My Shoshana: A personal recollection

She was a friend to everyone, a quintessential figure of Israeli consensus.

Damari with Marc 298.88 (photo credit: Anne Georlette-Daugherty)
Damari with Marc 298.88
(photo credit: Anne Georlette-Daugherty)
On Monday, past midnight, I nervously twisted and turned in bed, unable to sleep. My wife sat awake in bed anxious. "I feel Shoshana is here. She's coming to say goodbye," she said. We slept lightly another four hours. And, at about 8:30 a.m. the crushing news came. It was a shock. Shoshana Damari won't come this Shabbat for lunch at my parents' home in Jaffa, as she had for the past 20 years, week after week. She died at Ichilov Hospital on Monday at the age of 83, and will be buried on Friday at 1 p.m. at Tel Aviv's Trumpeldor Cemetery. Shoshana crossed paths with my mother, Sali, in 1950s Manhattan. My mother had come to the US as a struggling, stateless Holocaust survivor trying to make it in the Big Apple, and Shoshana was doing her best to launch her American career at the Sabra night club. A few years later Shoshana was packing Radio City. And her friendship with my mother lasted for half a century. In spite of her roaring successes in the US, Shoshana chose to stay in Israel, because she was a patriot and felt more secure at home. She lived for decades in her aging, two-bedroom flat on Klonimus Street in Tel Aviv. But, unlike many of Israel's contemporary performing artists, she felt no need to surround herself with brigades of advisers, impresarios, PR agents and entertainment lawyers. She overwhelmed everyone with her talent, but couldn't quite relate to modern ostentation. She once told us she had cleaned houses in Rishon Lezion when she was eight years old to help her family make ends meet. That was in 1931. Three months ago she showed me her Israeli identity card which recorded her birth date as "00.00.1923." It seems that Yemen in the 1920s didn't bother to register newborn girls' birth dates; only boys mattered. So we would celebrate her birthday every Pessah eve, the biblical New Year. And at home, each seder was Shoshana's feast. She also recalled how, at age 14, she seduced her late beloved husband and impresario Shlomo Bosmi during rehearsals at Li La Lo Theater by repeatedly pretending to faint. She liked popular Jewish food. We knew she would have no raw vegetables, smelly imported cheeses, or undercooked red meat. She would eat beans, roast chicken and cholent. Last summer we ordered raw fish for her at a hip Tel Aviv oriental restaurant. Confused, she called the waitress wondering why "the sushi was undercooked." Shoshana's humor was relentless. She would tell one off-color joke after another. A keen observer of her concerts might have noted that every performance started with a joke and every intermission ended with a gag. Shoshana made the acquaintance of nearly every Israeli leader of the 20th century. She recalled little-known quirks of well-known Israeli statesmen, describing one national leader as "constantly chasing women." "Begin," on the other hand, "was a gentleman." But she kept away from politics, never letting down her unmistakable and majestic sense of decorum. Shoshana feared oblivion and craved reassurance despite her talent. She would look at my mother, asking, "Nu? Am I not beautiful?" She was also a friend. She was always there for me. I miss her naughty smile, her support, the sound of her deep reassuring voice during late night phone chats. She was a good listener. And Shoshana Damari was a friend to the worn-out soldier in the field, to the Tel Aviv cabby, to the falafel vendor, to the struggling young artist - always cracking jokes, always offering a good word. She looked down at no one. She was Herzl, Rabin, Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky, Edith Piaf and a happy teenager all wrapped into one person. Shoshana Damari was the quintessential figure of Israeli consensus, a pillar of the nation. She was our Shoshana. She was my Shoshana.