From Whitney Houston to Jewish Prayer: A Ukrainian Pop Diva Aims for Israeli Stardom

Lior Phillips
Irene Rosenfeld, a pint-sized singer with larger-than life goals.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Lior Phillips

Six months ago, Irene Rosenfeld swapped national fame for faith and freedom, leaving her home country of Ukraine to become just another face among the young Jewish immigrants now living in Israel.

Rosenfeld, 26, a singing sensation who has been a finalist for both Ukrainian Pop Idol and to represent Ukraine on the Eurovision song contest, croons tunes in four languages – Russian, English, Yiddish and Hebrew – covering everything from traditional Jewish music such as such as the Jewish prayer, “Avinu Malkeinu” (“Our Father, Our King”), to Whitney Houston hits. She taps into these different sources to inspire, and be inspired, and now she is working to make her mark on the Israeli music scene with new songs and an upcoming record.

The slender Rosenfeld has bouncy, copper-colored hair and the voice of a resurrected Jazz icon. On stage her energy is palpable. Off stage, when she isn’t speaking, her mouth rests in a smile, and out of habit her hands fidget with the Star of David that hangs from a delicate gold chain around her neck. She looks like the girl next door, but under bright lights, standing center stage, she’s an unstoppable force who seems to care about only one thing: singing.

That’s been the case since Rosenfeld was 3 years old. The daughter of a housekeeper and a retired senior fire department official, she’s been tirelessly honing her craft since childhood.

“The moment I started walking and speaking, I wanted to be a pop star,” she says. At age 7 she wrote her first song about love, called “Island.” “I’m obsessed with the idea of love,” she says, blushing. She put on musical shows at home, but each year her passion changed; one year she wanted to be a singer, the next a dancer.

Rosenfeld spent most of her early years in Kerch, just east of Crimea, where her father became chairman of the city’s Jewish community, making the Rosenfeld family name well known in Ukraine.

“Both my father and mother went to musical school, for accordion and guitar, but nobody got the voice,” she says on a recent Sunday afternoon. “I suppose if you put us all in a bowl and mixed us up like paint colors, we’d have a bright shiny band.”

School was always boring for her, so Rosenfeld did whatever work was necessary and then focused the rest of her energy on performing in front of the mirror, holding a brush as a makeshift microphone, and singing the words to every Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey song.

She was only 14 when she moved to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, to study at Glière Music College. Later, she completed a Bachelor of Arts course that combined the trifecta she has always loved: acting, singing, and dancing.“It’s one whole thing because when I’m onstage singing I’m also acting,” Rosenfeld says. “The crowd and the people coming to see me want a show; they want to see a performer with an attitude and an energy.”

After that she pursued a two-year Master’s degree in vocal training at the Musical Academy, also in Kiev. Since completing her studies, Rosenfeld has continued to hone her craft relentlessly and fearlessly.

“When I lived in Kerch I already took part in competitions,” she says. “It was ingrained in my blood and that competitive spirit came from a young age.”

In the last ten years, she has competed in various singing competitions – she’s been a finalist for Eurovision to represent Ukraine three times (2006, 2010, and 2011), hosted several Ukrainian television shows, and was among the top three finalists in Ukraine’s version of the international singing and impersonation contest, “Your Face Sounds Familiar.” There, in a show of her impressive talent, the five-foot-tall Rosenfeld morphed into both Luciano Pavarotti and a hip-swaying, neck-popping Beyoncé on stage.

‘I feel spiritually calm now’

That very talent is what grabbed the attention of Chaim Chesler, the founder of Limmud FSU, several years ago at an event in Yalta, a resort city in Crimea. Chesler and his co-founders brought the model of Limmud (“learning” in Hebrew) from the U.K. to the countries of the former Soviet Union (hence the FSU in the name). Since its establishment in 2006, Limmud FSU has worked to educate Russian-speaking adults about their Jewish roots and identity by organizing conferences and events dedicated to Jewish culture and learning. The group also champions talented Jewish performers from former Soviet countries and Israel – Rosenfeld included.

She receives a lot of support from the Limmud community, performing well-known covers from the likes of Whitney Houston and other divas at every event they host, and bringing them back to their childhoods with her multi-lingual repertoire.

While Houston’s irresistible star power appealed to Rosenfeld, her biggest hero has been Ukranian singer Taisia Povaliy. Both women helped inspire Rosenfeld’s 2013 Jewish music project, “Zroblena v Ukraini,” a combination of well-known Yiddish, Israeli and Russian songs. Her version of “Am Yisrael Chai” is a heart-wrenching standout fusing traditional tonalities of Israeli music with a pop-music edge.

Rosenfeld says she’s never felt more invigorated to write than in the recent months since moving to Israel, which she says she's wanted to move to since she was a little girl. “I feel spiritually calm now in this atmosphere; there’s so much more ease to produce things here compared to Ukraine,” she says. She says she still finds beauty in her home country despite the ongoing crisis there, “but there’s a time for showbiz, and with what’s going on there now, [it] is not the time to make it as an artist.”

When the topic of anti-Semitism comes up, she says she felt it most in the Ukrainian music industry. “Everyone told me to change my name, thinking Rosenfeld would cause me trouble,” she says, her voice rising a little higher. “I even had to change my name to ‘Iris’ for a year just to work with a producer!” She never considered changing her name permanently, she says, as her hand fidgets with the Star of David around her neck again. “With or without this I feel Jewish, but when I sing with my Star of David, it’s a symbol that gives me strength and confidence.”

In fact, she’s in the midst of writing songs in between full-time Hebrew studies for a new album that she describes as “jazzy pop with a whole lot of disco, soul and funk thrown into the mix.”

“I’m writing new material, chewing it all up and going through it again,” she says. “Inspiration hits only at night. I use my iPhone and sing simple English words on top of a melody, then play around with everything.”

Though she doesn't yet have performance dates booked, Rosenfeld hopes the move to Israel will be her ticket to a wider audience. Her goal here and now is to express herself in a way that will connect to Israelis through music. She is also eager to collaborate with a number of local musicians. “Singing is my life,” she says, smiling. “Also, there’s nothing else I know how to do!”

Listening to the multi-talented singer-songwriter, it’s easy to hear the echoes of her heroes, from Whitney to Nina Simone. The closer you listen, though, the clearer it is that Rosenfeld is a bright young talent in her own right.

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