Forget gefilte fish, roast chicken and brisket. Burgers, French fries and chicken nuggets are the preferred fare of senior citizens in Palm Springs, California. They gather on Friday evenings to welcome the Jewish Sabbath at their local Wendy’s fast food franchise.
Instead of staying by their lonesomes in their homes in the Sun City retirement community, the seniors head to Wendy’s, bringing along candles, challah and grape juice. Seated at a long table set up for them by the young staff, they recite the traditional blessings welcoming Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. Then they tuck into their chili and chicken wraps and schmooze for a couple of hours.
This unusual Shabbat dinner arrangement and cherished community is depicted in a charming, new short documentary film, “Wendy’s Shabbat,” by Rachel Myers, the granddaughter of one of the fast-food Shabbat dinner regulars.
Myers, a 37-year-old Los Angles-based production designer, went with her grandmother, Roberta Mahler, to several of these dinners and took photographs.
“I thought it was so adorable and sweet and hysterical. It was a lovely, quirky tradition,” Myers told The Times of Israel.
A producer friend to whom Myers showed the photos encouraged her to make a film about the group. Myers, who had never directed a documentary, took the project on, recruiting her mother Abby Mahler Myers as executive producer and shooting all the footage for the 10-minute film over two days in December 2016.
To Myers’ delight, this labor of love was accepted to a variety of film festivals, including the Sedona International Film Festival, where it will be screened later this month. The film premiered February 9 at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, and a teaser for the film has been viewed nearly 100,000 times on Vimeo and YouTube combined.
Founder of the Wendy’s Shabbat group Sharon Goodman is featured in the film. She is astounded by how positively and widely it has been received.
“You’re calling all the way from Israel?!” she said incredulously when this reporter reached her by phone.
Goodman and her husband, who moved to Sun City from Los Angeles 14 years ago, decided to invite another couple to go to for fast food with them one Friday night five or six years ago.
“We were just sitting around the pool on a Friday night with nowhere to go, and we’re not fancy people, so we figured, let’s go down to Wendy’s,” Goodman says in the film.
Goodman cleared the idea of holding communal Shabbat dinners with the manger at the Wendy’s located five minutes outside Sun City, and things took off from there.
“Someone always brings dessert, and we bring the challah and sparkling grape juice — because wine is not allowed,” Goodman said.
For years, the group also lit real Shabbat candles, however, more recently they have been using battery-powered ones from the dollar store.
“We say the blessings at six, and anyone is welcome to come join us,” Goodman said.
Myers conveys the importance of the Wendy’s Shabbat ritual — rather than just its peculiarity — by making Mahler, 88, the protagonist of the film. Myers gives a glimpse into her grandmother’s life, highlighting the isolation faced by elderly individuals.
Some scenes shot in Mahler’s home show her first thing in the morning. In her bedclothes and without having applied make up or brushed her hair, she makes her bed.
“I make my bed everyday, because I feel that if you don’t do it, you start losing what you are supposed to do,” Mahler says.
Myers said she was careful not to let her grandmother come across as too vulnerable in the film.
“She says it like it is. She’s truthful and honest. I got choked up quite a bit as she was being interviewed on camera, and I felt protective of her during the editing process,” Myers said.
Mahler, who was widowed a decade ago after 57 years of marriage to her husband Jack, told The Times of Israel she tries to attend Wendy’s Shabbat every Friday.
“The only real exception is when I am out of town visiting my kids. It’s become a family bond. Being alone, it lets you be part of a group. I look forward to going on Friday to see everyone,” she said.
In Atlanta, Mahler posed on the red carpet with her granddaughter and enjoyed her newfound fame.
“A woman even came up to me and asked to take my picture!” she said.
Unfortunately, not everyone featured in the film lived to see its official premiere, including Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, founder of Los Angeles’ Stephen Wise Temple, one of the largest Reform congregations in the US, who died in January at age 97.
“For this reason, I’m really glad we held a special advance screening and reception at the Sun City club house last the summer,” Myers said.
As might be expected with people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, the membership of the Wendy’s Shabbat group has changed over time.
“We’ve lost friends and gained new people,” Goodman said.
What’s remains constant is the sense of community that is recreated every Friday evening over fast food.
“It’s about being part of your Jewish heritage. It doesn’t matter how you do it,” Mahler said.