This past Sunday marked the first night of Hanukkah, and Washington, D.C. celebrated in true style with the lighting of the world’s largest menorah on the Ellipse, just across from the White House. Here at the Poetry and Literature Center the decorations are a little more austere (a blue and white snowflake left over from our office’s holiday party doesn’t seem to compete). However, in honor of Hanukkah, the Poetry and Literature Center would like to celebrate one of the most influential Jewish-American poets: Emma Lazarus.
Most Americans know Emma Lazarus for the famous lines from her sonnet “The New Colossus” transcribed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty: “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!” Yet, Lazarus’ legacy spans much more than five fantastic lines of poetry. Lazarus was born in the New York in 1849 and descended from a line of Sephardic Jews who came to the United States via Portugal. She received a private education and from a young age became a master of languages—she was a fluent reader and translator of classic Greek and Latin, as well as modern French, German, and Italian. Throughout her life, Lazarus maintained a correspondence with some of the most influential writers of her time, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Morris, Robert Browning, and Henry James.
Lazarus wrote her first collection of poetry and translation between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, and it was published commercially when she was only 18. She went on to publish five more books, including a verse-play. In 1882, she published Songs of a Semite—the first book of poems to explore Jewish-American identity published in the United States.
Lazarus was an early advocate for the rights of the Jewish refugees and immigrants. She wrote several prose pieces dedicated to raise awareness of the plight of the Jewish people, and her famous lines from “The New Colossus” are in fact inspired by the influx of Jewish exiles that journeyed to the United States from Russia in the 1880s. Lazarus’ poetry truly gave a voice to a people who were voiceless.
In honor of Emma Lazarus and the Jewish people that she so loved, please find links to eight poems—one for every day of the Hanukkah holiday: “The New Colossus,” “The Feast of Lights,” “In Exile,” “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” “Chopin,” “Long Island Sound,” “Echoes,” and “To R. W. E.”.