Chabad of S.F.s 1st cafe features Jewish melodies and joe

Candles flickered in red glass containers, throwing shadows on peach-colored walls. At small round tables and on ornate armchairs and sofas, the clientele sipped coffee and sodas and munched on cookies while a string quartet tuned up. An air of excitement and clutches of balloons indicated that it was opening night.

A typical San Francisco coffeehouse, right? Absolutely — but with one small difference. Under the directorship of Rabbi Yosef Langer of Chabad of S.F., "Joe's Cafe" is the city's first cafe and music club created specifically with Jews in mind.

Langer sent out mailers and posted fliers to announce the cafe's opening, which attracted some 60 guests who paid the $5 cover charge to enter the room.

"There aren't very many places where you can get kosher food and hear music, so this is an event in itself," said Mill Valley resident Bruce LeWinter, who came into the city for the cafe's opening.

"I've seen this place in different situations, with different motifs, and this is a very nice one," he continued, looking around the downtown Chabad center's fourth-floor room. The room, which was nearly filled to capacity, has been specially painted and decorated to house the cafe but is used for other purposes when the cafe is not open.

Meanwhile, video producer Emily Swaab and student Alain Jachiet were sipping drinks at a nearby table.

"San Francisco is in need of good Jewish hangouts, so this is great," Swaab enthused. "Rabbi Langer wants to develop the Jewish music scene in San Francisco, and I can't think of a better idea myself."

The idea for Joe's Cafe was born several years ago when a task force assembled by Brian Lurie, then leader of the Jewish Community Federation, suggested ways of attracting disenfranchised Jews at the dawn of a new millennium.

Cafes are "such an integral part of many cultures," Langer said, "and we wanted to create a Jewish, soulful place, where people could gather and hear music."

The rabbi hopes Joe's Cafe will become "a bridge amongst all Jews." He especially hopes to reach out to the unaffiliated, by "showcasing Jewish musicians who play a whole range of music — from contemporary to classical, and jazz to klezmer."

At present, the cafe is scheduling periodical events, but Langer hopes they will soon become weekly. He also hopes to install a Jewish library and a large screen in the space, and to program "Jewish flicks — both funny and educational."

Performing first on opening night was the School of the Arts string quartet, under the leadership of 17-year-old Iris Dror. Along with some classical standards, the group experimented with Jewish tunes.

"I've never played Jewish music before; it was really good fun," said 14-year-old second violinist Christina Wong. "People seemed to be enjoying it — and they weren't throwing tomatoes at us."

Then came Rabbi Asi Spiegel, an Israeli Chassidic rabbi-turned-singer-and-composer. As 10-year-old Shoshana Ross held a flaming candle aloft, the rabbi began by singing a havdallah song. Audience members clapped and smiled as the song came to an end and a fragrant spice-box was passed around.

"It's nice to be in a Jewish crowd on a Saturday night," said city Supervisor Leslie Katz, who'd dropped into the cafe with friends. "We were at a basketball match at USF, and knew about the cafe, so we decided to swing by and see what was going on."

Meanwhile, Langer believed he had come up with the perfect expression for the evening.

"We're waltzing home with the Shabbat Queen," he told the audience. According to the Chassidic founder, the Ba'al Shem Tov, Jews are given an additional soul over Shabbat, Langer said.

"After havdallah, the additional soul leaves and we have to go out into the world again," he said. "But before that happens, we should always have a get-together like this one."