The convenience store mega-chain had not a single Florida outpost in those days, so they were forced to patronize what they viewed as Wawa’s lesser brethren, to survive on subpar soft pretzels peddled by pretenders.
Last year, when the Delaware County-based behemoth opened a store not far from Feldman’s latest home in Washington, he expectantly walked through its doors, primed for a twist of doughy goodness. What he found was a changed Wawa — one with tables and chairs to sit and sip coffee or scarf down a shorti. It was then that Feldman’s theatrical instincts kicked in.
“Wawa Shabbawa” sprang to life in his out-of-the-ordinary mind.
On Jan. 18 at 7 p.m., Feldman will host his mash-up of Jewish ritual and convenience-store culture when he leads a Friday night Shabbat dinner at the largest Wawa in the nation, in Old City. He describes the event as BYOY — Bring Your Own Yarmulke — because that’s the only thing you can’t buy at Wawa, not yet.
For the 38-year-old, award-winning performance artist, who has climbed a ladder 366 times in homage to leap year and washed dishes in an audience member’s kitchen as part of a stage show, being able to combine his beloved Wawa with the dinner marking the start of the Sabbath is more than just another eyebrow-raising piece of entertainment.
“This project was devised at a unique time in the country. America is dealing with a lot. The Jewish community is dealing with a lot,” he said in an interview, referring in part to a rise in anti-Semitism. “By doing a project like this, you are being Jewish in public and saying, ‘We’re here. We are Jewish. And we’re proud of it.’”
Helping with the dinner is One Table, a nonprofit that encourages young Jews to gather for Shabbat dinners as a way to connect with their faith and build community. It gives hosts up to $150 to buy groceries for the Sabbath meal, coaches them on the ritual, and lists the dinners on its website.
“There’s something magical about saying kiddush [the blessing over the wine] in the middle of a grocery store where normal everyday things happen.” said Al Rosenberg, director of One Table’s marketing and communications.
Feldman has staged three other “Wawa Shabbawas,” in Washington, Orlando and Tampa, all of which now have stores. Managers have greeted him warmly, he said, even though he has never asked their permission to have the communal gatherings on their premises. He plans another on Feb. 1 at a Wawa in the Georgetown section of Washington.
Wawa corporate officials have yet to respond with comment on the upcoming event at their store in the Public Ledger Building at Sixth and Chestnut Streets.
The Shabbat dinners have drawn an average of 15 guests, some Jewish and some not. Attendees can sign up on One Table’s website, but they often just show up after hearing about it, or join in when they happen upon it during a pit stop for coffee.
Tisse Mallon, who isn’t Jewish, learned of the Orlando event on Facebook. She didn’t know much about Shabbat, but was eager to attend a religious ritual in a Wawa, which seemed “quirky.”
“It was fascinating to learn about the tradition,” said Mallon, 37. “Somebody was sharing with me something that was so special to them. It was wonderful.”
At the two-hour dinner, Feldman says the blessing not over the traditional wine, but over Wawa grape juice and drinks from the soda machine. Instead of eating challah bread, he recommends nibbling on a pretzel. There are name tags, table clothes, and LED candles.
“Wawa Shabbawa” is only one of many nontraditional Friday night dinners co-sponsored by One Table, which encourages hosts to turn the ritual into a form of personal expression that still upholds its meaning. At its Shabbat dinners, guests might meditate, create vision boards, learn calligraphy, even play Dungeons & Dragons.
If critics perceive the events as irreverent, they haven’t complained, said Rosenberg and Feldman. “Modern Orthodox and Conservative Jews have attended,” Feldman said, “and ultimately they were excited to just do something different.”
Other Jewish fraternal organizations sponsor similar programs to help young Jews find community. The Jewish Graduate Student Network partners with area Hillels and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to facilitate Shabbat dinners. Honeymoon Israel sends young couples to the Holy Land, then gets them together socially once they return home.
Feldman showed his penchant for performance art at an early age, said his mother, Marilyn, onetime editor of the former Bucks County Midweek weekly. He landed his first professional role at 10 as a witch in Macbeth. At his bar mitzvah, at Disneyworld, he performed a comedy skit with an actor playing a rabbi.
He turned to performance art after tiring of being rejected at auditions. He would take control of his career and turn the everyday into theater.
For his first performance in 2003 at the New York International Fringe Festival, his family helped him stage “The Feldman Dynamic,” in which he, his mother, father, Edward, and sister Adrienne ate dinner and talked while ticket-holders watched. In other productions, he has hugged his father for 24 hours in a boxing ring, and repeated the word “Macbeth” 17,121 times on stage.
In 2010, in perhaps his most audacious performance, he married a woman he didn’t know to protest the then-ban on same-sex marriage in Florida. It was “ridiculous” that a same-sex couple who’d been together for years couldn’t get married, he said, but he could spin a bottle (he did), select one of three strangers, and wed. The union-in-name-only — he had a girlfriend for part of the time — was annulled a year later.
On Friday, when he lights the the LED Shabbat candles near the sandwich counter, he will be making another statement about inclusion, acceptance, and connection.