Emma Lazarus: Writings and Philanthropy

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) wrote these words memorialized on the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus was born to a Jewish family in New York, near Union Square, on July 22, 1849. She held a strong classical education along with fluency in German and French. Her father, recognizing Emma’s intellect and ability, self-published her first book in 1886, which was titled Poems and Translations Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Seventeen. 

The Lazarus family traced its heritage to ancestors who were among the first Jewish settlers in the United States; Sephardic Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition. With this notable history and long-standing familial history in the U.S., Emma and her family found themselves among a distinct elite Jewish social class. Given her talents, Lazarus was also incorporated into the New York literary elite of her time. In fact, Lazarus maintained a friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, to whom she sent a copy of her first book. He became a trusted mentor and supportive reader of Lazarus’s works.

Lazarus wrote boldly – through poetry and pros – against antisemitism and in favor of immigrants’ rights. She advocated for a Jewish homeland in Palestine before modern Zionism even gained its title or following. Regarding conditions of Russian refugees in New York, Lazarus accentuated, “the time has come for actions rather than words.” Lazarus founded the Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews in 1883, meeting with Jewish philanthropists to gain support; despite her efforts, the organization collapsed the following year.

Reflecting on her own privileged life while working with refugees on Ward’s Island and volunteering at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Lazarus quipped: “What would my society friends say if they saw me here?”

Lazarus is most famous for her sonnet, “The New Colossus” (quoted above), which is mounted on the Statue of Liberty. She also found passion in providing aid for Jewish refugees who immigrated to New York as a result of the Russian pogroms. Lazarus began to advocate on their behalf by writing articles on the subject as well as the book Songs of a Semite (1882). She also helped establish the Hebrew Technical Institute in New York to provide vocational training for destitute Jewish immigrants.

Emma Lazarus died on November 19, 1887, at 38 years of age.

The Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Women sit under a sign reading, “March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom.” MS-583. American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.

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