After the candles were lit, the wine blessed and the bread broken, Jimmy Gamliel and Yosi Levy, standing on a small stage in front of patrons at Tempo Restaurant in Encino, broke into traditional Shabbat songs from Israel. The crowd, nearly 110 strong, sang and clapped along with the band. Some mothers stood, holding their children, and swayed to the music. Other patrons, moved either by memories or the melodies, joined Gamliel and Levy onstage to dance.
During a break in the music, people drifted from table to table, greeting and hugging friends. The camaraderie and ambience were such that it was easy to forget that Tempo is a restaurant, not someone's home.
The Valley-based restaurant is a gathering place for Israeli and American-born Jews alike. But for the Los Angeles Israeli community, heavily concentrated in the south Valley, Tempo is a focal point for cultural reconnection, offering a variety of special evenings with them in mind. But it's the Friday evening Shabbat dinner that attracts the entire family. And for those Israelis who have married an American, Tempo's Shabbat dinner offers a vibrant way to present an Israeli-oriented Shabbat tradition to their children.
Gilli Sharoni, co-owner of Tempo with her husband, Avner, and his family, want to make sure their customers feel at home. During each Shabbat dinner, which lasts from 7 to 10 p.m., everyone is given some kosher wine and challah. Individuals are then invited onstage to either light candles or lead the "Kiddush," and children are gathered together in front of a microphone for a rousing "Hamotzi."
"A lot of families came here [on Friday nights] and the natural thing to do was allow them to bless the bread and wine and light the candles," Sharoni said, referring to the beginnings of the restaurant's Shabbat dinner, a regular feature for nearly 20 years. "It just makes it a little bigger than what you would do at home. Even though it's not in exactly the right hour for the blessing, it's the tradition we're trying to show the kids."
Sharoni recalled one Shabbat dinner at Tempo during Passover with particular fondness. "It felt like everybody knew each other; they were all together, reading [the haggadah]. It was unbelievable. It had this family feel."
This Friday-night dinner has kept some, like Sol and Esther Jackel, coming back regularly for 15 years.
"I love the music and the whole Shabbat atmosphere," said Esther, who teaches preschool at Baldwin Hills Elementary. "After a week of school, this really relaxes me."
Gamliel and Levy alternate each week with Zioni Zadok and Ruben Barci, who gravitate toward the American Jewish spectrum of music.
For 7-year-old Adam Gootnick, who was visiting Tempo for the first time with his family, Gamliel and Levy's music was the best part of the evening. "I like the singers," he said. "They sing good."
The family-owned restaurant, started in 1977 as a humble but popular falafel stand, quickly evolved to become an upscale restaurant with a Mediterranean menu and a passion for live music. Many in the Los Angeles Israeli community have also met their spouses at Tempo, especially the employees. "We're trying to make an evening for all the people who got married here," Sharoni said about plans for the restaurant's upcoming 25th anniversary. "There's so many of them."
The Shabbat dinner is one of four nights during the week when Tempo features live music, some of which draw as many as 200 to 300 people. Tuesday night features an Israeli singalong, and Saturday focuses on disco dancing and slow sambas for a more mature crowd, but the Israeli club night with Pini Cohen on Thursdays is a different story.
"Thursday night, [Israelis] dance on the tables and get wild," Sharoni said. "It's always different, surprising and fun. The one thing you can't say is that Tempo is boring."
After 15 years at Tempo, Sharoni still looks forward to Friday nights, especially when it comes to the customer-led blessings.
"Everybody does it a bit differently. There's Sephardics, Ashkenazi, Israeli, Yemenite," she said. "Even in the Israeli community there's so many ways of blessing that it's very interesting."
Tempo Restaurant is at 16610 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For more information, call (818) 905-5855.
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