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The Legacy of Emma Lazarus in New York

a close up of a bookGive me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. – Emma Lazarus

The New Colossus, a poem by Emma Lazarus, is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. But this inscription, immortalizing her words, was created sixteen years after the poet died in 1887. Her life in New York has its own, lesser-known legacy.

Emma Lazarus was born in New York City, in 1849. She was the middle of seven children. Her parents Esther and Moses Lazarus were Sephardic Jews of Portuguese descent. Emma’s father was a successful sugar merchant, committed to his children’s education. Emma loved to write, and excelled in her studies. She learned German, French, and Italian, and by the time she was 17, she’d published a book of poetry.

Emma’s father was an advocate for her writing. When Emma’s book was put into the famous hands of Ralph Waldo Emerson, her work took off. Emerson became her mentor, and through the next decade, Emma Lazarus would publish poetry, articles, translations, essays, and even a novel.

Her work took on some central themes, based on her identity and experience. Her pamphlet published in 1882, which used poetry and prose to oppose the persecution of Russian Jews, was one of the first-ever works to ever explore Jewish American oppression. Her advocacy against anti-Semitism was aimed at fostering peace and tolerance.

Emma also volunteered and engaged in charitable work around New York City. She helped establish the Hebrew Technical Institute, which provided job/vocational training to Jewish immigrants. She also created the Society for Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews. She wrote her famous poem, “The New Colossus,” in 1883 to support an auction, raising money for the Statue of Liberty pedestal.

In 1885, Lazarus traveled to Europe to meet with Jewish leaders about advancing social reform. When she returned to New York in 1887, she was ill. She lived her two final months in NYC before her death in November 1887. She was 38 years old when she died, and had published dozens of groundbreaking works throughout her life. Lazarus’ writing and her charitable efforts shaped lasting lessons around the treatment of immigrants in America. Her commitment to defending immigrants and using her art to tach history endures in the United States and beyond.