While most people have written and filed their experiences and impressions from the President’s Conference in Jerusalem two weeks ago, I am only getting this published now. While it may only be an excuse, I doubt from what I saw that most of the participants, especially writers, at the conference were leaving behind 6 children finishing up their first year of school in Israel. For me, there has been a lot of “pay back” for that precious two day absence, so I hope this interview comes better late than never.
Of the many fantastic moments for me at the President’s Conference, meeting Rita definitely stands out as the highlight. This was for me a rare, unforgettable life-moment. There is the rush of fandom, of meeting a star, but this was something else.
Meeting someone for the first time that has left a fingerprint on your soul and having the chance to tell them personally is truly incredible, and something I do not take for granted. The fact that Rita was personable, charming, beautiful, interesting and kind is really icing on the cake.
For those of you that do not know, “Rita”, Rita Yahan-Farouz is an Iranian--born Israeli pop singer and the most famous female singer in Israel. She has had an unprecedented career in Israel in film and on stage, and has sold countless albums and sold-out concerts.
In 2011, she also became popular in Iran as an underground singing sensation after the release of various pop records which she sings in her native Persian language. In 2012, her album “All My Joys,” also sung in Persian, was popular in both Israel and Iran, going gold in Israel after three weeks. She has since been referred to as a cultural ambassador between Israeli and Iranian citizens. You can learn a lot more about Rita, her stardom and her career here.
When I was 17 years old, I came to Israel for the first time on what was then a brand new program called “USY High”. Although it has since changed, at the time it was a Conservative Movement form of the standard AMHSI two-month high school in Israel program based in Hod Hasharon.
My teacher, Yossi Katz, who still teaches at AMHSI, could see right away that I was one of those kids that was falling in love, very quickly and deeply with the country. Yossi is the author of “A Voice Called” and is someone I have always described as someone who creates zionists for a living. The number of Yossi’s former students that have made aliyah is staggering.
As early as my first week in Israel I explained to Yossi emphatically that Israel could never be home for me. It would of course conflict with the long, successful stage career as a singer that was waiting for me back in the United States. Yossi reacted by creating a mantra that I could be the “next Rita in Israel” over and over, and backed this up by giving me my first taste of Israeli music, a Rita cassette.
I spent the remainder of those 8 life-transforming weeks on a bus, learning the history of the land of Israel from the time of Avraham until today almost entirely on tiyul. And every minute we were on that bus, I was looking out the window wearing a walkman and listening to Rita.
She was the background music for my burgeoning love affair with Eretz Yisroel. 24 years later, as I drive to work on a mundane commute, I still feel pangs of fierce, passionate love. And I still hear the background music.
…. and in Binyanei Hauma, I got to tell Rita herself.
I tried to assure the true (well-earned) Diva that I wanted to talk to her about HER and not me, but opened with the personal connection anyway. She responded by gasping, telling me that I gave her the chills and giving me a big hug. I know she has a successful long-standing career as an actress so perhaps I should be cynical about the reception, but it certainly felt amazing.
We spoke first and foremost about motherhood. Since I explained that this is the subject of much of my blog, we both talked about being musical moms raising musical kids. As if we are “both” in any category. But when she stopped her manager in her tracks to exclaim in shock the number of kids I have, insisting that it is impossible because I look 26 years old, she had me even more hooked than ever.
She explained to me that motherhood didn’t change her as a musician, it just changed the centrality of her very successful career in her life. “Being a mother just instantly became the most important thing in my life, and remained so.” She spoke about the challenges of finding the right balance of (stellar) career and motherhood. She had a neighbor that would needle her incessantly about not being home for her children, as this neighbor of course was. She was so irritated by the constant badgering that she wound up going to a family psychologist who asked her one simple question. “When your daughter grows up, gets married and has a family. Will you tell her that you think she should drop her life-passion and stay home to be with her family? Will you tell her to table her own happiness for the sake of her children?”. Rita didn’t need any more information and went home empowered to find that balance every one of us struggles with.
How telling – and familiar – that the the social pressure to please others’ is at least as much a part of that struggle as the personal balance we each have to find.
We talked about the most significant influence on her as a musician. It was not a particular band or favorite album… but the rich singing and dancing her Persian mother did around the house.
