Emma Lazarus
Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Portugal, wrote the iconic poem "The New Colossus," which is engraved on the Statue of Liberty. New York Historical Society

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...

In 14 lines engraved on a plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) captured the belief in the American Dream that has defined the United States' self-image for more than a century and moved millions of immigrants to seek refuge here.

Fittingly, those lines -- a sonnet titled The New Colossus -- were written by a Jewish-American woman who knew how it was to feel like an outsider.

Lazarus was far from poor: her parents were among the wealthy Sephardic Jews who emigrated from Spain and Portugal in the early 19th century, well before Eastern European refugees began to arrive in New York Harbor en masse. She lived with her parents and six siblings near Union Square, in what is now the East Village, amid a high-class society that included the Vanderbilt and Astor families.

She had access to the best education, studying American and British literature and learning multiple languages, including French, German and Italian. She began writing poetry as a child, and by the time she was 17, she had published her first collection, titled Poems and Translations Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Seventeen. Far from trying to dissuade her or push her into a more lucrative pursuit, her father, Moshe Lazarus, encouraged his daughter to keep writing.

Upper-Income Status Did Not Shield Lazarus from Anti-Semitism

But simmering beneath the surface of the elite New York society was the anti-Semitism that would become much more overt in later years, and Lazarus was perceptive enough to feel it. She once wrote to a friend, I am perfectly conscious that this contempt and hatred underlies the general tone of the community towards us.

This understanding was only strengthened as Lazarus read and heard more. Her interest in immigrant and Jewish issues was piqued, for instance, by George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda.

But the veiled anti-Semitism she had sensed before became impossible to ignore in 1877, when the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, N.Y., refused to let Joseph Seligman, a wealthy German Jew, stay there. The manager informed him that, by order of the hotel's owner, Henry Hilton, no Israelite shall be permitted in future to stop at this hotel.

The incident sparked a great deal of media coverage, and Hilton tried to calm the backlash by saying he had no problem with true Hebrews -- that is, wealthy, established Jews like the Lazarus family, whom he distinguished from the Seligman Jews who had immigrated a generation or two later.

It became clear that many of these seemingly tolerant New Yorkers were only tolerant so long as lower-class Jews remained out of sight. And as Jews began to emigrate from Eastern Europe at a more rapid pace, fleeing ethnic violence like the pogroms in Russia, that tolerant veneer -- that image of America as a haven of freedom, both economic and religious -- began to crack.

Lazarus Saw That America Could Become a Beacon of Freedom and Democracy

And so Emma Lazarus spent the rest of her adult life trying to ensure that other immigrants had the same opportunities that she had been given, driven by her belief that America could be that beacon.

Some of her earlier writings had touched on Jewish themes, but they were more focused on history and heritage than on prejudice and the modern-day struggles of Jewish immigrants to gain acceptance within their new communities. Once her eyes were opened to the extent of the prejudice that existed against Jewish-Americans, though, she was able to use her reputation within literary and social circles to make her pleas for justice.

Lazarus began to publish magazine articles decrying anti-Semitism and calling for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine -- more than a decade before Theodore Herzl coined the term Zionism. In 1882, she published what is considered her best collection of poetry, titled Songs of a Semite.

But she realized that in order to make a tangible difference in immigrants' lives, she had to do more than write essays and poems on their behalf. So she began to visit the destitute Russian refugees on Ward's Island and to volunteer at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. She also helped found the Hebrew Technical Institute, with the goal of training immigrants in manual labor and helping them support themselves.

Lazarus died on Nov. 19, 1887, at the age of 38, probably from Hodgkin's lymphoma. But her influence has endured long after her brief life.

Although the United States has become much less welcoming of immigrants since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the first words that millions of people saw as their ships sailed into New York Harbor remain the most emblematic ever written of the American Dream.

...Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

That dream must endure, Lazarus wrote in the journal American Hebrew, because until we are all free, we are none of us free.