Julia’s Bat Mitzvah

Focusing on Prayer

Learning From Penina Moise

Julia writes about a lesson she learned from Penina Moise

Penina Moise went blind in approximately 1861. She was 64 years old. Although she was blind, she was sensitive to light and wore blue glasses to protect her eyes. She kept her head and neck covered to fight off the neuralgia. Neuralgia means pain in nerves. Penina also could not sleep. This is called insomnia. She could not leave her house for the last 15 years of her life because she was so sick. But her memory remained clear. She was able to compose songs, write and teach.

Here are quotes from an article about Penina, “Penina Moise, Woman and Writer” in the American Jewish Yearbook 1905-1906 by Lee C. Harby, on pages 25 to 28:

“A short time before the war she found that her sight was failing. Then began constant and severe attacks of neuralgia, which racked her nerves, and rendered sleep impossible. She never knew when or how often they would overpower her, but between whiles she continued to compose her songs of praise, her hymns and religious anthems of rejoicing, which have made her name imperishable.”

“She sat always in the center of her bed chamber, her face turned away form the light. As a further protection, she wore blue glasses, for though she could not see, she used to say that she could feel the light on the sensitive nerves of her eyes. She wore a cap of sheer white Swiss muslin, and across her head, and passing down over the sides of her face, a folded black kerchief—all to fight off the attacks of the fiend neuralgia. Her fingers were ever busy – ripping, generally, something black in silk, fold after fold; but on Saturdays and holidays and on her birthday she would be holding lovingly some old book of poetry.”

I wanted to find out more about what made Penina Moise so sick. On June 9, 2008, I interviewed Dr. Carol E. Rose, who is an anesthesiologist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (She is also my wonderful Aunt Carol).

We looked at clues about why Penina Moise was blind. We looked at charts about the brain and nerves. Aunt Carol said that we can’t know for sure why Penina Moise was blind and had headaches. Maybe something was wrong with the nerves in her brain, or she had a tumor, or an aneurysm, which is like a little balloon in a blood vessel. There were no tests or x-rays to see really what happened. So we can’t know why Penina Moise was sick.

But Aunt Carol says it is not important why Penina Moise was blind and had headaches. That is not what matters. What is important is the lesson. When some people get sick, they stop doing good things for other people. But Penina Moise did good things for other people even when she was sick and blind, like teaching and writing poems. This is a lesson we can all learn from her.

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