HERZLIYA, Israel — She’s Israel’s top diva, the Jewish state’s beloved national singer. So when Rita released an album entirely in the language of her country’s arch-enemy Iran, more than a few eyebrows were raised.
“Even my friends, when I told them I was going to do a whole record
in Persian, said ‘Whoa, you are going to sing in the language of (Mah-
moud) Ahmadinejad,’ ” she said, referring to the Iranian president who has threatened to wipe Israel off the map. “I’m combining Hebrew and Persian so much together and I am showing that it is possible.”
The album, My Joys, went gold in Israel within three weeks. More significantly, it seems to have generated a following in the underground music circuit in Iran at a time when tensions are high between the two countries over Iran’s suspect nuclear program.
To Rita, the album is less a political statement and more a return to her roots. Rita Jahan-Foruz was born in Tehran, Iran, 50 years ago. In 1970, the 8-year-old migrated with her family to Israel, where she grew up listening to her mother sing melodies in her native Farsi.
Fifteen years later, Rita erupted onto the Israeli music scene as a one-named wonder and has since gone on to become one of the country’s top recording artists and most recognized celebrities. In 2008, as the country marked its 60th anniversary, she was chosen as Israel’s top female singer ever.
Still, she stayed close to her Iranian roots. Some 250,000 Israelis are of Iranian descent.
“I was born to an amazing culture,” she said. “Most of the world, they didn’t know that from this culture came so many things.”
Rita said the album was aimed at introducing a wider audience to the music that has influenced her, with My Joys being her modern take on classic Iranian songs. She said her parents helped her brush up on Farsi and offered suggestions.
“This is the project of my life. It is something much bigger than singing or a record or a career,” she said.
Unlike many high-profile Israeli artists, Rita is notoriously apolitical. But she said this album could make a difference, serving as a bridge between the people of her home country and her homeland.
Her fans seem to be responding. At a concert in southern Israel, Israelis danced even though they couldn’t fully understand songs.
In Iran, fans are exposed to her music mostly through foreign-based Farsi-language satellite TV. Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst who teaches at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel, said Rita’s popularity is hard to gauge, but it’s possible that her Israeli identity has helped lure listeners fed up with the hard-line government.
“Whatever popularity she might have could be related to artistic capabilities. It could also be related to the backlash we see in Iran against the government,” he said.
Rita is still far from a household name, though, and most of her Iranian fans appear to come from expatriate communities. But not all. During the interview, Rita proudly cited numerous e-mails she said came from fans in Iran.
“The beautiful and emotional songs you sing in this time of war, this crazy time of Islamic control, give an overwhelming feeling of closeness and love between the countries of Iran and Israel,” read one, signed by a writer identified as Ali. F. in Shiraz, Iran.
Rita said such messages convince her that she has managed to make “a little scratch in the wall between us.”
“I want in a few years to go to Iran and have a concert … I am a dreamer, a lot of dreams came true in this world,” she said.