In 1854, two years after visiting America’s oldest synagogue, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published a poem titled “The Jewish Cemetery in Newport,” expressing admiration for the Jews and sympathy with their history of persecution, but treating them as if they were extinct or close to it. It concludes by lamenting Israel’s position among “the dead nations” that will “never rise again.” Fifteen years later, a young Emma Lazarus—until then uninterested in Jewish matters—would visit the same synagogue, and be inspired to write a poetic rejoinder. Meir Soloveichik writes:
Something—national indignation, family pride, or profound religious insight—welled up within her, and the teenager drafted a poem in response. Mimicking Longfellow’s meter, she chose a title that reflected a difference of emphasis: “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport.” For Lazarus, it was the sanctuary where her predecessors had prayed that was the truly inspiring site more than their burial ground. The poem focuses on the lives they lived, rather than on their deaths.
Lazarus gives tribute to the radiance of freedom her forefathers had found in America, but she reflects on how the synagogue transported a visitor from the present to the roots of the Jewish people. . . . No one had read from the Torah in that synagogue in decades, yet standing there, in communion with her predecessors, Lazarus felt herself travel back in time back to Sinai itself: “A wondrous light upon a sky-kissed mount,/ A man who reads Jehovah’s written law,/ ’Midst blinding glory and effulgence rare,/ Unto a people prone with reverent awe.”
For many American Jews, Lazarus’ ode to America [at the Statue of Liberty] is rightly associated with our ancestors’ immigration and the blessings of freedom. At the same time, the Jewish arrival in America was to a great extent followed by abandonment of Jewish identity. Many American Jews might readily identify with the legacy of liberty associated with Newport, but less so with [the] struggle to keep Judaism alive.