What follows is Part 2 of Jamie Wendt’s essay “American Jewish Women Poets,” a four-part series that began last week and will run during coming weeks. Read Part 1 Here. The series will focus especially on work of poets Emma Lazarus (below), Maxine Kumin, Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Chana Bloch, Hadara Bar-Nadav, and Sarah Wetzel as Wendt pursues the question of what makes a Jewish poem Jewish, and of what the relationship is between Jewish identity and poetry. This week, Wendt focuses on the work of pioneer poet Emma Lazarus. –The Editors
Being a Jewish poet in America has caused many challenges throughout the generations due to trying to demonstrate loyalty to both being American and Jewish. While the first Jews arrived in America in 1654 (a group of twenty-three people fleeing Brazil, whom, upon entering America, were quickly deemed hateful enemies and blasphemers of Christ), Jews did not begin to publish poetry until the 1800’s (Lichtenstein 10). While there were a few Jewish women poets writing and publishing in magazines and journals in the early 19th century, Emma Lazarus is considered to be the first Jewish American poet due to her fame (despite being short lived), the high quality of her writing, and the themes of her work, “including a concern about ideals of womanhood, of Jewishness, of Americanness, and the fusion of identities” (Lichtenstein 37). Lazarus’ poetry was frequently featured in literary magazines, including Lippincott’s Magazine, and she had a literary friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson (Hollander xv). Her poetry was well received beginning with her first book.
During the 19th century, women’s roles were limited to housework, domestic duties, and volunteering at charities. Women were not encouraged to write and publish or have a career; however, Emma Lazarus began to redefine Jewish womanhood by putting herself in the public sphere and not marrying nor bearing children. Lazarus, along with other Jewish women of the time, not only had to deal with issues of gender inequality but also issues of dual-identities. Jewish women poets had to find a balance between being Jewish and American, being secular and religious, and being a woman in a male-dominated society and literary scene.
Emma Lazarus was born in 1849 and published her first book called Poems and Translations between the Ages of Fourteen and Sixteen with her father’s help in 1866 (Lichtenstein 37). Her early poems were not as focused on Jewish themes as her later poems. Beautifully written poems such as “Niagara River Below the Falls” and “On a Tuft of Grass” explore natural scenes through simile, metaphor, personification, and other literary devices. In “On a Tuft of Grass,” she writes, “All bent one way like flickering flame, / each blade caught sunlight as it came.” The comparison of grass to a flickering flame was the first “Jewish” image that I noticed when reading Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems edited by John Hollander. Religious boys who study in yeshivot are taught to move like a flickering flame when they pray and when they study, leaning over their books, concentrating on both their body and mind to a point that the constant rhythm of their bodies, like a flame, will help them focus on the words in front of them. While “On a Tuft of Grass” is not necessarily a Jewish poem due to it not speaking directly about Jewish ideas, themes, issues, traditions, etc., Lazarus uses a religious image to describe grass, most likely because being in nature tends to make people feel the presence of God more than other places. While Lazarus may have been using Jewish images subtly or unconsciously, “Lazarus’ sister Josephine implied in her biographical essay that it was not until 1881 that Lazarus began to concern herself with Judaic matters in her poetry and essays,” which was during the time of the Russian pograms and Jewish Russian immigration to America (Hollander xvii).
One of Lazarus’ first poems about a Jewish topic called “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport” (written in 1867) was inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” written in the 1850s. It is possible that Lazarus became more comfortable writing about a Jewish topic after a non-Jew (Longfellow, with a lot of popularity and prestige) wrote about it. According to the Touro Synagogue’s website, the Newport synagogue was built in 1763 to accommodate the growing Jewish population in New England. After the war of 1812, many Jews moved to larger port towns in neighboring states leaving the synagogue in the hands of a New York congregation. Longfellow’s poem describes the cemetery and Jewish culture as if it were dead, whereas Lazarus focuses on the synagogue as an insider to the Jewish culture and with a more emotional perspective. Here is Lazarus’ poem:
Here, where the noises of the busy town,
The ocean’s plunge and roar can enter not,
We stand and gaze around with fearful awe,
And muse upon the consecrated spot.
