ARTICLEThe Emma Lazarus Project and the American Jewish Project

It is up to us to lend Lady Liberty our words—to translate her silence and the glow of her torch, to witness and articulate her stance “at our sea-washed, sunset gates.” In her 1883 poem “The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus allows the “Mother of Exiles” to speak to the world:

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

Through the poem, Lady Liberty promises a “world-wide welcome” and insists that it is uniquely American to accept “the homeless, the tempest-tost.” The poem’s vision of American inclusion clarifies the power and urgency of welcoming all who seek refuge here.

In 1883, Lazarus’s Lady Liberty—her torch of flame, of “imprisoned lightning”—faced the world and delivered a strong message of acceptance. But what might our Mother of Exiles say to us in 2019? In recent months, members of the American Jewish community—including Annie Polland, Executive Director of the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS)—have spoken out to ensure that Lazarus’s words are not only remembered, but also interpreted faithfully. But even beyond defending history, AJHS is showing us how to learn from Lazarus’s vision—and preparing us to enter a vital American conversation in our own words.

Emma Lazarus' recreated sitting room, part of the Emma Lazarus project exhibition. Photo by Shayna Marchese.

The Emma Lazarus Project of the American Jewish Historical Society—made possible in part by The Covenant Foundation—is a multifaceted initiative that illuminates Lazarus’s personal, political, and professional history. Here we meet the American Jewish writer who articulated Lady Liberty’s mission. In the case of the initiative’s exhibition component, From Sitting Room to Soap Box: Emma Lazarus, Union Square, and American Identity (opening at the Center for Jewish History in winter 2019), this meeting takes place in a re-creation of Lazarus’s own sitting room. The room also features a curated digital storybook that allows visitors to discover relevant images, words, photographs, and sources as they appear with each turn of the virtual page.

Being invited into Lazarus’s home means being invited into the environment where she read, studied, developed her approach, and wrote. What books were on her bookcase? What paintings graced her walls? What did “home” mean to a thinker who built such strong concepts of welcome and refuge?

Visitors should feel as though the poet herself has just been in the room—as though her words and ideas are fresh and demand consideration. With supplementary public programs, lesson plans and educational resources, and a nationwide poetry contest, AJHS is inviting diverse audiences to engage with Lazarus’s ideas in a number of ways. Participants in the Emma Lazarus Project will gain new insight into how she developed and expressed her perspective, exercised activism through her writing, and contributed to a national conversation that remains painfully relevant.

Emma Lazarus composed “The New Colossus” by request, as part of an effort to fundraise for the new Statue of Liberty. It was only in 1903—16 years after the poet’s death, in an act of tribute and memorial—that her words were engraved and installed in Lady Liberty’s pedestal. Now, Lazarus is best remembered for her poem. But in her own lifetime, she was known for a much wider array of literary production—including translations, fiction, essays, and editorials—and for her American Jewish identity.

Often referred to as “the Jewess” (in both descriptive and derogatory contexts), Lazarus was the most famous American Jewish writer of her time. She belonged to a Sephardic Jewish family, and she was outspoken in claiming her Jewish identity. Through her writing, Lazarus explored, shaped, and debated what it meant to be an American Jew, and what the broader community’s priorities, social obligations, and features should be. Her sense of her Jewish identity arose from arts and letters, from the literature and history that she studied. Lazarus entered public debates with other prominent Jewish intellectuals about what it meant to belong to the Jewish people. In her deeply informed—and sharply worded—published essays, she argued the very nature of Jewish life in America and beyond.

It is fitting, then, that Emma Lazarus’s collection (including a handwritten poetry manuscript that bears “The New Colossus” on its first page) resides in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society—an organization that is itself engaged in the central questions of what it means to be Jewish in America.

AJHS was founded in 1892, which makes it the oldest ethnic, cultural archive in the country. Within its robust collection of more than 30 million documents and 50,000 books, photographs, artistic works, and artifacts are a multitude of stories of American Jewish people negotiating the various aspects of their identities. Granting access to these materials at the Center for Jewish History is about more than preserving the history of Jewish presence in the U.S. It is about providing the resources for what Executive Director Annie Polland calls a “strengthened, more vigorous identity” as American Jews in our own time.

The interactive story book as part of the Emma Lazarus project sitting room display. Photo by Gloria Machnowski.

“Substance is important for Jewish identity,” Polland explains, “and communities need stories.” Through learning, interpreting, discussing, and rethinking the stories that comprise our rich history, American Jewish people can create a more inclusive, expansive, precise, and informed sense of identity. People of all backgrounds can look to the history reflected in AJHS’s archive to consider what it means to live at the intersection of multiple identities—in Lazarus’s case, to be Jewish, and Sephardic, and a woman, and American. Emma Lazarus felt a deep and abiding connection to the broader Jewish people—advocating for the well-being of Eastern European Jewish immigrants even though she did not share their language, religious practices, or socioeconomic challenges. Rather than shying away from controversy, she pointed her work toward difficult, complicated questions. For AJHS, there is remarkable potential in reviving Lazarus’s story in this particular moment in time.

Emma Lazarus brought her entire self—all aspects of her identity, her experience, her deeply held principles, and her skills—to the subjects that she cared about. Constructing the vision of America that gleams in “The New Colossus” required nothing less. Through the Emma Lazarus Project, AJHS hopes to inspire people to take courage from Lazarus’s example and put pen to paper, shaping with words that which they wish to see in the world.

The Project’s nationwide poetry contest represents one of its ultimate ambitions. (Some early and phenomenal student entrants from Hunter Elementary are featured in the introductory video online.) Using words to form and reform our world—to repair our world—is a project of Jewish spirit and American necessity. We have learned the importance of defining the enduring symbol, Lady Liberty herself. It is up to us to lend her our words. The contest’s prompt is deceptively simple: “If you could write a poem for the Statue of Liberty today, what would it say?” Beside this question, so many golden doors.

By Miriam R. Haier, for The Covenant Foundation.

Miriam is the Director of Content and Strategy at Pure+Applied, a multidisciplinary design studio in New York City

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