Princeton prof pens biography of poet, and Zionist, Emma Lazarus
When we think about American-Jewish writers, observed poet Esther Schor of Princeton, we often think about such novelists as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud.
“To think that the first American-Jewish writer was a woman, a poet, and a Sephardi Jew,” Schor said, referring to Emma Lazarus, the subject of her recently published eponymous biography (Schocken).
Speaking in mid-October at the Princeton University bookstore, Schor, a professor of English at the university, offered up a taste of her groundbreaking biography of the American-Jewish poet. The program was jointly sponsored by the university’s Center for Jewish Life, Judaic Studies Program, and Department of English.
For most people, the name “Emma Lazarus” has perhaps one association those famous lines from Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus” that have long graced the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “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.”
But in 1980, some 100 letters of Lazarus and her sisters were discovered in a tall wooden cupboard in a home near Lenox, Mass., and it is through the prism of those letters that Schor has now shined a light onto the life of the poet, critic, and columnist, who was also a feminist, a secular Jew, and a committed Zionist.
“Her letters were really at the heart of what made me want to write about her,” Schor said. “She was wonderful company for the years I spent on the book.”
Lazarus was gripped by the conviction that it was not the observance of Jewish law, but rather the adherence to Jewish ethics that lies at the heart of Judaism, according to Schor. As she writes in her book, Lazarus “defined herself as a Jewish ‘outlaw’ that is, as a new-world Jew: progressive, unencumbered by ancient laws and customs, and free to move, unabashed and without apology, in a wider American world.”
That was what most surprised Schor as she went about the process of discovering Lazarus through her letters. “She invented this role we take for granted that you can be a cultural Jew and not have observance at the core of your life, and also have a public identity as that. I found that very sobering and inspiring. For me, this was the biggest message I took from reading about her,” said Schor.
Lazarus was also an advocate of social justice, said the author, and her writings placed before her readers “an image of the Jew as vital, muscular, in the world not a victim or a sallow creature of the study house.”
“She felt that the Jewish model of repairing the world was a model Americans should accept,” she said. “She thought that Americans, like Jews, should have sympathy for exiles, and she thought Americans should be out front rejecting tyranny.”
In addition to writing searing poems against anti-Semitism, Lazarus left the legacy of her voice as an advocate for a Jewish state in Palestine. Schor noted that Theodor Herzl was still sitting in cafes and dreaming of Zion and the word “Zionist” had not yet even been coined when Lazarus took up the cause in the early 1880s. Schor writes that in “Epistle to the Hebrews,” a column in the American Hebrew in 1882, “Emma Lazarus became the first well-known American publicly to make the case for a Jewish state.”
Her greatest challenge in writing the biography is that Lazarus “lived half a life, not a life,” the author said. “She died at 38 of Hodgkin’s Disease.” Still, Schor added, with all her complexity, Lazarus left several lives behind.
“So how does one sum up a woman of dual identities: American and Jewish, a woman with two public careers writer and activist a woman who was perhaps bisexual? I tried to show she was enriched by her doubleness, by her contradictions, and the way she led her life,” Schor said. “Summarizing her is really not what I was about in this book. She spoke to me, and I wanted to enable her to speak to you, as well.”
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