No signs of life are here: the very prayers,
Inscribed around are in a language dead,
The light of the “perpetual lamp” is spent
That an undying radiance was to shed.
What prayers were in this temple offered up,
Wrung from sad hearts that knew no joy on earth,
By these lone exiles of a thousand years,
From the fair sunrise land that gave them birth!
Now as we gaze, in this new world of light,
Upon this relic of the days of old,
The present vanishes, and tropic bloom
And Eastern towns and temples we behold.
Again we see the patriarch with his flocks,
The purple seas, the hot sky o’erhead,
The slaves of Egypt–omens, mysteries–
Dark fleeing hosts by flaming angels led.
A wondrous light upon a sky-kissed mount,
A man who reads Jehovah’s written law,
‘Midst blinding glory and effulgence rare,
Unto a people prone with reverent awe.
The pride of luxury’s barbaric pomp,
In the rich court of royal Solomon–
Alas! we wake: one scene alone remains
The exiles by the streams of Babylon.
Our softened voices send us back again
But mournful echoes through the empty hall;
Our footsteps have a strange, unnatural sound,
And with unwonted gentleness they fall.
The weary ones, the sad, the suffering,,
All found their comfort in the holy place,
And children’s gladness, and men’s gratitude
Took voice and mingled in the chant of praise.
The funeral and the marriage, now, alas!
We know not which is sadder to recall;
For youth and happiness have followed age,
And green grass lieth gently over all.
And still the shrine is holy yet,
With its lone floors where reverent feet once trod.
Take off your shoes as by the burning bush,
Before the mystery of death and God.
Lazarus uses a basic rhyme scheme (abcb), and the lines are in iambic pentameter, although a few lines break from this pattern. Each stanza has four lines, and the fourth line is always end-stopped with a period. The images and scene that Lazarus creates are what make this a great poem. By the last stanza, the reader can really feel what it would be like to be inside the synagogue, and it is clear from the last two lines of the poem that Lazarus views the synagogue as a holy place, despite the fact that it was not being used regularly when she wrote the poem.
She doesn’t specifically say who “we” are throughout the poem, but it can be inferred that she is with other Jewish people, perhaps with her family, while standing inside the synagogue and noticing details about it, which then allow her to wonder and imagine about the people who used to pray there. At first, it seems that Lazarus might not have a very good impression of the synagogue. She states at the beginning of the second stanza “No signs of life here” and continues the stanza with images showing that the Hebrew language and perpetual lamp (a lamp hanging or resting above the Ark, which contains the Torah scrolls in every synagogue) are all dead. While she is only talking about this one synagogue, the beginning of the poem suggests that Lazarus believed Judaism was dying. Issues of assimilation were at the forefront of the collective Jewish consciousness in the 19th century. Anti-Semitism and the yearning to “fit-in” in America were struggles that Lazarus and other Jews dealt with. However, as Lazarus continues to describe the synagogue, it becomes clear that she views herself as an insider to this tradition and not just a tourist or visitor like Longfellow’s point of view in “The Cemetery at Newport.”
In the fourth stanza, Lazarus begins to feel a connectedness to the people who used to pray at this synagogue. While the Jews of Newport are dead and “knew no joy on earth,” Lazarus realizes that the exile they suffered is also her own exile and that she is also part of the same tradition of suffering. Throughout history, Jewish people have suffered from being expelled from their countries, whether it was mandated expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 or pograms in Russia during the late 1800s. In 1501 in Iran, forced mass conversions of Jews were the norm. During the Holocaust, about six million Jews were murdered, and “between 2003 and 2005, over 500 Qassam rockets [were] fired at the southern Israeli town of Sderot by Palestinian groups which are based in the Gaza strip.” Writing about the suffering of the Jews at Newport, Lazarus is connecting herself to the tradition of suffering that her people know too well.
