Damari's legacy of grandeur

Thousands gather to take leave of one of Israel's greatest singers.

Shoshana Damari's legacy may well have been the grandeur with which she endowed the very Israeli culture that she helped to create. As the leading figures in the country's original cultural elite packed the Cameri Theater on a brisk February morning Friday, one of Israel's greatest singers was given her final standing ovation after having passed away at the age of 83, following complications from pneumonia. Leading the memorial ceremony, which preceded Damari's funeral in a private ceremony in Tel Aviv's Trumpeldor Cemetery, fellow Israel Prize winner Gila Almagor asked for "him up above to leave us alone, you have taken our best and now you have taken Shoshana. Is it not enough, haven't you taken enough?" Before the memorial service at the Cameri, thousands of people from a wide spectrum of society waited in line to walk past her coffin. The ceremony was interspersed with various performers, family and friends singing her songs, with the concluding number "Kalaniyot" (Anemones) being sung by Damari herself on a large video screen. Producer and musical lyricist Kobi Oshrat looked over the densely packed hall and said, "She is still here; this shows how greatly she gave." Beyond the richness of her voice, Damari was perhaps best remembered for carrying Israeli music to the outside world. "Americans were fascinated by her, this sensual exotic animal lighting up the stage." Shoshik Shani-Lavie, whose late husband and vocal icon Arik Lavie sang with Damari on the New York stage, recalled how the diva memorized the American crowds with her sultry voice and extravagant gowns, paving the way for the success of Israeli singers abroad. Ofra Fuchs, wife of the late lyricist Ehud Manor, called out from behind the curtains ahead of the ceremony "Ehud was in love with her - he had posters of her on his wall as a kid, and she adored him." Fuchs recalls Manor visiting one of Damari's shows in New York where he asked her to sing the song I am from Tzfat, to which she bellowed out "No, I am from Tel Aviv sir." The great original cultural elite, backstage and somber, huddled around a sense of camaraderie that referenced something deeper and unseen, touching the very fabric of Israeli culture. "They were all part of the founding of Israeli culture... sitting around in coffee shops with Alexander Pen and Natan Alterman and carving out the character of the Israeli nation. This doesn't exist anymore because their plans are already in motion and part of what Israel is today," Arik Lavie's daughter Yael said as she recalled the stories of how Israeli culture was founded along side the state. As former premier Shimon Peres eulogized her, "There were two kinds of Israelis in those days; our kind which argued, and your kind which sang." Famed singer Gali Atari said she "gave the Yemenite Jews a sense of honor and respect. She never became Ashkenazi, till the very end she remained Yemenite." Atari emphasized the grace with which she conducted herself, "her singing was not only beautiful, she sang luxuriously." Exuding a class and elegance which she passed on to her contemporaries, entertainer Rivka Michaeli said "you rose when Shoshana entered the room... she might have been small, but she had stardust, giving tone to everything." Singer and producer Hanan Yovel said, "At the end of each visit or conversation she would hold out her hand for you to kiss, a regal queen, Israeli majesty". Damari's passing enhanced a mourning for the loss of other Israeli musical pillars in recent years - Noami Shemer, Arik Lavie, Uzi Chitman and Ehud Manor have left the rambunctious crowd of early-day trendsetters reeling. Among the other speakers at the memorial ceremony was President Moshe Katsav, who mourned the passing of "the queen of Israeli song." He noted her important place in the nation's history. "Since the news of Shoshana's passing, the nation has been enshrouded in deep sorrow and grief, which demonstrates more than anything else the place Shoshana held in Israel's heart," Katsav said. "Shoshana was a pioneer in the history of Israeli song. The story of her life and her success is a chapter in the history of Israel in the second half of the 20th century," Katsav said. "The story of the immigration from Yemen and settlement in Israel, through her music, reflect our story. Her songs represent a mirror of a time period, expressing hope and happiness throughout the difficult times Israel has experienced. Shoshana's voice was the voice of Israel." Backstage every key player in Israel's old Bohemia reminisced on who recorded what, with whom, when, and at which venue. Weaving in and around their kisses and tears, these old friends seemed saddened by the reality that they only seem to meet at farewells. But Damari was the first. All her comrades attest to having posters of her on their walls when they were children. Leading actor Moni Moshonov said he was assigned to her side in the military as she entertained the troops during the War of Attrition. Former premier Binyamin Netanyahu recalled how her voice lulled him to sleep as a child, and singer Mati Caspi said he first met her on the back of a jeep when he was in the service, "She stroked my curls and called me 'brownhead.'" "We are all orphans now," Oshrat resounded, "we have lost a great mother." "She was our Edith Piaf," Caspi called out to a friend, "she showed us how to do it." Recalling her legendary performance at Carnegie Hall in the early 1960s, Caspi said, "They say she was the only singer to do Carnegie with a full orchestra but no microphone - she insisted." Oshrat announced, "An era is over, a huge figure that had a tremendous influence was lost. She will be remembered as part of Israeli history just like Ben Gurion." As Damari's legend became more tangible than ever, Peres acknowledged, "She was just as she should have been," and figuratively called for her to "let your voice resound, for it is the sound of Israel."