I was invited by a rabbi to give a talk to the congregation of his synagogue, which was a bit unusual since I am only marginally more religious than Christopher Hitchens. I hadn't been to a service since my dad died more than 20 years ago, although I didn't expect many surprises as the prayers haven't changed much since 500BC.
I arrived without a yarmulke (skullcap), since I don't own one.
The rabbi suggested I should always keep a spare yarmulke in the glovebox of my car, but I don't own a car, either. I had to choose an emergency head-covering from the selection available at the door, and there is nothing sadder than the abandoned yarmulkes box* at a synagogue.
As I have written previously, patterns in yarmulke design follow broader social and aesthetic trends. The star cap in the box was strongly influenced by abstract expressionism, and all the others were light in colour and not much larger than a beer coaster. The big, black, hanging-judge style yarmulkes are by far the most popular, and there were none in the box.
I selected a yarmulke that was a bit bigger than my bald patch, in the hope that it would camouflage my hair loss. In fact, it seemed to accentuate the problem, on account of the fact that it was much the same colour as my head.
There were, however, no yarmulke jibes from the congregation and, as far as I'm aware, no one sneaked a photograph of me in costume on their camera phone - not even my fellow columnist Mia Freedman, who kindly came (I guess) to offer her support, thereby providing conclusive proof that Jews control the media.**
Inevitably, one member of the congregation introduced himself as "Chris Ryan", which is not a particularly common Jewish name. This happens to me almost everywhere I go. As if there weren't enough Chris Ryans in the world, some people with much less common names are resorting to the tragic depths of Chris Ryan impersonation. What's worse is that I feel personally responsible.
My talk seemed to go down well - although it was suitably modified for a family audience, which didn't leave a great deal to say - and, at the end, the rabbi presented me with a $100 voucher for a Judaica shop, possibly in the hope that I'd go out and buy a yarmulke.
It was the week of the Sydney Writers' Festival, and my next engagement was a discussion of novels about Kings Cross with Mandy Sayer and Clinton Caward. Due to editorial fascism, I'm not allowed to mention the title of my own novel, but Caward's is called Love Machine and was inspired by the years he spent working in a sex shop on inner Sydney's Darlinghurst Road. It's a lovely piece of writing that hasn't had the publicity it deserves, perhaps because Clint doesn't have a weekly column in a colour magazine.
I've complained in the past that I have to respond to unusual queries from oddly dressed people when I speak at writers' festivals, but it's nothing compared to the stuff Clint gets asked about working in a sex shop. The best of his replies are sadly unprintable, but one audience member wondered what was the hardest question Clint had had to field from behind the counter.
Clint said he was often confronted by customers who wanted to know the specifics of the operation of their penis pump: whether they were using it too little or too much, and when they might expect to see the first signs of growth.
The audience member who came up with that question was wearing a colourful cap with a propeller mounted on the crown. I wondered if he'd found it in an abandoned yarmulkes box at a synagogue long ago.
* Except a sick child, a deserted lover, and that song Honey by Bobby Goldsboro, where the young wife plants a tree and then dies.
** C'mon, write in, you anti-Semites. I dare ya.