When Penina Moise was born in 1797, American Jewish women – and women in general – had only limited cultural and career opportunities. Moise would spend her adult life overcoming cultural and physical limitations. She left her mark as America’s first female Jewish poet and hymnist. In fact, her hymns, written mostly in the 1830s and 1840s, are still sung in Reform congregations today.
Penina Moise was the sixth of nine children born to Abraham and Sarah Moise. The Moises moved to Charleston, SC from the Caribbean five years before Penina was born, and their French Jewish background strongly influenced her. Moise would later impress her students with the "gayety, contentment, and joyous philosophy of her French temperament."
When Penina was 12, Abraham Moise died, leaving her mother impoverished. Penina’s formal education ended but she continued to read on her own. Legend has it that she sometimes stayed up late, reading by moonlight. Isaac Harby—dramatist, teacher, editor and bright star in Jewish Charleston’s intellectual firmament—became her intellectual mentor. He also nurtured her Judaism. Moise began writing Jewish hymns, poems and odes in English until her death in 1880.
When Moise’s synagogue, K. K. Beth Elohim, burned in a fire in 1838, the Charleston Jewish community rebuilt it. When the new building opened in 1841, the choir sang an original ode Moise composed for the event. Her hymns were collected together in a hymnal, the first Jewish first such work published in English on American soil.
Moise’s first published poem appeared in a Charleston newspaper in 1819. For the next six decades, her prodigious output of stories, poems and essays appeared in national magazines such as Godey’s Ladies’ Book and in local newspapers from New Orleans to New York. She was a regular contributor to Isaac Leeser’s Occident and American Jewish Advocate, an early English language Jewish newspaper. In the 1840s, she was also the head teacher in K. K. Beth Elohim’s Sunday school.
Unfortunately, Moise never earned a satisfactory living from her writing or teaching. She nursed her mother until the latter died in 1842. Moise supplemented the household’s income by making fine lace and embroidery but always living modestly. Penina was the only Moise sibling not to marry. Her niece recalled, "Although Penina had many eligible offers, she refused all, considering nothing sufficient inducement to marry except love for a worthy object, and . . . this, it was said, was never given where it could be reciprocated." Historian Solomon Breibart interprets this to mean that Moise disapproved of interfaith marriage and the only man she was ever attracted to was not Jewish. Thus, she remained single.
Moise first won national artistic acclaim in 1833 when she published Fancy’s Sketch Book, a collection of her poems. As Breibart notes, the work was unusual in several respects: it was the first published book of verse by an American Jewish woman; it appeared under her own name when, conventionally, most women authors used pseudonyms; and it broke female boundaries by addressing serious political themes, such as Southern secession and states’ rights, Greek oppression by the Turks and Irish home rule.
Most importantly, Moise’s poems advocated for Jewish rights around the world. She prefigured the writings of Emma Lazarus in a poem, "To Persecuted Foreigners," in which she proposed that Europe’s oppressed Jews "come to the homes and bosoms of the free," to "Plenty’s flowering bed," where "a Western Sun would gild their future day." In 1833, when the English House of Lords denied full extension of rights to Jews in the British Isles, the outraged Moise composed "The Rejection of the Jew Bill, by the House of Lords," in which she characterized the Lords’ action as an "Aristocratic Inquisition." Moise also protested the killing of Jews in Damascus, Syria, in 1840 and the kidnapping by Catholic priests in 1858 of Edgar Mortara, an Italian Jewish boy. Moise was also an early Zionist: her poetry looked forward to a day when "Captive Judah" would again be "ingathered" in the Holy Land. She wrote,
The world hath not a link as strong/As that which chains us to her sod/
We cherish thee through scorn and wrong/Land that first heard the voice of God!
During the Civil War years, Moise moved to Sumter, South Carolina for safety. By then, she suffered from near-total blindness, painful neuralgia and insomnia but her spirits never wavered and her mind remained active. At war’s end, Moise returned to Charleston and opened a private school where she taught, from memory, all the literature she had memorized while sighted. With her niece Jacqueline as scribe, Moise continued to write verse.
Penina Moise’s last will and testament dictated that, in keeping with her modesty, she be buried in a plain pine box in Charleston’s Jewish cemetery and that no flowers be strewn over her grave. Flowers, she wrote, "are for those who live in the sun." (One does not know if she meant this as a reference to her lost eyesight, or to her death.) Her hymns are still in print, but Moise’s poems are rarely read nowadays. Last year she was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors. Perhaps her time in the sun still lies ahead.