Women of Valor


Childhood & Background

Emma Lazarus, 1849 - 1887

Emma Lazarus was the fourth child in a wealthy family of seven children. Born in 1849 to Moses and Esther Nathan Lazarus, she grew up around New York's vibrant Union Square. Her siblings included Josephine Lazarus who was also a well known writer and a featured speaker at the 1893 Jewish Women's Congress.

Emma's early poems and translations show she had a strong classical education and a mastery of German and French. Her father Moses Lazarus recognized his young daughter's talent and began to encourage her work. In 1866, when Emma was seventeen, he privately published her first book, Poems and Translations Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Seventeen.

The Lazarus family traced their ancestry back to America's first Jewish settlers. As descendants of this pioneering group of Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) Jews, Emma's family belonged to a distinct Jewish upper class. From them, Emma inherited a rich pride in her Sephardic heritage, and often wrote about the medieval scholars and poets of her ancestors' land.

A prosperous sugar refiner, Moses Lazarus was eager to see his family more integrated into Christian society. He moved in wealthy Christian circles, joined the exclusive Union club, and founded, together with Vanderbilts and Astors, the elite Knickerbocker club. He also built his family a summer "cottage" in Newport with the rest of fashionable society.

  1. For chronological material and Moses Lazarus' Christian society contacts see Bette Roth Young, Emma Lazarus in Her World: Life and Letters (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1995) 6-7.
  2. On the Lazarus family and Sephardic history see Stephen Birmingham, "Our Crowd”: The Great Jewish Families of New York (New York: Harper and Row, 1967) 29.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Emma Lazarus - Childhood & Background." (Viewed on April 25, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/lazarus/childhood-background>.