Episode 9: Sonnet for America (Transcript)

Episode 9: Sonnet for America

[Theme music]

[Ambient sounds: seagulls, ferry whistle]

Nahanni Rous: On a cold and windy day this week, tourists stood in line at the Battery Park ferry in New York City. They were on their way to visit the Statue of Liberty.

Child 1: Well, it’s my first time in New York and I came here to climb up to the statue of liberty.

Child 2: Well, I heard that the jewels on top of the crown represent 7 continents and it’s the sign of freedom.
Woman: She lifts her lamp to guide them, for people to come in and have freedom.

Girl 1: My name is Vithi. We are from Tennessee. Statue of Liberty means freedom to me. That’s what I think it means.

Man: It means send me anybody that wants freedom to come to this country and you can experience it.

[Ambient sounds]

Nahanni: On an island all by herself, the Statue of Liberty has held her torch over New York Harbor since 1886. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses,” she beckons. She’s a symbol of America’s largest metropolis, and of America itself. Lady Liberty has withstood the winds and the burning sun, and the copper-greening rains of 130 seasons. When the French artist Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi sculpted the Statue of Liberty, he gave her a stern and regal form. But it was the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus who gave her a voice.

[Theme music]

Nahanni: Hello friends, this is Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. I’m Nahanni Rous. It’s November, 2016. A grueling and divisive presidential campaign is behind us, and a period of uncertainty is unfolding. President-elect Donald Trump is preparing for his presidency, and Americans remain divided. The election results have left many people feeling vulnerable, including many Jews and women.

Nahanni: In the coming months, we will explore Jewish women’s responses to this new chapter in American history. But for now, with Thanksgiving upon us, we decided to tell a story that we hope will resonate, inspire, and maybe even comfort. In the Thanksgiving spirit, it’s a story about expanding our sense of community and communal responsibility.

Nahanni: Emma Lazarus was born in 1849 in New York City to an upper class Sephardic Jewish family. Her mother’s side of the family had been in America since before the Revolution. Emma was educated by private tutors and spent summers at the family mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. Judith Rosenbaum heads the Jewish Women’s Archive. She’s always been inspired by Emma Lazarus, and has been thinking about her story a lot these days.

Judith Rosenbaum: She wasn’t afraid to break with the conventional norms of what it was to be a woman at her time, what it was to be a Jew, what it was to be upper class. She put herself into unusual circumstances, and certainly that was true with her writing.

Nahanni: Back then, very few women pursued writing as a public or professional calling. Emma was just seventeen when she published her first book of poetry, and when she sent her work to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who became her mentor.

Judith: By doing that she really asserted that she was a serious writer who deserved to be in conversation with other serious writers, even if she was a young girl.

Nahanni: As an adult, Emma witnessed waves of Jewish immigrants fleeing the violence of pogroms in Eastern Europe in the 1880s. They didn’t dress or talk like the upper class, assimilated American Jews in Emma’s world... and that upper class, New York world wanted to distance itself from these destitute, old world cousins.

Judith: There was a sense that these people were very different and also sort of dangerous or to be feared because they could, by association, kind of drag down the refined, American, assimilated character that the upper class Jews had been working very hard to create for themselves. But Emma Lazarus wasn’t afraid of that. She felt a certain urgency to acknowledge this refugee crisis and to help.

Nahanni: Emma began to volunteer with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. But mixing with immigrants was a taboo thing for a woman of her stature to do.

Judith: She often would say, when she was doing her work with the immigrant population, she’d say, “What would my society friends think if they could see me here now?” she knew it was so out of character for somebody of her class and of her background. And she was not hiding that. She wrote about it publicly and she not only did that, but she called her community to account for this social crisis that she saw happening around her.


Nahanni: The Statue of Liberty herself was an immigrant, she arrived by ship from Europe. The French sent her as a gesture of friendship and a symbol of democracy. She was in pieces when she arrived and couldn’t be put together until there was a platform for her to stand on. An auction was held to raise money for the pedestal, and the organizers asked Emma Lazarus to write a poem for the event.

Nahanni: When Emma sat down to write her poem, she must have thought about what the statue would see, gazing over New York Harbor… ships full of weary immigrants arriving in the New World for the first time, hoping for a better future. The statue would be the first to greet them. Here are the words Emma wrote:

Rachel Levitan: Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Nahanni: Emma’s sonnet gave the statue of liberty a voice, defined her as the mother of exiles and the symbol of America’s embrace of immigrants, which many people still see her as today. In fact, Americans have projected many ideas onto the statue.

Nahanni: I think we’ve seen in recent weeks so many political cartoons that show the statue of liberty crying or cowering in fear, or sort of in a stance of despair instead of holding her torch up high.


Nahanni: Emma died young, at age 38, only a year after the Statue of Liberty was dedicated. Though the last lines of her sonnet are what she’s known for, Emma wrote dozens of poems, essays, and newspaper articles. She also wrote a novel and two plays. In her 15-part essay, Epistle to the Hebrews, Emma criticizes upper class American Jews for failing to be, quote, “tribal” enough. They should acknowledge their connection and responsibility for Jews all over the world. She writes, “Until we are all free we are none of us free.” The “we” for Emma, in this case, was Jews.

Judith: But I think it’s a message that really insists on looking beyond that. She was pushing people to go beyond their comfort zone, as she did, and to look around and think about who else are we responsible for.

Nahanni: Let’s take on this question Emma Lazarus pose: Who makes up our tribe? Is it just people of our own religion or race or class? People who share our politics, our nationality, our planet? What is our responsibility to the human tribe?

Judith: So I think in this moment, it’s really important to remember “Until we are all free we are none of us free,” and we have a responsibility to look around us and see who are the people who are at risk and make sure that we are protecting them as well and not just worrying about our own success and safety.

[Theme Music]

TRAX: Thank you for listening to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. JWA’s Executive Director Judith Rosenbaum and I co-wrote this story. Ibby Caputo edited the script and we had production help from Miranda Shafer. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. Emma Lazarus’s poem, the “New Colossus” was read by Rachel Levitan. Rachel is a lawyer at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the same organization Emma Lazarus volunteered for, which now aids mostly non-Jewish refugees in over a dozen countries around the world.

For more podcast episodes, visit us online at jwa.org/canwetalk. You can also listen and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. During this time of giving and Thanksgiving, please consider making a donation to the Jewish Women’s Archive at jwa.org. Women’s stories matter now more than ever.

I’m your host, Nahanni Rous, wishing you a restful, peaceful Thanksgiving with your family and friends. We’ll close with soprano Leontyne Price singing Irving Berlin’s setting of the last five lines of Emma Lazarus’s poem.

[Music: Leontyne Price sings Irving Berlin]


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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 9: Sonnet for America (Transcript)." (Viewed on February 25, 2024) <http://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-9-sonnet-for-america/transcript>.