Friday, July 22, 2011

Emma Lazarus: Birthday Girl


Today marks the birthday of Emma Lazarus (b. 1849), a remarkable individual and the subject of the Museum of Jewish Heritage's upcoming exhibition, Emma Lazarus: Poet of Exiles. While millions have been moved by her words on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..” few know the story of the woman who wrote them. On October 26, we hope that all that will change. The exhibit, which marks the 125th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, is the first major museum exhibit about Lazarus, and will include rare artifacts that explore her unique story and message. It will be on view through summer 2012.

Visitors will be surprised to learn that Emma was a fourth-generation Jewish American of Sephardic background, not a recent immigrant herself. They most likely do not know about her family’s longstanding dedication to American life and that George Washington even quoted one of Emma’s great uncles when writing a famous letter which would become a founding document of religious liberty in this country. Visitors will learn more about Emma’s prolific career and the leading literary and artistic luminaries that were part of her social circle, like her mentor and harshest critic, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Visitors may not be aware that Emma was so much more than a poet. The exhibit will fully explore her work for Jewish causes and how Emma’s journey inspired her to craft an enduring message that addressed exile, home, and the promise of America. Perhaps the most surprising fact of all is that Emma didn’t live to see her words joined with the Statue and she may not have ever seen the Statue completed. She died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1887 at the age of 38. The poem was installed inside the pedestal in 1903, where it remains today—inspiring millions of visitors.

We’re all pretty passionate about this exhibit, but no one is more enthusiastic than Melissa Martens, the Museum’s Director of Collections and Exhibitions, who is very busy right now curating the exhibition. She says, “The Museum of Jewish Heritage—which overlooks the Statue of Liberty and explores Jewish experiences of immigration, exile, and home—is the perfect context in which to present the life and works of Emma Lazarus. As New York celebrates the 125th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, we are reminded of Emma Lazarus’s enduring message of welcome. Her words turned the Statue into a beacon of hope for newcomers.”

Stay tuned for more information and a special website devoted to all things Emma. In the meantime, be sure to check www.mjhnyc.org early and often.

Photo: Emma Lazarus, 1874
Courtesy of Antoinette Geyelin Hoar

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