It started as my daughter’s third grade assignment: choose a person to write about, preferably an American, preferably a Jew. We were going to do just that. I intended to help my daughter choose the topic and then to back away yet, Emma Lazarus ended up drawing me in.
It was through a Google search late night that I found her and knew this was the one. I completely connected with her. She was a woman, a Jew, a strong Zionist and an American and, to top it all off, a poet and social justice advocate, though she is perhaps best known for her poem The New Colossus that appears on the base of the Statue of Liberty. After convincing my third grader that our search was over was fairly easy and would cost me very little – just an offer to let her wear her lipstick (Chapstick) to school. And so we both end up reading Emma Lazarus while living in Hong Kong.
For Lazarus, I found out, this too was an entirely new journey. No one here had heard of her. Some vaguely knew that there was a poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Others knew the most famous lines of the poem but didn’t know the author’s name.
Having grown up being fed stories of Lady Liberty greeting my immigrant grandparents as they crossed into the harbor, I grew up in her shadow. I lived twenty minutes from the Statue of Liberty. I had walked the familiar streets of the Lower East Side, where even as late as the early ‘80s faint echoes of the turn of the century could still be heard. I could connect with her story. I studied the history of immigrants in America and could understand the world they arrived in.
For my daughter though, growing up in Hong Kong in the 21st century, the stories for her were the stuff of myths and legends. They lived in another century, in a time period she and no one she knew could have a collective memory of. These were people who risked their lives to journey to a country we willingly left behind and to a city my daughter had been to only a couple of times. To understand and to connect with her poetry, there needed to be some context.
Was Emma Lazarus someone my daughter could ever grow to love? Does she even translate into 21st century lingo and into expat life in the Far East?
Not surprisingly, the Hong Kong public library doesn’t have books on Emma Lazarus but neither did their Jewish day school’s library. The librarians have never heard of her. And not entirely unexpected, our bookstore brought us no closer. This was a search my daughter needed some help with. I was not prepared to let visions of a project on Lazarus fade away. Even with Internet resources, there needed to be an understanding of the framework from which this remarkable woman emerged.
The context Lazarus grew out of could best be colored by the tales my grandparents had told of a promise of streets of gold and the realities of a life of new challenges. My children’s clear favorite is the largely fictionalized one ending with my four foot ten Great-Grandma Schwartz beating a woman over the head with her well-traveled quilt and candlesticks when she arrived in America (though personally I feel that perhaps she should have been beating Great-Grandpa Schwartz instead). Countless times, I also tell them the story how my grandfather (Pop Pop) learned to play the violin from a master as an immigrant boy in the crowded tenements of the Lower East Side. And while I don’t think they will ever understand, nor will my husband, why the sound of a violin solo still brings me to tears, I want them to somehow understand that for me it seems to always carry with it the song of our past and the story of our family.
As the violin itself apparently doesn’t have quite the same effect on everyone, together as a family inevitably watched (over and over again) An American Tale, the ‘80s animated film about a young Jewish Russian mouse who is separated from his family while emigrating to America. In our own story, Fievel Mousekewitz is their Great-Great Uncle Morris Schwartz, Great-Great Aunt Minnie is Tanya, Great-Great Grandma Lena is Mama and Great-Great Grandpa Joseph is Papa. But as the details of our own family’s coming to America story are scant, our story quickly becomes muddled with the Mousekewitz’s in my children’s heads.
We read If Your Name was Changed at Ellis Island and look at pictures of us all at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty from a summer visit several years ago. I pull my college copy of World of Our Fathers off the bookshelf. I so desperately want those pages to become like memory to them as I am not certain that Fievel is a strong enough character to link them to their past (plus my four year old has been relentlessly attacking our pet cats with toy swords and accusing them of being Cossacks.)
Clearly lost on my four year old, I still am not certain the older children can ever see themselves in these stories. I need them to understand that our story doesn’t begin a decade ago with the fully paid for business class flight from JFK to Hong Kong. I tell and retell the few family stories I know so many times that they are soon able to do this themselves.
When we read Emma Lazarus, we stop and focus on each line and we talk about where our family’s story connects with her words and her world. My daughter writes her Emma Lazarus speech and together we sort out an Emma Lazarus costume for her. I watch her transform, while not into Emma Lazarus herself (for to be honest we were the huddled masses) but into someone that is beginning to understand how she connects to history.
When we return this summer to New York and make our own visit to Lady Liberty, I can’t wait to watch my children’s faces as she appears or their looks when they see Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus. We return, for the summer, with a stronger connection to America and to our past.
We all now dream of crowded ships, heroic mice, a brilliant torch, traveled candlesticks, Cossacks (or cats) and maybe even the sounds of the violin.