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Sabra Madonna: Meet Israel’s Pop Diva

Sarit Hadad is focused on the wide screen in front of her, looking intently at the final production of her music video for “Rak Ata” (“Only You”). She has just returned from Romania, where the fast-paced, high-drama clip was shot. “This is MTV material,” declares one of her staff at the conclusion of the clip.

Indeed, the video has all the polished, hi-tech elements that Americans and Europeans have come to expect of pop diva material. Whether or not the video will make it to audiences outside Israel remains to be seen. Within this country, however, the video is sure to be a smash upon its release — just as its album, “Hagiga” (“Celebration”) has proved to be: Ten days after going public, the album already has sold platinum (40,000 copies) and is well on its way to double platinum. In addition, Hadad has 11 triple- platinum albums to her name, the first of which she recorded when she was 16 years old.

With her signature sound blasting from cars, homes and bars from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat, the talented young superstar is clearly Israel’s leading pop diva. She is, some would say, Israel’s Madonna.

And from a very early age, she had the ambition to prove it.

“I remember when I was 4 years old, I already knew I would be a singer,” she said in an interview with the Forward. “I believed in myself. I knew I would make it.”

Like the Material Girl, Hadad grew up in a traditional family. In Hadad’s case, her parents were immigrants who moved to Israel from Kavkaz, located in the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (CRI). To them, being a musician was equated with being a prostitute. Thankfully Hadad, the youngest of eight siblings, had an invaluable ally in her older sister, Valontina.

“I would climb out my window when I was 8 years old, and Valontina would take me to local clubs to sing for audiences,” Hadad recalled. “Once when I was 10, I went to a club to perform. One of my neighbors saw me and told my parents. From that day on, my parents really kept their eyes locked on me.”

Housebound and powerless, Hadad presented her parents with a deal, offering to stay indoors if they would buy her drums, a guitar and an organ. Her parents agreed, and Hadad taught herself to play each instrument.

When she was 14, she opened the local newspaper and saw an advertisement for the city’s youth music group, which was looking for singers. “My mom said it was okay for me to try out,” Hadad recounted, “since it was youth singing songs with each other, the group was a well-respected city establishment and the performances weren’t in bars.”

Hadad joined the group and performed with them for two years. “On the side,” she said with a mischievous glint in her eyes, “I would perform in clubs here and there, without my parents knowing.”

Hadad remembers that when she turned 16, she dramatically declared to her parents: “I want to be Sarit Hadad, the solo performer!” She dropped out of high school and began singing everywhere she could. “I have always been an independent woman,” she said, laughing.

Among other venues, Hadad performed regularly at a restaurant on the beach in Netanya, where there was a nightly open mic. One evening, the restaurant manager suggested that Hadad dedicate a song to Avi Gueta, a top Israeli music manager who happened to be in the audience. Hadad did just that, and within months she had released her first disc under his management.

Since then, Hadad has performed across Israel and around the world, regularly drawing thousands of fans to her performances. During this time, her music has ranged from ballads to pulsating dance grooves, always with a Mizrahi musical flavor. Her latest album features a duet with Subliminal, Israel’s leading rapper, against a Persian fusion musical track.

“I am always renewing myself!” Hadad remarked, perhaps unaware of the other musical diva with whom she shares this trait. “Through the past 10 years, I have learned and grown so much. I have developed both as a human being and as a musician.”

Loolwa Khazzoom has been published internationally, in periodicals such as Marie Claire, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Family Circle, The Boston Globe and Seventeen. She is the editor of “The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage,” and author of “Consequence: Beyond Resisting Rape” (Pearl in a Million Press, 2001).

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