Once and future queen

Picture it. A village somewhere in the desert during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and Shoshana Damari is singing her heart out for the massed soldiers in front of her. Suddenly a goat wanders into the frame, unhurried, munching. The air is still. There are the soldiers, the goat, the village and Shoshana under the sun. "It was so picturesque," she recalls in her Tel Aviv apartment. "I was staying at the time with a friend, artist Gloria Sklar, and I described that moment to her. She gave me a piece of paper. 'Draw,' she said, and I did." That's how our Queen of Israeli Song started to paint. She painted her family, landscapes, stories her father had told her, synagogues and rabbis. She even had an exhibition at a Jaffa gallery and when she stood at the entrance to welcome visitors, 'they asked me "What are you doing here?'' "These are mine," I told them and they wouldn't believe me. "That's what my husband had said when I told him I wanted to paint. He said 'Ha!' but then he bought me [art] supplies and supported me. No, these days I don't paint much any more." The paintings are on the walls and stacked against them in Damari's crowded apartment. Almost every square inch is filled with the memories and images of a long life that's still devoted to song. She is singing two songs with pop idol Idan Raichel on his new album, 'Mi Ha Maamakim' (From the Deeps) on Helicon Records. One song is about a couple in a garden, called "My Story" and the other is about a soldier. The two met through Damari's close friend Miriam Dotan. Raichel is friendly with Miriam's son, Yoni, and had always wanted to meet Damari. Things snowballed from there, she says. Damari's last live appearance, she recalls, was at the Mann Auditorium in a program Salute to Shoshana Damari about six months ago. Exactly when is irrelevant; she declares, as is her age, about which she doesn't want to talk. It doesn't matter precisely how old. "Yemenites don't count years," she says, and tells the story of a Yemenite woman who is being quizzed by the authorities on the age of her son. She thinks a while and then says, "He was born when the donkey died.'" Of course I laugh, and Damari sparkles at the response. She's beautiful, slim, vital, vibrant and alive. She's wearing purple tights and a color-coordinated blouse and scarf. The long fingernails on the expressive hands are carefully painted scarlet and her face is as carefully made-up. Her lipstick complements the clothes and those eloquent eyes are emphasized with eye-liner. But time is still inexorable and Damari today is no longer the headliner she was for so many years. She's become instead an icon, a mirror of all that was once best about our country. She represents the heart and the hopes that sustained us through the hard times, and that still beats in her. Damari means from Damar, the town in Yemen where she was born and from where a group of families emigrated to then Mandatory Palestine in the early '20s of the last century. It took them a month to reach the port of Aden where they took ship for Jaffa. They'd traveled across the desert with water and rusks, dropping to sleep wherever night found them. 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 says. "She found the herbs she needed and gave them to me and I got better." The family settled in Rishon Lezion and into the life of the yishuv, the few hundred thousand that constituted the Jewish population here at the time. Damari remembers that, from an early age, she appeared with her mother at weddings, funerals and other occasions, singing with her the traditional Yemenite songs and playing the drum. Her talent was obvious to everybody and her elder brother, announcer Sa'adia Damari, knew just the man who'd develop it. He was also the man who would become Damari's husband. They married when she was only 16 and he was 26. Her eyes get mischievous. "I fell in love with him when I was about 15, but he never looked at me. So one day I pretended to faint and everybody fussed around me. Then he noticed me." Shlomo Bosmi had founded and ran the Shulamit Dramatic Studio dedicated to preserving and promoting Yemenite culture through the shows he produced. Damari was about 13 when she was accepted and "because I was small and still flat, I played children's parts." Then, one day she sang on the radio the Yemenite songs she'd always sung, and everybody who heard her was enchanted. She was only 14 then; by 17, she was a star and the rest is history. Damari has represented Israel all over the world, and there are dozens of pictures of her with the great and famous. A photo of Damari and singer Nat King Cole holds pride of place on the piano. There's a picture of comedian Danny Kaye hugging her at a concert and she remembers that "he'd come to all my premieres and then we'd go to a Chinese restaurant and he'd cook for us." There are anecdotes galore. One of the most touching concerns a SRO-only concert at New York's Town Hall only two days after the Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963. This was a concert arranged by a private impresario and had been sold out for weeks, "but I felt it would be insensitive. I didn't want to perform, but the impresario insisted." She came out on stage and then, "I don't know where it came from, but I recited a poem by [Haim Nahman] Bialik in Hebrew. Then I translated it into English. The audience rose to its feet applauding after I'd finished. It was one of the best concerts I ever did." The poem, roughly translated, says "And the song of his life ended in the middle/Ah, sorrow, for he had still a song to sing/ Now is the song lost for ever, for ever lost." Her signature song, the one she has to sing at every single performance, is Kalaniot (Anemones). She sang it first at LiLaLo, the satirical theater troupe where she worked in the '40s. So popular was the song, she says, that the British took some persuading that it wasn't some kind of subversive code. Natan Alterman wrote the lyrics and Moshe Willensky, who wrote dozens of her songs, the tune. Remembering, she sings, moving from one number to the other, her voice still like molten caramel. And, of course, she sang to the troops in all our wars, from the War of Independence to the Lebanon War in 1982, when they brought her into the Golan by helicopter. She'd wait by the telephone for the call "because I felt they needed me, and I always wore a red dress so the soldiers could see me." In 1988, Damari was awarded the Israel Prize for her contribution to Hebrew song and in 1995 ACUM (Israel Composers and Publishers Association) honored her with its Life Achievement Award. In 1996, she made a set of CDs with 71 of her most famous songs, From Kalaniot to Or (Light). It seems that her last recording, until this one, was a duet she made with singer Yoav Yitzhak in 1998, Israel's jubilee year. That was the year she was the star of a gala Jubilee concert in Carnegie Hall, and she proudly shows a testimonial presented to her on stage by then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Her apartment is a third-floor walkup, 54 steps, and she's up and down them several times a day. She keeps busy with friends, young and old, talks on the telephone, shops, and grabs eagerly at every day. She's considering writing her autobiography "but there's time yet. I'm an optimist." Meanwhile, she also writes poems. She reads one aloud. It's a love poem, she acknowledges. "To whom?" "Never mind," and she smiles, beautifully and beatifically, like a girl with a secret.