Even though she says they gaze in a “new world of light,” all she sees are images of the past, specifically of Moses, the slaves, the giving of the Law, and her ancestors’ pride and awe. This juxtaposition between the new world of light and the ancient world of exile serves to show the struggle that Lazarus herself was going through in terms of having a dual-identity. After describing the religious images that are seen (or imagined) in the synagogue in stanzas five through seven, Lazarus begins stanza eight being present in the synagogue with others. She writes:
Our softened voices send us back again
But mournful echoes through the empty hall;
Our footsteps have a strange, unnatural sound,
And with unwonted gentleness they fall.
The term “softened voices” is a reminder of prayer and it seems that the images of the Jewish past cause Lazarus and the people she is with to feel mournful for the Jews who used to frequent this synagogue and perhaps have an urge to pray for the current state of Judaism in America so that the population does not cease. The mood of the poem becomes slightly eerie when Lazarus describes their steps as having a “strange, unnatural sound” as if the living were not supposed to be there or as if no one has walked on those floors for so long that it begins to seem unnatural to do so. Walking with “unwonted gentleness” suggests that just being surrounded by so many important religious images causes them to feel holier and more careful. This description of walking gently through the synagogue is also echoed in the last stanza when she mentions that “reverent feet once trod” the floors that she stands on now. While she did not use the word reverent to describe her own feet or walking, it is clear that she does have a high level of respect for the synagogue based on the descriptions and the connectedness she feels toward the Jews of the past.
In the ninth stanza, Lazarus writes, “The weary ones, the sad, the suffering, / All found their comfort in the holy place,” and at this point, Lazarus (like the weary, sad, and suffering Jews of the past) seems to be finding comfort in a place that she associated with death only a few stanzas prior. While she does mention in the tenth stanza the “green grass [that] lieth gently over all,” it can be inferred that she believes these people and the synagogue to be holy and death is not simply an end of life but rather a moving on from one generation to the next. The last two lines of the poem really resonate with the Jewish experience. Not only is Lazarus very aware of her history, but she also recognizes the “mystery of death and God” in a synagogue where a population was dispersed, which tends to be the Jewish tradition. Lazarus is aware of living in the Diaspora and feels a sense of awe and wonder at the fact that Jews are still standing in the synagogue where a community has been dispersed but where a new community, including Lazarus, is ready to continue the traditions.
While “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport” does have Jewish topics and themes, the poem was written to document a particular history and not necessarily a connection or spirituality with the Jewish people. One of Lazarus’ later poems, “In Exile,” has a stronger Jewish American voice than the Newport poem, because Lazarus had become more aware of social-political issues confronting Jews in Russia. Oftentimes, events around the world become inspiration for poetry and investigation into the situation when the people involved are of your own nationality. After learning about the pograms, Lazarus “was drawn into active battle, fighting on three fronts as poet, as political essayist, and as social activist” (Baskin 201). Here is the poem “In Exile” that she wrote in 1882:
“Since that day till now our life is one unbroken paradise. We live a true brotherly life. Every evening after supper we take a seat under the mighty oak and sing our songs.”—Extract from a letter of a Russian refugee in Texas.
Twilight is here, soft breezes bow the grass,
Day’s sounds of various toil break slowly off.
The yoke-freed oxen low, the patient ass
Dips his dry nostril in the cool, deep trough.
Up from the prairie the tanned herdsmen pass
With frothy pails, guiding with voices rough
Their udder-lightened kine. Fresh smells of earth,
The rich, black furrows of the glebe send forth.
After the Southern day of heavy toil,
How good to lie, with limbs relaxed, brows bare
To evening’s fan, and watch the smoke-wreaths coil
Up from one’s pipe-stem through the rayless air.
So deem these unused tillers of the soil,
Who stretched beneath the shadowing oak tree, stare
Peacefully on the star-unfolding skies,
And name their life unbroken paradise.
The hounded stag that has escaped the pack,
And pants at ease within a thick-leaved dell;
The unimprisoned bird that finds the track
Through sun-bathed space, to where his fellows dwell;
The martyr, granted respite from the rack,
The death-doomed victim pardoned from his cell,—
Such only know the joy these exiles gain,—
Life’s sharpest rapture is surcease of pain.
Strange faces theirs, wherethrough the Orient sun
Gleams from the eyes and glows athwart the skin.
