Emma Lazarus, the woman who wrote the words engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor…”), lived a brief but momentous life. Now Esther Schor, a professor of English at Princeton University and a published poet in her own right, will be here on October 30 to read from her new biography, and her subject could not be more timely: I was amazed to read that Lazarus (born into a prominent and well-established Sephardic family in 1849) was one of the first Americans to articulate Zionist concepts.
“Emma Lazarus has multiple lives going on at the same time,” Schor told me when I called her home office. “She has her life as an American nationalist; she has her life as a Zionist; she has her life as a social justice advocate; she has her life as a poet of great craft; and they’re all interlocking.”
“Her Zionism was not an early position: it evolved through personal encounters with American anti-Semitism, and it evolved through the encounter with refugees from Russia. So it’s to some extent a practical thing. She realized that there needed to be a homeland for the Jews where Jews could do for one another, and there could be a government who could do for Jews, and it was an ideal for her that there should be a place where Jews could go without having to worry about ‘dual loyalty;’ where they could just be human beings and not be deformed by attitudes from outside.”
I pointed out to Schor that she uses the term “dual loyalties” many times in her book. “Through translating the poetry of Heinrich Heine, Lazarus came to an understanding of herself as an immigrant,” she replied. “Ultimately every Jew is a wanderer, every Jew is an immigrant no matter how comfortable, no matter native, no matter how much loyalty they feel. And she had a big enough soul to feel all these things at once: she could feel very American and she could feel very alienated at the same time, and she could write from all those positions. She could write from all of those deep-felt attitudes; somehow they didn’t cancel one another out.”
“Emma Lazarus was not ‘innocent.’ She was strident and she was impolite and to some extent she was impolitic; she grated on people’s nerves, but I think Emma Lazarus’s voice is a really important voice. She was not a person who reduced the situation [of the Jewish people] to a simple thing. She never took the easy way out.”
Esther Schor will speak at the Woman’s Club of Evanston at 7 PM on Monday, October 30. To order tickets, call 888-219-5222. Consult the NEXTBOOK website for complete details:
ALSO COMING SOON
In 2002, Jody Rosen published White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, his insightful analysis of how a hit song first achieved and then sustained unprecedented world-wide popularity. In a tour de force performance of his own, Rosen turned the 53 words Irving Berlin wrote in 1942 into 190 pages of fascinating cultural commentary, talking readers through multiple disciplines and historical eras.
Rosen’s new project is called JEWFACE, coming to Chicago in the form of a multimedia presentation at Spertus Institute on October 29. When I called him in New York to discuss JEWFACE, Rosen told me he learned about “the standards” from his maternal grandmother: “I was always acutely aware that it wasn’t just that she liked the tunes but somehow they spoke to her historical experience. I very quickly focused in on the figure of Irving Berlin — he was a walking/talking metaphor for all this. And when I began to look at his back catalog, his early songs, the Jewish dialect stuff leapt out at me, songs with titles like Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars and Jake Jake the Yiddisher Ball Player.”
Rosen is concerned, though, that some people will be offended by what they hear on the JEWFACE CD. “Jewish institutions like to promote a certain vision of Jewish history,” he said. “But this is messy. What some people might think of as ‘Jewish self-hatred’ has been extremely useful, but that isn’t exactly the kind of story that’s easy to tell. This is a fascinating chapter in the history of Jewish-American popular culture; this is the very beginning, the dawn of American popular music.”
Jody Rosen will be at Spertus Institute at 2 PM on Sunday, October 29. For reservations, call 312.322.1743. Consult the Spertus website for complete details:
While the political right tunes into talk radio, the political left is channeling its creative energy into documentary filmmaking. With the next round of congressional elections a mere month away, Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus (best known for The War Room from 1993) are releasing Al Franken: God Spoke which opens at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago on Friday, October 6.
God Spoke captures Franken in a period of transition from “comedian” to “politician.” (The film ends with Franken mulling over advice from Walter Mondale as he calculates his chances in a 2008 run for the Minnesota seat once held by Senator Paul Wellstone.) Franken says his political consciousness was born in 1964 when his father chose Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater. Originally from New York, Franken senior had always considered himself “a Jacob Javitz Republican,” but he told his son “no Jew can be against Civil Rights,” voted Democratic, and never looked back.
For more details consult the Music Box website:
TZIVI’S DVD COLLECTION
The publication of George Elliot’s novel Daniel Deronda in 1876 was a milestone in Emma Lazarus’s intellectual development. As Esther Schor tells it in her new biography, Lazarus credited her debates about the book with various friends with “opening her eyes to the cause of a Jewish homeland.”
Tim Hooper, who recently won multiple Emmy awards for Elizabeth I, helmed the BBC adaptation of Daniel Deronda in 2002. Condensing a 737-page Victorian novel into 210-minute mini-series is a big job, but screenwriter Andrew Davies (best known for everyone’s favorite BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) gives full weight to Daniel’s discovery of his Jewish identity. The world Elliot creates for Daniel is much like the world of privilege in which Lazarus actually lived, and the prejudice he encounters did much to open her eyes to her status as a Jew in her own mixed social set.
“The idea that I am possessed with is that of restoring a political existence to my people, making them a nation again,” says Daniel, twenty years before Theodor Herzl published Der Judenstaat in 1896 and convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897.
Tziviah bat Yisroel v’Hudah (Jan Lisa Huttner) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com). Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to Tzivi@msn.com.