Jewish Journal

Thursdays With Pini

Israeli singer draws throngs weekly to Encino club.

by Michael Aushenker

Posted on May. 8, 2003 at 8:00 pm

The moment you enter Tempo restaurant in Encino on a Thursday night, you realize that it's Pini Cohen's town, and we just dance in it.

The local Israeli singer knows how to attract and work a crowd. First, Cohen packs them in so tightly that the waitresses navigating through the dense throng wear their stress on their faces. Then Cohen belts out an upbeat Middle Eastern pop tune.

Teens and 20-somethings -- Israeli, Russian, Persian -- move to the beat, as older couples sing along from their dinner tables. Middle-aged Israeli men high-five each other. A 40-something sabra in the audience gets onstage and shimmies seductively before Cohen, who is soon circulating through the restaurant -- not an empty table in sight -- as he croons.

And that's just the first number.

Such is the mania that Cohen has conjured up at Tempo on a weekly basis for more than a decade, and he keeps Israeli transplants such as Dorit Sfadia coming back for more.

"He sings from his soul," Sfadia said. "It keeps our spirit alive. You come here to forget your troubles."

"I see him as part of the restaurant," said Gilli Sharoni, who runs Tempo, an Encino fixture since 1977. "If he was gone, it would be a big loss."

An old friend of Cohen's, Sharoni is still moved by his renditions of popular songs.

"He sings it his way," Sharoni said. "When he sings it, you want to cry. He's got that magic about him."

Garbed in black leather on a recent Thursday night as he prepared to perform numbers in English, Hebrew, Yemenite, Russian, Spanish, even Yiddish, Cohen said, "I'm so attached to this community, it's unbelievable."

Cohen also performs at the annual Israel Independence Day Festival in Woodley Park. Last year, the festival honored Cohen with a community award. On May 11, Cohen will play there again.

"He knows how to entertain," said Jerome Gutman, festival director.

Cohen, 55, is no stranger to entertainment. His father was a working singer, and in 1978, Izhar Cohen, Cohen's younger brother and the leader of the group, The Alpha Beta, was the first Israeli to win the Eurovision title with his original composition, "A-Ba-Ni-Bi." Cohen started out at age 13 playing accordion on the family tour, in what Cohen refers to as "the Yemenite Jackson Five."

Cohen came to Los Angeles on a tour in 1972. When the gig faded away, Cohen remained, even though he hadn't planned it. Stephen S. Weiss Temple's Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin and Metuka Benjamin put Cohen up in what is now the synagogue's preschool, and they let him perform at the temple.

Cohen met his wife, Beatrice, in the early 1980s, while opening for Frank Sinatra Jr. in Montgomery, Ala. Cohen said he initially could not wrap his mind around Beatrice, a half-Cherokee with a thick Southern accent. They now have two sons, ages 19 and 17, and a 14-year-old daughter.

Throughout the '70s and '80s, Cohen played now-defunct Jewish clubs, such as Haolim on Fairfax Avenue and Jericho on Pico Boulevard, and ran his own club, Halleluyah, on La Cienega Boulevard and Third Street, from 1981-84.

Cohen recently pulled off spirited gigs in Panama and Mexico, where the Syrian Jews "start at midnight and go until 7 a.m." The Tarzana resident will soon play Las Vegas, but Tempo is Cohen's second home.

As Cohen and a female singer perform an Alabina cover, couples -- Dorit and Ezra Sfadia, David and Orly Adri -- share warm memories of the times Cohen performed at their weddings and other life-cycle events.

"I played at his bris and then I played at his wedding," said Cohen, with no exaggeration, about so many young men in the community.

For his diverse crowd, Cohen owns Thursday nights.

"There's only one Pini," David Adri said.

Catch Pini Cohen at Tempo restaurant in Encino. For more information, call (818) 905-5855. For information on the Israel Independence Day Festival, call (818) 757-0123 or (800) 644-9505 or visit www.israelfestival.com .

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