After the death of her well-known sister Emma, Josephine Lazarus emerged as a writer and activist in her own right. Descended from the first Jews to settle in the United States, Josephine Lazarus came of age in the wealthy and cultured Sephardic community of New York alongside her five sisters. Her first publication was a memorial essay for her sister Emma Lazarus, followed by a series of literary biographies of contemporary women writers. In 1893 she spoke at the Congress of Religions at the Chicago World’s Fair, later expanding her ideas into her first book, The Spirit of Judaism (1895). In her writing, Lazarus advocated for nonsectarian ethical humanism in tension with the need for Jews to have a homeland and political autonomy.
Josephine Lazarus was the best known of the poet Emma Lazarus’s five sisters. Her essays and reviews appeared in several leading journals of the day, and three volumes of her work exploring issues of Jewish destiny and identity were published during her lifetime.
Family and Early Life
Lazarus, the second of seven children, was raised in a home of wealth, culture, and privilege. Her parents, Moses and Esther (Nathan) Lazarus, were both descended from the first Jews to settle in the United States, refugees from Brazil who landed in New Amsterdam in 1654. Moses Lazarus was a successful sugar merchant who was able to retire young. Both parents were Descendants of the Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal before the explusion of 1492; primarily Jews of N. Africa, Italy, the Middle East and the Balkans.Sephardi Jews who were members of New York’s prestigious Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, Shearith Israel, and of the Union and Knickerbocker clubs, which Moses Lazarus helped to found. These affiliations reflected both a proud Jewish heritage and the family’s secure position in the most sophisticated social circles of late nineteenth-century New York City.
While little is known about Lazarus’s early schooling, like Emma she was fluent in the major European languages and well educated in literature, music, and the arts. The family summered in Newport, and the Lazarus daughters were members of Julia Ward Beecher’s exclusive Town and Country Club, where members took turns presenting prepared discourses on a range of scientific and literary topics.
Literary Works and Zionism
Lazarus’s life seems to have centered on her family. For years, she oversaw the management of the family homes, caring for her parents, her sisters, and, after the death of her sister Agnes, her two nieces. She began publishing her writing only after Emma’s death, when Lazarus was in her forties. Her first published piece was a memorial essay on Emma, followed by a series of literary biographies of contemporary women writers. In 1893, she was one of the few Jewish women invited to speak at the Congress of Religions at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Like the other Jewish speakers at the Congress, Lazarus emphasized the spiritual identity of Judaism, introducing her vision of combining the truths of Judaism and Christianity in a nonsectarian ethical monotheism. She further refined her ideology in The Spirit of Judaism, published in 1895. Lazarus’s understanding of Jews and Judaism provides a stark alternative to Emma Lazarus’s political and social analysis, which led the latter to found the short-lived Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews. While the society proposed to educate and then resettle immigrants to America in Palestine, Lazarus saw the challenge of these dispossessed immigrants in very different terms. Revealing the influence of contemporary liberal Christian writers on her thinking, she proposed the embrace of a universal humanism: “Away ... with all the Ghettos and with spiritual isolation in every form. ... The Jew must change his [sic] attitude before the world and come into spiritual fellowship with those around him. ...”
Like many of her contemporaries, Lazarus was profoundly affected by the pervasive antisemitism unmasked during the Dreyfus Affair, and she began to consider political Zionism as a viable option for European Jewry. The last essay to be published during her lifetime reflects her struggle to bring together her deep concern for Jewish safety and her strong belief in the power of a transcendent universal faith.
Death and Legacy
Lazarus’s life and work provide important insights into a pattern of Jewish identification and assimilation in late nineteenth-century America. She wanted to identify with Judaism and Jews, but, like her sister and many contemporaries, had little in common with the Eastern European immigrants flooding America’s shores. While she decried Jews’ ignorance of the rich spiritual heritage of Judaism, she herself was unable to draw upon classical texts or traditional sources for her own spiritual nourishment. She mistakenly understood rabbinic Judaism, which she rejected, to be the only source of spiritual sustenance for Jews, while claiming that contemporary Reform Judaism was spiritually bankrupt. Her work reflects her deep sense of obligation to respond to the pressing issues of the day. Josephine Lazarus’s legacy is of a woman yearning for a Judaism that satisfies both the intellect and the spirit, a Judaism that can connect the past with the present and the future. Josephine Lazarus died on February 3, 1910.
Selected Works by Josephine Lazarus
“Emma Lazarus.” Century 36 (October 1888): 875–884.
“From Plotzk to Boston.” Critic 24 (April 1899): 317–318.
“Louisa May Alcott.” Century 42 (May 1891): 56–67.
Madame Dreyfus: An Appreciation (1899).
“Margaret Fuller.” Century 45 (April 1893): 923–933.
“Marie Bashkirtseff.” Scribner’s Magazine 6, no. 5 (November 1889): 633–640.
Mystery, Prophecy, Service, Freedom (1910).
“The Outlook for Judaism.” In The World’s Parliament of Religions, edited by J.W. Hanson (1894).
The Spirit of Judaism (1895).
“Zionism.” New World 8 (June 1899): 228–242.
AJYB 6 (1904–1905): 134, 12 (1910–1911): 110; JE.
Lazarus, Josephine. Autograph File. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., and Letters. Private collection of Helena Dekay Gilder.
Rapport, Joe Rooks. “The Lazarus Sisters: A Family Portrait.” Ph.D. diss., Washington University (1988).
Young, Bette Roth. Emma Lazarus in Her World: Life and Letters (1995).