Shoshana Damari personified the lack of separation between stars and the audience.I came to Israel on a two year fellowship with the mission of helping close the gap between what most Americans (Jews and non-Jews) think they know about Israel and the actual vibrant life of the place, its people, and its culture.

I wanted to bring to light an Israel not of bombs, walls and fanaticism but of deep and varied culture – dance, art, food, music, poetry, films, photography, theater, rap – you name it.

Jewish Cultural Intimacy is the term I came up with as a way of describing this difference between knowing facts and figures about Israel (and Jewish life) and a deeper way of understanding and feeling its importance to one’s present and future. Or as my colleague Danny Gordis recently put it, “the most exciting conversations in Israel today are not happening on army bases but rather in cafes and on the bookshelves where religious thinkers like Moshe Halbertal are duking it out with post-Zionists and feminists about the future of the Jewish people.” Being privy to that conversation is the crux of cultural intimacy.

My cousin Ilan and his wife Zahava, live in an average apartment in an average building in an average neighborhood of Tel Aviv. One summer day when we came to visit them, they told us if they weren’t home to just knock on the neighbor’s door, get the key, and wait till they arrived. Sure enough, when we got there they weren’t around so we knocked on door of the neighbor directly across the way. A striking woman with intense dark eyes opened the door a crack. After eyeing me up and down she handed over the key. She was wearing a housecoat.

In fact, every time I went over to my cousin’s house, Shoshana, the neighbor in the ever-present housecoat, was a constant, somber presence. We started taking it as a given that, as the visits continued, Shoshana, the neighbor, would be in attendance. We never really exchanged many word other than the “hi-hello-how are you” variety.

This past Rosh Hashanah, seated around the table were the usual cast of characters-family members, assorted wacko friends and Shoshana, this time dressed more elegantly, seated on the opposite end of the food laden table. No one seemed to be talking to her.

I remembered Zahava once telling me that Shoshana was some kind of entertainer, and during her career had performed at New York’s Rockefeller Center. So trying to make some feeble fraternity brother attempt at ice-breaking, nicey-nice, I shouted across the table to my daughters, “Somebody here danced at Rockefeller Center. Can you guess who?”

A vicious silence fell over the crowd. The look on my cousin’s face was somewhere between shocked, agitated, surprised, embarrassed, and homicidal. His eyebrows were hiked so high they threatened to tear a hole in his forehead. Then the powerful voice came like a fugue from the table’s other end.

“Why Rockefeller Center?” Three words. That’s all it really took for me to sense the faux pas deep in my soul.

“I don’t know. That’s what I heard from…” I pointed weakly in Zahava’s general direction.

“Why danced?” the voice at the other end of the table continued.

“Uhm…” I stammered eloquently. “No, I’m just saying… uh…” I looked around the table pleading for a social lifesaver. Anyone? Anyone?

Shoshana stood up with the stage presence of a diva, left the table, and walked across the hall to her apartment. With her dramatic exit, Jackie, the British fellow next to me asked with a bemused smile, “You have no idea who that is, do you?”

“Uh… not so much.”

That’s Shoshana Damari.

“Uh-huh.. Shoshana Da…?” a vague inkling stirred somewhere in my scotch-dappled brain.

Picking up the flat-line in my expression Jackie essentially informed me that she was a Zionist icon. In essence, I had just asked Frank Sinatra if he’d ever sang in the shower or Barbra Streisand if she was Rockette.

By the time Jackie was half-way through his polite British explanation of the magnitude of my cultural idiocy, Ms. Damari had returned with a plaque in hand from the mayor of NYC – I believe Lindsay – thanking her for the contribution she’d made not only to the arts but also to her representation of the State of Israel, its culture, its people, etc. and so forth. Having made sure I had properly digested the information, Ms. Damari disappeared during the gefilte fish.

If I wasn’t so familiar with the iconic status of my cousin’s neighbor before that evening, I was given a crash course just about everywhere I turned. Idan Raichel, one of Israel’s biggest musical stars, featured her haunting, operatic voice on his latest CD. She stalked me every time I turned on the radio or TV. Like asking Rabin if he was the head of the PTA

And with her death last month, this minor gap in my cultural intimacy was given a relentless pounding. “The last of the Giants”, shouted the headlines. “Long Live the Queen of Song!” Even the most hard-bitten Israeli journalists waxed maudlin. “The nation’s preeminent singer” wrote Gidi Avivi in Ha’aretz. “Her death has left Israeli song without a voice and with an everlasting, characteristic stage presence.” Like asking Sharon what he did in the army.

“Her unique throaty voice,” gushed Doron Rosenblum “and larger than-life stage presence embodied the Hebrew revival myth. “The country’s leaders and trendsetters saw Damari as a synthesis of biblical splendor, Eastern exoticism and security-consciousness; she also embodied a feeling of destiny and belonging, pathos and, generally speaking, the intensification of the drama of Israeli life to the point of collective, operatic shuddering.” Like asking Ella Fitzgerald if she did karaoke.

But there’s another side to the story. I was reminded of a Shalom Hanoch concert I’d attended a few years back. After one of Israel’s premier rockers blew out the speakers of a small Manhattan venue, he and his band remained on stage as audience members came up, joked, and turned the sound malfunction into a huge, familial party. I could hardly imagine the same thing happening if J-Lo or Britney had blown the speakers.

It is fitting for a place with no set borders that the demarcation line between the personal and the public, between stars and audience, between the iconic and the working stiff, between the myth and the reality, can be so informal and permeable. What struck me is that Israeli stars live close by, in accordance with there stature as part of the fabric of society.

There’s just no way Babs is living next to my Aunt Mimi on the 7th floor of a random apartment building in Riverdale. In the same way that four star generals and world renowned archaeologists are buried next to regular foot soldiers, the separation between the high and the low, the holy and the profane, the famous and obscure, are simply not as fixed in this large extended-family of a tiny nation. Never in a million years is Dustin or Keanu coming over for coffee and cake in robe and slippers. At Damari’s state funeral, my ten year-old niece, Kori Kamil, sang.

The day after the funeral, I happened to have tickets to an Idan Raichel concert at the Jerusalem Theater. For his encore, Raichel appeared without his racially eclectic and musically brilliant band. The dread-locked Raichel, who had sat vigil by Shoshana’s hospitable bed, related how the two of them were to have performed one of her classic songs that evening. In fact, he had called her two days before she was rushed to the hospital (it my cousin who had called Magen David when she didn’t answer her phone) and had asked her to sing part of the song so he could rehearse it. Raichel held his cell phone up to the microphone as Shoshana’s haunting, severe singing filled the hall. Everyone knew the words. Raichel then shut off the cell phone and quietly finished the song.

I am told by my cousin and have read in numerous places that Ms Damari was a modest woman possessed of a wonderful sense of humor. I am hoping that she took my faux pas in stride for, I too, now a bit more culturally intimate, was hearing the silence she’d left in her wake.