Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
Culture

The Israeli Madonna

In politics, Iranian nuclear power is causing Israel concern, but for more than 20 years, an Iranian-born Israeli pop powerhouse has been causing Israelis nothing but pleasure.

Israel’s most successful and renowned female vocalist is known by all as Rita. Being known by her first name is only one of the reasons the sensual diva has been hailed as the “Israeli Madonna,” though she could just as easily be compared with a wide range of talented singers: some say Christina Aguilera, and others mention the shy tones of Sade. In a land of several million people, Rita’s warm and sultry voice has sold more than 1 million records, and she was even voted “Best Female Singer of All Time” by the Israeli public during the country’s 60th anniversary celebrations.

Israel?s ?Best Female singer of All Time?: Rita gets inti- mate. Image by courtesy teev events

Despite her celebrity in Israel, Rita was little known in America until she released her single in English, “Love Has Begun.” The single has been heavily featured on American radio playlists, earning her the belated “Breakthrough Artist for 2009” title by New Music Weekly magazine. In the wave of interest after her American single topped the charts, Rita began her latest American tour March 13 at Town Hall in New York City.

From her home in Tel Aviv, Rita explained her own eclectic and personal and musical influences: “I can’t say that my music is one thing or the other. I was born in Iran, so I grew up with Middle Eastern music. Then at 8, I moved to Israel, which is really a cultural and musical melting pot. In my teens, I studied classical music and singing, operas, Puccini and the like, and later I married someone who was born in the U.S. [Rami Kleinstein, her longtime collaborator and a successful singer in his own right.] And then I was trained at Beit Tzvi [one of Israel’s leading acting schools], where I learned all about musicals. All of these styles and songs grew roots — I always try new genres. I did, however, learn that what truly guides me is the written word, the text. I learned that if the words mean something and come from deep inside, they always touch others. It’s never tiring, even after many, many shows.”

For a singer who didn’t shy away from extravagant tours featuring hosts of dancers and gaudy spectacles, many of Rita’s songs, especially the more recent ones, are profoundly intimate and soulful. “I thought that the new album, ‘Remazim’[“Clues,” released in 2008], will be more subversive, different and quieter,” Rita said. “Then we found out it was our most successful record. There is always this intimacy. My songs always come from the deepest place inside me, but there are different genres and styles. This time, it was important for me to feel like my audience was sitting here in my living room and that I was singing to them, not in a concert hall. Immediate. Real.”

Rita spoke about the success of “Love Has Begun”:

“A friend kept trying to persuade me to do something in English for years. Kept calling and calling. In the end, he set everything up; the studio, the people, and I came over and sang for a few hours, and all of a sudden I hear we’re on charts and 40 radio stations have been playing it and the breakthrough performance of the year — it was strange. I’m still very surprised.”

When it was pointed out that she is an Iranian-born Israeli singer on her way to America, Rita laughed and said: “Oh my! Sounds scary!” But then she continued:

“I have so many thoughts on this issue, but mostly this: I was an immigrant from Iran. I was 8 years old. It was such a terrible feeling of powerlessness and dislocation, especially watching my parents go through it all. So, the fact that I have walked this distance, that I ended up participating in some of Israel’s most important ceremonies, is astonishing to me. I always return to that helpless 8-year-old. I see her standing next to me, and I smile at her, and she smiles back.”

After 11 albums, and years of topping the charts, Rita is still going strong. “I’m always motivated by my love of singing, of song, but with it, intertwined, is my love of people and the need to make real connections,” she said. Which leads one to think that if only Iranian, Israeli and American exchanges were based on the same sentiment, we might be able to start beating centrifuges into plowshares.

Zohar Tirosh-Polk is a playwright, translator and freelance writer. She lives in Brooklyn.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.