Phil Belinfante recently asked me about a gravestone of one of his Jewish ancestors that had masonic symbols on it. The gravestone was that of Judah Cappé (1799-1878) of St. Thomas. The stone lies in the Jewish Cemetery in St. Thomas and features a Masonic square and compass with a G inside surrounded by a laurel (right). The square and compass are the most universal symbols of freemasonry: the tools are understood "emblematically" to "remind the Mason to square his actions by the square of virtue, [and] to circumscribe his passions and desires with a symbolic compass" (Morris 5). The "G" is stands for how God (or geometry) is at the center of freemasonry. Laurels are a sign of divine blessing (and victory) and are associated with the Scottish Rite.
Phil wanted to know (1) if it was common for Jews to be Masons during this era, and (2) if so, why?
The answer to the first question is relatively simple: yes. Many prominent Jews in the American colonies were masons and they often decorated their gravestones with Masonic symbols. Some joined regular lodges, others created Jewish-themed lodges, such as the King David's Lodge of New York, Newport, and Massachusetts. Men like Michael Moses Hays and Moses Seixas rose through the masonic ranks to become grand masters. Masonic symbols can also be found on ketubot (marriage contracts) and even the lintel for Temple Emanu-el in Curaçao (above left), as well as gravestones. Although some communities (such as Curaçao) had separate non-denominational masonic cemeteries, Jewish Masons tended to be buried in Jewish cemeteries and to show their affiliations with the masons through symbols on their stones.
The second question is more complicated: why be masons? Fraternal organizations in general were extremely popular starting in the eighteenth century. As historian Steven Bullock explains, freemasonry provided a welcome relief for Restoration Britons who otherwise were awash in religious and political factionalism: “doctrinal and sectarian differences were to be laid aside within the Masonic family.” The Masons expressly banned discussions that might lead to controversy, including quarrels about religion. Nor was religious belief used to define membership. Brotherhoods allowed Jews to forge business and social connections with the wider community of elites in their port towns. Moreover, Masonic rituals that lauded the Jewish origins of the group probably helped make Jews feel at least partially at home in the organization. Some masonic "secrets" (as well as the general interest in symbols) drew upon known mystical traditions, including kabbalism, which may have also made Jews feel an affinity for masonic rites.
Did being a freemason mean one was less devoted to Judaism? As Phil points out, "One would think being a Jew was enough of a full time ... life." While many orthodox Rabbis today would probably see freemasonry as antithetical to Judaism, at least some early American Jews seem to have believed that the two were compatible. Joseph Chayyim Mendes Chumaceiro (Amsterdam 1844-Curaçao 1905), who served as the Chazan for in Charleston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Georgia as well as Curaçao, wrote an extended treatise on the evidences of freemasonry in "Ancient Hebrew Records." The degree to which Jews actively practiced both Judaism and freemasonry probably varied tremendously.
Let's turn back, then, to Judah Cappé. Judah was the son-in-law of Samuel Hoheb and the husband of Sara de Samuel Hoheb (ca. 1796-1863). According to the history of the Harmonic Lodge, they lived downtown at 22 Commandant Gade (right). Sara's gravestone indicated that they had four children that survived her death. As Judah's stone suggests, he was active in the masons. The Harmonic Lodge's records support this and indicate that key meetings were held at the Cappé house. Judah was also active in the Synagogue. When a fire destroyed the synagogue in 1831 and the community had to rebuild the structure, the Cappés held a dinner and ball at their house in honor of the laying of the first cornerstone in December of 1832 (Cohen 46). In spite of this support, the family does not appear to have been completely shomer shabbat (sabbath observant): Cohen notes that the auction houses owned by Judah and his father-in-law "ran their swiftest business on Saturdays." Yet, when Cappé's duties as "consul to the Netherlands" conflicted with religion, he chose Judaism: when the King's birthday fell on a Saturday, "Cappé moved the planned fireworks celebration to Sunday" (Cohen 60, 126, 254 fn63). Like many Jews in the Atlantic World (and today), Judah's religious beliefs and observances were complex.
Judah's tombstone is all in English, but pays allegiance to both his beginnings (in the Jewish community of St. Eustatius) and the heritage he left to his son, named for Judah's father-in-law Samuel Hoheb. The inscription reads
to the memory of
Born in the island of St. Lusiastius [Eustatius]
on the 9th of April 1799
And summoned hence on the 4th day
of November 1878
Aged 70 years and 8 months
This stone has been erected
as a mark of filial affection
by his son
Gravestone of Grand Master Moses Michael Hays. Touro Cemetery, Newport RI. Although Hays helped start King David's Lodge and was the Grand Master in New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, there are no Masonic symbols on his tomb.
Bullock, Steven C. Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Chumaceiro, Joseph Chayyim Mendes. The Evidences of Free-Masonry from Ancient Hebrew Records. Augusta, GA: 1896; New York: Bloch, 1921.
Cohen, Judah. Through the Sands of Time: a History of the Jewish community of St. Thomas. Hanover: U. Press of New England, 2004.
History of the Harmonic Lodge, a Freemasons Lodge in the Virgin Islands. http://www.harmoniclodge.com/a_short_history_of_the_harmonic_.htm>
Margolinsky, J. 299 epitaphs from the Jewish cemetery in St. Thomas, West Indies, 1837-1916, with and index; compiled from records in the archives of the Jewish Community in Copenhagen. Copehagen: 1965.
Morris, S. Brent. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Freemasonry. New York: Alpha, 2006.