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  • Print publication year: 2001
  • Online publication date: October 2009

6 - “Wondering Jews”: melting-pots and mongrel thoughts


If the anti-Semite charges that the Semitic spirit mongrelizes his national culture, the Modern Pharisee complains that the mongrelization is quite mutual … In fact, Jews being a minority people, they are more mongrelized than mongrelizing.

Joel Blau, Atlantic Monthly, 1922

In 1883, two years after Russian terrorists assassinated Czar Alexander II, compelling (in the scapegoating and pogrom aftermath) a mass migration of Russian and Polish Jews to the U.S. and England, Emma Lazarus composed “The New Colossus.” This sonnet, now inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, contrasts old world and new, the “brazen” Apollo at the harbor at Rhodes and the statue called “Mother of Exiles” (1883).

“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!”

(Lazarus 1947, 41)

Lazarus took hold of many pseudo-scientific descriptors of the immigrants of the late nineteenth century: Jews, Slavs, Italians, Irish, in such flash-point words as “teeming,” suggesting overwhelming fertility, and the enormous euphony of “wretched refuse,” connoting disease, filth, and garbage. The word “masses,” perhaps evoking the political radicalism that could plot and undermine, was neutralized by the vulnerability of “huddled.”