“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
These words grace the bronze plaque mounted inside our beloved Statue of Liberty. “The New Colossus” is one of the best loved American poems and is read in schools across the country. What is not as well-known is the fascinating, knowledgeable, and unique woman that was Emma Lazarus. She is my heroine because she was one of the most important female Jewish writers in our time and has left behind a legacy that continues to inspire the minds and works of Jewish and non-Jewish writers alike. She has had a substantial impact on both American and Jewish history.
Emma Lazarus was born into an educated and cultured Portuguese Jewish family on July 22, 1849 in New York City. Growing up Emma was surrounded by knowledge and culture and had an impassioned love for the classics and language. She was educated in European Literature, music, mythology, American Poetry, French, Italian, and German.
Emma was uniquely prodigious in her work; at the tender age of eleven she had written several lyrical poems with romantic passionate themes. At only seventeen she had printed and published her own anthology of poems. Poems and Translations: Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Sixteen was published for “private circulation” in 1866.
This young prodigy had attracted the interest of the famed and celebrated American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was instantly smitten with her precocious talents and the two remained mentor and student, as well as bosom friends, until the day of Emerson’s death. I, much like Emma, have a passion for writing and value education above almost everything else. Inspired by Emma’s accomplishments at a considerably young age, I too aspire to be as an accomplished writer and thinker of her caliber.
Reading “The New Colossus” brings to mind the “American Dream”. The famed sonnet conveys not only Emma’s American identity, but her dedication to her Jewish Identity as well. “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This ideal of liberation from oppression is shared by Jews and Americans alike.
Emma became even more outspoken about her Judaism when she learned of the pogroms being performed in Russia. This disturbing revelation brought Emma even closer to her Jewish roots. This time period was also her most productive. Added to the countless essays, poems, and letters, she published two translations. Poems and Ballads of Heinrich Heine, was published 1881, followed by Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death and Other Poems ,published in 1882 by the American Hebrew, to which she was a frequent contributor. Over a ten-month period, she published a series of three essays in the Century. In the last of the three, she admitted she felt that “Jewish people “seem fated to excite the antagonism of their fellow countrymen.” Emma channeled her distress over the plight of the Jewish people into constructive creative energy. This is the kind of positive response to a time of crisis that is essential in the Jewish community, and that I admire and aspire to.
Emma believed that the response to this issue was to have a country uniquely for the Jewish people. Emma vehemently believed that the Jews had a right to Palestine. She advocated a mass exodus to Eretz Yisrael even before the word Zionist was coined.
She had used the word before Theodore Herzl himself had. Emma published a fifteen part open letter appearing between November 1882 and February 1883. In these letters, she argued that assimilated Jews should be wary of becoming ignorant about their history because those who ignore history are destined to repeat it. Emma was unique in her dedication to both her American and Jewish values. Her fervent support of Israel is something I share as an integral part of my Jewish identity. In my life, my Jewish values will be tested and I may find it difficult to find a place for them in my life as an American. Emma is a model of how someone can maintain an intellectual modern identity but still be a proud outspoken Jew.
Emma Lazarus was a woman of great intellect and talent. Her romantic and passionate writing style continues to inspire the works of American writers, as well as my own writing. Her tireless dedication to Zionism and to both her American and Jewish identity has strengthened my own dedication. I one day, hope to reach her levels of success and worldliness, while maintaining my Jewish and Zionist values.
Sara Linder’s essay on Sarah Schenirer
Is it possible for one woman to single-handedly change the lives of thousands of Jewish girls all over the world? With the slogan “A true Jew must be a whole Jew,” my heroine, Sarah Schenirer, enriched the lives of Jewish women and girls, saved their Jewish souls, and brought back Judaism to their households. Her story has also inspired me to have the courage to pursue my hopes and dreams with the same determination she did.
Sarah Schenirer was very poor growing up in Cracow, Poland, attending a public school until the age of 13. After graduation, she became a seamstress in order to help support her family. Sarah had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and so continued learning from her father’s sefarim, while other girls her age immersed themselves in Polish novels. Sarah saw many of the girls in her neighborhood begin to scorn their parents’ “backwards” and “old-fashioned” way of living – Judaism and the Torah – and was greatly disturbed by this. She wrote in her diary, about a customer who was very particular about the measurements of her clothing, that, “People are such perfectionists when it comes to clothing their bodies. Are these people so particular when it comes to clothing their soul?” Sarah was right when she said this, because the time these women wasted on their appearance was lost forever, when they could have used it to study Torah. Sarah was determined to insure that girls would not continue to show such contempt for Judaism.
Sarah became inspired during a lecture in a Viennese synagogue. It occurred to her that if she were able to teach her friends in the same way she was taught, they would realize how special being a Jewish girl really was. Gathering girls for a meeting, Sarah started to teach them, but soon found she was talking to an empty room, as most of the girls had laughed at her and quickly left. Saddened, but not defeated, she thought that she would have greater success teaching younger girls, who had not been exposed to so many secular ideas. She began by renting two rooms, one to use as a tailor shop, where she said she was “swing clothes for bodies,” and the other to use as a classroom, where she was “sewing clothes for the soul.”
Bais Yaakov, her new school of twenty-five young girls, achieved remarkable results. Compared to the attitudes of the older Polish girls she had tried to help, Sarah’s students “respected their parents and showed a great love for Judaism and the Torah.” The school grew but, despite its fantastic accomplishments, she encountered opposition. Objections came, not from the secular schools, but from orthodox communities, where the rabbis could not be convinced that girls needed further education, just like boys.
Finally, Bais Yaakov was endorsed by Agudath Yisrael, a political party of Orthodox Jews~ Agudath Yisrael built a five..story school, with everything needed for the girls to be comfortable, able to learn welt and stay in the school during the year.
In only the first year, one hundred-twenty girls registered in the Bais Yaakov seminary. By the time Sarah passed away in 1935, there were 300 Bais Yaakov schools in Poland alone, and Sarah had realized her dream of renewing the Jewish spirit and rekindling a flame long lost in Jewish girls. She did not have any children of her own, but she had numerous daughters, as each and everyone of her students found a kind and loving mother in her. At her funeral, hundreds of girls from Bais Yaakov schools walked behind her coffin on the way to the cemetery in Cracow crying as each would at her own mother’s funeral.
Sarah Schenirer was such a kind and learned woman that she earned herself the title of the “woman Chofetz Chaim.” As I discovered more about Sarah Schenirer, I was inspired to be like her. She has given me the strength to be my own person and act upon my own opinions and thoughts in spite of what others may think. She was adamant about her beliefs and persevered in her efforts to get people to listen to her. No matter what she had to do, even if she was talked about, if people were rude to her, even if the gates to a community were closed to her, she continued. Not once did she even think of surrendering her cause to her opponents.
I would like to be capable of what she was capable of – to stand up for my rights and the rights of others. Standing up for what one believes in is very important, or one will always just be lost among the ideas and opinions of others. Just as Sarah pushed her way through to make it possible for Jewish girls to learn Torah, so we should all push our way through, continuously learning, as we get farther on our journey through life. If this woman could accomplish so much by simply putting her mind to it and not giving up in the face of opposition, I can learn from her actions and do the same.
Not only is Sarah Schenirer a model for Jewish women, but for all women. She expanded the horizons for what Jewish girls could learn, so much so that nowadays we can learn Torah, and even Talmud, which was unheard for girls in past times. Sarah also opened doors for women everywhere, by giving them the freedom that enabled them to learn. Everything Sarah Schenirer achieved in her life, her hopes and aspirations, her very soul, lives on in each of her students, as they continue on her path in life, teaching others along the way.