Israeli-Iranian singer Rita performs at U.N.


The Israeli-Iranian singer Rita performed at the United Nations General Assembly Hall.

Rita performed in Hebrew, English and Farsi at the “Tunes for Peace” concert on Tuesday night — just the third full-fledged concert at the U.N. venue.

The singer, who goes by just her first name, but whose full name is Rita Yahan-Farouz, performed for an audience comprised of Iranian expatriates, Israeli diplomats, U.N. employees and representatives of 140 U.N. delegations, according to Haaretz.

The concert was sponsored by the New York and Los Angeles chapters of the Iranian American Jewish Federation and the UJA-Federation of New York, and hosted by Israel's permanent mission to the United Nations.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon introduced the evening using the word “shalom,” Hebrew for peace as well as hello and goodbye, and called Rita “a cultural ambassador,” according to Haaretz.

“It is our sincere hope that this musical evening will echo from New York to the hearts and minds of people throughout Israel and Iran,” said Ron Prosor, Israel's U.N. ambassador.

Iranian Jews and Muslims unite over Rita


It is not often nowadays that you find Jews and Muslims coming together to celebrate anything — especially when Israel is involved. The recent outbreak of violence in the Middle East makes such a harmonious scenario seem even more of a remote possibility.

Yet this supposed fantasy became reality on Nov. 12, when Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States, hosted nearly 70 prominent Iranian-American Jews and Muslims at his home in a secluded and upscale neighborhood in Washington, D.C. 

This historic private event recalled the perhaps forgotten centuries-long friendship between the Jewish people and the people of Iran by highlighting not diplomats, but a musical artist who need use only one name: Rita. 

The Iranian-Israeli pop singing superstar Rita Jahanforuz, honored during the event, was offered as the perfect example for Oren’s argument that Israelis have nothing against the people and culture of Iran and only seek to support efforts to oppose an oppressive regime.

Well-known guests — ranging from CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer to former Bush administration Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff to Iranian-Jewish former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad — listened as Rita energized the room with her singing.

Wearing a long, simple but elegant black dress, Rita sang a few Israeli songs as well as “Shah-Doomad,” or “King of Grooms,” a song popularly sung at Persian weddings. She spoke in Farsi to the cheering guests — and expressed her tremendous pride for her Iranian cultural identity. 

“For me it is amazing to hear your responses in Persian to me about my music. I am just not used to it because my audiences are mostly in Israel,” Rita said. 

Her band played a host of instruments, including a solo performance of the Iranian tar, a three-stringed, long-necked lute-type instrument. In the end, all of the guests — Iranian and American, Muslim and Jewish — joined Rita by singing, dancing and delighting with her. 

Both Oren and guests gave high praise to Rita for acting as a goodwill ambassador from Israel toward the people of Iran. No doubt her latest album, “All My Joys,” sung entirely in Farsi, has served as her best tool for reaching out to fans in Iran. 

Despite Western and all other music being outlawed by the current regime in Iran, thousands of fans there have downloaded Rita’s songs or bought bootleg versions of her CD. Rita mentioned one particular fan from Iran who sent her a recent e-mail stating that he so enjoyed her music that he was “willing to endure 30 years in prison and receive 70 lashes from the current Iranian regime in order to attend one of her concerts in Israel.” Rita also said she is looking forward to the day when she will perform for her fans at live concerts in a free Iran.

The substantial impact of Rita’s message of peace was illustrated by her ability to bring Jews and Muslims together in friendship at Oren’s home. Guests that night chanted her name in unison, demanding that she continue singing even after her performance was completed. Oren even joined the band briefly, playing an Iranian version of the bongo. 

For Iranian Jews, the evening was a reason to be proud. They spoke to one another of how important it was that Oren had honored one of their own at this private gathering, and they felt special that Israel was now officially recognizing the substantial cultural accomplishments of an Iranian Jew. 

For the others in the audience, it stoked curiosity. Many asked about how many Jews of Iranian background live in Israel or the United States, how many Jews still live in Iran, or why Jews have remained in Iran despite the difficult situation for them there.

Rita serves as an ambassador of goodwill from Israel not only because she speaks and sings in Farsi, but because she represents the Iranian segment of Israeli society that embraces its cultural heritage from Iran and would one day like to renew relations with individuals in its former homeland. Her music, and its message of peace, provides a nonpolitical way to counter the Iranian regime’s repeated calls for Israel’s destruction.

Such cultural connections run deep. Even though there are currently high tensions in the Middle East over Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the majority of non-Jewish Iranians living in the United States and Europe, and countless others living in Iran, harbor no ill will toward Israel or the Jewish people. Likewise, countless Jews and Muslims of Iranian heritage living in the United States have maintained strong friendships that predate the 1979 Iranian revolution, because of their common language and the common culture they share. 

Rita, who was born in Iran in 1962 and immigrated with her family to Israel in 1970, represents a segment of the Iranian community in Israel that never witnessed firsthand the Iranian revolution, and yet still feels a strong sense of nostalgia for Iran and Iranian culture. 

