Shabbat — the Jewish Sabbath – begins every Friday at sundown with a meal. But in all the years that Jews have been having Shabbat dinner, there’s no record in the rabbinic texts of it happening at the fast food chain Wendy’s. Until, that is, a group of seniors in Palm Desert, California, made it their weekly tradition. This week Dan joins in on the Friday night festivities, and the seniors tell him why this ritual is so important to them, how they're evolving it, and how they like their fries.
Watch Rachel Myers's short film, Wendy's Shabbat, here.
This episode originally aired on September 10, 2018, and was produced by Dan Pashman, Anne Saini, Aviva DeKornfeld, Gianna Palmer, and Dan Dzula. The Sporkful production team now includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Tracey Samuelson, and Jared O'Connell.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- “When You’re Away” by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- “Django on a Leash” by Jack Ventimiglia
- “Rogue Apples” by Karla Dietmeyer and Olivia Diercks
- “Burley Cue” by Steve Pierson
- “Happy With You” by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
Photo courtesy of Dan Pashman.
Dan Pashman: Where are we? What are we doing here tonight?
Sharon: We’re here at Wendy’s on Friday night at 6:00. It’s an every Friday night event.
Dan Pashman: And what’s the occasion that you observe every Friday night?
Sharon: We come every Friday night to celebrate Shabbat.
Dan Pashman: Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath. It begins every Friday at sundown, all around the world, and it starts with a meal — Shabbat dinner.
Person 1: You feel you’re part of something that’s 2000-years-old. It really gives you a feeling of belonging.
Dan Pashman: It’s a time honored tradition for sure, but in all the years that Jews have been having Shabbat dinner, there’s no record in the rabbinic texts of it ever happening at the fast food chain Wendy’s. Still, that became the weekly ritual for one group of seniors …
Person 2: Nobody has to be here. You don’t feel like you have to go to temple, you don’t feel like you have to be … people just come because they love it.
Dan Pashman: Today on The Sporkful, I travel to Palm Desert, California, to join these seniors for Shabbat dinner at Wendy’s. And yes, this is the same group featured in the hit documentary, Wendy’s Shabbat:
Dan Pashman: Have you had to sign any autographs yet?
Roberta Mahler: Once.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Roberta Mahler: Don’t laugh. We were walking out of the film festival in Atlanta. Some woman came up and asked me for my autograph, I nearly fainted. Come on now.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. The film Wendy’s Shabbat began as a side project, a short documentary directed by Rachel Myers that came out in 2018. It was a major hit, getting featured at the Tribeca Film Festival, on the Today Show, and more.
Dan Pashman: It takes place in Palm Desert, California, about two hours inland from L.A., near where they do the Coachella Music Festival, if that helps orient you young whippersnappers out there. The seniors in the film live in a huge gated community called Sun City — 5,000 Spanish colonial homes, most of which have one garage for cars, and then a mini garage for a golf cart.
[CAR DOOR SHUTS]
Dan Pashman: A few years back I drove out from L.A. It was 103 in Palm Desert. I arrived in the early afternoon. I wanted to meet a few of the group’s members before dinner time. First up, Roberta Mahler. She features prominently in the documentary, in part because she’s the grandmother of the filmmaker. And in part because she’s a character.
[DOOR BELL PLAYING HAVA NAGILA]
Dan Pashman: Her doorbell plays "Hava Nagila", a traditional Jewish folk song typically sung at celebrations.
Dan Pashman: You must be Roberta.
Roberta Mahler: Hi, how do you do?
Dan Pashman: I’m Dan, nice to meet you.
Roberta Mahler: Likewise.
Dan Pashman: I want to hit your doorbell again to record it because it’s amazing. [LAUGHING] All right, hold on.
Roberta Mahler: Okay.
[DOOR BELL PLAYING HAVA NAGILA]
Dan Pashman: That’s the most jewish thing I’ve ever heard, Roberta.
Roberta Mahler: Well, this is a Jewish household. Actually the doorbell broke, and this thing you can put about 45 different … But my husband chose Hava Nagila, what can I tell you? A Jewish house is a Jewish house. How was your ride out?
