Miss Liberty and the Swinging Pendulum of Immigration... Read More
Artist Mae Rockland Tupa’s sculpture is, on one level, a celebration of America’s role in welcoming immigrants and refugees. Yet, from any given angle, half of the statues turn their backs to us.
If you came across Mae Rockland Tupa’s Miss Liberty while it was last on view at the Jewish Museum, you could be forgiven for not realizing that it was created as a Hanukkah Lamp. Covered with the stars and stripes, composed of no fewer than eight Statues of Liberty, and stenciled with excerpts of the famous poem inscribed on the statue’s base, Tupa’s lamp practically chants “U-S-A.” On second glance, however, there is more to this object than what is visible on the surface.
On one level, Miss Liberty is a functional object. Each year, in late November or December, Jews around the world celebrate Hanukkah to commemorate a miracle. In 165 BCE, Jews rebelled against the ruling Hellenistic dynasty then ruling the land of Israel, who forbade them to practice their faith. When they reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem, they found just enough oil to relight the menorah (a large ceremonial candelabra) for one day, but the oil kept burning for eight days, until more could be procured. During Hanukkah, Jews light one candle each night for eight days using a ninth candle called the shamash.
While Hanukkah lamps share the same basic structure, they come in all shapes and styles. What makes Miss Liberty stand out is that it is made from cheap, mass-produced materials: birthday-candle holders, plastic statues, and dime-store flags. Inspired by a deeply personal memory, the artist transformed a functional object into a sculpture that comments on consumerism, identity, and immigration.
As a child, Tupa performed in a Hanukkah celebration at a Yiddish school in the Bronx. She recalled:
Eight of us, draped in sheets, wearing paper crowns, holding books in our left hands and candles in our right, were lined up across the stage. A ninth child (the shamash) lit our candles one at a time. As she did so we raised our candles in the air and recited a line from Emma Lazarus’s poem ‘The New Colossus’… The parents wept, and we were proud because that poem was us. Our parents had immigrated to the Land of the Free, the Goldene Medina. We were the wretched refuse and we were breathing free. It was a great feeling.
Tupa’s parents were Polish and Lithuanian immigrants, part of a wave of nearly 2 million Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe, who arrived in the US between 1880 and 1924. After 1892, most of these immigrants were processed at Ellis Island, sailing past the Statue of Liberty along the way. The statue was a gift from the French to commemorate the centennial of the American Declaration of Independence. To help raise funds for the monument, Jewish-American poet Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus.” Her verses were eventually inscribed on the monument’s base, the famous final lines reading:
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!
In 1903, the monument’s official stewards inscribed the poem on its base precisely because Lazarus’ words conveyed the sculpture’s meaning and captured its spirit. The sculpture was named Liberty Enlightening the World. In the context of a centenary of the Declaration of Independence, “Liberty” referred to the freedom from persecution sought by so many of the pilgrims who immigrated from England to North America in the seventeenth century. Just as Tupa recited Lazarus’ poem as a child, she stenciled excerpts onto Miss Liberty. Both her childhood memory and the sculpture it inspired represent a fusion of traditions and symbols, a melding of American, Jewish, and immigrant identities.
Founding Father Thomas Paine described the United States as “the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe.” From its origins, this country has been a nation of immigrants. Between 1880 and 1930, over 27 million people arrived in the US, including 4.5 million Irish, 5 million Germans, 4 million Italians, and hundreds of thousands of East Asian immigrants. Each wave of immigration was met with resistance — from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act to the tens of thousands of sick and disabled immigrants turned away at Ellis Island. The 1924 Immigration Act established a quota system designed to prioritize immigration from Western Europe, restricting the arrival of Jewish refugees fleeing Eastern Europe.
When Tupa created Miss Liberty in 1974, America’s doors were once again open. In the 1940s and 50s, the U.S. had welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the Soviet Union and Cuba. In 1965, Congress had passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which abolished quotas based on nationality and allowed Americans to sponsor relatives. In the decades since, many of the country’s immigrants have arrived from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Like so many of the immigrants before them, they came in search of safety, economic opportunity, religious freedom, or political freedom. Like so many of the immigrants before them, they have contributed vastly to the economic development and cultural richness of this country.
Tupa’s sculpture is, on one level, a celebration of America’s role in welcoming immigrants and refugees. Yet, from any given angle, half of the statues turn their backs to us. The artist observed:
There have been times when Miss Liberty looked away and America closed its doors to the persecuted… as when the steamship St. Louis was denied haven in Miami and nine hundred Jews were sent back to Nazi Germany.
As the keepers of shared cultural heritage, museums offer spaces to reexamine the past as we tackle contemporary challenges. We welcome teachers to explore the theme of immigration using objects from the Jewish Museum collection through immigration-themed school group tours, free online curriculum guides, and an upcoming educator workshop on Tuesday, November 7 exploring strategies for teaching the theme of immigration and the current refugee crisis in the classroom.https://medium.com/media/7d588e422849e4d427d981931da101d5/href
We also invite teachers to incorporate Mae Rockland Tupa’s Miss Liberty into a classroom discussion of immigration past and present using the following questions and research ideas as points of departure for dialogue and debate:
- With your students, consider artist Mae Rockland Tupa’s quote, “There have been times when Miss liberty looked away and America closed its doors to the persecuted…” Tupa created Miss liberty in 1974, referencing the doomed voyage of the S.S. St. Louis that set sail in 1939 with more than 900 people fleeing Nazi Germany. Almost 80 years later, in 2017, the world is facing a global refugee crisis, with people fleeing Syria and other war-torn countries. Discuss Tupa’s quote in light of current events related to immigration focusing on the challenges faced by nations as a result of this crisis.
- Often, learning about a particular immigration story can illuminate the value of welcoming immigrants. Have students conduct their own research and find a compelling immigration story to share with the class. They may search online for articles on the subject or interview a family member.
- The symbolism of the statue of Liberty has recently been foregrounded in the news. Consider the different elements that make up the Statue: her torch, her crown, the poem by Emma Lazarus on her base. What does the Statue of Liberty symbolize to your students? To your school community? Discuss how the meaning of statues may change over time and how this impacts communities.
— Viktorya Vilk, Guest Contributor and former Jewish Museum Educator
Miss Liberty and the Swinging Pendulum of Immigration in America was originally published in The Jewish Museum on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.