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Early Jewish Themes

Emma Lazarus, 1849 - 1887

One persistent misunderstanding of Emma Lazarus is that she moved overnight from complete ignorance of her people to absolute devotion. In reality, Lazarus often treated Jewish themes before she became an outspoken advocate in the early 1880s. For example, her translations from German to English of medieval Hebrew poets were published in the magazine The Jewish Messenger in 1879 and also in Rabbi Gustav Gottheil's 1887 book of hymns. And her play, The Dance to Death, which dealt with the persecution of Jews in medieval Germany, was completed years before its 1882 publication.

An 1867 poem, "In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport," shows how Lazarus's treatment of Jewish themes changed over the course of her career. Modeled after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport," her poem significantly revises his conclusion. While Longfellow's last stanzas insist that "dead nations never rise again," Lazarus concentrates on the synagogue and its living power—"The sacred shrine is holy yet."

When Lazarus shifted her attention from the Hebrew past to the present plight of Jewish immigrants, she spoke again of Longfellow's poem. In an 1882 essay, she lambasted his final stanzas, arguing that the Jewish people's current suffering in Eastern Europe, "prove[s] them to be very warmly and thoroughly alive." Using the same material, Lazarus moved from carefully crafted irony to an outspoken cry against ethnic prejudice.

Notes: 
  1. For the argument that Lazarus often treated Jewish themes before 1882, see Morris U. Schappes, appendix ("Emma Lazarus's Interest in the Jews") in Selections from her Poetry and Prose 105.
  2. For the quote from Lazarus's essay on Longfellow see Selections from her Poetry and Prose 98.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Emma Lazarus - Early Jewish Themes." (Viewed on April 24, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/lazarus/early-jewish-themes>.