Emma Lazarus

From Oct ’06 Spotlight: 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

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