This is … My Rewrite of Emma Lazarus’s Poem


I regret that it’s time for this again.

Some of you may have heard a song I wrote for the Möbius Street album entitled “Mother of Exiles.” This phrase—Mother of Exiles—was immortalized on a tablet installed in the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor that, to this fraught day, carry the words of the poet Emma Lazarus in a work she entitled “The New Colossus.” This work was once believed (by my great-grandparents, no less than the society that put it there) to exemplify the “American Dream” and the “rags to riches” stories of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Asia, and Russia and Poland, where most of my forebears came from.

Lately, number of very public people have suggested implicitly or explicitly that we ought to rewrite parts of the poem to reflect the idea that America has always been and should always be only for immigrants who come here, not fleeing cruelty or oppression or persecution or seeking a better life but seeking to endow America with their personal wealth and well-established enterprise.

I ask anyone reading this to consider where they would be today (or if they’d be here at all) if this had been true when their own ancestors crossed Ellis Island.

“Mother of Exiles” is my rewrite of the Lazarus poem. If my lyric sounds ironic, sarcastic, satirical—even angry—it is all those things. It is also born of the intense sorrow of watching a country you love sicken with a self-inflicted disease of the soul.

First, the original Emma Lazarus work, followed by my lyric.

The New Colossus

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-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

—Emma Lazarus, 1883


Mother of Exiles

Not like the copper giantess of fame,

With sandaled feet upon Atlantic sand.

Here at our sea-washed sunrise gates are banned

Those the woman with her torch once claimed.

Those souls imprisoned, those who cried her name:

“Mother of Exiles,” from whose beacon-hand

Glowed world-wide welcome. Now her eyes command

the ne’er-bridged walls along which rifles aim.

“Keep, broken lands, your harried poor!” cries she

With smiling lips. “Give me your trade. Your poor,

Your huddled masses, matter not to me,

Nor wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, to some other lee.

I douse my lamp; just send your gold ashore.

Mother of Exiles lives here no more.

My lamp lies shattered on the shore

And blind, I seek the shards. 

Mother of Exiles—weeping in the bone yards.”

— Maya Bohnhoff , 2008, from the Möbius Street album

The song is on Bandcamp, CDBaby, and iTunes. We also perform an acoustic version of it in our live concerts.

Post script:

“The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:34

“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? 38 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You?39 Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ – Jesus Christ, Matthew 25:37-40

“Act in accordance with the counsels of the Lord: that is, rise up in such wise, and with such qualities, as to endow the body of this world with a living soul, and to bring this young child, humanity, to the stage of adulthood. So far as ye are able, ignite a candle of love in every meeting, and with tenderness rejoice and cheer ye every heart. Care for the stranger as for one of your own; show to alien souls the same loving kindness ye bestow upon your faithful friends. ” – Abdu’l-Bahá


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