Dan Pashman: Roberta and her husband Jack were married for 57 years before he passed away more than a decade ago. She says it took time to get used to socializing single. As she puts it, “It’s a couples world.” But a few years ago, some friends invited her to Shabbat dinner at Wendy’s …
Roberta Mahler: So I kinda looked at them, I said, “Wendy’s Shabbat?” Okay, we went up and you know the group is so friendly. Everyone comes for the same thing, for the companionship, and I guess for the hamburgers or the chicken or whatever.
Dan Pashman: What’s your go to order? Do you have a go to?
Roberta Mahler: Oh, go to. Either chicken nuggets or whatever I’m in the mood for doing.
Dan Pashman: Roberta says she doesn’t have any special requests. But in the documentary, a Wendy’s worker named Winston says many of the others in the group do.
CLIP (WINSTON): It reminds me of my grandparents because that’s how they are when we go out to eat. Like they order specifically, like that’s how my grandparents, they want their stuff. They want things in a certain way.
Dan Pashman: I was curious to ask Roberta why that is.
Dan Pashman: Do you think when people get older they have more special requests at restaurants?
Roberta Mahler: I think they get crotchety.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] Do you think is it that as people get older they get more opinionated, they realize later in life that they like things a certain way or is it ...
Roberta Mahler: Yes, they do.
Dan Pashman: But could it also be — because I feel like as you get older you care less what other people think, so you might be more willing to speak up. Maybe you like your food a certain ...
Roberta Mahler: That’s very true. You know, you’re correct. As you get older, you just — it just doesn’t matter what other people think. You do what you wanna do, you say what you wanna say. If they don’t like it, oh well. I could say something else, but I’ll say, oh well.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: So Roberta does what she wants. And what she wants on Friday evenings is to go to Wendy’s. She grew up in an orthodox Jewish family on Long Island, so Shabbat dinner was mandatory. And while she and her husband weren’t quite so strict with their kids, they continued the tradition.
Roberta Mahler: If you don’t instill something in your children, they have nothing. And then when they get out into the world, they just — they spread their own wings. But you gotta give them a base. I don’t care what it is: Jewish, Catholicism, Protestant, Buddhism. Whatever it is, they have to be given something. I don’t know how you feel about that.
Dan Pashman: We are not especially religious in my home today. I have two daughters, 5 and 7.5. And we’re not especially religious but we do Shabbat dinner almost every Friday night. We do a couple quick blessings and then it’s just a family dinner.
Roberta Mahler: That’s fine. It doesn’t make a … But doing it is an impression on the children.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Roberta Mahler: Today, children are running here, people are schlepping them dancing, whatever it is. And how often do they really ever sit down, other than, as you say, observing Shabbat together as a family.
Dan Pashman: I said goodbye to Roberta, for now …
Dan Pashman: So, you’re coming tonight right?
Roberta Mahler: Oh, yeah. Sure.
Dan Pashman: All right.
Roberta Mahler: Wouldn’t miss Wendy’s Shabbat friday night. Besides that, we’re leaving tomorrow. I have a 6:00 flight to Portland, Oregon, so there’s nothing in the refrigerator. We've cleaned it out.
Dan Pashman: All right.
Dan Pashman: There was one other person I knew I had to see that afternoon, Lou Silberman. In the documentary, he’s the one in the group who seems most into food. It’s clear Lou does not just come to Wendy’s Shabbat for the company.
Lou Silberman: I either have a Son of baconator and some well done french fries. Other times, I’ll have a baked potato with some chili because I gotta tell you something, Wendy’s chili is outstanding.
Dan Pashman: Yes, you heard that correctly, Along with his well done fries, Lou often gets the Baconator. Clearly, this Shabbat group, not so kosher. Another reason I wanted to talk with him, he’s the organizer of Wendy’s Shabbat. Every week he sends out an email to everyone to get a head count, then calls Wendy’s with the number, so the folks at Wendy’s can put together a table for them. He also assigns a person in the group to bring dessert.
