Penina Moise was one of the most prolific and creative writers of poetry on Jewish themes in America. Her dedication and devotion to Judaism was the driving force in her life and writing.
Her father was a Sephardic Jew who immigrated to the West Indies from Alsace, France. He was a successful businessman who had to flee with his wife to Charleston, South Carolina, when a slave insurrection began in 1791. Penina was the sixth of nine children and she was born on April 23, 1797, in Charleston.
Penina was twelve years old when her father died leaving her with the major responsibility of managing the household as her mother was very sick. Despite dropping out of school to take care of her mother and family, she managed to find time to study and write.
When she was twelve years old, Penina had many of her poems printed in Jewish and non-Jewish publications. She was the first Jew to publish a book of poetry in the United States. Her reputation as a writer became widely known. She was a favorite among the cultured Jews of Charleston.
Penina became the superintendent of the first Jewish religious school in Charleston. She wrote many poems for the children to recite and composed songs for them to sing. All of her creations were of the glories of Jewish history to help them be proud of their Jewish heritage. Though her love of Judaism was profound, Penina recognized the good in all religions. When a prominent Christian minister died, she was asked to write a poem in his honor which was read at the funeral service.
Penina's sister and her daughter returned to Charleston after a thirty year separation. Their joyous reunion was disrupted by the Civil War. Her loyalty was with the South and she wrote poems to encourage the soldiers as they went to battle.
It was at this time that she began to experience problems with her sight and recurrent headaches. It was during this period that she wrote some of her best hymns, rejoicing in God's mercy and thanking him for his goodness. Many of these hymns are still sung in many Jewish Sabbath Sunday Schools.
She was confined in her home for the last fifteen years of her life where she and her sister conducted a Sunday school to support themselves. When the children's classes were over, they would go to her room to read to her and she in turn would tell them stories. Her courage remained high after her sister died and she passed away when she was eighty-four.
Penina's later works were written in the form of hymns on Jewish themes. Many of them are included in the collection of the Union Hymnal used by many congregations including Temple Emanu-El in New York City.
Penina Moise was the first Jewish woman in America to share her love of God with others through her poetry and hymns. She died on September 13, 1880, and is buried in the Coming Street Cemetery in Charleston, S.C. She has left a legacy to the people of America and she is a role model for our children to emulate.
Sources: This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America : 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.