Shoshana Damari, the ‘queen of Hebrew music,’ dies at 83

JERUSALEM — Shoshana Damari, whose voice came to embody the emerging nation of Israel and comforted its people during their most trying times, died Tuesday after suffering from pneumonia. She was 83.

Damari, known as “the queen of Hebrew music” and a recipient of the nation’s most prestigious cultural prize, entertained Israeli civilians and soldiers for nearly seven decades with her booming alto voice, continuing to perform until shortly before her death.

Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Damari “one of Israel’s cultural greats.”

“Her voice and noble image guided us for more than 60 years … through the establishment of the state, through wars and peace, happiness and grief,” Olmert said in a statement. “Shoshana Damari was an example for love of humanity, love of the Land of Israel and, especially, love for the Hebrew song …

“We will remember her forever as the national voice.”

Damari immigrated to Israel with her family from Damar, Yemen, as an infant in 1924, but her singing featured a distinctive Yemenite pronunciation, adding an ethnic quality to her Hebrew songs.

The diminutive Damari was known for her jet-black hair, piercing dark eyes and powerful, low-pitched voice that seemed to start from her toes, working its way up her tiny body.

She studied singing and acting and began appearing in public in her teens, performing on the radio from the age of 14. She made many recordings and helped soothe the nation during its war of independence in 1948.

She often performed for Israeli military units throughout the country’s many wars and played a motivating role for Israeli soldiers, similar to what Bob Hope did for American troops in Vietnam.

Later in life, Damari served as a mentor to several young recording artists, performing duets with leading singers of three generations.

Boaz Sharabi, one of Israel’s most prominent singers of Middle Eastern music, has said working with Damari was a dream.

Damari was taken to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv on Friday and put on life support as her condition deteriorated. Her many friends, as well as leading Israeli singers, congregated around her hospital room in recent days, singing her songs and praying for her recovery.

Her latest protege, Idan Reichal, was one of those by her bedside in her final hours. The dreadlocked 28-year-old Reichal, one of Israel’s most popular singers, said they forged a strong relationship that transcended their age difference.

“What made her the queen of Hebrew music? It’s a lot more than a pretty voice,” Reichel told Channel 10 TV. “It’s the need and ability to stay current and not be like many others who live off nostalgia.”

But it was a wave of nostalgia that washed over Israel on Tuesday.

Her songs, such as “Kalaniot,” or “Anemones,” were played repeatedly throughout the day on Israel’s main radio stations, evoking memories of a bygone era of innocence. Israeli television also went to special programming Tuesday night, with tributes to her career and airing her last interviews and concert performances.

Damari made her last public appearance only a week ago at the Ami Awards ceremony, Israel’s equivalent of the Grammys, where she complimented Israel’s young generation of singers.

In 1988, Damari was awarded Israel’s top civilian honor, the Israel Prize, for her contribution to Israeli vocal music.

Damari is survived by a daughter, who resides in Canada.

Funeral plans were not immediately announced.