Dan Pashman: As I learned when I met him, Lou is the perfect guy for this job. For decades he worked in sales and marketing for the Mattel toy company. He retired more than 20 years ago, when he was 72, and says he soon came to regret that decision. He lost a big part of his purpose, the thing that drove him. So in Palm Desert, as he and his wife Gerrie tell me, he’s thrown himself into the Shabbat group, and a lot more …
Gerrie Silberman: Lou’s very active in the heart association. Lou’s a competitive swimmer.
Lou Silberman: I’m a docent at the Palm Springs Air Museum. I’m an ambassador at the College of the Desert. I am the membership chair of a club here on campus called the Music Buffs. It has 1300 members. And I'm also involved with the fifth largest tennis tournament on the planet, that is the Indian Wells.
Gerrie Silberman: I think he's’ the oldest usher.
Dan Pashman: The oldest usher?
Lou Silberman: I am 92 and going strong.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, clearly. And Gerrie, what do you think it is about Lou’s personality that he ends up in charge of everything.
Gerrie Silberman: Because he loves to be in charge of everything, but of course I don’t always listen.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Lou Silberman: I’m an A type.
Dan Pashman: Type A personality.
Lou Silberman: Yeah, super A type.
Lou Silberman: I’m a control freak.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Gerrie Silberman: I was going to say that but I didn’t want it to be recorded that I said that. But he is definitely a control freak.
Lou Silberman: But with good intentions and good purposes.
Gerrie Silberman: Yes, I’m not saying it wasn’t good.
Dan Pashman: Well, and I’m a control freak in many ways, and the world needs a certain number of control freaks.
Gerrie Silberman: That's right.
Dan Pashman: Otherwise people would never make it to Shabbat dinner.
Gerrie Silberman: That’s exactly — oh, you’re just like Lou.
Dan Pashman: Another thing Lou likes to control, that I can totally relate to — his food order, at Wendy’s…
Dan Pashman: How do you order your fries?
Lou Silberman: Well done.
Dan Pashman: Oh yes, tell me. Let’s talk about that.
Lou Silberman: Really?
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING] I’ve come 3,000 miles to talk about well done fries at Wendy’s.
Lou Silberman: Well, if you don’t get them well done they’re kinda soft and mushy. Well done french fries have a touch to them that just melts in your mouth.
Dan Pashman: Are they ever too well done for you?
Lou Silberman: No, not really.
Dan Pashman: So Lou, at what point in your life did you start ordering your fries well done?
Lou Silberman: At Wendy’s.
Dan Pashman: So for you, if you had realized 50 years earlier that you liked your fries well done, would you have been bashful about asking for them that way?
Lou Silberman: No, it was a delightful experience and having come to that decision 50 years too late.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS] Well don’t — you know, let’s not look back with regret, Lou. Let’s be thankful that you lived long enough to realize how you like your french fries and enjoy them that way.
Lou Silberman: Yes, sir!
Dan Pashman: Before I leave, Lou informs me that he has a mission for me. As you heard, each week he assigns one person to bring dessert. But in classic Lou fashion, he leaves nothing to chance. He wants to make sure there’s enough dessert. After all, he likes to have some extra for the workers at Wendy’s, and since this documentary came out, they have random visitors just showing up to join them. So Lou brings backup dessert. But he just had shoulder surgery, so he wouldn’t be coming tonight. With a solemn look and a twinkle in his eye, Lou hands me a paper plate covered in foil.
Lou Silberman: Since I’m not going, I’m going to take the dessert plate for the youngsters in the back and I’m gonna give them to you and you’re gonna walk over to the counter and say, hi, Lou sent these.
Dan Pashman: Okay, you got it.
Lou Silberman: Okay?
Dan Pashman: I’m honored that I’ve been entrusted with such a big responsibility.
Lou Silberman: Oh, it is!
Dan Pashman: Coming up, I meet up with the group for Shabbat dinner at Wendy’s. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Man, last week’s episode is food nerd heaven, okay? I visit Consumer Reports, the nonprofit that tests everything from frozen pizzas to luxury cars. I go on a tour of their refrigeration and appliances labs, where I get to see the extreme measures they take to ensure fair and accurate testing.
