The First American Jewish Poetess
In celebration of National Poetry Month:
When asked to name early American Jewish poets, the first name that comes to most people’s mind is Emma Lazarus. It may therefore be surprising that the first published American Jewish poetess was a woman named Penina Moise.
Like Lazarus, and many other prominent Jews in early American history, Moise was of Sephardi origin. Her father, Abraham, moved from Alsace (France) to the Carribean island of St. Eustace, where he married and began a family. In 1791, however, fleeing a slave uprising, the family moved to Charleston, South Carolina (then the largest Jewish community in the United States). Penina, the sixth of their nine children, was born in 1797.
Penina Moise’s childhood and formal education came to an abrupt end when her father passed away. At the age of 12, she took over the care of her family, including her sick mother. Nevertheless, Moise continued to read vociferously.
Moise’s first poem was published in a local newspaper in 1819. While many of her poems were religious in nature, Moise also wrote on political themes, such as Southern secession and states’ rights (she was a Confederate supporter). This was all the more unique because she published her works under her own name rather than using a male pseudonym. She published a well-received book of verse, Fancy’s Sketch-Book, in 1833, and her Hymns Written for the Use of Hebrew Congregations (1856) is still in use today.
Although Moise never married, she was not without progeny. The Talmud states “He who teaches the child of his friend the Torah, Scripture ascribes it to him as if he had begotten him” (Sanhedrin 19b). An active member of Congregation K.K.Beth Elohim, Moise taught in their religious school and eventually became its superintendent. In her later years, when she was almost completely blind, she taught privately in the home she shared with her sister and niece.
She was 84 when she passed away.
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