It’s only taken her 30 years, but Israeli music diva Rita has finally hit the big time.
In an era when, in order to stay alive, a pop icon must continually reinvent herself, this veteran star has pulled off a move that would even impress Madonna - another 50-something mistress of self-transformation.
Rita had nothing left to prove on the Israeli music scene. After having catapulted into the national consciousness way back in the 1980’s with hit after hit, starring onstage in musicals “My Fair Lady” and “Chicago,” she was half of the Israeli music industry’s reigning power couple for decades. Together with musician/composer/producer Rami Kleinstein, they produced gold records, raised a family with him, survived a stormy fight and messy break-up with their music company and then, ultimately, the inevitable high-profile celebrity divorce.
All the while, her fan base has stayed as fiercely loyal as that of a Madonna or a Streisand with folks who follow her from stage to stage, and drag queens who make their living imitating her, and her hits are part of the national songbook.
So as she turned half a century, what was left? And what could she do to get the attention of a generation that wasn’t even born when she first topped the charts?
She turned to her Persian roots, recording an album in the language of her parents - or, in her case, her own mother tongue - her family came to Israel from Iran in 1970. Throughout her career, however, she recorded only in Hebrew, limiting her Persian singing to her mother’s kitchen. When she premiered her Persian album with a bang early this year on Israel’s equivalent of American Idol, most expected it to be a mere curiosity.
But the record was an unexpectedly huge success, going gold three weeks after its release, and reigniting her career. This isn’t news in the Israeli and Jewish press - the album received a rave review here in Ha’aretz. But this week, the story was splashed across the Wall Street Journal in a major feature article, the rest of the world world is sitting up and taking notice. The WSJ breathlessly anointed her as Israel’s new secret weapon against Iran (and gave Rita -who has gone by her first name, Beyonce and Madonna-style - a last name):
Rita Jahanforuz, 50-years-old, is Israel's most famous female singer—and suddenly she's big in Iran. Iranian-born and fluent in Persian, Rita, as she is universally known, moved to Israel as a child and has lived there ever since. Her latest album, "All My Joys," revives old-time Persian hits, giving them an upbeat Mediterranean flavor that caters to the Israeli ear.
The album went gold in Israel in just three weeks, despite being sung entirely in Persian. It also propelled Rita onto the music scene in Iran, where she was all but unknown outside of Iran's small Jewish population.
Now, from nightclubs in Tel Aviv to secret underground parties in Tehran, Israelis and Iranians alike go wild when the DJ plays her hit "Beegharar," or "Restless."
Rita's fans within Iran, where the government heavily filters the Internet, use tricky software to furtively download her songs online. Bootleg CD sellers in the back alley of Tehran's old bazaar wrap her albums in unmarked packages and hush any inquiries when asked if they sell her music.
As a career move, Rita’s play wasn’t original. Many popular Israeli singers with Middle Eastern roots, once they had established their credentials in Hebrew, have turned to the music of their family’s origins.
Other female stars like Zehava Ben and Sarit Hadad have recorded music in Arabic and garnered a following in the Arab world. And let’s not forget the late, great Ofra Haza, who was once Rita’s biggest rival for the title of ultimate Israeli diva. None of her Hebrew-language hits propelled her to Hollywood. It was only after she went back to her roots with her album Yemenite Songs, included the dance hit Im Nin’alu, did she come to the attention of Steven Spielberg and Michael Jackson.
But none of these artists released albums with the brilliant timing of Rita’s effort in Persian.
Is it a coincidence that the star decided to embrace her roots at a time when Israel was desperately in need of a peace ambassador that could go over Ahmedinejad’s head and straight to the hearts of the Iranian people?
If it was, it is certainly a happy one, and it seems to be doing great things for her career as well. Eretz Nehederet, the local equivalent of Saturday Night Live, tapped her to guest-star in a comedy sketch that takes place in an Iranian nuclear facility, playing a seductive interrogator who is searching for the mole leaking information to the Israelis. She tortures her victims diva style by plucking their Middle Eastern eyebrows – before revealing that she is actually the spy.
Just think - if we could actually get Rita to Iran, maybe, instead of spying she could use her talent to charm the ayatollahs into pursuing both their nuclear weapons project and seductively sweet-talk them out of their enmity towards the Zionist entity.
If so, Madonna would have to surrender her Hebrew name to her Israeli colleague who saved the Jews from Persian annihilation, Purim-style. Rita would have to be the one we’d call “Esther.”