HERZLIYA, Israel (AP) — She's Israel's top diva, the Jewish state's beloved national singer.
So when Rita released an album entirely in the language of her country's arch-enemy Iran, naturally more than a few eyebrows were raised.
"Even my friends, when I told them I was going to do a whole record in Persian, said 'Whoa, you are going to sing in the language of (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad,'" she said, referring to the Iranian president who has called the Holocaust a myth and threatened to wipe Israel off the map. "I'm combining Hebrew and Persian so much together and I am showing that it is possible."
The album, "My Joys," went gold in Israel within three weeks. More significantly, though, it seems to have generated a following in the underground music circuit in Iran at a time when tensions are high between the two countries over Iran's suspect nuclear program.
To Rita, the album is less a political statement and more a return to her own roots.
Rita Jahan-Foruz was born in Tehran, Iran, 50 years ago. In 1970, at the age of eight, she migrated with her family to Israel, where she grew up listening to her mother sing melodies in her native Farsi.
Fifteen years later, Rita erupted onto the Israeli music scene as a one-named wonder — Israel's Madonna, or Cher, if you will — and has since gone on to become one of the country's top recording artists and most recognized celebrities.
When she and her ex-husband — American-born Israeli singer/songwriter Rami Kleinstein — divorced a few years ago, it was front page news.
She's such an Israeli icon that she was chosen to sing the national anthem in 1998 at the country's main jubilee celebration, answering a personal plea from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ten years later, as the country marked its 60th anniversary, she was chosen as Israel's top female singer ever.
Still, she stayed close to her Iranian roots. Some 250,000 Israelis are of Iranian descent. Rita is perhaps the most famous of all.
Rita's album comes at a sensitive time. Israel is concerned that Iran is close to developing a nuclear weapon, a scenario it says would threaten the existence of the Jewish state. Israeli leaders cite Iranian calls for Israel's destruction, Iran's development of sophisticated missiles and Iran's support for anti-Israel groups in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Israeli leaders have frequently hinted at the possibility of a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities should international sanctions fail.
Iran denies it is trying to develop atomic weapons.
Despite such tensions, Rita said she only had warm memories of the people and places she left behind.
"I was born to an amazing culture," she told The Associated Press. "Most of the world, they didn't know that from this culture came so many things."
Rita said the album was aimed at introducing a wider audience to the music that has influenced her, with "My Joys" being her modern take on classic Iranian songs of her past. She said her parents helped her brush up on her Farsi and offered suggestions.
"This is the project of my life. It is something much bigger than singing or a record or a career. I think it is deeper," she said.
Unlike many high-profile Israeli artists, Rita is notoriously apolitical. But she said this specific album could make a difference, serving as a bridge between the people of her home country and her homeland.
"No matter what the governments ... decide to do, the people they are smart and they want peace and they want to live their lives," she said. "It's time that people will know something a little bit else than what the (Iranian) regime represents."
Her fans seem to be responding. At a recent concert in southern Israel, Israelis danced like crazy even though they couldn't fully understand the songs.
In Iran, fans are exposed to her music mostly through foreign-based Farsi-language satellite TV. During a recent tour of eight music dealers in Tehran, an AP correspondent found two selling a Rita single, "Gole Sangam," a remake of a famous Iranian song about yearning for a missing loved one.
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst who teaches at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel, said Rita's popularity is hard to gauge, but it's possible that her Israeli identity has helped lure listeners fed up with the hard-line government. "Whatever popularity she might have could be related to artistic capabilities. It could also be related to the backlash we see in Iran against the government," he said.
Rita is still far from a household name, though, and most of her Iranian fans appear to come from expatriate communities. But not all. During the interview, Rita proudly cited numerous emails she said came from fans in Iran.
"The beautiful and emotional songs you sing in this time of war, this crazy time of Islamic control, give an overwhelming feeling of closeness and love between the countries of Iran and Israel," read one of the emails, signed by a writer identified as Ali. F. in Shiraz, Iran. "I ask from the great and merciful God to send you happiness and heath."
Rita said such messages convince her that she has managed to make "a little scratch in the wall between us."
"I am excited to get email from all over the world, but when it comes from there, from Iran, I sit like a child and I read every word," she said. "I want in a few years to go to Iran and have a concert ... I am a dreamer, a lot of dreams came true in this world, so let me dream."
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