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“The Mother of Chanukah”~ A Jewish Historical Fiction Author Looks at an American Icon

In my attempt to discover Jewish heroines, both real and fictional, I’ve come across Penina Moïse, a teacher, author and proponent of Judaism in early American history. She was born on April 23, 1797 in Charleston, South Carolina. Her parents, both immigrants, met and married on the island of St. Eustace. They arrived to Charleston in 1791 and set up a home for their nine children.

Although the family came from affluence, like many immigrants, they had to rebuild their lives upon setting foot on American soil. However, their path was not an easy one. Penina was only twelve years old when she lost her father. She was taken out of school to help manage the household and to support the family budget with her needlework. In addition, her mother was frequently ill and needed caring, as did her brother Isaac, who suffered from asthma.

Still and all, Penina managed to continue to read and write—a beloved past time. Siblings, Rachel and Jacob encouraged this passion and great gift. No doubt, it was this enduring familial support that helped Penina see her first poem published in 1819.  She began writing for newspapers and magazines throughout the country. Fancy’s Sketch Book, a collection of poems, was published in 1833—the first by a Jewish American woman. Her poetry covered diverse topics including local and current events, women’s interests, politics, and yes—Judaism.

The Moïse family were founders of the Hebrew Orphan Society and active members of Charleston’s Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue. By 1841, however, Penina’s brother, Abraham, began a campaign to introduce Reform Judaism to this staunch, traditional setting. His committee went so far as to commission Penina to write the new hymnal for the congregation. She took on this work, spirited on by the desire to encourage fidelity to Judaism and to promote the celebration of religious life. With their backing, she went on to compose most of the American Reform Jewish hymnal. This was no small feat for a woman or a Jew in the Protestant South.

It is estimated that there were less than 250,000 Jews in the entire country at this time. Basic items such as a prayer books, candles, or kosher foods were hard to find. And as such, commemorating holidays—let alone Shabbat—called for careful planning and commitment. Needless to say, following such events as Pesach, Sukkot, or Yom Kippur, Chanukah was a minor festival at best. It would have been easy to let the holiday slip by unnoticed, particularly amongst their evangelical Christian neighbors who actively encouraged the community to join their ranks—especially during the Christmastide.  

At the behest of her brother and the leaders of the congregation, Penina composed a hymn entitled, “Feast of Lights” at the onset of a holiday season in 1842.  As powerful reminder of the importance of remaining faithful despite the onslaught of challenges, the hymn extoled the ancient Israelites as they fought to recover and rededicate their temple. Great Arbiter of Human Fate! was written in a contemporary style and expressed a common feeling among many Jews living as a minority.

Penina’s words were meant to inspire pride amongst the congregation and she used every instrument in her toolbelt to make the holiday resplendent and noteworthy. In keeping with the formal style of the Old South and Charleston’s sense of refinement, she insisted that the first night of Chanukah be celebrated in grand style. The chanukkiah was to be lit with pomp and a choir was organized to sing new hymns. Chanukah, The Festival of Lights, become entrenched in Charleston’s holiday season. Penina Moïse, in many ways, became the “Mother of Chanukah.”

The Civil War forced Penina to leave her post as superintendent of the religious school. They sought refuge in Sumter, South Carolina until hostilities ceased. After the war, she returned to her home in what only can be termed reduced circumstances. She, along with her widowed sister and niece, conducted a Sunday school in order to support themselves. Penina never married nor had children of her own. She was a Southerner and a supporter of the Confederacy. However without this woman, American Jews—and very likely, the world at large—would not celebrate the Jewish holiday of Chanukah in the same light (pun intended). The festivities, the importance of family and community, the games, and other traditions all stem from this spinster who championed a cause near and dear to her heart.

Towards the end of her life, Penina’s poor eyesight began deteriorating and she suffered from debilitating headaches. However, during these trying times when she was confined at home, she wrote some of her best work, “rejoicing in God’s mercy and thanking him for his goodness.” Penina died on September 13, 1880 in Charleston. She was the first Jewish American woman to contribute to the worship service, writing 190 hymns for Congregation Beth Elohim. The Reform movement’s 1932 Union Hymnal still contained thirteen of her hymns.

Great Arbiter of human fate!

Whose glory ne’er decays;

To thee alone we dedicate,

The song and soul of praise.

Thy presence Judah’s host inspired,

On danger’s post to rush;

By thee the Maccabee was fired,

Idolatry to crush.

Amid the ruins of their land,

(In Salem’s sad decline,)

Stood forth a brave but scanty band,

To battle for their shrine.

In bitterness of soul they wept,

Without the temple-wall;

For weeds around its courts had crept,

And foes its priests inthral.

Not long to vain regrets they yield,

But for their cherished fane,

Nerved by true faith they take the field,

And victory obtain.

But whose the power, whose the hand,

Which thus to triumph led,

That slender but heroic band,

From which blasphemers fled?

‘Twas thine, oh everlasting king,

And universal Lord!

Whose wonder still thy servants sing,

Whose mercies they record.

The priest of God his robe resumed,

When Israel’s warlike guide

The sanctuary’s lamp relumed,

Its altar purified.

Oh! thus shall mercy’s hand delight

To cleanse the blemished heart;

Rekindle virtue’s waning light,

And peace and truth impart.

The courage and vision of these women never ceases to amaze me. Like Jane Austen, this brilliant writer composed poetry and other written material that spoke to the world around her. She used her wit and her intelligence to get her point across. She was an immigrant, like me. She was a Jew, like me. She was passionate and stubborn and loyal—like me. We may not have agreed on many points, but on this particular topic there can be no doubt. Am Israel Chai! The people of Israel live! And it is in no small part thanks to the wonderous deeds performed for our ancestors in days of old at this season. Chag Chanukah Sameach! Happy Chanukah! A Gut Yontif! Feliz Januca! ! חג חנוכה

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