Though Queen Esther did not make it from Persia to the Promised Land, one other young Jewish woman did – her name is Rita. In Muslim Iran, Rita has thousands of followers; ever since she performed at the United Nations, and ever since her latest album was released in Persian, she has risen in the ranks as superstar in the most unlikely of places.
But this is no surprise: Rita, world-renowned singer and actress, is another Israel success story, though this story begins far from Israel’s borders.
Rita made Aliyah with her family from Iran when she was only eight years old. She overcame the hardships of learning a second language using the language of music, until she became part of the Israeli cultural melting pot. Today, she uses music not only to integrate in Israeli society, but also to serve as a bridge to the rest of the world, an ambassador of influence offering a voice for many women. Rita told us a bit about her Aliyah experience:
You made Aliyah from Iran when you were only eight years old – relatively young. Do you remember how life was back there?
Of course, I remember many things. The tastes, the smells, the colors. I remember the feeling of landing in Israel – even the air was different here. I remember a normal life in Iran, before the Revolution; I was just a little girl, so politically I was very unaware of what was going on. Before moving to Israel, we lived in a Muslim neighborhood and went to a Muslim school - our parents instructed us not to say we are Jewish. I remember one day the teacher asked my older sister to say the morning prayer. My sister said she does not know it, and this was not received well. That same night when my father came back from work and heard what happened at school, he said: "That’s it, I think we need to leave for our homeland." And that's exactly what we did.
How did you feel about making Aliyah?
I think that at the time, I was far from happy about it. There is something very scary in leaving all you are and all you have known your entire life. The language was also a difficult barrier; it is our basic means of communications as people. Not being able to understand others is shocking. There was sadness in leaving my friends and school; I was a very good student in Iran. It was hard to say goodbye to my uncle, who was very close to my family. Arriving in Israel, we lived for 15 days at our relative's house until moving into a house we bought from abroad.
How did you cope with the changes, and the language? Did you go to an Ulpan?
An Ulpan? No. I learned at school. I think kids learn pretty quickly. There were different things that made me laugh. Like words in Hebrew with normal meaning, which in Persian are profanities. I was surprised people use these words so carelessly. I was also surprised that I was being mocked for my Iranian origin. In Iran, I had to hide the fact that I was Jewish, and in the Jewish State, the fact that I was Persian was not in my favor. It took me time to take all this in, but once I learned the language, I knew how to answer back and stand my ground.
Your work reflects your deep connection with your Persian roots. Is this something that was present in your home also after making Aliyah?
Yes. My mother is a great singer, and our home was always filled with sounds of music, and different Persian records she brought over with us or would buy in Israel – she would always sing. My last album is the soundtrack of my childhood – the songs mother would sing to us, and we would join her, at home. I think, like all of Am Israel, we learned how to preserve this. That is because we, the Jewish people, are after all, a million puzzle pieces representing places around the world, trying to create a new picture put together miraculously. I think that is the beauty of this country.
How was the new album received?
Actually, when I told my friends and colleagues about my new project in Persian, they were really surprised. In fact, I did it mostly for myself, a sort of personal project. But in less than a month it was a Gold album, and my fans loved it; people where on their feet dancing, because it's a real feast for the ears – music for celebrations. Many people approach me now, not necessarily Persian, and tell me that this album has made them want to go back and learn more about their own roots, to reflect on their own cultures and childhoods.
What are the chances of young Jewish people making Aliyah today, to succeed in the music industry?
That's an easy question because first of all, it all depends on talent. Obviously, language is an extremely important aspect of success, but really, all you need is talent. Today, I don't think I could live in any other place in the world. This is my home; it's amazing to travel, but it’s even better to return. Knowing you are living and traveling in your own country is a great thing.
Today, years after her coming to Israel, Rita is one of Israel's most beloved ambassadors around the world, investing her efforts around the world to promote Israel and peace. In March 2013, she performed her songs in Persian and Hebrew at a unique event at the United Nations General Assembly Hall. This musical event, Tunes for Peace, had a simple message to share with the world: biculturalism, harmony and peace are the foundation stones on which the UN was established. In December 2013, Rita performed at an event focusing on the empowerment of women, titled "Women in Music", at the British Parliament's House of Lords in London to send out a message for tolerance and mediation through the universal language of music. Rita also made an appearance at the sixth international Women's Conference in Bangalore, India, and will perform this month at BabelMed, Marseilles prestigious annual music festival which hosts 2500 artists from the international music industry and over 15000 viewers.