I've been writing about former Central Floridian performance artist Brian Feldman for over a decade, and from the very first time I covered his conceptual projects in this column, I've commented on our shared Hebrew heritage. Even though I'm an agnostic who barely celebrates Passover or Yom Kippur – aka the Jewish equivalent of an Easter-and-Christmas Christian – I've actually observed more religious rituals alongside Feldman over the years than I have with any rabbi, from lighting the Hanukkah menorah inside IKEA and Cracker Barrel to his recent unexpected (and greatly appreciated) appearance at a family funeral a thousand miles away.
Naturally, when my invitation arrived to the Orlando premiere of Wawa Shabbawa, Feldman's newest Semite-centric show, I was swift to RSVP for Oct. 26, little knowing the tragic significance that particular Shabbat would soon take on.
Last Friday's overbooked performance attracted longtime Feldman followers (including Orange County arts and culture director Terry Olson, sketch artist Thomas Thorspecken and Feldman's family), members of local congregations, and some Gentile Shabbos virgins to the Wawa near Orlando Fashion Square Mall on East Colonial Drive. We commandeered the convenience store's outdoor picnic tables, passed around carbonated grape drink and Philly pretzels (tasty substitutes for Manischewitz and challah), and recited the traditional blessings by the electric glow of Feldman's battery-powered candles.
After our prayers we feasted on Wawa's famous hoagies, sponsored by OneTable, a national nonprofit which makes Shabbat dinner more accessible for millennials. I skipped the bacon, but still broke kosher law by putting cheese on my turkey sandwich. I attempted to explain to Olson, who appeared nonplussed over his salad and milkshake, why Wawa – which I often liken to a 7-Eleven that died and went to convenience store heaven – inspires such devotion from its fans. Feldman's answer to the question, "Why Wawa?," began with his usual absurdism: "First, I just want you to say the name out loud: Wawa Shabbawa. I think it's pretty funny, and pretty Jewish. I just like saying the name."
Poetic license aside, Feldman has been both shopping at Wawa and hosting themed Shabbat dinners (including karaoke Shabbats) for several years. He got the idea to combine them while visiting what was then the world's largest Wawa in Washington, where he premiered the project earlier this year.
"When the Wawa in D.C. opened up, I was in line before they opened," Feldman said. "I walked in and saw they had all these tables set up, and I thought 'this would be a great place to host a Shabbat,' but it was so packed that I had to wait a little bit."
Following its D.C. debut, Feldman held a Wawa Shabbawa in Tampa; next, he's received a grant to host Hanukkah parties in all eight of Washington's wards, a stunt he's been planning since he moved there in 2012.
On the surface, Feldman's performances might seem lightweight, but even his secular projects have had lasting spiritual impact. Following 2008's Leap Year Day, "a woman left her job after seeing my performance," Feldman said. "She told me she was so moved by the concept of the project [that] she left her profession and changed careers." And though he self-deprecatingly describes his events as "like a reality show that will never be on TV" and "incredibly boring," there's nothing ironic about his "legit" love of Jewish traditions. "I was in Hebrew Day School of Central Florida [now Jewish Academy of Orlando] from third grade to seventh grade," he said, "so I grew up with the most religious experience of anyone in my family. It's a part of who I am, and I'm proud of it."
Growing up in liberal suburban New Jersey and living in multicultural Orlando, I never imagined that lighting candles at a convenience store could be considered brave. But our dinner came just days after our President dog-whistled to racists by proudly declaring himself a "nationalist" and on the same day that a George Soros-obsessed terrorist was arrested, a man who lived within walking distance of my father's Aventura home.
"I think it's a great time for something like this, to say hey, we're Jewish and we're in public," Feldman said.
Mere hours later, 11 people were murdered in a Pittsburgh synagogue by a shooter whose express objective was "to kill Jews."
In our current environment, openly celebrating Shabbat isn't simply an amusing art project, but a potentially dangerous act of political protest, and I'm proud to have raised the kiddush cup of Fanta alongside Feldman for all to see.