CLIP (PAUL HOPE): Ironically, we test refrigerators inside of refrigerators here Because you have to be able to perfectly account for the outside temperatures to make sure that ...
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Oh, so i like one fridge is in a room that's 80 degrees and another fridge is in a room that's 50 degrees, then one's gonna have to work harder than the other to get the same results.
CLIP (PAUL HOPE): Exactly. Exactly. So ...
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Gosh, you've thought of everything.
CLIP (PAUL HOPE): We have. I mean, it's — I realize it's a little bit ridiculous to put a fridge in a fridge, but I — you know, we don't know a better way yet.
Dan Pashman: I also see the machine that scientifically measures browning on cakes, and I ask to taste the mixture they use to test an oven’s self clean function. Put on your safety goggles and get ready to nerd out big time. That one’s up now.
Dan Pashman: Okay, back to Shabbat dinner at Wendy’s in Palm Desert, California. I should explain, this whole Shabbat dinner and the documentary have no formal connection with Wendy’s. The restaurant declined to make their employees available for an interview for us for this episode. But the company does make some accommodations for the seniors. As I mentioned, after Lou calls in with the head count, the workers there put a big table together in the middle of the restaurant ahead of time. Wendy’s also gives the seniors free soft drinks. Beyond that though, the seniors just order off the menu like any other group. After talking with Lou and Roberta, I headed to Wendy’s.
Dan Pashman: Gotta grab the dessert Lou gave me.
Dan Pashman: As I mentioned Lou couldn’t make it, he just had surgery. Roberta would meet me there. The Wendy’s in Palm Desert is just off the highway, in an upscale shopping area, palm trees here and there. In the distance — brown desert mountains.
Dan Pashman: I'm crossing the parking lot. It's not easy to hold two mics, a recorder, and a plate of desserts I’m learning. But you know, I’m glad I’m not coming empty handed.
Dan Pashman: Inside, a bunch of tables had been pushed together to form one long table with about 20 or 25 seats. There was already a group of seniors there chatting, waiting for more people to arrive. First, I met one of the workers.
Dan Pashman: Hi, how are you?
Rafael: Good. You?
Dan Pashman: Good. I’m Dan.
Dan Pashman: Sorry, holding my mic in my left hand. Good to meet you.
Rafael: Good to meet you too.
Dan Pashman: Thanks for having me. Oh wait, Rafael.
Rafael: Yes, sir?
Dan Pashman: These are from Lou.
Rafael: Oh, Lou.
Dan Pashman: Lou gave me these desserts. He said you would know what to do with them.
Dan Pashman: All right. Thank you. Hey I’m Dan.
Rafael: Thank you.
Dan Pashman: Hey, I'm Dan.
Gerrie Silberman: Oh, this is Dan.
Sharon: Dan? Sharon.
Dan Pashman: Sharon, nice to meet you. Oh, you’re the founder!
Sharon: Well, I’m Sharon.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] Sharon, do you mind if I ask you a couple quick questions?
Dan Pashman: Tell me the story, how did this come to be?
Sharon: Well, we were sitting around in the summer months and at the pool and we didn’t really have anything to do or anywhere to go. And one friday night I said, let’s go to Wendy’s. And then we said, maybe we could have shabbat here. And so the husbands were embarrassed and said no and blah blah blah.
Dan Pashman: Husbands, is this true?
Husbands: Yes, it’s true.
Dan Pashman: What were you embarrassed about?
Husbands: Doing shabbat here, with the candles and the whole thing.
Dan Pashman: What would be embarrassing about that?
Sharon: It’s Wendy’s! And as the weeks and months went on, more people started coming.
Dan Pashman: Members of the group kept filing in, there were a lot of warm greetings. Set out on the table were the sparkling grape juice, challah, which is a traditional Jewish bread, and electric candles. In addition to not being able to bring wine into Wendy’s, the seniors can no longer light candles there. You know, fire codes and such. Before we could start the blessings though, there was some important business to take care of.