The nostalgia Iranian Jews have for Iranian culture also stems from the significant tolerance and prosperity they enjoyed while living under the Pahlavi dynasty for more than 50 years. For nearly 30 years before 1979, Iran and Israel also enjoyed indirect political relations as well as prosperous economic relations under the regime of the late shah of Iran. 

It is perhaps ironic how a Jewish person like Rita is today keeping Iranian music and songs alive with her albums and performances, considering the fact that for centuries many Jews in Iran were musicians who kept the country’s music alive, despite the national Islamic prohibition against Muslims listening to or performing music in Iran. 

And it was refreshing for many guests to see an Israeli official like Oren personally reaching out to non-Jewish Iranians, as well, in order to express the Jewish people’s longstanding friendship with the people of Iran, which dates back to the age of Iran’s first king, Cyrus the Great. 

“We as Israelis and Jews are here tonight to emphasize the fact that there is a 2,500-year friendship with the people of Iran, and despite the animosity that the regime in Iran has for Israel, we look forward to the day when we can renew our friendship in freedom with the people of Iran,” Oren said. 

Perhaps one day soon, an event like the one at Oren’s home will no longer be unique but, rather, commonplace. More important, cultural and music events such as the one recently organized by the Israeli ambassador give many of us living in the free world hope that despite conflicts in the world, Jews and Muslims can come together in harmony and celebrate their commonalities.

To view photos and videos from Rita’s recent performance at the home of Michael Oren, please visit Karmel Melamed’s blog: jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

Reflections on the occasion of the New Year


Summer Highlights

The month of Elul is all about reflection. It’s an opportunity to look back and discover more about ourselves, a chance to recognize how we were transformed by moments and people. Elul is like a spiritual film review, where the elements of our life story are analyzed and our behavior within the frame is pondered and critiqued.

Reflecting on this past summer, I realize I wrote a whole load of critiques. Memorable for being the summer that spawned The Calendar Girls’ blog on The Journal’s Web site, my first full season in Los Angeles also entailed a bed-rattling earthquake, a summer without central air and 32 cultural events that were pondered, pontificated on and penned. Fifty-five blog posts later, you can assume two things: my collaborator, Dikla Kadosh, and I did not go on vacation, and it’s time to cut the criticism and celebrate the cream of the crop.

In the spirit of the New Year (and Madonna’s current frolic through Israel), I’m calling for a holiday — a celebration — Calendar Girls’ style. Here are excerpts from our best-of-summer picks — and if you happen to disagree, get thee to the blog and tell us!

Israeli Folk Dancing

David Dassa’s innovative approach to a traditional art mixes hip, modern melodies with a side-stepping folk funk. It’s fresh, fun and a full-body workout that rivals yoga:

“The thing about Israeli dance is, you have to know the steps…. It looks easy, flowing and simple, but it sounds like this: TO-THE-MU-SIC, sway to-your-right, shuffle-step, pivot turn, and walk 2-3-4, now spin-to-the-outskirts and clap, clap, clap, switch-your-dance-partner. Spin to your neighbor! … Now, cha-cha! Cha-cha!”

Rita

The sexy, Israeli singing sensation rocked the roof off American Jewish University’s Gindi Auditorium. In an intimate setting of loyal, learned fans Rita’s rendition of “Jerusalem of Gold” was hauntingly personal:

“The audience … knew every word to every song she sang. They not only sang along, they danced in the aisles, called out requests, reached out to touch her as she strolled through the auditorium, and stood clapping and roaring for several minutes, begging for more even after Rita and her 8-piece ensemble concluded their encore. The adoration was palpable.”

Los Angeles International Film Festival

This is where Hollywood industry meets international artistry and indie eccentricity. With a remarkable array of film genres, styles and scene-stealing parties, this fest is worth the wad of cash that gets you an all-access fastpass. 2007 faves:

“The Champagne Spy” about “an Israeli Mossad agent … living a lavish double life as a wealthy ex-Nazi horse breeder,” and “Constantine’s Sword,” in which “former Catholic priest James Carroll traces the confluence of religion, politics and violence from Jesus’ crucifixion to the present day.”

Nashuva

Rabbi Naomi Levy’s inclusive and intimate community makes for a soulful monthly Shabbat service that is musical, meditative and spiritually magical:

“Set inside the barn-like atmosphere of Westwood Hills Church … a 12-part band is flanked by an understated but engaging leader and a spiritually hungry crowd packs the wooden pews. Rabbi Naomi and her band invite the community ‘to return’ … to nourish their souls in release, to stand and sing away the chaos of life and welcome the blessing of Shabbat.”

“Sight Unseen”

A provocative play layered with the complexities of the human experience, this dramatic work astounded, despite a sparse audience of seven:

“Full of emotion and wit and thought-provoking content. It was full of intensity and complexity. It was full of dialogue. And subject matter: modern art, love, identity, Judaism, wealth, marriage.”

