The ever-reigning queen of Israeli song

With the passing of songstress Shoshana Damari, Israel loses an icon who sustained the nation through the hardest and happiest of times.

damari, shoshana 298 88 (photo credit: Jonathan Bloom)
damari, shoshana 298 88
(photo credit: Jonathan Bloom)
When news of her death became public yesterday, radio announcers reported that Shoshana Damari died of pneumonia at the age of 83. But that isn't so. Damari was and always will be ageless. She'll always be the girl that sang to the troops in our country's endless wars, the woman who was a goodwill ambassador for us all over the world, the singer whose smoky, molten voice could never be mistaken for anybody else's, and above all a star - the real deal. Her name stems from Damar, the Yemenite city where she was born. In the early 1920s, her family immigrated to Eretz Israel, traveling for a month to reach the port of Aden before sailing to Jaffa. The youngest of five children, Shoshana was very sick when the travelers reached the port, and the others urged she be left, but mother refused, she recalled in an interview last year with The Jerusalem Post. "She found the herbs she needed and gave them to me and I got better." Still only a tot when her family settled in Rishon Lezion, Damari began expressing her talents. She'd accompany her songstress mother to weddings and celebrations, singing and playing the drum. She first performed on the radio when she was 14 and by the ripe old age of 17 she was already a star. Hundreds of Damari songs were produced over her 60-year career. Songs like "Rachel, Rachel," "Kita Almonit" (the Nameless Platoon), "Mul Har Sinai" (Opposite Mt. Sinai), "Im Ninalu," a Yemenite devotional song by poet Shalom Shabazzi and "Or" (Light). There was "To Sing with You" that Boaz Sharabi wrote for her in the mid-Eighties, and that they sang together. Most recently, Damari stepped back into the spotlight with two songs on Idan Raichel's bestselling album Mi Hama'amakim (From the Depths, 2005). But her signature song, the one she had to sing every time she took the stage, the song that brought tears to people's eyes even as they stamped and cheered and sang along, was "Kalaniyot" (Anemones). Moshe Willensky, who wrote dozens of her songs, composed the melody and poet Natan Alterman wrote the words. Damari first sang it at Li-La-Lo, the satirical theater company where she worked in the 1940s when the British still ruled Palestine. So instantly and pervasively popular did the song become that the Brits had to be convinced that "Kalaniyot" was just a song, and not a subversive coded message. Damari sang for the troops from the 1948 War of Independence right up to the Lebanon War in 1982. In the old days she would bump over rough terrain in army jeeps, but 1982 they took her to the Golan by helicopter. She always wore a red dress, she said, "so that the troops could see me better." Damari represented Israel all over the world - except for China she'd said - and counted among her friends such as Danny Kaye, Eddie Fisher and Nat King Cole. Former New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani was among her admirers, and presented her with a plaque when Damari sang at a Carnegie Hall gala in honor of Israel's 50th birthday in 1998. By then the glory years were well over, but Damari never wasted time with regrets. She only looked forward with her characteristic optimism, and talked of writing her autobiography one day. She lived in a little two-room Tel Aviv apartment up five flights of stairs, crammed floor to ceiling with mementos of her life, from the lovely gowns she'd worn at her appearances (all bagged and racked) to photos, more plaques, certificates, testimonials, and her many, many paintings. And of course there are the numerous albums she made over the years, the most recent of which was a retrospective in 1996 with 71 of her favorite songs. In 1988 Damari was awarded the Israel Prize for her contribution to Hebrew Song, and in 1995 the Israel composers and Publishers Association (ACUM) honored her with its Lifetime Achievement Award. She was proud also of an honorary doctorate she received from the Weizmann Institute. A great beauty in her youth, Damari retained that beauty into her old age. She sparkled, loved bright colors, cared about how she looked and how she came across to people. And she never wanted to talk about her age. It was written recently that Damari "was the mirror of all that was once best in our country and represented the heart and hopes that sustained us all through the hard times, and that still beats in her." That great heart is now forever stilled, but nobody will forget the woman, or her songs.