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My Life as a Rabbi (June 18, 2003)

Asked to a recent wedding in Virginia (it was a family affair on a grand scale), the proud parents asked if I would do some sort of officiation. It would be my second inning in this role, having acted as priest/judge at a rural splicing here in the Northern 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 of course of the bit of 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 since the couple had already eloped back in January, getting married on the bus the bridegroom’s film collective uses on their 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 Hallowe’en. 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 diplomatic 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 getting spliced on an instrument of mass transit, which was also a temple of the arts. 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 Anglo-Irish stumblings here! Their professions of love had the grace of an aria in Mozart. 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, somehow be, in a manner undivulged to them, a man of the cloth. It shows that people feel no formal event is complete without a shaman of some sort, and thus were prepared to regard me as a priest or a rabbi, all other evidence and prior knowledge 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.

A final word on another ceremony. I offer my services as elegist too, though unlike many leftists I dislike cremations. Leftists tend to like cremations 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 pal 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 by the coffin (lid not nailed down, naturally), and cork loosened. 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.” 

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