Transvestites, the High Holy Days, and pizza
I didn’t do much praying this Yom Kippur. I didn’t do a hell of a lot of reflection, either. I fasted, for what that’s worth. And the day, I think, worked for me.
4:30 P.M. I spent the day on a bus to Baguio, since I felt vaguely uncomfortable with the idea of spending Yom Kippur on a bus. Why? I don’t know. I stocked up my iPod with Jewish-themed Podcasts, and other than one disappointingly dull hour I spent with Eli Wiesel, they served me well. One interview with a rabbi was interspersed with snippets of songs and prayers – Kol Nidre, Aleinu, and the like – and I found myself hitting pause each time, thinking about my dying synagogue in Oil City, the time I danced the horah at a coastal town in Australia, and how strange it was that 30 seconds of a centuries-old prayer that I’ve heard hundreds of time could arrest me, choke me, hound me, like it was the most beautiful thing I’d never heard before. Then I thought about the fried pork I had for dinner the night before and reflected, once again, on the strange relationship I’m forming with my religion.
Anyway, 4:30. Giant tofu tacos. They were fucking delicious.
6:30. The fast officially starts. The volunteer stationed in Baguio happened to be starting up a youth advocacy theater group the evening I arrived. So I tagged along for their first outing – A bizarre, campy, hilarious play in Taglish at St. Louis University about a transvestite superhero, her three gay dads and a passionate love affair with peanut brrrtle. Yes, it did end with a dance off, and it was spectacular.
After the play, before we took two of the girls back to her center, we took them to McDonalds. It was their first MacDo experience, and it’s sad that I think that means something.
6:30 A.M. Like I said, I didn’t pray, I didn’t spend the day in contemplation. I worked. Or, rather, I spent the day with children. This was the first official meeting of the theater group, and we ended up working with them for about 10 hours. The group consists of about 30 kids, a mix of boys in conflict with the law, girls who’ve suffered abuse, and student leaders from some of the schools around Baguio. The boys outnumber the girls, so there was the usual unease and bossiness there, but overall I was amazed at how well everyone got along, at how excited they all were to be there.
I was excited too. We spent the first part of the day leading them through icebreakers, energizers and basic acting exercises (What do I know about acting? More than 13-year-olds who’ve never done it before. That, plus a willingness to look foolish, was good enough to skate by.). Then I lead a session on script-writing and brainstorming and had the kids come up with and present ideas for the theme of the play they’re going to be writing, directing and performing.
It was a long day, and by the time things were ready to wrap up with the creation of a mission statement, everyone was pretty much beat. But I think it sneaked up on us. At least, it sneaked up on me. I’d been so caught up in the moment for pretty much the whole day that, other than a mild headache and occasional loopiness, I never gave much thought to being hungry. Everything seemed good.
And, if nothing else, they won me over for one simple reason: They listened.
Eating is important here. No training is acceptable without several snack breaks and people tend to get very confused if you don’t join in. So, when I introduced myself at the beginning of the morning, I briefly explained the importance of the day to me, and why I wouldn’t be eating with them. Throughout the day, a couple kids asked me if I was hungry, and as I sat outside during lunch, one of the first kids to finish eating came over and kept me company. And that was that.
I can’t explain why it was so touching, so take my word for it. It was.
6:20 Sundown was officially at 6:27. More than feeling hungry, I was excited for the impending pizza and beer, so as I walked down the crowded city streets, I wasn’t paying as much attention to my bags as I usually do. I was kinda giddy with pre-pizza anticipation. So, of course, I was pick-pocketed. Someone opened the side-pocket on my bag and took the little pouch containing my iPod and notebooks, things that are rather important to me. I didn’t notice any of this happening.
But I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I looked back, still thinking about pizza and expecting it to be someone asking for money or just an accidental run-in. Instead a man simply said, “Sir, here,” handed me my bag and quickly turned around and melted back into the crowd. He didn’t give me time to say thank you — hell, he didn’t even give me time to process what had happened.
I was careless, so I got pick-pocketed. I was lucky, so a stranger saw this happen, confronted the thief, took my stuff back, returned it to me and disappeared. That’s not supposed to happen, but it did. And it happened just as the holiest day of the year was ending, just as I was coming down from a day spent with a group of amazing kids, and the one probably had nothing to do with the other, but they happened together and everything about it just felt right. Plus, the pizza was really good.
This is from editorial in this week’s issue of the local paper:
“New York Jews are famous for being shrewd businessmen, and if there is anything that Jews love only a little less than their beloved Israel, it is profit.”