The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A city of eight wards, a holiday of eight nights: Performer finds D.C., Hanukkah a perfect match

The National Menorah sits on the Ellipse near the White House after a lighting ceremony to mark the start of Hanukkah on Sunday. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

“For 8 nights,” the show’s program proclaims in bold letters, “D.C. stands for the District of Chanukah.”

For Washington-based performance artist Brian Feldman, coincidences can be powerful inspiration — and the coincidence of Washington’s division into eight wards, and the Jewish holiday Hanukkah’s length of eight nights, is enough to launch a moving theatrical production taking place throughout the week across the city.

Feldman is celebrating, and performing, Hanukkah onstage with his immediate family — each night in a different ward. (The holiday’s name is a Hebrew word, and English spellings vary, including “Hanukkah,” or “Hannukah,” or “Chanukah,” using the hard “ch” sound of the first Hebrew letter.)

The night one production, in Ward 1′s Source theater, started just as the Jewish winter holiday began at sundown (as all Jewish holidays do) on Sunday night. Feldman kindled the ritual candles, and then he and his family recited what he says is his favorite Hebrew prayer: the Shehechiyanu, which marks a new beginning.

This isn’t exactly new, however, for the Feldman clan. They’ve performed a similar show, in which they eat a family dinner in front of a live audience, numerous times over the past 15 years in New York and at least half a dozen Florida cities.

“It’s a great excuse to get the band back together. It’s my favorite holiday. . . . I like to share that with people,” Feldman said after the first Hanukkah show on Sunday night, as the audience meandered onto the stage to eat the family’s leftover jelly doughnuts and latkes. “There’s something about this piece that keeps bringing me back. I just want to spend time with my family.”

Four ways to celebrate Hanukkah around Washington

As Hanukkah marks their first family dinner show in the District, they find it fitting that they’re exploring every corner of it. In six wards, they found theaters and art venues to host the show. In Wards 3 and 7, they’ll stage the production in private homes — meaning they can cook latkes live. Audience members might get to eat the results and join in the game of dreidel.

Each night, the Feldmans will donate $2 from each ticket (which cost $8 to $25, depending on the venue) to a charitable organization that works in that ward.

During the first night of the unscripted show, Feldman’s mother, father and sister, who all live in Florida, discussed their initial exploration of the District as they chatted over the dinner table.

“It’s the National Christmas Tree. I don’t know what makes it national,” sister Adrienne McIntosh said, showing mother Marilyn Wattman-Feldman a photo on her phone. Feldman, who had been briefly immersed in a separate conversation with his father, Edward Alan Feldman, turned to them, surprised to find what was happening at his Hanukkah dinner: “You’re looking at Christmas trees?” He was equally surprised by his sister’s report from the White House, that she had taken over a gym in a mobile game: “That’s why you went to the White House, to play Pokémon Go?”

Feldman himself is a more familiar figure in Washington, known for performance art such as “Dishwasher,” his 2015 Fringe Festival entry in which he washed dishes in audience members' kitchens. His offbeat ideas for previous performances include a pro-gay-marriage stunt to legally wed someone based on a game of spin the bottle (“Brian Feldman Marries Anybody*”), a rendition of a musical over a pay phone on Christmas Eve (“Rent This Phone”), and a previous Hanukkah show in Google-translated Swedish inside a furniture store (“ChanuIKEA”).

For Fringe actor Brian Feldman, all the kitchen's a stage, and all the dishes merely dirty

But the idea of eating dinner onstage with his family predates them all. He first thought of it, he said, when he was a professional child actor — and a bar mitzvah student.

At 12, he wanted to do a skit after reading the Torah at his bar mitzvah and was inspired by “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” a Neil Simon show he had acted in, to suggest that he could do one of his favorite activities in front of an audience: eat dinner with his family.

He suggested it at a family Shabbat dinner.

At the time, his father and sister said they would do it, but his mother demurred. Ten years later, when she had just recovered from breast cancer, Feldman read her the scene from the Simon show and asked her again. Tearfully, she said yes.

Despite her stage fright, that was the start of a 15-year on-and-off tradition for the Feldman family. And Feldman said he still craves more opportunities to do what he likes best: eating and talking together.

“We haven’t all been together for Hanukkah in five years,” Feldman observed Sunday night as they gathered around a menorah. He struck a match, lit a flame and began their holiday — and their show.