Meet Rita

Meet Rita

This month Israeli singer Rita has played in the hall of the United Nations General Assembly.

It has been a high profile month for Rita Jahanforuz, the singer who often has been called the Israeli Madonna.

Last week, she blew a kiss to President Barack Obama while singing at a state dinner honoring him hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Two weeks earlier, she performed a concert at the United Nations General Assembly Hall – not normally a venue featuring bands, singers, strobe lights, and smoke machines, let alone Hebrew songs – where she was introduced by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

“It feels really amazing,” said Rita, who always records and performs using just her first name, about being Israel’s informal cultural ambassador, in a telephone interview with the Jewish Standard.

Her United Nations performance reflected the international nature of her more recent album, “Ha S’machot Sheli – My Joys.” Released in 2011, it consists of the songs she grew up with, and her mother still sings – songs popular in her native Iran.

Rita was born in 1962 and left Iran when she was 8. But her album took her – or at least her voice – back, when “My Joys” became an underground hit among the Iranian people.

That led the Israeli delegation to the United Nations to suggest the concert as a gesture of Israel’s desire for peace with Iran.

“You know you have a great mission,” Rita recalled Moon telling her. “Don’t stop. Music has been the basis of a lot of connections between countries and cultures, and a lot of good revolutions started from music.”

“It was amazing to hear that from such a person. Most of the time people can be cynical to dreamers. He was serious, really wanting to believe that something good can happen,” she said.

“As a singer, I’ve experienced a lot of amazing things. Singing at the United Nations was one of the most exciting. To see 148 delegations in the same place – and I heard that the Persian delegation took four tickets.”

Like many Israeli success stories, Rita’s begins with immigration – which was not without its hardships.

“You don’t understand the language. You really don’t know the culture. And you see even your parents, who are your heroes and most of the time in charge of everything – suddenly you see them unsure and vulnerable because they don’t know the language.

“At school, I didn’t know what they were talking about at the beginning. It was difficult. At the break, the children used to mock me: ‘Persian, Persian, you’re a Persian.’ At the beginning I was so naïve I thought they were welcoming me and I would say ‘Shalom.’ After a few times I started to understand they are mocking me and I came back home and said, ‘Take me back to where I lived; I don’t want to be here.” I was crying. I was so hurt,” she said.

But things changed “the minute that I knew the language and I could talk and I could control my own behavior and understanding and conversation,” she said. “I really started to enjoy myself. And I became more Israeli than Israelis.”

Her path to musical stardom was indeed typically Israeli: She started off singing in an army troupe. Then she studied theater, and had a starring role in a production of “My Fair Lady.” In 1985, her first songs were released to the radio, and she first competed for the Eurovision contest in 1986. (For her two daughters, the pinnacle of her career came when she voiced the part of Pocahontas in the Hebrew-dubbed version of the Disney cartoon.)

In the army, she met and sang with Rami Kleinstein, who she went on to marry. He too topped the Israeli charts; he wrote the music for many of her songs and produced many of her albums, though they are now divorced. She put words to many of his tunes.

She’s a slow writer, she said. “I can’t just sit and say, ‘Now I’m writing.’ I’m too lazy. It’s not my profession.”

Instead, the lyrics “come like a tide, spread out of my heart suddenly without warning. I’m really dependent on what’s happening. You have to open some wound and touch it a little bit.” When writing, she’s hesitant to touch the wound; she’s more comfortable with that honesty when she sings. “I feel it’s something that cures myself and I hope cures the others who listen,” she said.

Adding to her careers as actress and recording artist, she is now a published children’s author. “The Girl with a Brave Heart: A Story from Tehran,” originally published in Hebrew, was just released in English by Barefoot Books.

The story retells an Iranian folktale that Rita’s mother heard from her grandmother. (Rita’s mother was orphaned.) Rita told it to her own daughters, and the younger one asked to hear it every night “for years,” Rita said.

“I couldn’t tell her the same thing over and over, so I started to expand the story and put things in it and maybe change a little here and there. I put in things I wanted my daughter to internalize as a person,” she said.

When a friend suggested that she try writing, “I had this story so much in me that I wrote it very easily.” Rita showed it to an author friend and it made its way to a publisher and illustrator, and ultimately to the Ministry of Education’s list of recommended reading.

As for her recording career, she has released one single from her next album, which will be in Hebrew and will start work soon on recording the rest of the songs. “It won’t be very soon. Unfortunately, I work very slowly in making records. I have so few records, compared to all the years that I’ve been doing it.”

Rita listens to a lot of music. “This is the taste of life,” she said.

Her current favorite: “I love very much Adele. I think she is really a great artist, in writing, in music, in singing in a lot of ways.

“I loved Amy Winehouse. When I heard her for the first time, I said, ‘Oh my God, what is that thing?'” she said. “Every time someone amazing comes up, I’m there to listen.”

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