Grave lines of studious thought and purpose run
From curl-crowned forehead to dark-bearded chin.
And over all the seal is stamped thereon
Of anguish branded by a world of sin,
In fire and blood through ages on their name,
Their seal of glory and the Gentiles’ shame.
Freedom to love the law that Moses brought,
To sing the songs of David, and to think
The thoughts Gabirol to Spinoza taught,
Freedom to dig the common earth, to drink
The universal air—for this they sought
Refuge o’er wave and continent, to link
Egypt with Texas in their mystic chain,
And truth’s perpetual lamp forbid to wane.
Hark! through the quiet evening air, their song
Floats forth with wild sweet rhythm and glad refrain.
They sing the conquest of the spirit strong,
The soul that wrests the victory from pain;
The noble joys of manhood that belong
To comrades and to brothers. In their strain
Rustle of palms and Eastern streams one hears,
And the broad prairie melts in mist of tears.
Lazarus’ use of description makes this poem lyrically beautiful. The slow details separated by commas in the first stanza slow down the mood and bring the reader to the prairie being described. She uses alliteration (“soft breezes bow the grass” and “Dips his dry nostril in the cool, deep trough”) to help the reader visualize the scene and convince the reader that she really is describing “unbroken paradise,” which is a phrase in the epigraph that seemed to inspire Lazarus to write the poem. The epigraph helps set up the time period and scene right away, since the poem does not mention the Russian exiles until about the third stanza. The images of nature at the beginning of the poem help build up to the struggle of the exiles to find joy despite all they’ve been through. Lazarus describes the exiles as having “strange faces” and “grave lines of studious thought and purpose run / from curl-crowned forehead to dark-bearded chin,” as if a non-Jew were describing them as seeming non-American. Lazarus empathizes with these Jewish men, but realizes she does not share the exile they recently experienced. She does not refer to the Jews as a collective “we” like she did in the Newport poem; however, the third person makes the Russian man’s exile more authentic and puts distance between Lazarus and the pograms.
The image of the exiled man in this poem seems to fit Lazarus’ description in “The New Colossus” of the type of people America wants. When she wrote, “Give me your tired, your poor, / your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” she might have been referring to her own people, the greater Jewish family that was not yet free in Eastern Europe. In the fifth stanza of “In Exile,” it is clear that the exiled man only wants typical American values, like freedom of religion, freedom to work and breathe, and freedom to learn about his history and people. This shows that Lazarus viewed America as a haven for the Jewish people and wanted to be connected to both her Americanism and her Judaism.
In the last stanza, phrases like “spirit strong,” “victory from pain,” and “noble joys of manhood” help create a realization that even though the Jews were exiled from Russia, which to Lazarus is just one more place out of a whole list of nations that did not tolerate Jews throughout history, there is still a place for Jews to be happy in America. Lazarus will protect her fellow Jews through her writing yet still be aware of the tears that mist over the prairie, which represents Jews lamenting a past filled with prejudice and hatred as well as a longing for a Jewish homeland.
The poem “In Exile” is one of Lazarus’ strongest poems, and this is due to her close attention to detail throughout the poem, which creates movement and connection between nature, humans, and history. “In Exile” brings forth a political issue that bothered Lazarus whereas “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport” was more of a portrait of an emptied spiritual center. Judaism and faith seem very much alive despite the exile, due to the Russian Jewish man’s happiness at finding peace and freedom in America, which Lazarus seems to slowly also discover in the Newport synagogue. Writing about topics that are of concern to the Jewish people but also part of collective world history frame Lazarus as a politically and socially aware poet of her time. She was writing from a Jewish perspective and presented the truth of what she saw of the Jewish condition in America in the 19th century.
(Part 3 of 4 in Jamie Wendt’s essay “American Jewish Women Poets” will appear on this site next week. Read Part 1 here.)
Baskin, Judith R. Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994. Print.
Hollander, John. Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems. Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2005. Print.
Lichtenstein, Diane. Writing Their Nations: The Tradition of Nineteenth-Century American Jewish Women Writers. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992. Print.