In this poem, the ambition of a teenaged Emma Lazarus unites with an awakening sense of her ethnic heritage. She quietly challenges the older, established poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who fifteen years earlier wrote a poem interpreting the same place of faith.

Lazarus wrote this meditation on Jewish history in 1867, shortly after visiting Touro Synagogue for the first time. Lazarus’ great uncle Moses Seixas had served as lay leader in this worship space, designed with classical proportions by self-taught local architect William Harrison and dedicated in 1763. It served a congregation of Sephardic Jews who came to Rhode Island a century before (perhaps as early as 1658). Their ancestors, having been expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century, had tried to rebuild their community first in Northern Europe, later in Brazil and Barbados. Rhode Island offered a safer home. Founded by Roger Williams, a dissenter who fled Puritan Massachusetts, the colony was granted a charter in 1663 by the English Restoration monarch Charles II, allowing residents to practice the religion of their choice. It was the first American colony to achieve this.

Newport’s merchant Jewish community prospered until the American Revolution, when British forces occupied the town. Many residents fled. By the end of the war, the shipping trade had moved to other American ports, most of the Jewish community moving with it. Early in the 19th century the synagogue was closed for all but funerals and high holiday services.

By 1850, Newport had become a vacation spot for Jewish families from New York, and the synagogue was reopened during the summer months. When eighteen-year-old New Yorker Emma Lazarus visited it, she was already an accomplished poet. But she had not yet used verse to explore her Jewish heritage. Still, she had read Longfellow’s 1852 poem about the synagogue’s seemingly abandoned cemetery. Whereas Longfellow stayed outside the synagogue, musing on the still, silent gravestones close by the harbor’s churning surf, Lazarus entered the sanctuary—literally and imaginatively. Later, she took up her pen to quietly challenge Longfellow’s assumption that the synagogue memorialized a dead nation and a forgotten religion.

For Lazarus, the synagogue takes life as a portal through which the Hebrews’ sacred history can be entered. She had read scripture, but had not practiced Jewish family prayer rituals; her branch of the family had become more secular than observant. Still, she senses a holy presence in the sanctuary. Through scripture study, the people who worshipped at Touro kept ancient Jewish history alive. Perhaps they truly encountered God in their prayers. Yet the mystery that chiefly preoccupies Lazarus is the persistence of Jewish faith despite diaspora and two millennia of persecution.

In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport


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”[1] 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!


How as we gaze, in this new world of light,

Upon this relic of the days of old,

The present vanishes, and tropic bloom

And Eastern towns and temples we behold.


Again we see the patriarch with his flocks,

The purple seas, the hot blue sky o’erhead,

The slaves of Egypt,—omens, mysteries,—

Dark fleeing hosts by flaming angels led.[2]


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.[3]


The pride of luxury’s barbaric pomp,

In the rich court of royal Solomon[4]

Alas! we wake: one scene alone remains,—

The exiles by the streams of Babylon.[5]


Our softened voices send us back again

But mournful echoes through the empty hall:

Our footsteps have a strange unnatural sound,

And with unwonted gentleness they fall.


The weary ones, the sad, the suffering,

All found their comfort in the holy place,

And children’s gladness and men’s gratitude

Took voice and mingled in the chant of praise.


The funeral and the marriage, now, alas!

We know not which is sadder to recall;

For youth and happiness have followed age,

And green grass lieth gently over all.


Nathless[6] the sacred shrine is holy yet,

With its lone floors where reverent feet once trod.

Take off your shoes as by the burning bush,[7]

Before the mystery of death and God.



[1]Traditionally, every synagogue keeps a lamp perpetually lit, suspended over or in front of the “holy ark” in which the torah scroll is kept. The perpetual flame represents the abiding presence of God and God’s eternal law for humankind.Return

[2]The scriptural references in this stanza seem somewhat creative.“Omens, mysteries” may refer to the ten plagues God inflicts on the Egyptians to persuade them to let the enslaved Israelites leave their land. The Israelites finally leave by night, guided by a pillar of fire. Later, in the desert of Sinai, God tells Moses he will send an angel ahead of the Israelites as they enter the promised land, and that this angel will slay their enemies (Exodus 23:20-23).Return

[3]When the Israelites enter the Sinai Desert, Moses climbs Mount Sinai to meet with God and receive the laws that will thereafter govern life among the Hebrews. God descends to Mount Sinai in fire, yet veiled by a cloud of smoke. The people are warned to bow down around the mountain lest they see God and be consumed (Exodus 19).Return

[4]The third king of Israel and the last to rule over a united kingdom, Solomon governed a vast empire, amassed great riches, and made political alliances that brought him many wives (1Kings and 1Chronicles). Return

[5]After Nebuchadnezzar II conquered Judah (the southern kingdom of a divided Israel), much of Judah’s population was taken prisoner and deported to Babylon. Lazarus alludes to a song of lament (Psalm 137:1) about this period.Return


[7]Moses first encountered God when he stopped to observe a bush that was on fire, yet still green (Exodus 3:1-5).Return