Emma Lazarus

Thu, 07/21/2016 - 5:00pm -- lwhite

The Redwood has been home to many readers, one of our most famous is poet Emma Lazaruz (1849-1887). The Lazarus family had a summer home here in Newport, "The Beeches" at 647 Bellevue Avenue. However, her family ties to Newport go much further, her great-great grandmother on her mother’s side, Grace Seixas Nathan, was the sister of famed Touro Synagogue leader,Seixas (known for his correspondence with Gen. Washington).  

Emma was well educated, studying British and American literature, German, French and Italian. After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, Lazarus became increasingly fascinated by her Jewish ancestry, and began advocating on behalf of Jewish refugees. She helped establish the Hebrew Technical Institute in New York, so refugees could learn skills to become self-supporting citizens. After a brief trip to Europe in 1887, Emma returned home gravely ill and died two months later on November 19, at the age of 38. It is believed she was suffering from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Emma is most known for her poem “The New Colossus” which was inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty in 1903, fifteen years after her death. The poem was originally written in 1883, and donated to an auction to raise funds for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. However, our favorite poem by Emma is In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport ...but we might be a little biased. Perhaps the volumes of poetry she read here at the Redwood helped serve as inspiration for her work.


In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport



Here, where the noises of the busy town,

   The ocean's plunge and roar can enter not,

We stand and gaze around with tearful 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!


How 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 blue 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.


Nathless the sacred 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.