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Penina MoÏse

1797 – 1880

by Jay M. Eidelman

“Three cheers for California Mountain Wine! ... a beverage so pleasant, and exhilarating, as to make one oblivious to temperance pledges, and which possesses a spell, as potent as that of any table rapper, for raising spirits,” wrote a poor, nearly blind, and ailing Penina Moïse in a letter dated 1875. Despite her suffering, she demonstrated an unflagging poetic wit and love of life. Moïse, an early Jewish educator, was one of nineteenth-century America’s best-known Jewish poets. Appreciated in her own day for her literary skill and sense of humor, Moïse is relatively unknown to present-day readers.

Penina Moïse was born on April 23, 1797, to a large and wealthy family in Charleston, South Carolina. Her father, Abraham, was a successful Alsatian-born merchant. Her mother, Sarah, was the daughter of a wealthy family from the island of St. Eustace, where she met and married Abraham in 1779. They came to Charleston in 1791, fleeing a slave insurrection. Moïse was the sixth of nine children and the youngest daughter. Her brothers, Cherie, Aaron, Hyam, and Benjamin, were born in the Caribbean. Her older sister Rachel and her younger brothers, Jacob, Abraham, and Isaac, were born in the United States. She left school at age twelve, after her father’s death. Moïse served as the family nurse, caring for her mother and brother Isaac, an asthma sufferer. Always nearsighted, during the Civil War her eyesight deteriorated into blindness.

Moïse grew up in the presence of a diverse, vital, and well-integrated Jewish community, devoting herself to Jewish issues. She was encouraged in her poetry by her brother Jacob and sister Rachel, and her work appeared in both the Jewish and general press. Her 1833 collection of poems, Fancy’s Sketch Book, was the first by a Jewish American woman. Moïse also wrote columns for newspapers throughout the United States. Her poetry covered a variety of topics, including current events, politics, local life, Judaism, Jewish rights, and Jewish ritual reform.

Along with her literary endeavors, Moïse devoted her life to teaching. In 1845, she became the second superintendent of Congregation Beth Elohim’s Sunday school. The Civil War forced Moïse to leave Charleston for Sumter, South Carolina. Returning after the war in much reduced circumstances, she supported herself by running an academy together with her widowed sister and her niece. Though self-conscious about her poverty, she accepted it with humor and grace.

Moïse was the first Jewish American woman to contribute to the worship service, writing 190 hymns for Beth Elohim. The Reform movement’s 1932 Union Hymnal still contained thirteen of her hymns.

Penina Moïse died on September 13, 1880, in Charleston. Her life, reminiscent of the life of Rebecca Gratz, exemplifies the choices available to Jewish American women of her era and class. She sustained her deep spiritual commitment to Judaism throughout her life, albeit to a Judaism transformed by Protestant aesthetics and American political thought. Though her poetry did not maintain its popularity, her work attests to her great intellect and indomitable spirit.

Bibliography

Adams, Charlotte. Critic 15 (1895): 327; AJYB 7 (1905–1906): 17–31; Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1887. Reprint 1968); BDEAJ; DAB; Dinkins, S.A. “Penina Moïse.” American Jews’ Annual 5646 (1885–1886), ch. 5; EJ; Elzas, Barnett A. The Jews of South Carolina (1905); Hagy, James W. This Happy Land (1993); JE; Kayserling, M. Die Jüdischen Frauen (1879); Markens, Isaac. The Hebrews in America (1888); Moïse, Penina. Correspondence File. American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio; NAW; UJE; Zola, Gary Phillip. Isaac Harby of Charleston, 1788–1828 (1994).

1 Comment

This is an interesting article. Bear in mind from my comments here that I am from what my maternal grandfather referred to as "The Lost Tribe of the Lost Cause!" So, of course, I found the lack of mention of the Moise family's Conferate loyalties rather intriguing (I call leaving these things out "Yankee Sharia!"). At present I cannot reference her writings published prior to and during the secession period, I understand they do exist!

Okay, that out of the way in obeisance to my Granny's grey ghost, there are a few other things y'all might want to make note of without running afoul of the politically correct of this day and age. Moise was notable in her day for writing and publishing under her own name, a rarity as you well know. She also was a rarity in that she did not shy from topics not generally addressed by women. You might want to dig into her various newspaper articles in which she took an active role in publicizing not just topics of general political and social interest, but those of Jewish interest which she presented as American interests, speficically the Damascus Affair and the Montara case. Her commentaries on the British exclusion of Jews from the political process was particularly scathing and, if I am not mistaken, her comments were read before the House of Commons.

As with all such things, there comes that "I remember reading somewhere..." and try as I might, I have been unable to find a solid reference to this, but I understand that her curriculum in her school was based on the women writers of the French Revolution. My Granny claimed it was true and that her own mother had followed that in her own girl's school.

Anyway, good job and thanks for your work...

"Fancy Sketch Book," by Penina Moise
Full image
Penina Moïse's Fancy's Sketch Book (Charleston: J.S. Burges, 1833), a collection of poems on biblical themes and contemporary Jewish life which was the first book by a Jewish woman published in the United States.
Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

How to cite this page

Eidelman, Jay M.. "Penina Moïse." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 21, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/moise-penina>.

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