The Shabbat Dinner That Comes With A Side Of Chicken Nuggets

"In Judaism, ritual is what keeps people together," Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin says in the trailer for the short film Wendy's Shabbat, which features Rabbi Zeldin and a group of elderly Jewish people who, as the title suggests, get together every Friday night to observe the weekly Shabbat dinner at their local Wendy's location (yes, that Wendy's).
Rachel Myers' grandmother, Roberta, is a regular at the Wendy's Shabbat, and it was through her that Myers learned about it. Eventually, she and an all-female crew decided to film the dinner and interview the attendees about what keeps them coming back week after week. The resulting documentary is simultaneously a demonstration of enduring faith as well as a meditation on the value of human connection. Like Rabbi Zeldin said, religious rituals provide the foundation on which communities are founded and sustained — and that sense of togetherness, more than anything else, is what drives the guests at the Wendy's Shabbat to keep the tradition alive.
Wendy's Shabbat is screening at the Tribeca Film Festival this Saturday and next week. I spoke with Myers about making the film, the effect it's having on audiences, and the importance of community.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your grandmother is featured in the film, so I know you have a personal connection to the story, but when did you decide to make the film?
"I was out there one weekend [visiting my grandmother] and it was Shabbat on Friday night. I went out with her and I thought it was such a beautiful little tradition that they had. I took some photos of it and thought this would be a really great documentary. I mentioned it to them —they’re all very open-hearted about trying new things. I said to the group, 'Would you be okay with somebody coming to film you?' They said, 'Oh, that’d be fun.' And I kind of sat on it for a while. A friend of mine is a documentary producer, and I was having lunch with her. I said, 'You know, I have a great idea for a documentary,' and I casually showed her the photos that I’d taken... That was sort of what lit the fire and put all the pieces together. I’ve been working in the film industry for 15 years, so I called some friends, coordinated people to come out and work with me on it, we storyboarded it, and before I knew it, it was a film shoot."
Why did the group choose Wendy’s in particular? Why not one of their houses or a different restaurant?
"I think at that age they want to get together actually is a lot to entertain — to get your house cleaned, buy food or cook food, then clean up. They all wanted to do something, but nobody had to do any work this way. It was an easy way to see one another. They have different dietary needs [and] everyone could order what they wanted. It was inexpensive, because they’re on fixed incomes. And it’s sort of in-and-out — you can leave when you’d like. I think that’s where it came from, honestly... I happened to be Wendy's because they liked the chicken nuggets, but it could have been IHOP or Denny's or California Pizza Kitchen just as easily. It’s just that [Wendy's] was in close proximity to where they were living and it’s affordable."
Did they have to make adjustments to the Shabbat ritual itself given the setting, the menu?
"A lot of [the group] were reform, even though they came from a diverse background of different types of Judaism growing up. So there was there wasn’t a religious expectation that a Shabbat service had to be any particular way. Depending on how religious you are, the Friday night tends to be like 'Shabbat-lite' and then the meat of Shabbat, if you’re a more observant Jew, comes with the Saturday morning Torah service. So, this was just the welcoming of the Sabbath [with] the candles and the ritual. Their little service lasts less than five minutes, probably, but it’s just about the connection, the repetition of prayers, and the fact that they’re able to share in this together. It feels very personal and emotional because it’s something that harkens back to their identity as Jews and as Jewish seniors."
So there definitely is a religious component to their tradition but, as we see in the trailer, they’ll hang out for a few hours after finishing the actual service.
"There’s something about having shared community spaces for people to gather, because in the United States, the design of a lot of our cities and particularly the community where [the group in the film] lives...where there isn’t a sense of public space. When I’ve been in Spain, Cuba, or other countries, old and young people sit on the streets together talking. I don’t feel like that necessarily exists in some American cities — an integration of seniors in daily life in the same way. So I believe that’s where it came from, just a desire to gather, a desire to spend time together."
Did anything come up during your interviews with the film’s subjects that surprised you or stuck with you?
"The film is 10 minutes long, but most of the interviews were over an hour... I had asked a lot of questions about Judaism and Jewish identity and was trying to pry out a deeper religious nugget in the interviewing. It just didn’t materialize. They answered questions about how they became observant Jews or how they were raised religiously (a lot of them were raised in more observant homes or Orthodox homes). But, I was looking to see if I could get an answer from somebody that was like, 'Oh, Judaism is what drives me [to attend the Shabbat],' or something bigger and nobody said anything like that. What they said was, 'It’s who I am and I get to see my friends,' 'It’s about community and I get to be Jewish at the same time.' So, their comments were really about community connection."
The feeling you get just from the trailer is really cozy and comforting. As you’re screening the film, how do you hope the audience feels as they leave the theater?
"The most amazing surprise that’s emerged from the movie is that we’ve received an outpour of interest from senior groups and Jewish groups — from college Hillels to Jewish temples — who’ve reached out because there’s not much content celebrating people who are in later life. We’ve been asked if people could use the name 'Wendy’s Shabbat' to start their own gatherings. We have been contacted by groups in Tennessee, Toronto, and Boca. In the case of the Jews in Tennessee, they had an event at a Mexican restaurant where they brought their own wine and candles and they called it 'Wendy’s Shabbat,' even though it was Shabbat with margaritas (laughs). Then the Boca group organized theirs at another Wendy’s... I think it speaks to the desire of people to find these types of places to sort of gather and celebrate."

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