emma lazarus 88 298.
(photo credit: Beth Hatefutsoth)
By Esther Schor
368 pages; $21.95
Unapologetically ambitious, Jewish and female - a difficult combination in the United States of the 19th century - poet Emma Lazarus is emerging today as a cultural icon.
While she was a prolific writer, composing a considerable body of poetry and numerous essays on literary and cultural issues, she is often recalled largely as the composer of the sonnet "The New Colossus," which appears as the inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
As many American schoolchildren can tell you, the sonnet begins: "Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
Esther Schor's new biography, Emma Lazarus, part of the Jewish Encounters series published by Schocken Books, moves within and beyond the "huddled masses" to which Lazarus will be forever tied. Following the current trend of searching for new ethnic heroes among history's long list of forgotten faces, Schor focuses on recovering Lazarus as a kind of creative foremother for contemporary American Jews, seeing the poet's career through the lens of her minority status in an era before the major Jewish immigration to New York.
For Schor, Lazarus is also a model for today's secular Jews, as she distanced herself from traditional Jewish law but remained an identifying member of the tribe who, unlike her sister, never converted to Christianity.
Of course, as with all biographies, it is important to approach the book with an awareness that any written account of a person's life is often heavily colored by the writer's agenda - whether stated or subconscious.
Was Lazarus - who died tragically at 38 - a feminist, Zionist, sexually ambiguous secular Jew who struggled all her life with the underlying anti-Semitism of her peers, as Schor seems to suggest? About 120 years after Lazarus's death, with limited records of her life, such questions are nearly impossible to answer.
BUT SCHOR certainly makes a good case for her profile. Not only does she utilize a cache of Lazarus's letters discovered in the 1980s, she also fills in the background with historical research and careful, competent literary analysis of Lazarus's work - both the heralded selections and the less-popular poems and essays.
One has to hand it to Schor for giving some of Lazarus's old-fashioned - and frankly cringe-worthy - lyric poetry a fair read. She points out that what some critics have seen as unfinished or hasty may have simply been a more passionate, almost stream-of-consciousness style. And Schor never simplistically judges Lazarus's work, but attempts instead to read the personal and political motives behind it.
Often those motives turn out to include Lazarus's search for an ethnic identity that can match her role as an artist. Much is made of her feelings of loneliness and insecurity, which Schor tends to trace to the poet's precarious social position. While Lazarus befriended her Christian peers and was published widely in standard journals of the time, Schor chronicles the ambivalence and occasional anti-Semitism evinced by Lazarus's cohorts - and the feeling on the part of Lazarus that she didn't really fit in.
Born in 1849 in Manhattan into a wealthy Sephardi family, Lazarus was at once a part of the genteel society around her and also - due to her ethnic origin - somewhat apart. While Americans of the time were entranced by the ancient Hebrews - the race from which Jesus emerged - they were far less attracted to the working-class European Jews who were beginning to stream into New York.
Lazarus, like writer Henry James (with whom she socialized), had mixed feelings about these Jewish immigrants who would one day change the face of the city. The book includes selections of Lazarus's essays and poems about the new Ashkenazi Jews, which reveal her struggle to maintain her role as a member of New York aristocracy while attempting to cast her people in a positive light.
In an interesting chapter, Schor presents a reading of Lazarus's poem "The Test," in which the poet describes both her own embarrassment and her commitment to accepting the ghetto Jew she describes as a "caftaned wretch... nerveless his fingers, puny his frame, haunted by the bat-like phantoms of superstition in his brain."
For Schor, Lazarus's honesty about her own discomfort amounts to a kind of heroism, and suggests "the Babylon in her deeply American soul." Lazarus's exhortation of her fellow Americans - and herself - to work toward creating a society friendly to ethnic variety is for Schor one way in which Lazarus invents "the role of the American Jewish writer." It is Lazarus's belief in ethnic diversity and the need to change the fabric of the US to suit that diversity that is, for this book, her true mark on the culture.
PERHAPS ANOTHER way in which Lazarus set the stage for later American Jewish artists was her self-image as an "outlaw Jew," as she called herself. Like Alan Ginsberg and Philip Roth after her, the writer as she is depicted in Schor's biography had a straightforward, somewhat provocative style, first dedicating a book of poetry boldly to her "friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson," the famed transcendentalist writer and thinker, and then writing an angry letter to him when he didn't include her in an anthology he was publishing.
In a late, unpublished sonnet entitled "Assurance," she also wrote frankly about sexuality, and Schor notes that the poem describes a female love object.
In this "outlaw" status, which also gave her a voice as a social activist, many readers may recognize the beginnings of today's American Jewish struggle for identity. A kind of fringe selfhood predicated more on social stereotypes than on actual religious identity becomes a viable option. For those who see such an identity as lacking meaning, Lazarus's heritage is not inspirational - as Schor would see it - but tragic.
But there are other sides to Lazarus's work that Schor (and others who have written about Lazarus) downplays. She was a fierce Jewish nationalist and Zionist whose work could be easily compared to early Israeli poetry in its symbols of the physically and morally strong New Jew. While Schor is quick to note that Lazarus saw nationalism only as a path towards universalism, one could understand the tension between the two aspects of her work - nationalism and universalism - in a variety of different ways.
Whatever one takes from Lazarus's life and work, it is clear that the time has come for an exploration of this complex artist. Schor's book not only presents a nuanced version of Lazarus's life story, it also suggests many areas for further study of her poetry and essays on social matters. While not all readers will cheer Schor's take on Lazarus, everyone will find some point to consider - and maybe argue about.
And that might be just what Emma Lazarus would want.
The Banner of the Jew
Wake, Israel, wake! Recall to-day
The glorious Maccabean rage,
The sire heroic, hoary-gray,
His five-fold lion-lineage:
The wise, the Elect, the Help-of-God,
The burst-of-Spring, the Avenging Rod.
From Mizpeh's mountain-ridge they saw
Jerusalem's empty streets, her shrine
Laid waste where Greeks profaned the Law,
With idol and with pagan sign.
Mourners in tattered black were there,
With ashes sprinkled on their hair.
Then from the stony peak there rang
A blast to ope the graves: down poured
The Maccabean clan, who sang
Their battle-anthem to the Lord.
Five heroes lead, and following, see,
Ten thousand rush to victory!
Oh for Jerusalem's trumpet now,
To blow a blast of shattering power,
To wake the sleepers high and low,
And rouse them to the urgent hour!
No hand for vengeance - but to save,
A million naked swords should wave.
Oh deem not dead that martial fire,
Say not the mystic flame is spent!
With Moses' law and David's lyre,
Your ancient strength remains unbent.
Let but an Ezra rise anew,
To lift the Banner of the Jew!
A rag, a mock at first - erelong,
When men have bled and women wept,
To guard its precious folds from wrong,
Even they who shrunk, even they who slept,
Shall leap to bless it, and to save.
Strike! for the brave revere the brave!