Chesler Chronicles

Wednesday in the Park With Emma

On July 16th, 2008, on a hot and blindingly sunny evening in Battery City Park, I was honored with the first “Emma” Award–no, not an Emmy, an “Emma,” named for the 19th century poet, crusader, humanitarian and Zionist, Emma Lazarus. This was to celebrate her 159th birthday. This first-ever event, was organized by the City of New York Parks and Recreation and by Jewish American Performing Arts.


I wish we had many more Battery City Parks and more European-style parks with fountains, cafes, sculptures, flowers, gazebos, and concerts. Battery City Park was quite glorious. People strolled leisurely, tourists bought postcards, boats glided by, the trees were in full leafy bloom, and the view was grand.

We sat on neat white chairs facing New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty. Well, not exactly: the speakers’ platform faced the view. This was the first time since 9/11 that going downtown did not sadden me beyond measure. There we sat, right next to a plaque honoring Lazarus and, for good measure, we faced the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus” is famously engraved on its base.


I am not used to being honored; I am used to being attacked for my views. Being honored is nice too. Shalom TV, the first Jewish cable network filmed the program and afterward, Mark S. Golub, the President and CEO interviewed me. He asked the best questions–the ones that are hard, not easy, to answer. When they air the interview I will link to it.

Why Emma Lazarus? Although she came from a wealthy, assimilated, non-religious Sephardic family, she nevertheless heroically dared to champion the “wretched” (mainly religious Russian Jews in flight from pogroms) among her own people at a time when wealthy Jews dared not challenge American anti-Semitism. Between 1882-1883, she wrote a series of essays excoriating America’s largely Sephardic and German Jews for their indifference to the fate of Eastern European Jewry. She wrote:

“Until we are all free, we are none of us free…It will be a lasting blot upon American Judaism, nay, upon prosperous Judaism of whatever nationality, if we do not come forward now…to fail in such an attempt is no disgrace. The disgrace is in not undertaking it.”

Lazarus was also a Zionist and envisioned a Jewish homeland in Palestine a decade before Herzl wrote The Jewish State.

I was among a wonderful group of honorees which, in addition to myself, included the singer Julie Budd, the teacher, Neila Carlebach, the singer/songwriter Basya Schechter, the Broadway producer, Jamie de Roy, the WABC reporter Lauren Glassberg, and New York State Assemblywomen Deborah I. Glick. Cecilia Margulies and Rami Yadid wrote powerful songs and two wonderful singers, Emily Bindiger and Magda Fishman sang them for us.

Howard Teich, a very nice man and a smart man too, was a key organizer of this event. He said that too few women and even fewer Jewish women have ever been honored and that they had conceived of this award as a remedy.

Thank you Jack T. Linn, Assistant Commissioner of Parks, Howard Teich, Co-Chairman, Jewish American Performing Arts Project, Jill Fine Mainelli, Director, Community Resources, Composer Cecilia Margulies, who, early on, envisioned this award, and NYC Dept of Parks and Lashette Williams.

And, thank you Emma!