NEW YORK (JTA) — It’s not every day an Israeli wakes up to an email inbox full of love letters from Iran. Yet they come in droves to the Israeli singer Rita Yahan-Farouz.
The 50-year-old Iran native, who performs under the name Rita, is arguably Israel’s most popular female entertainer. She has put out 12 albums since hitting the Israeli music scene in 1985, many of them going platinum on the country’s charts.
Rita’s latest album, “My Joys,” is sung in Farsi, in which she is fluent. By including old folk tunes from Iranian culture, like the traditional Persian wedding song “Shah Doomad,” Rita has won legions of listeners in a land whose leaders regularly call for her adopted country’s demise.
“You wouldn’t believe some of the emails I get from people in Iran," Rita says laughingly during a phone interview with JTA while traveling from Los Angeles to San Francisco as part of her U.S. tour through mid-November. "They tell me how much they love me and how much they love Israel.”
Rita describes her musical vibe as a “gypsy band,” infusing classic Mediterranean spirits of complex percussion rhythms and upbeat tempos with unusual instruments of the genre like woodwinds, ouds and violins.
Growing up in Tehran under the shah’s rule, Rita remembers a vibrant childhood filled with Persian music. Still, the family kept their Jewish identity a secret from neighbors. In 1970, when Rita was 8, her family moved to Israel.
“My sister came home from school one time in tears because her teacher asked her to recite a Muslim prayer in front of the class. The teacher was shocked when she didn’t know it," Rita recalls. "After that incident, my father decided we should leave Iran.”
Rita says she has dreamed of creating an album that could serve as a bridge between two countries that have seen nothing but tension in recent years.
“The songs on my album in Farsi are the soundtrack of my childhood," she says. "My mother had a beautiful voice and was always singing these traditional songs to me, even when we were in Israel, so there was always a piece of Iran in me. There’s more to the region than violence, bombs and darkness, and I want to share the rich culture I am a part of."
Since Iran’s Internet is heavily censored by the government, Rita’s album is sold on the black market, fans have told her. But her music is played at weddings and nightclubs in Iran, and she says her fans love the fact that she’s Israeli.
Rita says the power of music has already created a dialogue with the people of Iran: Many who email her write that they don’t hate Israelis and want nothing more than to hear her perform.
“I’m completely in love with your voice — you have no idea how hard it was to send you this email!” one fan writes. “My wish is that one day I can see you perform in Israel — even if this means that upon returning to Iran, I would have to be beaten, and imprisoned for 3 years.”
And another: “I’m writing you from Shiraz in Iran, and just wanted to tell you that you’re a source of great pride for us. The beautiful and emotional songs you sing in this time of war, this crazy time of Islamic control gives an overwhelming feeling of closeness and love between the countries of Iran and Israel. I ask from the great and merciful god to send you happiness and health.”
Rita is happy that she can send positive messages about Israel to the rest of the world, and would like to perform in Iran.
“There’s a good chance I will perform in Iran very soon, as soon as the borders are easy to open,” she says. “I have a strong connection to the people of Iran and it would send an incredible message.”