Rita, Israel’s reigning diva, plays intimate evening in L.A.

The Rita show in Rio de Janeiro this February

Only Rita could have pulled it off.

Her famous “One” concert was the first time any Israeli recording artist has attempted such an extravagant, multimedia performance. With its crew of 50 tumbling dancers, grandiose costumes, pyrotechnics and video art, the $5 million production looked like it came right off the Las Vegas Strip.

Last summer’s show at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Center, which took its inspiration from Céline Dion’s year-round Caesar’s Palace concert, “A New Day,” drew close to 100,000 fans over a period of one month. That’s a lot of concertgoers for a country with a population of some 7 million, especially considering the concert was held during the height of the second Lebanon War.

“It was like a miracle,” said Rita, who much like Madonna and Cher eschews her last name. “It was a huge success.”

The concert proved that after 25 years on the stage, Rita is Israel’s most beloved diva. And at 45, the daring performer shows no signs of slowing down.

This month, Rita has something more intimate planned for Angelenos. Only 500 tickets are available for her June 5 performance at the American Jewish University’s (formerly the University of Judaism) Gindi Auditorium.

“My desire in bringing Rita to this location, as opposed to a larger venue which we could have easily sold, is to provide people the unique opportunity to experience an intimate evening with one of Israel’s best,” said Gady Levy, dean and vice president of the AJU’s department of continuing education. “What I believe Rita does best is connect with her audience during a show. The close, informal setting will allow her to connect with the audience even more.”

The Tehran-born singer, known for her passionate love ballads, already enjoys a built-in Los Angeles fan club. After the Islamic revolution in Iran in the late 1970s, most of her family in Iran split between Israel and Los Angeles, and she maintains close ties with her Los Angeles family, not to be confused with her Jewish fans abroad, who she also terms “family.”

Born in 1962, Rita Yahan-Farouz dreamed of performing from the time she was 4, when she sang into a microphone at her uncle’s engagement party, while standing on a chair.

“While singing, I remember it very clearly … very, very, very clearly…. I knew that that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I felt like I was home,” she said.

Her Zionist father felt it was time to pack their bags in 1970 after Rita’s sister came home crying because she refused to recite a Muslim prayer at school. The singer moved to Israel with her family at age 8.

As a teenager in Israel, Rita worked her way through dance school, acting school and voice lessons. The day after performing one of her singles for the Israeli Pre-Eurovision Song Contest, the Persian beauty was mobbed on the bus by new fans.

“It was a Cinderella story,” she said. “I didn’t know that it became that I could never go on a bus again. I got out after two stations. The entire bus was on me, touching and asking, and I didn’t know what happened. It was strange, very strange, very new, very frightening.”

But Rita didn’t set out to be the Israeli idol she is today.

“You don’t think big,” she said. “You’re innocent. It’s not like now that everyone sees all these contests, like ‘American Idol.’ It’s much more something that burns inside of you that you want to sing to people — you don’t think about big success, fame, nothing like that. It’s much deeper.”

Rita is flattered by her comparison to Canadian American legend Celine Dion, although when asked who her American idols are, she answers with little hesitation: “Beyonce. I don’t know whether to kiss or hit her because she’s amazing. She’s really something. She sings, she dances. I like very much the last record of Christian Aguilera.”

She counts Kate Bush and Barbra Streisand among her earlier influences for their multifaceted talents.

Of Dion she said, “I think [she] has a great voice — a great, great voice — but I never sat and cried when I heard her.” Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny the similarities.

As a thespian, Rita has starred in Israel’s stage musicals of “My Fair Lady” and “Chicago.” Despite the occasional provocative, sexy dress, Rita, a mother of two (Meshi, 15, and Noam, 6) radiates a pure, “put together” image.

Rita married her teenage sweetheart, singer-songwriter Rami Kleinstein, who has written, arranged and produced many of her albums and who has performed at American Jewish University in the past. Their musical marriage is one of the most celebrated and enduring in Israel.

Rita’s attempt to break into the international market was cut short, in part, by her commitment to her family. She became pregnant with her second daughter while on tour in Europe promoting her English album, “A Time for Peace,” which sold just 20,000 copies.