Person 3: Dan, if they want to find Sporkful ...
Dan Pashman: Yeah?
Person 3: How do they find The Sporkful?
Dan Pashman: Show me your phone, I’ll subscribe right now.
Person 4: Absolutely.
Dan Pashman: I’ll set you up to download the show 10 million times and my numbers will go through the roof, it’s gonna be great. No, I’m joking. I won’t do that for you. [LAUGHS] Oh? All right, her cellular data is turned off for podcasts, I’ll fix that for you.
Person 4: There it is!
Dan Pashman: There it is, we found the podcasts app. This is turning into tech support. This is gonna be a great podcast. Subscribed.
Bea: What’s your name?
Dan Pashman: My name's Dan.
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Bea: You’re very good looking, Dan
Dan Pashman: Oh, thanks. I appreciate it, so are you.
Bea: Well, it’s the truth.
Dan Pashman: Aw. Well, shucks, I’m blushing.
Bea: No, you’re not. You have a beard.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Bea: I’m the edler statesman, believe it or not.
Dan Pashman: Really? I would not have guessed that.
Bea: I’m the oldest one in the group.
Dan Pashman: What, so you must be well into your 60s?
Bea: You’re my new best friend!
Bea: Actually, I’m one of the original people that started this. We’re like a family now. Some of us we’ve lost already from attrition and what have you, but we stick together as much as we can.
Dan Pashman: At this point, it was time to begin Shabbat dinner, with three blessings. One for Shabbat, then one over the wine and one over the bread. Jewish people recite these blessings every Friday, all over the world, as the sun sets across the globe. Now, at a Wendy’s in Palm Desert, California, it was this group’s turn.
Bea: That’s it, now we all rush to the line, which Lou Silberman is always the first one in, and we get our food.
Dan Pashman: Lou’s not here tonight, who’s going to take his place?
Person 5: We’re ready!
Dan Pashman: Now comes the stampede, right?
Dan Pashman: It was a leisurely stampede. The seniors settled back down at that long table with their food, plastic trays pressed against each other all in a row. Some had salads, others had burgers or chicken nuggets or baked potatoes. A lot of these folks see each other every week, but still, it had the feeling of a reunion of old friends, or a big family meal at the holidays.
Dan Pashman: I put in my order – a cheeseburger and a chili cheese baked potato. Growing up, my family would tailgate at a lot of New York Giants football games and sometimes we did chili cheese dogs in the parking lot. And when we did, we'd always just go get a bunch of chili at Wendy’s and out that on the hotdogs. Also, why doesn’t every restaurant have baked potatoes all the time?
Dan Pashman: After I finished eating, I checked in on Roberta at the other end of the table, I had visited her in her home earlier in the day …
Dan Pashman: I’m sorry to interrupt, but I just need to ask Roberta a quick question about her meal.
Roberta Mahler: What, dear?
Dan Pashman: Roberta, I see your food has just arrived. Walk me through your choice here, this is intriguing. I see a baked potato with what looks like a slice of American cheese melted on and then shredded cheese on top of that? Is that right?
Roberta Mahler: I don’t know. I didn’t get it. Debra did. My daughter Debra ordered it.
Dan Pashman: Oh, okay. You know, are you gonna mix the chili and the potato?
Roberta Mahler: Probably.
Dan Pashman: You might — I mean I don’t want to tell you how to do Wendy’s Shabbat or anything, but if you wanna maybe pour the chili on top, it might help melt the cheese.
Roberta Mahler: Oh, no, no. No, I’m gonna keep it — I’m a purist with this.
Dan Pashman: Okay. All right. I’m not gonna judge.
Roberta Mahler: Okay.
Dan Pashman: At this point I learned of one of the big perks of Shabbat at Wendy’s. Not only does Wendy’s provide the seniors with free soft drinks – they also give them free mini ice creams. Of course, this is in addition to the dessert that the seniors bring themselves …
Dan Pashman: Do you do a swirl? is there a swirl option? Vanilla, chocolate ..
