My Life as a Rabbi

Inviting me to a recent wedding in Virginia, the proud parents of the bride asked if I would officiate. It would be my second turn in this role, having acted as priest/judge at a rural splicing here in the North California backwoods some years ago. On that occasion I wrote up a laicized version of the wedding ritual in the sixteenth century Book of Common Prayer, shorn , naturally, of the bit about her obeying him. Then the couple nipped into a back room where there was a real judge on hand to make it legal.

This time, beside a pond in a green field in rural Virginia, there was no judge, but none was necessary because the couple had already eloped back in January, getting married on the bus the bridegroom’s film collective uses on its cinematic ventures.

Why, you ask, would anyone ask a raffish antinomian of Sixties vintage to preside at any ceremony beyond the increasingly familiar occupation of helping throw the ashes of some deceased lefty comrade over the back of a boat or off the top of a mountain? Maybe it’s all those years on the road, giving booster talks to radical groups, raising money for all the good causes. I’ve learned how to look a crowd in the eye, speak as though I mean it, and not mumble.

The male guests at the affair in rural Virginia beside the pond were all in black tie and dinner jacket. It had been years since I put on a tuxedo but I found one in an old trunk, given to me by the daughter of a British diplomat. I’d kept it for possible use at Halloween. Taking it to the cleaners I noticed that the poor fellow, an ambassador, had spent so many years resting his wrists on the dinner table at a thousand dreary official dinners, mumbling “fascinating” at the anecdotes of his neighbors, that the cloth on the buttons of his jacket cuffs had entirely worn away.

As officiator I reckoned I ought to distinguish myself from the common herd of tux wearers and so I threw around my neck a white silk scarf with a Japanese motif picked out on it in crimson thread. Later my old friend Seymour Hersh came up to me and said he’d arrived a bit late, hurried down to the pond and said to his wife Liz as they craned to observe the ceremony, “Now I’ve seen everything. Alex has become a rabbi.”

My officiation went smoothly. I kept my remarks brief, imparting to the crowd the news that the couple were already married and had demonstrated their progressive commitment by accomplishing that on an instrument of mass transit, which was also a temple of the arts. I stuck in words like “witness”, “solemnize” and “celebration” to lend a tinge of formality to the event. Then I yielded the floor, or rather the pond-side, to the couple who spoke to each other, and the crowd, with glorious feeling and eloquence about their love for each other.

No stumblings here! Their professions had the grace of a Mozart aeia. If the younger crowd can talk like that, I’ll stop wailing about the grossness of hip-hop.

I kept the scarf on amid the drinking and eating that followed, and was amazed at how many people concluded that I must, against all the odds, in a manner as yet undivulged to them, be a man of the cloth. It shows that people feel no formal event is complete without a shaman on the premises, and thus were prepared to regard me as a priest or a rabbi , all other evidence and prior knowledge of my character notwithstanding.

So take this as a formal flaunting of my shingle as Officiator. Have scarf, will travel. I even have an Airstream as changing room, if my rig becomes more elaborate.

I also offer my services as elegist at funerals or wakes too, though unlike many leftists I dislike cremations. Radicals tend to favor incineration of the deceased and subsequent dispersal of ashes in romantic surroundings because it’s good resource management, with the Phoenix motif as a bonus.

Being Anglo-Irish I regard cremations as pagan beastliness and believe in coffins lowered with dignity into the dirt. Crypts are okay too. One Anglo-Irish old neighbor from West Waterford left directions that he was to be buried in the family crypt, with a key to the crypt in his pocket and a bottle of brandy (cork loosened) by the coffin (lid not nailed down). He hailed from an earlier generation brought up at the knee of Victorians who lived in terror of premature burial. My Aunt Joan was like that too. “When you deem me to have expired,” she would say to Dr Galvin in her deep voice at the age of 87, “Cut deep into my wrists, to be completely sure.”

Flushed with satisfaction at the proceedings in Virginia I repaired a few days later to a green hillside above Santa Cruz, California, where a friend was graduating from Kresge college, UCSC. Now, UCSC’s founding moment came back in the 1960s amid high professions of hope that this could be a sanctuary, amid the redwood groves of the old Cowell ranch, of medium-to-higher learning designedly athwart convention. Kresge in particular was designed to be communal, antinomian even.

Nearly half a century later one would have to say that convention appears to have triumphed utterly. Up there, on the beautiful green sward, shimmering Pacific to the west and blue arc of heaven above, there was scarcely a black face in the crowd and, most definitely, there wasn’t a shaman in the house.

Another old friend, Conn Hallinan, now provost of Kresge, did not permit his radical lineage to intrude in any way on a torrent of benign platitudes. The keynote speaker, Carolyn Martin Shaw, a professor of anthropology at Kresge, was deprecating about Kresge’s early years, but not in a way that permitted useful reflection. Not a tincture of politics, of history, of inspiration uplifted her humdrum observations. I’m not saying that all graduation addresses have be plump with homilies about duties incumbent on graduating youth amid all the corruptions of empire. But one does expect something, beyond what my father’s tutor told him as he departed Oxford: “Well, Cockburn, hitherto your life has been criss-crossed with terms, exams and holidays. Now it’s pretty much a straight run to the grave.” Surely the pioneers of UCSC would have wished for more than that.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.