“I think this is a very important decision to make,” she said. “I decided that I didn’t want to be famous and miserable when I come home alone. That’s why I had to decide that my main career will be in one place, so I could build a family with children and a husband.”

Old-school Rita at Eurovision 1990

Versatile Israeli Violinist Gains ‘Dream’ Hip-Hop Hit

Perusing the hot R & B/Rap Billboard charts, one does not expect to see a red-headed Israeli artist — replete with a classic “Jewfro” mop of curls — represented by the No. 3 song. ” TARGET=”_blank”>Miri Ben-Ari, however, doing the unexpected is standard fodder; so it should come as no surprise that her new single, “Symphony of Brotherhood” (featuring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech weaving in and out of an extended string solo) topped the charts just one month after its radio release.

Given the violin diva’s penchant for multitasking high-profile projects, it also should come as no surprise that topping the charts is just a drop in the bucket for Ben-Ari. Since April, she has been featured on billboards internationally as the poster girl for Reebok’s “I Am What I Am” campaign; in May, she and Israeli hip-hop mogul, Subliminal, recorded a video, “Classit VeParsi” (Classical and Persian) — which topped Israel’s video charts.

Next Ben-Ari went on national tour with the popular hip-hop group, The Roots, even as she was getting ready to release a hip-hop single about the Holocaust. Meanwhile, VH1 announced her as a new artist working with its Save the Music Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to restore instrumental music education in U.S. public schools.

For many, it’s exhausting just to read Ben-Ari’s list of accomplishments, but the artist is full of energy. She is, after all, on a mission: “I want to bring music back,” she said matter-of-factly. “In an era where everything is music samples, I’m representing a movement that’s turning to live music again.”

Ben-Ari grew up as a classically trained violinist in Israel, and as a child prodigy, she caught the attention of violin virtuoso Isaac Stern. Though she bowed to the top of one music competition after another, Ben-Ari was convinced that the classical scene was not for her.

“The whole time, I knew I wasn’t going to be a classical violinist,” she explained. “I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I was really good with the violin. It was fun playing so fast on the instrument — almost like a sport. But I wasn’t feeling the orchestra thing.”

At 17, Ben-Ari won a scholarship to study music in Boston, where she was exposed to jazz for the first time. After hearing a Charlie Parker CD, she knew where her future lay.

“I had to study whatever it was that Parker was doing,” she said. “I had to be able to improvise like he did. I had to learn that language!”

Following obligatory service in the Israeli army, Ben-Ari packed her bags and moved to the Big Apple — where she hustled gigs every night. “If I walked into a club, and there was a stage,” she said, “I’d pull out my violin and play. If there was no stage, I’d still play. At first I’d get my ass kicked. But you go home, practice all day and go out and get your ass kicked again.”

Persistence and gutsy acts — which Ben-Ari attributes to Israeli chutzpah — got her noticed by jazz greats like Wynton Marsalis and the late Betty Carter, as well as by hip-hop moguls like Kanye West and Wycleff Jean. Once the heavyweights got into her act, it was not long before Ben-Ari had played Carnegie Hall, The Apollo, and Jay Z’s Summer Jam — where she received a standing ovation from 20,000 screaming audience members.

“I was a nobody,” Ben-Ari chuckled, “but I had the second feature, after Missy Elliot.”

Since then, Ben-Ari has gone on to record and perform with pop icons like Alicia Keys and Britney Spears, and she won a Grammy in 2004 for her violin chops on Kanye West’s smash-hit single, “Jesus Walks.”

It is heartening to know that someone so openly Jewish and Israeli can receive so much love from the non-Jewish world.

“Wycleff Jean and Jay Z put me on the map,” Ben-Ari said with passion. “They were not Jewish white people. I’ll never forget that. This is also why I relate to [African American] history. I’ve been working with them. I got embraced by the black community, more than any other community — including the Jewish community. They loved me like one of their own.”

The fact that she is Israeli, Ben-Ari continued, actually strengthens her connection to African Americans, whether Jewish or not. “Struggle relates to struggle,” she said. “They appreciate that I’m from Israel, because I’m coming from struggle.”

That mutual struggle, Ben-Ari continued, was in fact the inspiration for her recent hit single: “MLK is the hero for the black American struggle. Of course, if you’re coming from a struggle yourself, you can’t help comparing…. It always crosses my mind — if we had MLK in Nazi Germany, would it have helped?

