Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Three Generations of Jewish Women Present the Essence of Vulnerability, Connection and Being Jewish in the Documentary “Wendy’s Shabbat”

April 21, 2018 – 8:00 pm ET 
By Rich Weissman, Palm Springs, California (www.richweissman.com)

Imagine a $4 burger, chicken nuggets, fries and a Frosty® meal with challah, Shabbat candles (battery operated) and wine (in the form of fruit juice) at Wendy’s fast food restaurant every Friday night for Shabbat, filled with elderly Jewish people, most in their eighties and nineties. Certainly, the least likely of places for a religious gathering. Yet, every week at Wendy’s in Palm Desert, California, twenty to forty people gather to celebrate Shabbat, and have been doing so for eight years. And now, this story is presented in the inspiring short documentary film, “Wendy’s Shabbat.“ Much to the surprise of the film’s creators, the 10-minute film has captivated audiences throughout the world, received national acclaim, and was selected for the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. The film’s themes of the convergence of Jewish tradition, vulnerability in aging, and the ability to connect in an unconventional way, presents an idea that confronts time-honored practices and stereotypes with novel approaches. The juxtaposition of sacred Jewish customs that span the millennia with the instant get-it-now Wendy’s fast-food environment engenders both humor as well as a serious reflection on what it means to be elderly and what it means to be Jewish today.

Rachel Myers (Director), her mother, Abby Myers (Executive Producer), and Rachel’s grandmother, Roberta Mahler (the person who provides the film’s point of view and who lives in a retirement complex in Palm Desert, regularly participating in Shabbat at Wendy’s), together created the charming and touching film. Roberta’s experience provides the narrative for the film’s story of people, some of whom do not necessarily know each other and may have no connection other than their age and Judaism, meeting at Wendy’s each week through word-of-mouth to share an important Jewish ritual.

Talking with the three women revealed their passion for tradition, coupled with an understanding of vulnerability in aging, and the need for human connection though their Judaic roots. This provided the impetus for Rachel to bring three generations of the Jewish women in her family together to make the film. Rachel assembled the team, and Abby as producer managed logistics, with Roberta as protagonist.

Roberta spoke of “tradition” and how tradition translates itself into modern times. When she initially heard of the Shabbat at Wendy’s event, she was bemused. How could a public, fast-food restaurant be an appropriate place for something so revered as the celebration of Shabbat? Yet, she came to realize that although Jewish tradition in and of itself is important, it must be adapted to remain relevant, and most importantly to provide meaning to those who celebrate the traditions. The setting is not of importance; rather, the people and their desire to engage with one another is what matters.

Rachel spoke of the sense of “vulnerability” aging engenders through isolation of the elderly, and concern for her grandmother, the film’s protagonist, as her grandmother ages. She relished the role Shabbat at Wendy’s plays for her grandmother and others who experience the weekly event, and created the film to demonstrate how simple connections build community. She noted that as American society finds itself sequestered in the anonymity of the suburbs or high rises, without a “place” to simply meet others and to share, Shabbat at Wendy’s provides an incredible albeit simple platform for inclusion. There are 40 plus million Americans over the age of 75, representing 13% of the total population, and growing in numbers and proportions each year, representing the fastest growing age demographic in the nation (U.S. Census Bureau 2010 Census). This sizable group needs ways to overcome loneliness, as aging is much more than physical – it is often the loss of emotional connection.

“Wendy’s Shabbat” is the quintessential short documentary film, as it captures the essence of its important themes in just 10 minutes: community connection in the face of the isolation of aging in America, and the use of the traditional Shabbat service as a stage for connection through inclusiveness for the Jewish elderly. The incongruence of the fast-food restaurant setting of Wendy’s with the hallowed ritual of Shabbat creates the film’s intrigue. By portraying the challenge of aging with the essence of being Jewish, the film captures these themes through presenting a meal so unassuming that it defies the notion of pretense. No pageantry, no artificiality and no affectation. It is the pure simplicity and authenticity of the gathering and the meal that demonstrate the core precept of what it means to be Jewish, and how Judaism differs from so many other religions as so beautifully expressed in the film – connecting people to each other, not to a superior being through grandeur and pomp, not to an afterlife or some other-world existence, and certainly not through fire and brimstone, but to one another in ways that make Jews feel connected as people as they share a $4 dinner at Wendy's with laughter and human engagement in their senior years. “Wendy’s Shabbat” captures that essence through this captivating and moving film.

To view the trailer, click here.

P.S. – I joined the participants at Wendy’s Shabbat dinner for a first-hand peek. It was a delightful evening and complemented the experience of talking with the three generations of women and seeing the film.