Last Friday I was just finishing breakfast when I decided to surprise my parents, who were on holiday in Israel, by flying to Jerusalem for the weekend. To achieve the maximum element of surprise, I thought I would disguise myself as a Hassidic Jew by hiring a big black beard, moustache and a large black hat.

I looked up Yellow Pages. There was no 'rabbi beards to rent' section, so I tried 'fancy dress'.

I dialled Caribbean Carnival Costumes of Portobello Road, London W11. A happy male West Indian voice answered: 'Caribbean Costumes, good morning.'

'Good morning, do you have a rabbi's beard?' I asked.

'A rabbi beard?' he mused. 'Josephine, do we have any rabbi beards today?' I heard him shout. There was a muffled discussion. He came back on the line: 'We are all out of rabbi beards this morning, but we have got a rasta beard, how about that?'

'No, thank you, it really is a rabbi's beard that I'm after,' I replied.

'It's got good locks . . . dreads man, very reggae . . . you know Bob Marley?' he persisted.

I then tried a shop in Hayes, not exactly famed as a Talmudic centre of learning, but you never know.

'Oh, yeah, we've got lots of those,' the girl who answered said, as if it was the hundredth request for a rabbi's beard that morning.

'Great, how much are they?'

'Two pounds ninety-five.'

'What, a day?' I asked. It sounded suspiciously cheap.

'No, to buy.'

'Wait a minute . . .' I said. 'What is it made of?'

'Crepe,' she said.

'Crepe,' I exclaimed. 'Nobody's going to be fooled by that, are they?'

'Well, they will be if you don't get too close,' she said.

'Yes . . . like two miles,' I said and put the phone down.

I finally tracked one down in Covent Garden, picked up a black Homburg hat at Simpson's, Piccadilly, and took a taxi to the airport.

The one-to-one El Al security interrogation at Heathrow is enough to make even a chief rabbi confess to being Yasser Arafat. 'Did anyone give you anything before you left the house?'

'Give me something? Are you kidding?' I said. 'No one's given me anything since my bar mitzvah.' Things were not helped when they opened my bag and found my beard and moustache.

'It's an emergency,' I said. 'It's for a big wedding - the rabbi's got alopecia.'

The female security officer started to talk into her sleeve. Young men with broad-shouldered jackets stopped asking real Hassidic Jews to lift up their hats to see if they had bombs balanced on their heads and looked at me intently.

'Do you have any Jewish friends, Mr Rosengard?' she asked. I had been waiting all my life for someone to ask me this.

'Actually,' I said, 'some of

my best friends are Jewish.'

In the end my beard and moustache flew Club on security grounds while my wife, Shirley, and I were in economy.

In the taxi from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, I started to glue on my beard. In Shirley's hand-mirror, I looked like a cross between Moses and ZZ Top.

I sat self-consciously in the lobby of the Sheraton Plaza with a newspaper held high around my head while Shirley checked us in. She came over to me. 'Wait a minute,' she said, 'you're OK, but what about me?' I looked at her. She had a point. She is Chinese and 5ft 10in tall. I'd forgotten about that. She would have been easily spotted by her parents-in- law. 'You can wear the moustache,' I suggested.

The next morning I got up early, glued on my beard and moustache, put on my hat and hung around the lobby with as devout a look as I could manage, waiting to surprise my parents when they came down for breakfast.

Three hours later it was almost lunchtime and I was still waiting. I decided to go up to their room disguised as a room-service waiter.

I borrowed a jacket from a waiter and a tray with a couple of cups and took the lift to the 12th floor. There were six other men crowded into the lift. We all had big black beards, moustaches and big black hats.

Somehow I still felt different. It was the sabbath, and on religious grounds the lift seemed to be stopping only at every other floor and staying stationary in between for five minutes at a time (for prayers? I wondered). It got very hot. I started to sweat. My beard began to melt. I stared down at the floor.

A little blonde girl stared up at me. I felt the glue running down my cheek. She stared silently as one half of my beard peeled right away from my face. I raised my eyebrows, gave her my 'it's a funny old world' shrug, pressed my face against my shoulder and, when the doors finally opened on the 12th floor, pushed my way out of the lift like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, carrying the tray in front of me.

I knocked on my parents' door. 'Room service,' I shouted in my best Israeli accent. My father opened the door.

'Hello, Peter,' he said.