Lovely Rita, superstar, makes Gardens debut

Israel in the Gardens always draws top performers, but this year’s headliner — Rita — is the top of the top. The sultry singer-actress easily claims the title of Israel’s most popular female pop star.

Rita’s June 3 appearance marks her Israel in the Gardens debut. Chances are she’ll know what to expect since her husband, Rami Kleinstein — an Israeli pop superstar in his own right — headlined Israel in the Gardens last year.

“Rami is my main teacher,” she says. “We’ve been together since we were kids. He wrote most of my music and produced a few of my records. I can’t say that he’s just helping me. He’s very responsible for my career.”

Whether she’s playing before adoring home crowds in Tel Aviv or to American Jews just getting to know her, Rita says she approaches every show as if it were her last.

“What keeps you in the business is that every time, every show is the most important thing,” says Rita by phone from Israel. “The audience is smart, and if you’re not really devoted to that, they feel it.”

Over the course of her 20-year career, Rita has released a string of bestselling albums, including two recorded in English. She’s also represented Israel in the Eurovision song contest (wildly popular everywhere but the United States) and starred in Broadway musicals (or, given that they were staged in Israel, way off-off-Broadway).

More than anything, though, Rita is best known for her live performances. As a singer, she’s been compared to Celine Dion, an apt comparison as she has mounted lavish stage shows with enough industrial light and magic to rival Dion’s Las Vegas extravaganza.

That kind of chutzpah endeared her to Israeli audiences, happy to see one of their own tackle the entertainment world on her own terms.

“For 20 years, they called me the singer of Israel,” she adds. “It’s sometimes frightening because it’s very big, but it comes with so much love. It’s like family in Israel. I’m in my salon and the audience is my sisters and brothers. It’s very familiar, very comforting.”

Israel is a small country, so that sentiment makes sense.

Born Rita Yahan Faruz in Iran, Rita made aliyah with her family when she was 8. By then she was already a devotee of pop music. “I grew up on Barbra Streisand and Kate Bush,” she says. “I like that [Streisand] took singing, acting and dancing together. Every song was like mini-theater. It made me happy to see that you can combine all together. Barbra was the guru.”

After her army service, she attended art school to study music, theater and dance. She clearly did well, because from the time she launched her recording career in 1984, she has excelled in all three. Over the course of her career, she has been named Singer of the Year three times and sold more than 500,000 albums, an enormous figure for Israel.

In 2004 Rita starred in a Hebrew-language production of the Broadway musical “Chicago,” playing Roxie Hart, the role Renee Zellweger played in the Oscar-winning film version. “Roxie is such a bitch,” says Rita. “I wanted something not like me or my real nature so I would have to work really hard. It was a great experience.”

Both Rita and her husband have ascended to the heights of Israeli pop stardom, both individually and occasionally as collaborators. They have two daughters, and 15-year-old Meshi is already showing interest in music.

“I know from my experience, if it’s in your blood you can’t make it go away,” she said. “So go with it. She sings all the time. I can see it in her.”

Meanwhile, Meshi’s mom continues to have an overbooked day planner crammed with performances in Israel and around the world.

“My audience is all kinds of people,” she says. “Young and old, rich people, poor people, conservative, gay, Chassidic. I know the faces and, after so many years, I know their names too.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.