When Emma Lazarus wrote “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” she had no idea it would eventually emblazon the Statue of Liberty, and she never found out: Her poem was erected on the figure 16 years after her death. She only intended for “The New Colossus” to be a fundraising effort for the pedestal of the statue. But it’s more than fitting that the words of the poet and activist were immortalized as an American trope. Lazarus worked tirelessly to make the country a refuge and home to anyone who sought it. And now, her words and work are as relevant as ever.
Launching today—the day before Lazarus’ 168th birthday—the 92nd Street Y in New York City is honoring the poet with an online festival, called “A New Colossus.” The organization will post poems and their recordings daily until July 29. The works curated “explore and challenge the themes and issues that run through ‘The New Colossus,’ ” reads the festival’s press release. Many of the poets featured are immigrants to America, including Hafizah Geter from Nigeria, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo from Mexico, and Jenny Xie from China. The festival will conclude on August 1 with a live reading at the Poets House in downtown Manhattan, where the Statue of Liberty will be seen looking on.
Actions may speak louder than words, but Lazarus had both to back up her legacy. The same year that she penned “A New Colossus,” she was teaching Russian Jewish women English at the 92Y. “Emma Lazarus’ stint as a teacher to immigrant communities is a significant part of 92Y’s history, which has always been rooted in community outreach,” said Ricardo Maldonado, Managing Director of 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center. “We felt the time was right to take a fresh look at what her iconic poem celebrates and the stories it elicits.”
Esther Schor, a Tablet contributor who won the National Jewish Book Award for her biography Emma Lazarus, also noted the poet’s great influence on the Jewish community. But, she argues that Lazarus’ legacy extends even further. “Although she called herself an “outlaw” Jew, she nevertheless felt a deep attachment to Jewish history and peoplehood,” Schor wrote. “Her compassion for the downtrodden Jews of Eastern Europe—refugees whose lives had little in common with her own—helped redefine the meaning of America itself.”
Like the torch on the Statue of Liberty, Lazarus is a symbol, a beacon of light, for those fighting against hate and fear. She wrote it herself. “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Sophie Aroesty is an editorial intern at Tablet.