Would it have affected the outcome of the Jewish Holocaust?”

These kinds of questions are what led Ben-Ari to work on the Holocaust hip-hop single, due to be released in the coming months.

“It’s almost like they say, ‘music is therapy,'” she explained. “It’s a way to deal. There is no other way for me.”

Here Come The Bridesmaids!

You’ve honored your closest friends and most cherished relatives with a special place in your wedding party. As bridesmaids, they’ll throw you a shower, plan a bachelorette bash and attend other pre-wedding event, which means you’ll be spending a good deal of time with them in the coming months. But weddings have a way of bringing out people’s true colors. And, like an ugly bridesmaid dress, those colors aren’t always flattering. So what do you do about an attendant who’s out to steal your spotlight? Or the one who complains all the time? Easy! Just use our baffling bridesmaid behavior decoder and follow our keep-the-peace guide.

The Diva

This bridesmaid manages to make your wedding all about her. She insists on planning the shower her way and around her schedule, and on the big day spends more time primping for the camera than you do. Watch out: The Diva is trying to steal your thunder!

Kim Thomas (*not her real name), of Santa Barbara, regrets having asked her friend Pia to be in the wedding party.

“She was impossible throughout the whole thing,” Thomas said. “First, she offered to have the bridal shower at her house, but said she would limit it to 25 people — even though she knows I have a huge family. Fortunately, a lot of my relatives live far away and couldn’t make it, so we came in under the limit. Then, she complained about the bridesmaid dress I picked, saying it was too short — but that’s because she’s really tall.”

“On the day of the wedding, she called me and said she wasn’t feeling well, although it was clear she was fine,” Thomas continued. “And then she wouldn’t stop whining about a little chip in her nail polish!”

How to Deal: If The Diva is trying to steal the show, there are a few likely reasons, says Sheryl Paul Nissinen, a Los Angeles counselor and author of “The Conscious Bride’s Wedding Planner” (New Harbinger Publications, 2003). “If she’s not married, it’s possible that she’s jealous,” said Nissinen, especially if she’s older than the bride. Another common reason for all types of behavior are subconscious feelings of sadness over “losing” a sister or best friend, she added.

Handle The Diva’s behavior with a heart-to-heart. You might say, “Hey, I’ve noticed that you’ve turned up your nose at every suggestion I’ve had. It seems like there’s something else going on. What’s up?”

“It sounds so simple, but sometimes just putting it out there and validating her feelings is the best way,” Nissinen said.

The Rookie

This is the first time she’s ever been asked to be a bridesmaid. She doesn’t know she’s expected to help pick out dresses, plan the shower and show up at events leading up to the big day. It may be because she’s single, or doesn’t have sisters to explain the bridesmaids’ role to her. Whatever the reason, you’re frustrated about picking up her slack — and perhaps feeling hurt that she’s not a more involved attendant. Such was the case for Felicia Lo, from St. Augustine, Fla., who asked her sister, Dorothy, to be her maid of honor — her first gig as one. Dorothy didn’t help the other bridesmaids plan any of the pre-wedding festivities.

“My best friend ended up hosting my bridal shower,” Lo said. “And my sister didn’t even come to the bachelorette party.”

How to Deal: Don’t take her cluelessness personally. Before you got engaged, you’d never heard of a wishing well, either! The Rookie simply needs a crash course in Being a Bridesmaid 101. Maybe you can ask one of your more experienced pals to fill her in, or buy her one of the many humorous books on the topic, such as “The Bridesmaid’s Survival Guide” (Viking Penguin, 2000) by Mary Kay McDermott.

The Critic

Because she recently got married herself, she’s full of advice — usually unsolicited. If she says, “I wish I’d gotten married in my hometown,” or “You should write your own vows,” that’s an indication that she has regrets about her own wedding, Nissinen said. You don’t want to hurt her feelings — after all, the tip about giving the DJ a “do not play” list was a great idea — but this bridesmaid is getting on your nerves!

How to Deal: “This often comes out at the bridal shower,” McDermott said. “She critiques every gift you open, saying, ‘Oh, you’re totally going to love that, you need that.'”

