'Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor': What Did Emma Lazarus Really Have in Mind?

For the Jewish poet, the Statue of Liberty was not a monument to shared French-American values, but a defiant symbol of American exceptionalism steeped in Hebraic values.

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Protest in Seattle against Trump anti-immigration order.
Protest in Seattle against Trump anti-immigration order.Credit: JASON REDMOND/AFP

“Tears are running down the cheeks of the Statue of Liberty tonight,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York lamented soon after President Trump issued his executive order on immigration. With that order, Schumer explained, “a grand tradition of America, welcoming immigrants, that has existed since America was founded has been stomped upon.” A few days later, at a news conference, surrounded by mostly young Muslim immigrants, he revealed that his daughter’s middle name is Emma, after “Emma Lazarus, the great poet.” He quoted her oft-quoted lines “written on the pedestal” of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Then he choked up.

No doubt Lazarus would be touched to hear of her namesake, especially since Schumer himself is a scion of Russian-Jewish immigrants, the “huddled masses” who collectively inspired the lines he quoted. (Lazarus herself was a Jew of Sephardic-German descent.) Even more, she’d be gratified to hear herself judged “a great poet.” (Literary history has been less generous.) Mostly, she’d be surprised and pleased at how closely her sonnet has become identified with the statue, how conventional it has become to define the statue by the words she imagined her saying, how those words continue to move and inspire. But she’d also be amused. The story of the poem, and of America’s relation to immigration, is more complicated than Schumer suggests.

Now that the poem has once again been thrust into the public sphere, it may be worthwhile to look at it more closely. Here is the poem in its entirety:

“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!”

So what's the statue's name?

I’ve taught Lazarus’ sonnet countless times over the years, both in the States and here in Israel. We read the poem together, and I ask my students this question: “What is the name of the Statue of Liberty?” It’s a trick question, meant to tease, like asking the color of George Washington’s white horse. The name of the statue is “Liberty,” or, more fully, “Liberty Enlightening the World.” It’s meant to represent the Roman goddess, Libertas, a monumental, if markedly sober iteration of the goddess who, in Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting, violently leads the French people in the Revolution of 1830. A gift from its French sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, and his liberal patrons, the statue was meant to symbolize what the French and American people have in common, the love of liberty. And so, in a poem read at the dedication of the statue, the well-known American poet John Greenleaf Whittier fittingly thanks America’s “Old World Sister” for “her sculptured Dream of Liberty.” Lazarus’ sonnet was not read at the unveiling.

Seattle protestCredit: STEPHEN BRASHEAR/AFP

But the students inevitably answer, “Mother of Exiles.” “Why would the French people give America a statue that celebrates European failures?” I ask. I tell them about Lazarus’ horror at the suffering of the Jews in Czarist Russia and her tireless work to combat anti-Semitism and alleviate their plight. I tell them the story of the sonnet’s origin, how Lazarus was asked in 1883 to contribute a manuscript to an effort by New York socialites (ultimately unsuccessful) to help raise money for the pedestal on which the statue was to be erected, that she at first resisted but ultimately decided to take the opportunity to further her real concern, the Russian Jews, an issue her socialite friends cared little or nothing about – or scorned. Then the discussion begins.

We talk about the sets of contrasts through which Lazarus transforms the meaning of the statue: from the crowded decadence of the Old World to the democratic airiness of the New; from the forbidding, martial masculinity of the Colossus of Rhodes (“the brazen giant of Greek fame”) to the welcoming, maternal might of the “woman with a torch.” We talk about the biblical echoes in the poem: the matriarch Rachel, who weeps for her exiled children in Jeremiah 31:14; the prophet and poet Deborah of Judges 4-5, the “Mother in Israel,” the wife of Lapidot (literally, “woman of the torches”), whose general is named Barak (“lightning”); Isaiah’s prophecy that the exiled Children of Israel who are “afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted” (54:11) will ultimately become “a light unto the nations” (49:6).

For Lazarus, Bartholdi’s statue was not a neoclassical monument to shared Franco-American values, but a defiant symbol of American exceptionalism steeped in Hebraic values. My students often find it surprising that, along with her devotion to the immigrants, she was also dedicated (unlike most American Jews at the time) to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, penning poems and essays in the cause more than a decade before Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in 1897. For Lazarus, the two causes were equal parts of a grand Jewish-prophetic vision. As she wrote In a poem entitled “The New Year (Rosh-Hashanah, 5643)”:

In two divided streams the exiles part, 

One rolling homeward to its ancient source, 

One rushing sunward with fresh will, new heart. 

By each the truth is spread, the law unfurled, 

Each separate soul contains the nation’s force, 

And both embrace the world. 

Immigrants defined 'Liberty'

Ironically, Lazarus was in Europe when the Statue of Liberty was erected in 1886. She became ill, died a year later, and she and “The New Colossus” were forgotten. In 1903, socialite Georgina Schuyler had a bronze plaque of the poem placed inside the pedestal, “in loving memory” of her friend, Emma Lazarus, but the gesture did little to define the statue or establish the poem’s reputation. It was in the eyes of the millions who sailed into New York harbor in the decades after the statue was erected, immigrants who knew nothing of the poem, that the statue became a symbol of American possibility.

To other Americans, however, the statue took on a different, contrary meaning. In an 1895 poem, well-known American writer and editor Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote, “O Liberty, white Goddess! is it well / To leave the gates unguarded?” Opposition to immigration grew stronger and stronger during these years, and, with the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, immigration was severely restricted, the “golden door” was virtually shut, and those of us with relatives who were denied entry when fleeing Hitler know painfully what that closing meant. Only after the Holocaust did Lazarus’ sonnet reemerge and her words return to the statue’s silent lips.

Statue of LibertyCredit: SPENCER PLATT/AFP

Senator Schumer was only partially correct when he invoked America’s “grand tradition” of welcoming immigrants. America has a long history of resistance to unrestricted immigration as well, of which the president’s executive order is only the latest chapter. The senator’s use of the proto-Zionist poet’s words to support the cause of Muslim immigration is one more ironic moment in a complex, still unfolding American story.

Professor Michael P. Kramer leads the William Solomon Jewish Arts Seminar in the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University. His annotated translation of S.Y. Agnon’s “And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight” is forthcoming from Toby Press. He is currently at work on a history of Jewish American literary historiography.

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