When D.C.’s first Wawa opened this past December, Brian Feldman was waiting in line.
The popular convenience store promised the first 100 customers free goodies, but the performance artist didn’t arrive early enough to get any. Still, Feldman took a look around the 9,000-foot store—the largest ever for the chain—and thought to himself, “This would be a great place for Shabbat dinner.”
And so, more than a dozen people met on Friday night at the 19th Street NW Wawa to observe the only holiday name-checked in the Ten Commandments.
Shabbat, which begins on Friday at sunset, is the day of rest for Jews. If G-d took a break after creating the world, the reasoning goes, then surely mere mortals can spend 24 hours winding down.
Feldman grew up observing Shabbat dinner with his family. His first venture into performance art in 2003, The Feldman Dynamic, involved his entire family having dinner on stage. Opening night was on a Friday, so the paying audiences saw what was technically a Shabbat dinner unfold.
Feldman’s projects often push the boundary of what constitutes performance. For Capital Fringe, he would go to ticket-buyers homes for Dishwasher, a play in two acts: first, he’d do your dishes and then he’d perform a monologue of your choosing. Or, txt—which he claims was the longest-running independent show in D.C. theater history—in which the entire performance consisted of him reading anonymous tweets written by audience members.
He organized what he’s calling Wawa Shabbawa through One Table, an organization that connects Jews in their 20s and 30s for Shabbat dinners and provides up to $150 towards the meal.
Brett Boren, a D.C. resident and friend of Feldman’s who works retail, said he’s hosted and attended dinners through One Table before, but “I don’t think anyone’s ever done a Shabbat like this.”
Feldman says it’s his first explicitly Jewish project in more than eight years. His last was ChanuIKEA, a celebration of the last night of Hanukkah in an Orlando IKEA.
When we arrived around 7 p.m. at the Wawa, Feldman, wearing a blazer and a yarmulke, had already been there for an hour to save the necessary dining space. A clean white cloth covered the scooched-together tables, which had place settings for everyone, a Challah cover, and electric candles in the center.
Feldman bought all the food products on the table—iced tea, potato chips, and nut mixes—at the convenience store, and the One Table gift card more than covered all his food expenses, he told me afterward. He paid for the other costs, like the LED candles, tablecloth, challah cover, lamination, with the help of a fellowship from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
As the crowd gathered, Greg, Wawa’s general manager, came over and said he heard rumblings about an event taking place. “We’re excited for you guys to be here,” he said. “Let me know if you need anything.”
After hearing the explanation for Wawa Shabbawa, one customer nodded in understanding. “Wawa’s a blessed place to do anything,” the young woman said before ceding her table to the Shabbat set-up.
All 14 of us sat at the table as Feldman, a self-described “Wawa fanatic,” took out his prayer book, which had a Wawa rewards flyer as a bookmark. We began with the prayer for the Shabbat LED candles, most of us chanting it from memory.
Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” blared over the loudspeakers as we blessed the “wine”—a mix of the nine different kinds of grape-flavored beverages available from the Wawa soft drinks.
“Praise to You, Adonai our G-d, Sovereign of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine,” the blessing over the wine says. “You chose us and set us apart from the peoples. In love and favor You have given us Your holy Shabbat as an inheritance.”
We used Wawa’s Classic Shortie Roll as our Challah substitute, and Feldman profusely apologized that his intended replacement—the famous Wawa pretzel—was not available. Rachel Kurzius
Other customers looked on with curiosity as we recited these traditional prayers, some of them documenting through social media posts we’d likely never see.
Then, it was dinner time. We each went to the famous touch screen ordering menus. We could order whatever we wanted, though “I strongly implore you to get a hoagie,” Feldman said. We would pass him our receipts, which he paid using the One Table gift card. (I got a chicken cheesesteak, which I learned is technically not kosher though there is some rabbinical debate on the subject.)
Once we returned with our hoagies in hand, it felt more like a traditional Shabbat dinner. Most of the attendees knew at least one other diner, and chatted about Jewish-adjacent topics: delis accidentally serving you pork, whether eating bugs would be kosher, and, of course, the Holocaust.
Feldman had planned to ask everyone to go around the table and share their favorite Wawa story, but the attendees didn’t seem to have a special relationship with the convenience store. It was their Judaism and sense of curiosity that brought them out.
Aside from one diner, whose cousin chugged three energy drinks from Wawa on a dare and had to go to the hospital, folks told stories about their most memorable Shabbat instead.
“I guess tonight is their Wawa story,” Feldman said.