Ohr HaTorah congregants to bring a taste of Paris to their synagogue’s Sophos Café
By Michael Aushenker
Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.” Charles Aznavour’s “La Boheme.” Jacques Brel’s “Ces Gens La.” Enrico Macias’ “Adieu, Mon Pays.”
If you’re of French heritage – or a Francophile – these classic song titles need no translation.
On Saturday night, June 8 Westsiders can get a gout of French flavor when “A Night in Paris” returns to the Sophos Café in Mar Vista.
“It’s amazing to see we have different populations that crave a taste of their own culture,” said Meirav Finley. “Two-thirds are there for the French night and are not related to the synagogue. These are people from the neighborhood and meet-up groups.”
Finley, wife of Rabbi Mordecai Finley at Ohr HaTorah on Venice Boulevard, where she opened the Sophos in July 2012, always envisioned a restaurant (replete with coffee bar and divans) that would transcend its Jewish roots. A line-up of live entertainment and French cuisine returns June 8, when once again, some 200 connoisseurs of French-language music will pack the Sophos and its ample patio to take in covers of ditties by such folk heroes of France as Ray Ventura, Yves Montand and George Brassans.
“It’s a nice atmosphere,” said Jacob Kantor, who has served as an Ohr HaTorah lay cantor for eight years. “It’s almost like a secret café.”
Indeed, you would not know, judging from the drab exterior of the building housing the synagogue that such a lush and vibrant restaurant awaits inside. Currently open on Thursday and Saturday nights, Sophos (Greek for “wisdom”) offers gourmet menus designed by its inaugural chef, Julie Giuffrida, a graduate of Cornell University’s prestigious hotel administration and restaurant school, the Statler.
Kantor, on guitar, and his singer wife, Julia, will lead a line-up of entertainers on Saturday night.
The Sophos Café has already hosted a handful of French nights, around the time of its opening last July as well as last November, in February, and a French-Russian music extravaganza in early May (both Jacob and Julia were born in Russia).
The Kantors reside in the West Valley, but every Saturday, they take their kids, Eli, 8, and Tea, 5, and make the cross-city trek to the Mar Vista synagogue, where Jacob sings and performs during morning services. Jacob grew up digging The Beatles, Paul Simon, Randy Newman and Elvis Costello, while Julia enjoys the relatively recent pop stylings of Ani Defranco.
But the French and Russian songs are where their musical tastes meet in the middle, and since the restaurant’s opening last year, the Kantors have worked hard to help Finley with the theme-night events.
Evidently, the plan has worked, as these infrequent gatherings have attracted people of French, Canadian-French, Moroccan-French and Algerian-French backgrounds who boisterously sing along with the stage performers. The Kantors have also taken part in jazz and blues nights while other Sophos events have included improv comedy and a Bollywood-style fundraiser. It’s all part of Finley’s initiative to invite people of all cultures living in the area to the facility.
Finley continues to cultivate a bohemian spirit at Ohr HaTorah, which has attracted, as its past and present members, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet, Academy Award-winning actors Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman, and Jon Favreau, director of the first two “Iron Man” movies and the star of “Swingers.” Yet even the Kantors, who do not make a living as entertainers, have contributed their sophisticated talents to the synagogue, and Finley told The Argonaut how blessed she felt about her congregants.
“They’re two out of an extraordinary group that are very creative, very generous, people who are high professionals and love to seek the creative outlet that Ohr HaTorah is able to (facilitate). It’s quiet amazing between the French night and holiday celebrations.”
“I never knew what Mar Vista was,” Finley said. “It was all we could afford. I thought it was not as evolved as far as populations interested in spirituality. The more I drive around and explore, I can’t believe the neighborhood.”
Finley has been driven to incorporate and involve the multicultural tapestry that is the surrounding neighborhood into her synagogue’s fold. She developed the Hub, programming centered around her café that extends into the neighborhood at large. She also opened up the Hub as a voting booth destination during last month’s municipal elections.
After putting together several French nights, the Kantors now have their sights on taking their show sur la route to Catalina Bar & Grill on Hollywood Boulevard on July 25. With Arthur Shane on accordion, Jeff Lams on keyboard, and the Kantors and Cohen joining Jean-Louis Darville, and Veronica Latour on vocals, “Paris at the Catalina” will expand on what they’ve been doing at Ohr HaTorah. The Kantors hope to make a regular engagement at the storied jazz club.
Meanwhile, the June 8 show will be the last theme night before the café goes dark for three months until after Ohr HaTorah’s holiday festivities in September.
“It’s more than a concert, it’s an interactive experience,” Julia Kantor said.