A ponytailed Filipino man in jeans is swinging his narrow hips as he pushes an elderly, Orthodox rabbi in a wheelchair. They arrive at a synagogue and while the rabbi discusses the Talmud with similarly aged and bearded clerics, his Asian carer sits to one side, singing along to Abba’s The Winner Takes It All on his personal stereo.
As culture clashes go, it is a fairly strange one. But what makes it even stranger is that the Filipino, Chiqui Diokno, is a drag artist in his spare time.
Diokno is one of eight transvestites from the Philippines whose encounters with Jewish life while working as a carer in Israel are the subject of the award-winning documentary film Paper Dolls, which is being screened in London next week.
“I was working in a religious area in Tel Aviv, Bnai Brak,” explains the 43-year-old Diokno, who has been living in the UK for the past six years. “At first I felt like I was on another planet,” he says. “The way the Orthodox people dress and their attitudes are really different. The children were very annoying. They were following me. Later on they got used to me. I knew them all and it didn’t bother me. People knew that I was a transvestite but they didn’t talk about it.
“Every day I was in synagogue because my employer prayed. I thought they looked like ignorant people. They don’t wear jeans — they’re always wearing formal clothes. But they’re really nice, they’re really kind, especially when you visit their homes. They’re very hospitable. The family I was working for treated me like one of their own.”
Through his work Diokno learned Hebrew and gained working knowledge of kashrut, Shabbat and the Jewish festivals.
He says: “Filipinos are known for their domestic help. We’re very compassionate. It’s in our culture — we don’t have nursing homes in our country. We look after the old people.”
The Filipino workers in Israel are among 300,000 foreign immigrants who arrived in the country in the wake of the second intifada in 2000 to fill jobs previously done by Palestinians.
“Millions of people are unemployed in the Philippines,” says Diokno. “You don’t have a chance of getting a job. And as a Christian, I always dreamed of coming to the Promised Land — the Holy Land. We eventually felt very at home in Israel. There’s something there that you can’t explain. The money’s good as well. The Israelis are really nice people even if at first they are sometimes sarcastic or rude.”
On his one night off each week, Diokno joined friends to perform as a drag artist, dancing and lip-synching to songs ranging from Madonna classics to traditional Hebrew songs Hava Nagila. They called themselves the Paper Dolls.
In the film, the story of “Sally” displays how close the carers grew to their charges. She worked for Chaim, who had throat cancer. He was very accepting of her sexuality and their relationship was like that of a father and daughter. There are touching scenes in which she cooks him fried fish while he assiduously corrects her Hebrew and teaches her poems by Yehudi Amichai. After Chaim died, Sally left Israel, only to be tragically murdered in Dubai in 2007.
Four of the Paper Dolls moved to London since the documentary was filmed because, as Diokno explains, they began to grow anxious after witnessing the 2003 bomb attack at Tel Aviv bus station, their regular hang-out. They still work in the Jewish community: Jon Jon is a carer at Nightingale House in south London; Chiqui’s brother JoJo works at the Jewish Care home Lady Sarah Cohen House in north London; Nitz works at a Jewish care home in Brighton and Chiqui himself was working at a Golders Green care home before moving to the neo-natal ward at the Royal Free Hospital in north London.
“Two hundred and fifty Filipinos have come to Britain from Israel since I have been here,” says Diokno. “They came to north London Jewish homes. We prefer to work for Jews — we know the language, we know the traditions, the Shabbat times, even the food.”
Perhaps he is a Jew trapped inside a woman, trapped inside a man. He laughs at the suggestion.