Moïse, Penina (1797–1880)

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Moïse, Penina (1797–1880)

Jewish-American hymn writer. Name variations: Penina Moise. Born on April 23, 1797, in Charleston, South Carolina; died on September 13, 1880, in Charleston; daughter of Abraham Moïse (a storekeeper) and Sarah Moïse; never married; no children.

Penina Moïse was born in 1797, the sixth child and younger daughter of Abraham and Sarah Moïse . Her parents, who fled the slave insurrection on Santo Domingo in 1791, had settled in Charleston, South Carolina, where Abraham established a small store in which he sold muslin, linen, and tea. He died when Moïse was 12, forcing her to drop out of school in order to help support her eight siblings. Although much of her time was spent making lace and embroidery to sell, she managed to study and write at night, and her close association with the Charleston Jewish community further contributed to her intellectual stimulation. In 1830, Moïse began publishing her poetry in the Charleston Courier and in other newspapers and journals, including Godey's Lady's Book and Herriot's Magazine. In 1833, a small volume of her poems appeared, entitled Fancy's Sketch Book. It included light satires, epigrams, and lyrics covering such conventional themes as love, death, and nature. Fancy's Sketch Book earned praise for its wit and use of clever word play, but many of the poems also revealed a profound awareness of social and moral problems. The book likewise showcased Moïse's familiarity with Greek mythology, the Bible, Shakespeare, music, art, and history.

A devout Jew, Moïse was a member of Charleston's Congregation Beth Elohim and from 1842 served as the superintendent of its Sunday School, which was set up along the lines of the school founded by Rebecca Gratz in Philadelphia. She wrote verses on Jewish themes and composed hymns for the synagogue's services, which were published in 1856 as Hymns Written for the Use of Hebrew Congregations. Her hymns, which are imbued with faith in God's mercy, were still being published in Jewish hymnals over 150 years after they first were sung at Beth Elohim.

A staunch supporter of the Confederacy during the Civil War, Moïse fled to the town of Sumter after Charleston was attacked by Union forces. She returned to Charleston after the war and opened a school for girls with her widowed sister, Rachel Levy . Although she was poor and nearly blind, Moïse maintained a cheerful spirit and was known for composing rhymes to help the children in their studies. She continued her active participation in the local Jewish community and also continued to write poetry, dictating her creations to her niece Jacqueline Levy or scrawling them on a slate she kept under her pillow at night. Moïse died in 1880, at the age of 83. Secular and Religious Works of Penina Moïse, a collection of her hymns and poems, was published in 1911.


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Rebecca Parks , Detroit, Michigan