While it’s great to have an expert around, don’t let The Critic turn your wedding into “take-two” of her own. Thank her for her suggestions, but stand firm — “I know you would choose white roses, but I’ve had my heart set on freesia since I was 5.”

If you’re at the breaking point, “Say, ‘Gosh, your wedding was so great, but I want to do this my own way,'” McDermott suggested.

The Loner

Your sole grade-school pal or gym buddy can feel like a third wheel amid a sea of sorority sisters. After Tina Stroup of Towson, Md., asked a friend from work to be her bridesmaid, along with three childhood friends, she had second thoughts.

“She wasn’t interested in doing anything — looking at dresses, talking about the wedding,” Stroup said.

Having a bridesmaid who doesn’t fit in is awkward for everyone.

How to Deal: You and your other attendants might make an extra effort to help The Loner feel included — host a bridesmaid movie night, copy her on group e-mails and keep the inside jokes to a minimum.

If that doesn’t work, talk it out. Well before the big day, Stroup sat her friend down and said, “I get the feeling you’re not as excited about this as the other girls, so I want to give you the opportunity to bow out of the wedding party if you want.”

Turns out her coworker was relieved to be let off the hook and happy to attend as a guest.

The Whiner

She’s too busy to go gown shopping. Planning a shower is such a pain. Why did this wedding-party-pooper agree to be a bridesmaid in the first place? For Cara Cormier of Richmond, R.I., finding a flattering bridesmaid dress was especially tough, since her matron of honor would be eight months pregnant at the wedding.

“I picked out four different maternity dresses for her,” Cormier said. “When she finally got around to looking at them, she called me with 101 reasons why she hated all four — the color wasn’t right for her, the material was too heavy, they made her look like a tent, etc.”

Cormier was hurt by her longtime friend’s behavior.

“I thought that since it was my wedding, she’d be a little more cooperative since I bent over backwards for her wedding,” she said.

After an unpleasant argument, the two hung up on each other and haven’t spoken since.

“I highly doubt that I will ever talk to her again,” Cormier said. “It isn’t worth the effort to me.”

How to Deal: First, let’s get one thing straight: “It’s never about the dress,” Nissinen said. In Cormier’s situation — which, unfortunately, is not unique — The Whiner’s complaints about the dress seemed to be about getting her own way in spite of the fact that it was her friend’s big day.

“It’s sad, all too common and completely avoidable that friendships end because of a wedding,” Nissinen said.

So what can you do to avoid a blow-up? Take a few minutes and say, “Let’s sit down and talk.”

If you’re a nonconfrontational person, writing a letter is a great way express your feelings and invite the other person to express hers, Nissinen said. This approach to dealing with The Whiner (or The Diva or The Loner, etc.) can actually bring you closer together if you’re willing to take the risk and say, “I don’t want this to come between us and end the friendship,” she added.

Of course, there are some cases when a split is inevitable, and weddings are often the catalyst. A seemingly silly argument could simply be the final straw for a friendship you’ve outgrown — and that’s OK.

“Friendships do grow apart,” Nissinen said.

The Had-to-Ask-Her

Even though you don’t want your long-lost cousin/fiancé’s stepsister/insert-random-family-member-here in your wedding party, you feel obligated to ask her. But giving in to pressure from other people can cause resentment on both sides.

How to Deal: Jackie Lisek, a Stewartstown, Pa., bridesmaid who suspects she was a Had-to-Ask-Her, has a tip for brides in this tricky position: “If you think it’s an obligation to ask someone, it probably is. And that person probably knows it. Personally, I’d rather not be in the wedding in that case.”

However, if you know that being a bridesmaid is really important to your future sister-in-law, for example, “then you have to do it,” Nissinen said.

Chalk it up to keeping the peace with your new in-laws.

The Gem

She’s thrilled for you and wants to help in any way she can. If pink’s not her thing, she’ll tell you, but she’ll wear it with a smile if that’s what you want. She’s there with a hug, a shoulder to cry on or a glass of wine when you’re overwhelmed by all the planning. On the big day, she makes sure you’ve eaten, helps you go to the bathroom and even dances with dorky Cousin Eddie.

How to Deal: Give this maid a medal! Tell her how much you appreciate her friendship and support. She’s a real pal who knows the true meaning of the word “bridesmaid.” And don’t forget about yourself, too — you obviously did something to deserve a true-blue friend like her.

