Emma Lazarus, Reclaimed

 Emma Lazarus, by poet Esther Schor (Nextbook, Schocken, $21.95), joins the three other published volumes in Nextbook’s series dedicated to the project of “the promotion of Jewish literature, culture, and ideas,” coming after earlier books on King David, Barney Ross, and Baruch Spinoza.

The Emma Lazarus whom Esther Schor has painstakingly portrayed here deserves attention, and far beyond the one achievement for which she is known. Most Americans, Jews included, know Lazarus (1849-1887) primarily as the poet who in 1883 wrote “The New Colossus,” the sonnet which emblazons the Statue of Liberty and whose phrases like “Huddled Masses” and “Golden Door” have taken on lives of their own in the American and American- Jewish lexicons. Readers of this book will confront a determined and complicated nineteenth-century American Jew, a woman who despite her limited formal education held her own with philosophers and great literary men. They will find in this Emma Lazarus a politically engaged person who knew, reacted to, and believed she had a stake in the issues of the day. Her advocacy of Zionism and her deep identification with the suffering of Jews in the Czarist Empire made her more than a genteel poet, although she found ample opportunity in her poetry to make the Jews’ case and to make it to a large and mixed audience. Her participation in some of the literary debates of her time and her strong ideas about literature clearly indicated that she was more than a wealthy woman with time to dabble in poetry.

Schor also places the poet in her social milieu and in the web of her relationships, so we get some sense of how that world functioned. Finally, Schor ends the book by suggesting how later generations reinvented this woman and took upon themselves the custodianship of her memory. By invoking her name, charities and philanthropic bodies, leftwing political groups and Zionists all got to claim Emma Lazarus.

Unlike Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza, the volume which preceded Emma Lazarus in the Nextbook series, this one has details that seem to serve no purpose. And immediately striking to readers concerned with gender equity will be an imbalance in this series: only after three men — a biblical king, a boxer, and a philosopher — has Nextbook seen fit to give the reading public a chance to engage with a Jewish woman as a creator of and exemplar of Jewish history and culture.

Hasia Diner is a professor of American Jewish history at NYU.