In Tammy Faye Starlite’s Israeli chanteuse, a remembrance of Judaism — and pop culture — past
It’s unclear what circumstances brought Tamar, the mononymous Israeli chanteuse, to the dining room of Pangea in the East Village this October, but it is her feeling that the venue is quite lucky to have her.
“Normally I play great concert halls,” Tamar told the crowd Thursday, “Like Leonard’s of Great Neck.”
Decked out with a diamond-studded Magen David, Tamar, whose cabaret act is called “Yesterday, Today and Tamar,” is an enigma. She claims to live non-chronologically, bouncing between memories like a kind of Billy Pilgrim with blue eye shadow as she barrels through Hebrew covers of the Moody Blues and Leonard Cohen. But the faded, fictional diva came into being when her creator — the actor and singer Tammy Lang, aka Tammy Faye Starlite — reached back to her past.
Lang is famous for performing as a string of peroxide blondes of varying levels of asperity. She often embodies the severe Velvet Underground collaborator Nico, once appalling an audience member with an in-character antisemitic ad-lib (“the Holocaust would have gone much faster if Hitler had microwaves”). Her signature creation, Tammy Faye Starlite, is a grotesquely unwholesome Christian country singer, whose tunes include “God Has Lodged a Tenant in my Uterus.”
Tamar is Tammy Faye’s “flip side,” Lang said in a Zoom conversation from her home in Hoboken. Even with some jade, the Israeli singer makes a show of wide-eyed sincerity, earnest, exploited and unable to perform in her homeland for obscure reasons that involve George Peppard. As a character, Tamar is the first alter ego to give pride of place to her Jewishness. Playing her is like “coming back to home base.”
“My real name is Tamar — I guess I’d forgotten,” said Lang, who grew up in Manhattan and attended Jewish day schools from nursery school to 12th grade.
Lang grew up learning Hebrew (not well, she says, but well enough) and singing Hebrew songs. These hidden skills didn’t factor into her rendering of Nico or Marianne Faithfull, but Lang’s knack for accent work, in full effect in those roles, found a Jewish outlet when she began bingeing “Shtisel” a few years ago.
She started speaking to her publicist, Bob Merlis, with an Israeli lilt, punctuated with a cocksure “awf caus.” Lang said the accent is particularly conducive to demanding things, and, during the pandemic, after mulling over some other projects, she decided to make it something more.
Lang recorded an in-character disco version “Lo Yisa Goy,” the anti-war anthem and staple of many a Jewish summer camp, enlisting the help of her past collaborator Rachel Lichtman to direct. That video spawned more, including an origin story where Tamar says the first instrument she learned to play, as a child in Haifa, was sand.
“We just bonded on the remembrance of Judaism days past,” Lang said of Lichtman.
In particular, it was the Jewish culture of the late ‘70s and ‘80s and the culture of that time in general. (The two, who co-wrote the cabaret, with Lichtman directing, refer to the evolution of actor and game show host Richard Dawson’s personality as their own personal kabbalah.)
While Tamar may almost resemble an Esther Ofarim, and draws no small inspiration from Aliza Kashi, a singer banned from TV and radio appearances in Israel after she spouted an anti-Arab slur on air, Lichtman said she is most informed by the Europop. For that reason, the show’s satire of Israel is sometimes secondary to the overall sendup of an era populated by TV actors and singers with remarkably abbreviated shelf-lives.
Tamar has a familiar trajectory for that time. After winning a Belarusian song contest and starring in some Golan-Globus films (“Eat, Rivka, Eat,” “The Fig Bush”) Tamar nearly had a hit in Belgium. But now, whenever now happens to be — and it is intentionally unclear — she finds herself in America, an imported novelty act with 159 appearances on “The Merv Griffin Show.”
“She’s an outsider and she’s a stranger in a strange land,” Lichtman said. “Tamar is trying to compete on a world stage and also an American stage. She’s just trying to make it.”
Lang imbues Tamar with a grasping, ululating desperation, limned with flashes of ego and a hope that tonight industry may rediscover her, rescuing her from the sub-Branson circuit. What makes Tamar tick, like her age, is ultimately a mystery. But in a telling nod to Lang and Lichtman’s frame of reference, the sources she returns to for spiritual succor are “The Torah and ‘Murder She Wrote.’”
Avraham Avinu and Jessica Fletcher, each sacred and sentimental in their ways, both have a role to play in Lang’s longing for a simpler past, one she hopes to give us with Tamar.
“I’ve had these insane wishes recently that are kind of visceral, ‘why can’t we propel ourselves back to, you know, 1982?” Lang said. “I just have ‘Match Game’ ‘74 on constantly, so that I’m just in that world — and in this way we can take ourselves back while still being here.”
Singing in Hebrew, recalling her ennui-laden, but formative, days in temple, she’s taking herself back, too — even as she moves forward.
“I was always called Tammy,” Lang said. “But I remember years ago, a good friend of mine, saying, ‘One day you will grow into Tamar,’ and I thought ‘Well, I guess that’s now.’”
Tamar is performing at Pangea every Thursday in October.