Rafael: Yeah, absolutely.
Dan Pashman: I'll take that. Yeah.
Rafael: Both of them?
Dan Pashman: Sure, sure. Thank you.
Dan Pashman: Now, a little pointer I’ll give you guys. You take your free ice cream here, and you take the cookies that are passed out and then you crumble your cookies into your free ice cream.
Person 6: Yeah, I saw you doing that. It looks very good.
Dan Pashman: You wan me to make you one?
Person 6: No, but I'll remember it next time.
Bea: What’s even better is they have the pecans, the candied pecans that they put in the salad, and if you put that in the ice cream it’s even better.
Dan Pashman: That’s brilliant! Have you done that, Bea?
Dan Pashman: Very shrewd.
Bea: You bet. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: That’s a takeaway for Sporkful listeners right there. That is very good. Candied pecans from the salad bar, right in the ice cream. Brilliant.
Bea: You bet. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: As Bea and I enjoyed our ice cream, we talked about how her Shabbat dinners have changed over the years.
Bea: I’m not as observant because having been raised in an Orthodox family, I had so many restrictions that I resented. I hated because on Friday night when our family had shabbat dinner, I couldn’t go to the football games.
Dan Pashman: What would your parents think if they saw you here?
Bea: They’d turn over.
Bea: You know whatever the reason, my parents were old fashioned people. And I had more don’ts than dos, and I have evolved, because you have to live in this world, in this century, and, you know, you have to roll with the punches.
Dan Pashman: You’re a modern woman, Bea.
Bea: Yes, I am.
Dan Pashman: Shabbat dinner at Wendy’s may not be how they did it in the old testament. But like Bea says, you have to evolve, not just to live in this century, but also, to keep a tradition alive. As I left Wendy’s that night, I thought about Shabbat dinner, and rituals from other religions and cultures that provide the same kind of structure in our lives.
Dan Pashman: One of the most powerful moments in the Wendy’s Shabbat documentary is also one of the most mundane. It’s a part where Roberta talks about how she makes her bed every morning. Earlier that day when I was at her house, I asked Roberta why making the bed is important to her.
Roberta Mahler: It’s a ritual. I think a lot of people, as they get older, a lot of them withdraw. You don’t get up and you don’t get dressed and you don’t make the bed. You drag around the house, no. To me it’s being just following through the routine of everyday living.
Dan Pashman: And I think that for a lot of people of a lot of different faiths, religious rituals are a part of that routine.
Roberta Mahler: Definitely, I feel that you have to have some sort of routine so that you don’t go floating around. You just — you know this is what you do, this is part of your life and this is what keeps you going.
Dan Pashman: My thanks to the folks at Wendy’s in Palm Desert, and to all the members of the Wendy’s Shabbat group, especially Roberta, Lou, Bea, and Sharon. We taped this episode four years ago, so we recently called Roberta for an update. She’s doing well, as are Lou, Gerrie, Sharon, and Bea. But sadly, the Wendy’s Shabbat dinners mostly stopped with covid, and officially ended in June of this year. A few of the members have passed away. One woman turned 100 and decided she didn’t want to drive at night anymore. Roberta says, “For what it was, it was the most wonderful thing. Everybody loved it.”
Dan Pashman: Roberta still has lunch with some of her Wendy’s Shabbat friends once a week. Lou turned 96 and still swims and plays golf. And yes, Roberta still makes her bed every day.
Dan Pashman: The short documentary Wendy’s Shabbat is directed by Rachel Myers and won all kinds of awards when it came out in 2018. You can watch it now at PBS POV.
Dan Pashman: And to all the Jews out there, I'm wishing you a happy and sweet new year.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, we bring you the incredible story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American guy living in San Francisco who was determined to show the world how special Yemeni coffee is. All he had to do was get farmers, specialty coffee buyers, and investors to believe in him, and to get literal tons of coffee out of the country during the middle of a civil war. That’s next week.
Dan Pashman: While you wait for that one, check out last week’s food science nerd extravaganza inside the labs at Consumer Reports. That one's up now.