Pop-diva-turned-Chassid to appear in Mountain View

In the mid-70s, Ruthi Navon's career was in full sail. Her self-titled LP soared off the charts in Israel, she performed frequently and was a headliner at the country's 25th Independence Day celebration.

But in the years since, Navon's spiritual odyssey has taken her away from what she calls the "ego-centered" track and into a life of circumspection.

The Israeli-born Navon still sings. But now, as a Chassidic woman, she performs for women only. Bay Area women can hear her sing in English, Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center at 8 p.m. Sunday.

The event, including an art exhibit by local Jewish women artists, is sponsored by REUT, the Committee for Strengthening Jewish Unity and Friendship. The newly formed Bay Area group is dedicated to bringing women from diverse backgrounds together to celebrate Jewish life. "Ruthi Navon has a magnificent voice and an electrifying personality," said Dina Levin, one of the concert's organizers.

"Since I'm 19, I'm in the business," Navon said in a telephone interview last Friday from her home in Miami. "Whatever I did, although I was successful and I had everything, my life guided me in a different way, beyond having a hit record."

The album, "Ruthi Navon," released in 1973, was named one of the 100 most important in Israel's cultural history by Radio Hazak, an American-based radio station that plays Israeli music. Navon's "Netzach Yisrael Lo Yeshaker" was the centerpiece of the country's Independence Day concert. She performed with the Israel Defense Force entertainment troupe and played a lead role in the musical stage hit "Don't Call Me Black."

But fame wasn't enough. Navon, then in her early 20s, moved to Manhattan and settled in Greenwich Village, where she stayed for five years, "soul-searching in every aspect, from my private to my public life."

She would frequently stroll the block to a girlfriend's house for Shabbat and study.

Eventually, the friend "took me to Crown Heights in Brooklyn and I met the Lubavitcher rebbe," Navon said. "That really hit me. What a magnetic human being. This was a man who was educated in all ways: Educated at the Sorbonne, he'd been a ship engineer, and he was a kabbalist, a mystical person."

From that moment of epiphany, she has learned "how to take less, give more, be more sensitive — how to be humble. But it's very hard. We all tend to be very ego-centered. But you have to put it aside. It gave me strength, gave me — how would you say it? — an essence in life."

That led to a re-examination of her career. "I asked myself, 'What are you doing here?' My answer was that music is a very powerful thing. It's a force. It's an energy." And so, today, "I'm the same singer," she said. "I'm a pop singer."

Although Jewish law forbids men from joining her audience, she said, they are allowed to work with her onstage.

"For my sound men, my musicians, it's all right," she said. "People in my profession can work with me."

She matches the concert to the audience. If the women are not Orthodox, she does "pop kosher" — "some Whitney Houston, some Barbra Streisand, some Israeli, some Yiddish."

Regardless of their religious orientation, an audience of all women is always lively, Navon has found. They shed a self-consciousness that comes with "following the man, asking, 'What will he think if I act like this? What will he think if I act like that?'

"In Israel, they get up and dance right in the middle of the room."

She hopes "all kinds" come to Sunday's concert.

Today, Navon lives in Florida with her husband, an insurance and investment broker, and her teenage sons.

She still performs in Israel and appears frequently on television.

Her parents live in Haifa, "up on the mountain." Her father, former Israeli diplomat Yitzak Navon, took the family along on missions to Addis-Ababa, Thailand, Singapore, India, Sri Lanka, Chad, Italy and other countries. Her mother, Miriam Navon, is an artist.

Her parents also sang; her mother is a coloratura soprano, her father a tenor. "I come to it naturally," she said. "They have incredible voices."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.