The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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!”
Emma Lazarus, 1883
“The New Colossus,” the famous poem by Emma Lazarus (1849–1887) immortalized on the Statue of Liberty, has become synonymous with the notion of America as a haven for immigrants and the oppressed. Less well-known is the fact that the poem is steeped in Jewish, and, indeed, feminist, reference. To honor the 125th anniversary of the Statue, Lilith wants to correctively seat Lazarus among our most esteemed Jewish and feminist matriarchs. To this end, Alexandra Gold offers enlightening commentary.
In 1881, news of brutal pogroms against Jews, authorized by the Russian government, begins to reach New York. Lazarus, 32, a secular Jew from a wealthy and prominent Sephardic family, goes to Ellis Island to meet with fleeing refugees, and her consciousness is raised. She starts writing poems and essays that champion the cause of persecuted Jews and that are steeped in Jewish historical reference. In 1883, she writes “The New Colossus.”
“Not like the [Colossus of Rhodes]…with conquering limbs”
speaks to ancient Greek military history which includes the ruthless conquest of Judea, the Jewish homeland, by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Of course, we are all familiar with Antiochus because of the Maccabees. In an 1882 poem, Lazarus explicitly calls the Jewish people to “Wake, Israel, wake! Recall today / the glorious Maccabean rage.” Here the “conquering limbs” of Greek brutality evoke the persecution of contemporary Jews in horrific pogroms. The Statue of Liberty proclaims humanitarian American values, which are “not like” the oppressor Colossus.
“at our sea-washed, sunset gates”
The word “sunset” is a direct contrast to the “brazen” pre-eminence of the sun, Helios, as depicted in the Colossus of Rhodes. But “sunset” also evokes a time of day significant to Jews. Sunset is when new calendar days begin; sunset marks the start of every Jewish holiday. Lazarus here invokes America as a new beginning, a hallowed Promised Land where Jews can worship freely and live peaceably. In another 1882 poem, she writes, “Freedom to love the law that Moses brought, / To sing the songs of David, and to think/ The thoughts Gabirol to Spinoza taught.”
“A mighty woman with a torch”
Lazarus is very moved by the fact that the Statue of Liberty is a woman. She’s “mighty,” but definitively not “brazen” like the Colossus of Rhodes, and she holds a “torch/ whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning.” In another piece Lazarus also pens in 1883, she specifically addresses Jews: “Oh deem not dead that martial fire, / Say not the mystic flame is spent!”
In “The New Colossus,” the light is “imprisoned” — waiting to be realized in America by a new generation, by emancipators — and Lazarus imagines the Statue’s torch as an enduring reminder of a tradition passed down through the ages, the light (and strength) of the Jews.
“Mother of Exiles”
Lazarus names Liberty the “Mother of Exiles”! The very word for the Jewish Diaspora in Yiddish (from the Hebrew) is “galus,” meaning “exile,” and Jews, with their history of expulsions, starting with the Babylonian Exile, are the quintessential “children of exiles.”
Both Liberty and Lazarus are this maternal figure — Lazarus, of course, because through the politics that infuse her poem she becomes the “puppeteer” that creates the Statue’s persona. Both Liberty and Lazarus are not only nurturing, but full of resolve; complex…distinctly feminist.
Lazarus gives the Statue “silent lips,” prefiguring her urgent call to the rest of us not to have silent lips. In an essay she writes only months before “The New Colossus,” she addresses American Jews: “On this remote continent where so many…outcasts have found freedom and peace, we have prospered to such a degree as to almost forget the terrors of the tempest. But a wail of lamentation reaches us from distant countries…. Shall we remain deaf?”
“Give me your tired, your poor”
Here Lazarus entreats American Jews to stand with her and the Statue—with two women: “Give me your tired, your poor.” In the Old Country, Jews are “wretched refuse” — objectified, faceless, disposable. In America, they are downtrodden human beings: “homeless” — exiled — and “tempest-tost.”
In the same essay referenced above, Lazarus writes: “We [American Jews] have with them [oppressed Jews in Russia] one great bond in common — that we too have stood upon the sinking ship. We know what it means to have been exposed to the tossings of the wave and tempest, to have been cast by fate upon a shore other than our own.” Don’t forget that Lazarus writes as a Sephardic Jew, heir to Jews who were burned at the stake and cast out on to foreign shores during the exceedingly long Spanish Inquisition.
“I lift my lamp”
Lazarus, as the Statue — female to female — takes action, and urges American Jews to do likewise. She here references the ner tamid, the perpetual lamp that burns in all synagogues as a reminder of the menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem and as a promise of redemption.
The literary critic Gregory Eiselein has written, beautifully, that Lazarus’s poem “makes America part of Jewish history.” Lazarus, too, becomes a core Jewish activist, passionate about making America a “homeland” for Jews. Not contradictorily, she also argues for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Emma Lazarus was only 38 when she died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It’s not hard to imagine how Lazarus might have further championed Jewish and women’s issues if not for her tragic, early death. Her sister Josephine said about her, “To be born a Jewess was a distinction for Emma.” In turn, Emma Lazarus brought considerable distinction to both Jews and women.
Alexandra Gold is a Master’s candidate in English Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. A published poet, she is the proud granddaughter of German-Jewish immigrants.