. She began to advocate on their behalf and helped establish the Hebrew Technical Institute in NY to help the refugees become self-supporting.

In 1883, she wrote her most famous work, a sonnet written for an auction to raise funds to build the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. The sonnet, entitled “The New Colossus,” appears on a bronze plaque in the pedestal, placed in 1903. Its last lines are among the most famous of the American poetry canon.

“…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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I can never read those extraordinary lines of poetry without crying. My grandparents were among those “tired,” “poor,” “huddled masses,” “the wretched refuse” of Eastern Europe who came here “yearning to breathe free.” And that lamp atop the statue was the gateway to what they called the “Goldena Medina,” Yiddish for the Golden Land.

My maternal grandmother came in 1922 at the age of 24 with her mother and a sister, fleeing horrible brutality at the hands of the Cossacks. Those stories about people getting off the boat and kissing the ground are not apocryphal. My grandmother did just that, and told me about it, over and over in my childhood, in her heavily accented English. “I kiss the ground,” she would say. “I see det statue, det Lady, and I kiss the ground.”

For her and thousands like her, that statue meant the difference between life and death, between freedom and fear, between near starvation and the possibility for a better life for their descendants.

To this day, I cannot talk to my own grandchildren about the Statue of Liberty without crying. I buy them books about it and as I read they’ll say, “This is the part where Nana cries.” They’re right. I cry tears of gratitude for the sheer miracle of it. The golden door welcomed us and still does. G-d bless America.

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