Carolyn A. Statler
Emma Lazarus was born in New York City on July 22, 1849, the fourth of seven children, to a close-knit, wealthy Jewish family. The children were probably tutored privately in the classical tradition--literature, the arts, mythology, and languages. The family belonged to a synagogue, but "the religious side of Judaism held little interest for Miss Lazarus or . . . her family" ( Cowen241).
Biographers have relied heavily on a memoir written by her sister Josephine for information about Lazarus's life. Lazarus is painted as shy and retiring so that "one hesitates to lift the veil and throw light upon a life so hidden and a personality so withdrawn" (1), and as a "true woman, too distinctly feminine to wish to be exceptional" (9).
However, she was also "much sought after in cultured society in New York" ( Cohen321) and always "on fire about something" ( Cowen240). This shy woman sent her first book, Poems and Translations Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Sixteen ( 1866), to Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom she had met at the home of a friend. Emerson became her literary mentor, and Lazarus dedicated her second book, Admetus and Other Poems ( 1871), to him. When Emerson did not include her work in Parnassus, his collection of British and American poetry, Lazarus wrote, expressing her disappointment and questioning his omission.
A personal and literary turning point came with her response to the persecution of Russian Jews ( 1881-1882) and the subsequent immigration of many Jews to the United States. She visited the immigrants on Ward's Island, helped establish the Hebrew Technical Institute to provide training for immigrants, and