Thanksgivukkah, Emma Lazarus & the Maccabees: Embracing our dual identity
There is something much deeper to “Thanksgivukkah” than sweet potato latkes. It is an opportunity to celebrate the blessing of our dual identity as Americans and Jews.
In 1883, the Jewish-Sephardic-American poet Emma Lazarus was invited to write a poem for a literary auction whose proceeds would go towards building a pedestal for what came to be known as “The Statue of Liberty.” Lazarus’ entry, titled The New Colossus, was eventually (in 1903) inscribed on a bronze tablet inside the Statue of Liberty for all to read. Its message about America, written by a Jew, captures the essence of what it means to be an American Jew:
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!”
Recasting the classical Greek Colossus (a representation of the pagan sun god) as “The Mother of Exiles,” Emma Lazarus turned the Statue of Liberty into an American version of a Jewish-Biblical matriarch standing at the door of her home, welcoming all those who yearn for freedom and shelter. No longer interested in the “storied pomp” of ancient empires, this matriarch seeks to house and assist the world’s “tired and poor” who “yearn to breathe free.” Replacing the Greek sun god – the conqueror of the world – Lazarus’ “Mother of Exiles” is now the nurturing and comforting symbol that welcomes newcomers to a new and unique world: the world of American democracy.
It is not by chance that an American Jew of Sephardic background would author a poem invoking the motifs of “exile and homecoming.” Well versed in her people’s long history of exile and persecution, Emma Lazarus fully understood what a privilege it is for Jews to live in the United States, the safe haven where they enjoy the blessings of American democracy. Lazarus expressed this in another powerful poem she wrote titled “1492”:
Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,
Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,
The children of the prophets of the Lord,
Prince, priest, and people, spurned by zealot hate.
Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state,
The West refused them, and the East abhorred.
No anchorage the known world could afford,
Close-locked was every port, barred every gate.
Then smiling, thou unveil’dst, O two-faced year,
Saying, “Ho, all who weary, enter here!
There falls each ancient barrier that the art
Of race or creed or rank devised, to rear
Grim bulwarked hatred between heart and heart!”
For Emma Lazarus – an American Jew of Sephardic descent — the “two-faced year” of 1492 held a double-edged irony. In 1492, after a long, bloody and brutal inquisition, the Spanish Jews were forcibly expelled from Spain, “when Spain cast forth with flaming sword the children of the prophets of the Lord.” In that same year – 1492 — Christopher Columbus discovered America (and later, in 1654, the first Jews to come to America were Spanish & Portugese Sephardic Jews, Emma Lazarus’s own direct ancestors). In this poem, Lazarus also evokes the motif of America as a safe place of refuge – “Ho, all who weary, enter here.” This theme resonated deeply with Emma Lazarus, a descendant of a weary and persecuted Jewish people who found a safe haven of freedom and protection in America. So, too, it should resonate with all American Jews, on Thanksgiving, and every day of our blessed lives in this great country.
Over 2500 years ago, facing persecution and oppression, a small band of freedom fighters overcame all the odds against them and defeated an army much more powerful than them. They stood up to injustice and were willing to fight for the freedom and independence of their people. In his moving description of the story of Judah and the Maccabees, Rabbi J.H. Hertz wrote: “There is nothing finer in the whole history of heroism, or more soul-stirring in the annals of religion, than the account of this handful of Jewish warriors who were prepared to live or die nobly, in order that the light of revealed truth and righteousness be not extinguished in a heathen world.”
The torch of the Maccabees continues to shine brightly today. In Israel – a country founded on the same principles of freedom and democracy as those of America – the modern-day Maccabees of the Israel Defense Forces are taught a powerful ethic during their basic training: Only those who know how to defend their freedom are worthy of it.
The modern State of Israel also serves as a safe haven of freedom and democracy. Much, much smaller than the United States, and lacking an impressive “Lady of Liberty” welcoming new immigrants, the State of Israel has certainly done its lion’s share of absorbing “the tired, poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” From Holocaust survivors and refugees from Arab lands, to the Prisoners of Zion from the former Soviet Union and the Ethiopian Falash Mura, Israel – the tiny Jewish haven of freedom and democracy in the Middle East – has continued to cry out: “Ho, all who weary, enter here!”
American Jews have often felt conflicted by their so-called “dual identity.” On this Thanksgivukkah – a convergence of an American holiday giving thanks for America, and a Jewish holiday celebrating freedom – I have never felt so proud of being an American Jew.
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the Director at the Sephardic Educational Center.