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Jewish Star Remakes Persian Oldies in Tel Aviv and Her Fans in Tehran Can't Get Enough:
Music-loving Iranians craving nostalgic Persian songs of a bygone era, or the upbeat dance music that is banned in their Islamic state, have new darling: Rita, the Israeli singing sensation.
Rita Jahanforuz, 50 years old, is Israel's most famous female singer—and suddenly she's big in Iran. Iranian-born and fluent in Persian, Rita, as she is universally known, moved to Israel as a child and has lived there ever since. Her latest album, "All My Joys," revives old-time Persian hits, giving them an upbeat Mediterranean flavor that caters to the Israeli ear.
The album went gold in Israel in just three weeks, despite being sung entirely in Persian. It also propelled Rita onto the music scene in Iran, where she was all but unknown outside of Iran's small Jewish population.
Now, from nightclubs in Tel Aviv to secret underground parties in Tehran, Israelis and Iranians alike go wild when the DJ plays her hit "Beegharar," or "Restless."
The governments of Iran and Israel are each other's sworn enemies, and within Iran it is considered a taboo to publicly endorse anything that has to do with Israel. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has said Israel should be wiped off the map. Israel has said it would consider pre-emptively bombing Iran to prevent it from building a nuclear weapon.
Rita, however, with her striking beauty and bubbly demeanor, has emerged as an unexpected bond between ordinary Iranians and Israelis—part cultural ambassador, part antiwar spokeswoman. A picture of Rita with the banner, "Iranians we will never bomb your country," is posted on her Facebook page.
"These days, people only know the language of war and violence and hatred," said Rita, referring to Israelis' view of the Persian language, during a recent interview in Tel Aviv. After she started receiving emails from Iranian fans, she realized music can "puncture the wall'' of tension.
Iran's government has taken notice. Fars News Agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards Corps, wrote last July that Rita is Israel's "latest plot in a soft war" to gain access to the hearts and minds of Iranians.
Iranian hard-line websites and blogs expressed particular displeasure at Rita for sending a message to Iranians this past March for the Norouz New Year, via a video posted on the Persian website of Israel's Foreign Ministry. Norouz messages are considered highly political and usually a tactic used by politicians like President Barack Obama and Iran's opposition leaders.
"I hope that we all live alongside each other by dancing and singing because this is what will last," Rita said in her Norouz message.
In May, Rita performed a sold-out concert in the city of Ashkelon, on Israel's Mediterranean coast, singing mostly Persian songs. Fans crowded the stage and danced the aisles.
After the show, concert goers said they were swept away. "Listen, I'm not Persian," said Meir Kanto, a 72-year-old farmer. "But the culture is so colorful and so beautiful, from my perspective, let them conquer us. It wouldn't hurt."
"She is singing from her heart. So what if she is from Israel?" said Manijeh, a 43-year-old relative of the bride who asked that her surname not be published. "We love her."