“Damage Control”

The captivating Emma Forrest read a vivid tale of the heartbreak that drove her into the arms of a seductive and consoling tattoo artist. Her first book as editor contains essays written by women reflecting on the intimate relationships they have with their beauticians:

“Emma Forrest read her pretty prose to a small crowd surrounded by books; her cadence flushed with a crisp English accent, her voice so soft it alluded to the vulnerability of a woman with a secret.”

Friday Night Live

A group of foreign scholars visiting Los Angeles to study religious pluralism in America imbued one musical Shabbat service with a spiritual solemnity that unified multiple nationalities, ethnicities and religions:

“Until Friday, I had never recited the Shema next to a man wearing a kufi atop his head…. All eyes were on the visitors and I wondered how they were feeling as they experienced this lively, musical romp through the Sabbath. I couldn’t help but think: If this is the first or last time they ever set foot in a synagogue … what will they think about how we pray?”

Deenna Goodman and Dov Rosenblatt

These uber-talented musicians are reinvigorating rock and roll. With dreams to return modern music performance to the spirited collaborative of road-life and festival gigs, and if their talent is any indication, they’ll achieve this once-real fantasy:

“Sporting workman’s pants and a camel-colored beret … [Dov] sang sweet songs with his honey voice, pure and delicate, while his bandmate ‘C’ Lanzbom ripped out aching riffs on the electric…. Deena unleashed the full force of her vocal coloratura — and this gal makes Aretha Franklin sound timid. Her voice is this explosive, sultry sensation and her Joplin-styled performance is the perfect complement.”

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.

Rita
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

Diva Sings Out About Her Tour, Fans


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In America, celebrity divas are instantly recognizable by their first names: Madonna. Britney.

Israel has its own diva: Rita.

Known only by her first name, Rita is as dramatic and flamboyant as a diva should be, but also soulful, with an intensity in her voice and performances that packs an emotional punch.

Her style embodies an eclectic mix of Middle Eastern sounds, with distinctive Persian tones combined with Western influences. Her muses include husband Rami Kleinstein, who was born in the United States but moved to Israel as a small boy, eventually becoming a famous Israeli musician in his own right.

For the first time in two years, Rita will bring her sultry performance style and amazing vocal range to the United States in a minitour, with an L.A. date at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre on April 7.

While Rita’s invariably sold-out shows are usually highly stylized, over-the-top productions, that’s not true of this tour.

“It’s very touchable, very intimate,” she said in a telephone interview with The Journal from her Tel Aviv home. “I want to be very attached to my audience. To be able to talk to them and to hear them.”

And she has millions of fans here.

“It’s very flattering,” said the 43-year-old singer. “I feel that I have a long but healthy relationship with my audiences, because I see my work as a celebration, because I get so much love.”

The Iranian-born songstress, who moved with her family to Israel at 6, burst onto the Israeli music scene in November, 1985. Her first two singles went to No. 1.

Over the years, Rita’s albums have reached gold and platinum status, has been named Israel’s “Singer of the Year” on several occasions and represented Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest. She’s also acted in films and performed on the Israeli stage — a few years ago in “My Fair Lady” and most recently in “Chicago” — and said she hopes to do more theater work.

Almost 20 years after her debut, she’s still considered Israel’s leading female vocalist, and has shown no signs of slowing down.

A self-confessed workaholic, Rita said that she always tries to improve on her work and that she approaches every show as if it’s the first and last of her life.

“The audiences are smart,” she said. “They know if you’re giving them all of you or not, and I always give all of me.”

Rita describes her career highlight as “always the most recent thing.” She sang at the March opening of Yad Vashem’s new Holocaust museum, in front of 41 dignitaries from around the world.

“It was such a moving, emotional experience to be there, singing ‘Yerushalayim Shel Zahav’ in Jerusalem, surrounded by all those photos of all those terrible things that happened to our people,” she said. “But there we were on top of this high mountain in Jerusalem, with everyone sitting there. It was an incredibly emotional experience.”

So much so that Rita’s rendition of “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” is being incorporated into her tour.

Her North American performances are rare, but Rita does many concerts in Israel and Europe. She said she’s very excited about this upcoming tour, saying how important it is for her to meet “my family” — how she refers to her U.S. fans. Besides Los Angeles, the minitour will stop in San Francisco, New York and Montreal. Now that her two daughters are older (13 and 4), she added, she hopes to tour the United States at least once a year.

Rita said she feeds off the dedication of her fans.

“I received a letter and flowers from a fan recently, who wrote that he loved my concert because, ‘It’s not what you give the audience, or what you say to them, but what you cause them to feel.'”

Rita said her mission is “to touch the souls of people. I think that’s an amazing opportunity that we have as artists, to cause people to feel. “

Rita will perform at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 7, at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, 4401 W. Eighth St., Los Angeles. For tickets and information, call (310) 273-2824

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