On the April 13 edition of our weekly series highlighting the music of Israel (‘Sounds Israeli’) we featured Rita, the Iranian born Israeli (Rita Yahan-Farouz) who has become a critically acclaimed actress and the country’s most successful singing artist, with an international career spanning 25 years. Born in Tehran in 1962, her family immigrated to Israel in 1970 and lived in a suburb outside of Tel Aviv. She began performing publicly as a band member in the IDF during the 1980s.
On June 19th I was one of the few bloggers at the Israeli President’s Conference in Jerusalem who had the privilege of sitting down with Rita – a warm, personable and engaging woman without even a hint of pretension – and ask her a few questions.
We naturally spoke about a good deal about her music, which is inspired by the lullabies sung by her mother who, she proudly explained, had an “absolutely beautiful voice” – a Persian influence which can especially be heard in her most recent album, sung in Farsi, titled ‘My Joy’. However, it was the memories, which she briefly conveyed to me, of her family’s experience as Jews living in a Muslim country which I found most interesting.
Though she was only 8 when her family emigrated she explained that she still has “memories of the smells and tastes of the food and the sound of the music” of Iran. And, though her family escaped 9 years prior to the Islamic revolution, the cruel reality of antisemitic persecution even in Arab and Muslim lands which were putatively ‘tolerant” of its Jews inspired me to ask how they were treated by their neighbors and the larger community.
Though the years between 1953 (the fall of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh) and the 1979 revolution were arguably the most prosperous for Iran’s Jews, Rita told me that even in the 1960s everyone in her family was firmly instructed to keep their Jewish identity hidden from neighbors – a secret, however, which would eventually be revealed.
“My sister“, she said, “came home from school one day in tears because her teacher asked her to recite a Muslim prayer in front of the entire class. The teacher was appalled when she didn’t know how to ,” Rita recalls. “After that incident, my father decided we should leave Iran.”
Iran’s Jewish community, numbering more than 100,000 in 1948, has dwindled down to less than 9,000 today.
Rita, however, shows no bitterness towards her former country. Iranians, she proudly informed me, have embraced her new Persian album – “me, this Jewish, Israeli woman, as their own“. She has received a huge volume of emails from Iranians expressing their admiration for her personally, and their love of her music. And, though Iran’s Internet is strictly censored to keep out “Zionist” influences, Rita’s album has become a hit on the black market, and her songs are even played by Iranian Muslims at weddings and clubs.
She believes that language and music transcend boundaries and can really forge meaningful bonds between peoples across the globe – “even amongst ‘enemies’.” “I believe”, she added, that people can “break down the walls built by tyrannical regimes with small gestures of joy”.
You don’t need to understand Persian to appreciate Rita’s passion and joy while performing the following song from her new album, titled ‘Shah Dumad”.
- Guardian video of Peres discussing Iranian nuclear issue inserts unrelated clips of ‘settlements’ (cifwatch.com)