She described very, very early memories of resting on her mother’s legs as she sang constantly to her children. It wasn’t appropriate for a Persian woman to publicly dance and sing, she explained, so she would perform with flair around the house for her entranced daughters. And these are the sounds that have informed and influenced Rita throughout her career. I restrained myself – with effort – from launching into my background as a Music Together teacher. Music Together teaches us through science and study the profound impact that this kind of musical behavior by any mother has on every child and their love of music. Rita knew through her gut and didn’t need my affirmation. (And it wasn’t about me. I wasn’t going to make this a two way conversation of “sharing” no matter how much it is my inclination. This was an interview.)
It made so much sense when she later talked about her 2012 album, All My Joys, which is sung in Persian, as a deeply personal “return home”. The fact that it has seen unprecedented international success and has turned into a surprising bridge-builder between Israeli and Iranian people has been a wonderful unintended outcome. I now understood how despite meteoric success and international attention she could still describe the effort as a deeply personal one.
We discussed the raising of her musical kids. Both of her daughters are very musical which is even less surprising when you know that their father, her ex-husband, is Rami Kleinstein a hugely successful Israeli artist in his own right.
Meshi is 21 and very well may pursue a career in music,” Rita told me, “I don’t think she can run away from it. She is so talented… She sings in English, Davka.”
Her younger daughter, Noam, is 12, is also an incredibly creative musician. Rita tells me she is “so talented at so many different instruments. And she seems to have rhythm and blues down in her kishkes. It is amazing. But she very well may decide not pursue music as a profession…. she knows very deeply first hand the price that one pays to be in this business, and isn’t sure she wants to pay it.”
I asked Rita if she had any message for my very musical 13 year old daughter who also has the “bug” and wants a lifetime of singing. With the added challenge of being Orthodox and all that that means in Israel today. I didn’t know how Rita would react, and how careful she would want to be to veer away from religion or politics. I didn’t know if it would be an opportunity to criticize the limitations of religion on musical expression (particularly for women). She didn’t go there at all, and impressed me yet again.
“Tell her that singing is mentioned even the Kabbalah – that music has a vibration that is like a prayer. It is the strongest way to connect to Heaven, to G-d. Like a straight cable to connect directly to G-d. You can’t tell someone to run away from such a love. She has to find her own destiny.” She said. “And tell her to never, ever stop singing.”
She had described for me her earliest memory of being asked to stand up at a large family gathering when she was only 4, to stand on a chair and sing for everyone. The world stopped, and she felt this incredible “oneness”. A moment of pure joy and clarity that has always stayed with her, and was the defining moment in which she knew this is what she had to do for the rest of her life.
I asked Rita for her proudest career moments. She said that the two peaks for her were singing “Hatikvah” at the Knesset for Israel’s 50th birthday celebration, and her recent performance at the UN General Assembly in March as a representative of Israel, where she sang in Persian, English and Hebrew. She explained that three of the tickets were taken somehow by the Iranian delegation, but they will never know how or by whom.
When I pointed out that these are both moments of national representation as opposed to commercial success, she explained that her 8-year-old immigrant self is still inside her, remembering her move to Israel, being mocked and feeling “different” . That that little girl jumps for joy when she has these moments as the representative of Israel.
Once again, I restrained myself and didn’t talk about how much I can relate, as I watch my children struggle through their first year of aliyah. I pushed down tears of emotion and made a mental note to simply share this insight with my own little immigrants as soon as I got home. (Which I did.)
These were the highlights for me of what felt like a too-short intimate conversation between two people who live in different worlds but could so easily be friends. I wondered then, and still do, if she just has an amazing gift of making everyone feel that way, and it really has nothing to do with me?
I hope Rita will get an opportunity to read this, and that she feels it has done justice to our conversation. She had so many fans approach her on that one day alone, and it must go on throughout the year. But if she does see it then she will know that she left a second fingerprint during our conversation and there is a strange part of me that is absolutely convinced that it will not be our last.
If you missed Rita at the President’s Conference, you can watch her on the panel here.
For more information about Rita’s amazing career, her latest album, or how to order any of her music, be sure to visit her website.