Abigail Green is a freelance writer and editor based in Baltimore.


Folk Singer Observes a Pensive ‘Holiday’

Some years ago, folk diva Chava Alberstein discovered therundown immigrant neighborhood around the south Tel Aviv central bus station.For the Israeli superstar, the area became a refuge, a place to stroll or sipcoffee unmolested by fans. The residents were foreign workers from countriessuch as China, Thailand, Nigeria and Romania.

But as their numbers swelled to replace Palestinians afterthe intifada, Alberstein — considered Israel’s Joan Baez — saw conditionsdeteriorating.

“These people are brought to Israel, their passports areconfiscated so they can’t go anywhere and they’re forced to live in the worstsituations,” she said. “You see people crawling out of the most unbelievablehovels. It’s bothered me for a long time.”

So Alberstein, 56, did what one would expect of Baez: Shepoured her indignation into an album. Her new CD, “End of the Holiday” (RounderRecords), due in stores Jan. 13,  provides heartbreaking glimpses into thelives of Israel’s estimated 200,000 foreign workers. In her song “FridayNight,” homesick Romanian men sit at dingy snack bars listening to Gypsy music.In “Real Estate,” laundromats and garbage bins are transformed into workers’lodgings in cramped south Tel Aviv. In “Black Video,” an African house cleanertapes tourist sites, rather than his shabby room, to send home with all hissavings.

Speaking from her Tel Aviv home, Alberstein said she isespecially moved by the foreigners’ plight because she, too, immigrated to Israel.

“It’s important to me that the Jews, who were temporaryresidents of so many countries, should be able to welcome the stranger,” shesaid. “I would love to give other people the chance to make Israel their home,as I’ve made this country my home.”

Alberstein, the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors,arrived in Israel around 1950 at the age of 4. Her father, a piano teacher, wastoo poor to purchase a piano, so he bought an accordion and made Chava hisfirst pupil. At age 12, Alberstein was riveted by a Pete Seeger concert andbegged her father for a guitar; he procured for her a used one from a sailor inHaifa. Several years later, she was inspired by American folk musicians whodrew on their ethnic roots to put out her debut album in Yiddish. It wasconsidered a bold, even controversial move in the Hebrew-dominated state.

Nevertheless, the singer-songwriter went on to record almost50 albums and become one of Israel’s most celebrated folk icons, along withartists such as Shlomo Artzi and Yehoram Gaon. “She is the same age as hercountry, and she has captured its growing pangs in her music,” said SimonRutberg of Hatikvah Music in Los Angeles.

Indeed, Alberstein’s dusky alto has often served as a voiceof conscience for the Jewish state: Her “Chad Gadya,” a scathing riff on thePassover tune, admonished Israel for perpetuating the cycle of violence duringthe first intifada. The 1989 song was virtually banned from the radio and ledto canceled concerts and threatening phone calls to Alberstein.

More recently, the folk artist returned to her immigrantroots by writing songs based on Yiddish poems and recording them with theKlezmatics. The resulting CD, 1999’s “The Well,” drew critical praise in theUnited States, as did Alberstein’s cabaret-flavored “Foreign Letters,” recordedin Yiddish, Hebrew and English.

She wasn’t intending to begin a new album two years ago,when her husband, filmmaker Nadav Levitan, showed her poems he had writtenabout foreign workers.

“I thought I was resting,” she said. But then Albersteinread his work, which included “Vera From Bucharest,” about a caretaker strandedwhen her elderly charge dies. “I cried when I read the poems, and I knew I hadto set them to music,” she said.

Alberstein infused the songs with melodies she had heard onthe streets of south Tel Aviv: Romanian strains for “Vera,” for example, andAfrican rhythms for “Black Video.” But while the album is melancholy, she said,it is not about despair.

“It’s about people who are desperate, and who findthemselves in a bad place, but who are struggling to make their lives better,”she said.

The album has been well received in Israel, according toAlberstein.

“It’s accepted with enthusiasm, especially by young peoplewho realize there are so many issues we don’t deal with as we tend to obsessonly about war and peace,” she said. “Because of the political situation … weoften forget there are other people with other problems in the world. Andsometimes they are just around the corner.”

For more information about Alberstein, visit www.aviv2.com/chava.