Israeli Flavor In Laid-Back Town


Santa Barbara, Calif. — A music fan spots Nir Kabaretti seated at a table in a State Street café and greets him warmly. Kabaretti, sipping a cup of tea this sunny morning, is well known around town.

He is the Israeli music and artistic director of the Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra, whose home is just down the street in the beautifully restored, 1,500-seat Granada Theater, built around 1924.

It’s all a mark of the sometimes-overlooked cosmopolitan side of this laid-back beachside community about two hours north of Los Angeles off Highway 101.

When we met in May, Kabaretti was preparing for Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection,” part of the grand finale of the orchestra’s 60th season.

The conductor currently divides his time between Florence, Italy and Santa Barbara.

Preceding him in Santa Barbara was the Israeli Gisele Ben-Dor, currently the symphony’s conductor laureate as well as the conductor emerita of the Boston Pro-Arte Chamber Orchestra, for which she will conduct a program of Beethoven, Haydn and Revueltas on Oct. 5.

When Kabaretti and I end our chat, things are still rather quiet, but the sidewalk cafés along State Street will soon begin to fill up, giving the town a warm Mediterranean feel, especially at the end of the electric tram shuttle on the Cabrillo Boulevard beach promenade.

That’s where you can bike, stroll, or climb aboard a surrey and pedal with a bunch of friends.

And as far as beaches go, there are some very nice options nearby, including Butterfly Beach across from the Biltmore Hotel and East Beach and West Beach by Stearns Wharf, the starting point for whale-watching tours and fishing trips.

For native New Yorker Helene Schneider, Santa Barbara’s mayor, the city has the best of both worlds. It’s “a small city but with big ideas and aspirations,” she says.

“There’s really something for everyone here. The climate is always amazing. …You’re between the ocean and mountains, so the natural resources are just incredible, but it’s also very beautifully done architecturally.”

A recent development is Santa Barbara’s “Funk Zone,” a warehouse district at the southern end of State Street filled with new cafés, breweries, and tasting rooms representing 15 Santa Ynez Valley wineries.

The hillsides overlooking the palm-lined beaches are studded with lovely homes and breathtaking views, but then most of the views of Santa Barbara are priceless, whether you’re looking down from the hills or up from the water.

This year, from Aug. 30 to Sept. 6, State Street will also reflect Santa Barbara’s Jewish side — yes, there is one — when the Jewish federation flies 125 federation flags along this iconic street, from downtown to the waterfront.

The federation is encouraging members of the town’s 5,000-6,000 Jewish households to sponsor a flag in memory of a loved one or a special occasion.

“So it brings a little bit of recognition…and visibility,” says Michael S. Rassler, executive director of the federation, “not only to the Jewish community members who are affiliated or unaffiliated, but certainly to the broader general community.”

Among the federation’s activities is “Portraits of Survival,” a major permanent exhibit highlighting the personal stories of 28 local Holocaust survivors, and “Upstanders: Courage in the Face of Evil,” about individuals who helped save Jews during the Holocaust.

Santa Barbara has a number of synagogues, including the Orthodox Chabad and “storefront” Young Israel, and two Reform synagogues, the large Congregation B’nai B’rith and the Community Shul of Montecito and Santa Barbara.

The federation’s Rassler believes Santa Barbara is “an incredibly warm and engaging, ‘haimishe’ community.”

An example of just how “engaging” it can be is reflected in the “Building Bridges 1998” program, a series of talks, films and performances sponsored by civic organizations.

Walter Kohn, the University of California at Santa Barbara Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, played a key role in this event, helping to bring together a Jewish klezmer band and some mariachi musicians.

A specialist in condensed matter physics, Kohn is a native of Austria who fled the Nazis on the last kindertransport to England three weeks before the outbreak of war.

On weekends, Highway 101 leading to Santa Barbara can get crowded, as visitors, especially those from Los Angeles, come to soak up the easy-going lifestyle.

But long before there were freeways, the trip was still an adventure.

In 1928, Charlie Chaplin built the Montecito Inn on Coast Village Road two blocks from the ocean, and the inn, says operations manager Jim Copus, was a place where Chaplin could host his “rich and famous” Hollywood friends, who then continued on to Hearst Castle in San Simeon to party.

Another interesting personality who left a lasting imprint here was Madame Ganna Walska, a Polish opera singer who developed Lotusland, a botanical garden filled with exotic plants reflecting Walska’s daring, imaginative touch.

Located in the foothills above Santa Barbara, Lotusland is a 10- to 15-minute drive to the beach.

Like so much to see and do here, it’s an unexpected joy.

(For more information about Santa Barbara travel, visit