Spokesperson & Prophet
Emma Lazarus, 1849 - 1887
A particularly vicious wave of anti-Semitism swept Eastern Europe in the 1880's. Organized Russian massacres of Jews called pogroms sparked mass Jewish flight to America. Lazarus responded with some of her most powerful work. Because her popularity enabled her to reach a broad audience, she became both a spokesperson for and a fiery prophet of the American Jewish community.
In secular magazines, she railed against international anti-Semitism as well as the false stereotypes that fostered dangerous prejudice against Jews everywhere—even in America. At the same time, she used Jewish publications to inspire passion for a new homeland in Palestine.
Her serial articles, "Epistle to the Hebrews," appeared in American Hebrew, a journal popular among middle-class American Jews. Lazarus called on her readers to join in creating a new nation, reminding them that, "Until we are all free, we are none of us free." While Lazarus's language sometimes reflected her elitism and social Darwinist beliefs—in one poem immigrant Jews crawl, "blinking forth from the loathsome recesses of the Jewry..."—her forward thinking ideas contributed to what was soon to be termed Zionism.
Lazarus's book Songs of a Semite was published in 1882 and celebrated by many as her best work. It consisted of Jewish themed poems as well as a lyric drama. Lazarus dedicated the play, The Dance to Death, to English author George Eliot (pictured, right), a source of inspiration for her ideal of a new Jewish nation.
- For Lazarus's work in secular magazines, see for example "The Jewish Problem." Century, 25 (February 1883): 602-11 (in particular p. 608) and "Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism." Century 24 (May 1882): 48-56. These essays are also printed, in part, in Selections from her Poetry and Prose.
- For Lazarus's quote from "Epistle to the Hebrews" see Selections from her Poetry and Prose 80 (p.84 in 1967 edition). The entire article series is reprinted in An Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. Morris U. Schappes (New York : Jewish Historical Society of New York, 1987).
- For Lazarus's poem including quote on "blinking forth from the loathsome recesses...", see "By the Waters of Babylon: Little Poems in Prose." Century 33 (March 1887): 801-3.
- On Lazarus's beliefs as a precursor to Zionism, see Young 9.
- For Lazarus's Hebrew poems and lyric drama, see Songs of a Semite: The Dance to the Death and Other Poems (New York: The American Hebrew, 1882).