It is not often nowadays that you find Jews and Muslims coming together to celebrate anything — especially when Israel is involved. The recent outbreak of violence in the Middle East makes such a harmonious scenario seem even more of a remote possibility.
Yet this supposed fantasy became reality on Nov. 12, when Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States, hosted nearly 70 prominent Iranian-American Jews and Muslims at his home in a secluded and upscale neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
This historic private event recalled the perhaps forgotten centuries-long friendship between the Jewish people and the people of Iran by highlighting not diplomats, but a musical artist who need use only one name: Rita.
The Iranian-Israeli pop singing superstar Rita Jahanforuz, honored during the event, was offered as the perfect example for Oren’s argument that Israelis have nothing against the people and culture of Iran and only seek to support efforts to oppose an oppressive regime.
Well-known guests — ranging from CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer to former Bush administration Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff to Iranian-Jewish former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad — listened as Rita energized the room with her singing.
Wearing a long, simple but elegant black dress, Rita sang a few Israeli songs as well as “Shah-Doomad,” or “King of Grooms,” a song popularly sung at Persian weddings. She spoke in Farsi to the cheering guests — and expressed her tremendous pride for her Iranian cultural identity.
“For me it is amazing to hear your responses in Persian to me about my music. I am just not used to it because my audiences are mostly in Israel,” Rita said.
Her band played a host of instruments, including a solo performance of the Iranian tar, a three-stringed, long-necked lute-type instrument. In the end, all of the guests — Iranian and American, Muslim and Jewish — joined Rita by singing, dancing and delighting with her.
Both Oren and guests gave high praise to Rita for acting as a goodwill ambassador from Israel toward the people of Iran. No doubt her latest album, “All My Joys,” sung entirely in Farsi, has served as her best tool for reaching out to fans in Iran.
Despite Western and all other music being outlawed by the current regime in Iran, thousands of fans there have downloaded Rita’s songs or bought bootleg versions of her CD. Rita mentioned one particular fan from Iran who sent her a recent e-mail stating that he so enjoyed her music that he was “willing to endure 30 years in prison and receive 70 lashes from the current Iranian regime in order to attend one of her concerts in Israel.” Rita also said she is looking forward to the day when she will perform for her fans at live concerts in a free Iran.
The substantial impact of Rita’s message of peace was illustrated by her ability to bring Jews and Muslims together in friendship at Oren’s home. Guests that night chanted her name in unison, demanding that she continue singing even after her performance was completed. Oren even joined the band briefly, playing an Iranian version of the bongo.
For Iranian Jews, the evening was a reason to be proud. They spoke to one another of how important it was that Oren had honored one of their own at this private gathering, and they felt special that Israel was now officially recognizing the substantial cultural accomplishments of an Iranian Jew.
For the others in the audience, it stoked curiosity. Many asked about how many Jews of Iranian background live in Israel or the United States, how many Jews still live in Iran, or why Jews have remained in Iran despite the difficult situation for them there.
Rita serves as an ambassador of goodwill from Israel not only because she speaks and sings in Farsi, but because she represents the Iranian segment of Israeli society that embraces its cultural heritage from Iran and would one day like to renew relations with individuals in its former homeland. Her music, and its message of peace, provides a nonpolitical way to counter the Iranian regime’s repeated calls for Israel’s destruction.
Such cultural connections run deep. Even though there are currently high tensions in the Middle East over Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the majority of non-Jewish Iranians living in the United States and Europe, and countless others living in Iran, harbor no ill will toward Israel or the Jewish people. Likewise, countless Jews and Muslims of Iranian heritage living in the United States have maintained strong friendships that predate the 1979 Iranian revolution, because of their common language and the common culture they share.
Rita, who was born in Iran in 1962 and immigrated with her family to Israel in 1970, represents a segment of the Iranian community in Israel that never witnessed firsthand the Iranian revolution, and yet still feels a strong sense of nostalgia for Iran and Iranian culture.
The nostalgia Iranian Jews have for Iranian culture also stems from the significant tolerance and prosperity they enjoyed while living under the Pahlavi dynasty for more than 50 years. For nearly 30 years before 1979, Iran and Israel also enjoyed indirect political relations as well as prosperous economic relations under the regime of the late shah of Iran.
It is perhaps ironic how a Jewish person like Rita is today keeping Iranian music and songs alive with her albums and performances, considering the fact that for centuries many Jews in Iran were musicians who kept the country’s music alive, despite the national Islamic prohibition against Muslims listening to or performing music in Iran.
And it was refreshing for many guests to see an Israeli official like Oren personally reaching out to non-Jewish Iranians, as well, in order to express the Jewish people’s longstanding friendship with the people of Iran, which dates back to the age of Iran’s first king, Cyrus the Great.
“We as Israelis and Jews are here tonight to emphasize the fact that there is a 2,500-year friendship with the people of Iran, and despite the animosity that the regime in Iran has for Israel, we look forward to the day when we can renew our friendship in freedom with the people of Iran,” Oren said.
Perhaps one day soon, an event like the one at Oren’s home will no longer be unique but, rather, commonplace. More important, cultural and music events such as the one recently organized by the Israeli ambassador give many of us living in the free world hope that despite conflicts in the world, Jews and Muslims can come together in harmony and celebrate their commonalities.
To view photos and videos from Rita’s recent performance at the home of Michael Oren, please visit Karmel Melamed’s blog: jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.