An observant Jew, Moïse was an active member of Charleston’s Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue.
Poet, hymn writer, educator, activist. Moïse was born on April 23, 1797, in Charleston, South Carolina, the youngest daughter of Abraham and Sarah Moïse. Her father was a trader who came to South Carolina after fleeing the Santo Domingo slave insurrection in 1791. He died when Penina was twelve, forcing her to leave school to take care of her ailing mother.
Despite ending her formal education at the age of twelve, Moïse continued to engage in intellectual efforts. From a young age she found solace in writing poetry. In 1819 Moïse published her first poem. Thereafter the prolific poet submitted her verse to the Charleston Courier, the Boston Daily Times, the New Orleans Commercial Times, the Washington Union, Godey’s Ladies Book, the Home Journal of New York Occident, and the American Jewish Advocate. In 1833 Moïse published a volume of secular poems titled Fancy’s Sketch Book. Demonstrating a cosmopolitan worldview, Moïse addressed the issues of anti-Semitism, politics, and history and also included personal insights on society. Her poems contained romantic, sentimental, and classical themes, as well as emotional and nondenominational religious topics.
An observant Jew, Moïse was an active member of Charleston’s Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue. In 1841 her brother Abraham and another prominent Jewish Charlestonian, Isaac Harby, spearheaded the effort to alter the synagogue service to a reformed service. Her brother and Harby commissioned Moïse to write the new hymnal. Consequently, Moïse composed the vast majority of the hymns included in the first American Reform Jewish hymnal. Dedicated to the celebration of Judaism and desiring to encourage communal and individual fidelity to Judaism, the poet divided the hymnal into nine sections. Separately and collectively the
hymns were designed to promote a continued faith in and a tolerance for Judaism in the midst of a highly evangelical Protestant South. Moïse was also a superintendent of Charleston’s first Jewish school.
During the Civil War, Moïse avidly supported the South in her writing and educational efforts. Seeking refuge in Sumter during the war, Moïse, now blind and ill, returned to Charleston when hostilities ceased. She was cared for by her sister and her niece; all three established a Sunday school in their home for Charleston’s younger students. Curricula included classical and religious education. Moïse never married. She died on September 13, 1880, and is buried in the Coming Street Cemetery in Charleston. Penina Moïse was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 1999.
Hagy, James. This Happy Land: The Jews of Colonial and Antebellum Charleston. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993.
Moïse, Penina. Secular and Religious Works of Penina Moïse with a Brief Sketch of Her Life. Charleston: Nicholas G. Duffy, 1911.
Reznikoff, Charles. The Jews of Charleston: A History of an American Jewish Community. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1950.