Damari's voice

Education Minister Meir Sheetrit was right to eulogize her as "the queen of Israeli song."

damari, shoshana 298 88 (photo credit: Jonathan Bloom)
damari, shoshana 298 88
(photo credit: Jonathan Bloom)
The inimitable, instantly recognizable voice of Shoshana Damari, who passed away yesterday at age 83, was not silenced. It will continue to resonate in the hearts of those Israelis who hankered for it and responded emotionally to Damari's exhilarating renditions. She was not just another local crooner. Education Minister Meir Sheetrit was right to eulogize her as "the queen of Israeli song." He was equally right, sadly, to assert that "Shoshana Damari's death closes an extensive cultural chapter in the history of the state of Israel." But was he sincere in promising that her "stamp will remain impressed upon us forever and we will cherish the glorious legacy she left us"? Was this a declaration of intent to ensure that her personal contribution to our culture and what she came to embody will not be forgotten, or was it a de rigueur platitude? We can only hope it's the former. The sad truth is that fewer and fewer Israelis are familiar with Damari's vast output or with its historical and formative context. Most of what Damari was famous for is fast fading into oblivion. She is unknown to newcomers to this country and to young Israelis, despite her iconic status in pre-state days and during our country's early decades. Perhaps the most fitting memorial Sheetrit - as head of our educational system and himself a gifted amateur songster and Israeli folk-music aficionado - can create for Damari would be to familiarize the young generation with her music. A year ago the Education Ministry announced plans to introduce Israeli school children to the repertoire and voice of Egyptian superstar Umm Kulthum. If Israeli children are to be exposed to the art of other cultures and countries, why not to the queen of Israeli song? In many ways Damari was the most prominent interpreter of our collective Zionist soundtrack. She was far from a folk purist, but her songs became Israeli folk. They were on the lips of Israelis from the 1940s. For years the voice that most frequently emanated from Israeli radios everywhere was Damari's. If that voice would reverberate again in our classrooms, it would be a pleasant and painless introduction for Israeli pupils to the roots of their country and the old ethos and spirit that created it. It would keep alive what should not be allowed to vanish from our midst. We have not been kind, on the whole, to our Zionist heritage. If we compare the way other nations treat their folk traditions and national emblems, the extent of our neglect becomes particularly evident. We can, moreover, far less afford alienation from our relatively recent past than can other, less beleaguered, countries. Singing was a significant feature of the Yishuv's school curriculum and played a major role in the rise of Zionism. Accompanying the Jewish national revival, it boosted the morale of pioneers and fighters alike and was the first common denominator of the first Sabras. All that has become esoteric, if not passe, for most of today's Israelis. Ignorance is rampant - even among those who should know better. Israel Radio yesterday described Damari's most famous song Kalaniot (Anemones) as having been written "in honor of British Mandate paratroopers." This isn't a trifling glitch. Kalaniot, which was played at Damari's deathbed during her last moments, was her first big hit, of 1945 vintage, with music by Moshe Willensky and lyrics by Natan Alterman - both immortals like their favorite singer. The red anemone imagery was spontaneously and popularly transferred from the wildflower and used as a sardonic cryptonym for the British red-berets. The pastoral lyrics were popularly amended from "charming anemones" to "accursed anemones." The song, far from praising the British, became one of the old Yishuv's most evocative anti-mandatory anthems. The word kalaniot was codified as a staple of pre-state parlance. Not to know this is not to understand much of what happened here en route to Israel's independence. Damari and the impact she left in so many Israeli hearts need to be remembered; not artificially or only through obligatory praise upon her passing - but as part of the seminal recollections of every Israeli child who passes through our school system. Rather than being exclusively relegated to an unapproachable musical pantheon, she should be vitally commemorated in our classrooms for generations to come.