Celebrating Community, Shabbat — at Wawa

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In some ways, it was a pretty typical Shabbat dinner.

There was wine, there was bread, there were candles. But the wine was served from a 44-ounce plastic Wawa cup, the bread was an enormous Wawa soft pretzel and the candles were electric.

The idiosyncrasies were intentional, and suited the venue — the new jumbo Wawa at Sixth and Chestnut streets. It was all part of Wawa Shabbawa, a performance art piece by Washington, D.C.-based Brian Feldman, who partnered with OneTable to bring Shabbawa to Philadelphia after holding it in Florida and D.C.

Brian Feldman was named Best Performance Artist of the Year by the Washington City Paper and Orlando Weekly. (Photo by Liz Spikol).

About 20 people attended the event, which took place in a communal area of the cavernous store. They were young and old, black and white, children and parents. The tables had flowered tablecloths and were set with plastic utensils, plastic cups and Wawa hors d’oeuvres like prepackaged red grapes. People wore name tags and mingled in the seating area as Feldman, dressed in a black suit and tie and kippah, grabbed supplies from Wawa plastic bags in one corner of the room and slid across the floor to the tables like a Jewish Tom Cruise in Risky Business. Once everything was set up and the guests were settled, Feldman started things off by explaining how he first came up with this idea.

It started, he said, with a visit to a massive new Wawa in D.C. The store was, until the opening of the Sixth and Chestnut location, the largest in the world, and when Feldman walked in and saw the communal seating area, “I thought to myself, ‘This is the perfect place to have a Shabbat dinner.’”

It’s not the first thought most people would have upon entering a new Wawa, but then, Feldman has a quirky way of looking at things.

The recipient of two Arts and Humanities Fellowships in theater, Feldman has created, under the aegis of Brian Feldman Projects, performances like Dishwasher, for which he washed dishes and performed monologues in people’s homes; Leap Year Day, during which he leaped off a ladder 366 times in 24 hours; ChanulKEA, which consisted of leading Google-translated Swedish-language tours of IKEA; and The Skill Crane Kid, which required his remaining inside a playable arcade game for 16 hours — among many, many other similarly unconventional productions.

So Shabbat dinner at Wawa? That didn’t seem far-fetched.

“At the heart of it, the work that I do [is about] taking regular everyday experiences and putting a filter over them and turning the everyday into the extraordinary,” said Feldman, who spent his early childhood in Bensalem and attended Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley. “As far as Wawa Shabbawa is concerned, [it’s about] showing that Shabbat is everywhere. You don’t have to be at synagogue, but if you go to synagogue, that’s great. If you celebrate Shabbat at home, that’s also great. But if you celebrate it at Wawa, it still counts, it’s still Shabbat, we’re still together. We’re sharing this time.”

After the assembled crowd said the blessings and passed the pretzel, Feldman introduced “special guest” Craig Harris, a Philadelphia native and huge Wawa fan. Without getting up from his seat beneath an Action News camera, Harris sang a song from Fiddler on the Roof. Then everyone went and ordered Shabbat dinner from the Wawa touchscreens.

“I wasn’t expecting a free hoagie,” Harris said.

Other musical interludes included a group rendition of “Shalom Alecheim,” whose lyrics were printed in Hebrew and English in the performance program.

“It’s B’nai Wawa,” joked attendee Norman Yanovitz, who was wearing a sweatshirt that read, “Moses was the first person with a tablet downloading data from the cloud.”

“I’m pleased to see they’re taking different steps to bring the Jewish community together by having it in a casual environment,” said Yanovitz, who lives on Washington Square Park.

The communal vibe was also important to Center City resident Brett Rubin, 32, who came at the suggestion of her brother, who organizes OneTable events in Charlotte, N.C.

“He said, ‘You have to go. It’s Shabbat in a Wawa. It’s a riot,’” said Rubin, whose five years in Philadelphia have converted her into both a Wawa fan and an Eagles fan. “I’m not too involved in the Jewish community, but I’m always looking for opportunities.”

Tess Liebersohn, 28, a Northwest Philly native, is also on the hunt for Jewish activities.

“I’m constantly trying to figure out how to be Jewish in this day and age, in my late 20s, being raised secular,” she said. “This felt like an interesting way to do a traditional thing with a modern twist. I love Wawa a lot.”

Like Liebersohn, Natalie Zighelboim is a Wawa enthusiast.

“I’m obsessed with Wawa,” said Zighelboim. “I was born and raised in Philly and Wawa is very Philly.”

Zighelboim and her husband José, a Venezuelan Jew, took a break from their Center City pet care business Z Dog and brought their 3-year-old son Bo to Wawa Shabbawa. Despite all her memories of growing up with the convenience store, she said, “I’ve never done Shabbat in a Wawa, and we’re obsessed with Shabbat as well.”

Pretty much all the gathered guests seemed to think the pairing of Wawa and Shabbat was inspired. Feldman agreed. “It’s a happy convenience — pun intended — that the two worlds kind of work [together] due to the Wawa fandom and people’s strong connection to Judaism,” he said.

As the event winded down, Feldman reflected on how it went.

“It had a very Philly vibe,” he said. “We didn’t talk about politics once. The first question people asked each other wasn’t, ‘What do you do?,’ which is a very D.C. question. It was more, ‘We’re having Shabbat at Wawa, how cool is this?’”

The Philadelphia Shabbawa really brought it back to the spirit of Shabbat, Feldman said. “It made it less about transactional relationships or career advancement or networking. In light of everything that’s been going on in the world and in the Jewish community, sitting down together in such a public location and saying, ‘We’re proud to be Jewish and we’re not afraid of anything,’ I think that’s a good thing.”

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