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August 17, 1986

Though Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), author of the immortal poem on the Statue of Liberty, was Jewish, she wrote relatively few poems on Jewish themes. One of these was inspired by a visit to a synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, a synagogue to whose congregation George Washington once sent a ringing declaration in defense of religious freedom. Visiting at a time when the synagogue was temporarily closed, Lazarus discovered in it a secret exit which the congregation had installed as a reminder of the flights and persecutions of the past. She wrote:

\o7 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!

The cadences are the same as those of Lazarus' far more familiar "The New Colossus," which in its perhaps too-seldom-printed, proto-feminist entirety reads as follows:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land,

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, Ancient Lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless tempest-tost to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

What did Lazarus' Jewish identity have to do with her feelings about the Statue of Liberty? For a brief, affecting, admirably written answer to this question, read Nancy Smiler Levinson's "I Lift My Lamp: Emma Lazarus and the Statue of Liberty" (Dutton: $13.95; 102 pp., illustrated), a "young adult" book in Dutton's Lodestar series, from which the above account of the Newport visit has been taken.

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