One of the first successful Jewish American authors, Lazarus was part of the late nineteenth century New York literary elite, and was celebrated in her day as an important American poet. In her later years, she wrote bold, powerful poetry and essays protesting the rise of anti-Semitism and arguing for Russian immigrants' rights. She called on Jews to unite and create a homeland in Palestine before the title Zionist had even been coined. As a Jewish American woman, Emma Lazarus faced the challenge of belonging to two often conflicting worlds. As a woman she dealt with unequal treatment in both. Lazarus used these difficult experiences to lend power and depth to her work. At the same time, her complicated identity has obscured her place in American culture.
Emma Lazarus was the fourth child in a wealthy family of seven children. Born in 1849 to Moses and Esther Nathan Lazarus, she grew up around New York's vibrant Union Square. Her siblings included Josephine Lazarus who was also a well known writer and a featured speaker at the 1893 Jewish Women's Congress.
Emma's early poems and translations show she had a strong classical education and a mastery of German and French. Her father Moses Lazarus recognized his young daughter's talent and began to encourage her work. In 1866, when Emma was seventeen, he privately published her first book, Poems and Translations Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Seventeen. The Lazarus family traced their ancestry back to America's first Jewish settlers. As descendants of this pioneering group of Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) Jews, Emma's family belonged to a distinct Jewish upper class. From them, Emma inherited a rich pride in her Sephardic heritage, and often wrote about the medieval scholars and poets of her ancestors' land.