The Little Israeli Boy Who Could

Zipi Shohat
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Zipi Shohat

Once upon a time, when he'd go out to clubs, Amos Tamam was asked to present his identity card at the door. When the muscular bouncers noticed he was from Ramle, he was barred from entering. Tamam no longer goes to clubs but he remembers the insult. And that memory now serves as a powerful motivating force as he portrays the legendary Kaza in the musical "Kazablan."

At the Cameri Theater last week, rehearsing a revival of the musical - one of the most successful Israeli shows ever - energy bursts out of him. He is Kazablan, with the requisite addition of emphasizing his heit and ayin, as per the director's demand that he sound like an authentic Moroccan for that role. "I'm not sure the heit and ayin will stay in," he says. "We're still working on it."

Where did you learn to sing?

"It came from the synagogue. I would go there with my father, who became newly religious, and I learned to sing loads of Tunisian melodies there. It was there I discovered that I love to sing. Later I sang with Ramle's municipal entertainment troupe and in drama school."

Weren't you fearful of having to fill Yehoram Gaon's shoes? (Gaon played the lead when "Kazablan" was first staged in the mid-'60s, and later in the 1974 film version. )

"It is a great privilege and I am delighted. I idolized him for years. But I don't deal with that and have no fears. We are very different, times have changed. In general, I don't get into how big this is, because ultimately it's lines, it's scenes, it's work. What is standing before me is the text, the lyrics, the songs. I go all out, give it my all and go home. The character of Kazablan, in my eyes, is interesting even before the songs. His name, by the way, is Yosef Simantov, but he's called Kazablan because he came from Casablanca, Morocco. He got the name Kaza in the army, and likes being called Kaza. When his beloved Rachel's father calls him Mr. Siman-Tov, he says: 'I told you my name is Kaza.'"

Did you see "Kazablan" at the movies?

"I've seen the film maybe 50 times, and I'm not exaggerating. In the 1990s there were illegal neighborhood cable hookups in Ramle. They'd pass cables across the rooftops and everyone watched movies at the same time, and one was 'Kazablan.' That is where my love of acting began. About six months ago, to prepare for my role in the musical, I watched the movie again, and it was very emotional for me."

Do you identify with him?

"I don't know if I identify with him at this moment in my life but, like him, I do know exactly how it feels to be a victim. I do know exactly what it's like to go somewhere and feel that I don't deserve to be there because of the place I came from. But I worked on myself mentally, from age 20, and realized that nobody but me is really depriving me of anything - and that is what Kaza doesn't get. He is constantly preoccupied with his story: He says that because he's dark-skinned, because he isn't educated, he is unworthy in their eyes. If he were to go with his own truth, maybe within a decade he would become a Knesset member for a social values party."

In what respect did you feel a victim?

"When you come with a sense of inferiority from home, you project that on to whoever is standing before you. Even now, as I sit across from you, I could say, 'She is interviewing me now, what is she thinking? That I'm a Tunisian from Ramle?!' But I don't think that - I don't have that struggle. But I imagine that if Kaza were sitting here across from you and you were interviewing him, he would say, 'Okay, that ring, the watch, blonde hair - she's looking down on me, probably thinks I'm a hoodlum; she definitely wouldn't let me marry her daughter.' I know she would, but the Kaza of 1953 doesn't. And so he keeps putting on the brakes."

Where are there Kazas like that today?

"I think there are plenty. If you saw the last season of 'Big Brother,' for example, you would have seen them. But not only there. Let's go for a drive around the Hatikva neighborhood [in southeast Tel Aviv] and you'll see them. During the social protest a year ago, we saw and heard the voices, we heard the street. And what the street said was: 'We don't want to sit in tents on Rothschild, that's where the Ashkenazim are sitting. We are in Yad Eliyahu, we are truly suffering."

Tamam was born in Ramle in 1977. His parents, Eli and Suzy Tamam, are from Tunisia, but met in France. In 1972 they immigrated to Israel and got married here. Almost immediately, Tamam's father was drafted into the Yom Kippur War, which left him shell shocked.

"I didn't really know what went on there," Tamam says, "I only knew that my father became religious. He told me details only a few years ago. He said they arrived as an auxiliary force after the battle at one of the bases in the area of the [Suez] Canal and there were loads of enemy corpses there, in the place that our army had conquered. And one of them, a man they thought was dead, was actually wounded and at a certain moment shot at my father; the bullet missed him by a few millimeters. Dad went into shock and felt he was saved by a miracle, and after that became religious. We were born into this - a home where the father was newly religious, and every Friday and Shabbat we went to synagogue with him."

He made you attend synagogue with him?

"Yeah. I didn't always want to go, especially during adolescence. We didn't drive on Shabbat either."

As a youth, Tamam - who is one of six siblings, two girls and four boys, and is 35 years old today - helped his father and grandfather sell spices in the Ramle market. His grandfather had a small stall there; next to him was the Baba Levy who sold lemonade, and then there was Moshe who sold flowers, "and I was everyone's kid. Whenever someone would leave for a second to get something to eat, I would pour lemonade and serve bourekas and Turkish coffee, and when they needed help selling flowers for the holidays, I would sell them. Everyone paid me money. That's how they taught me that you have to work; my father also paid me when I worked at his stall."

And then you enlisted in the Paratroops.

"Yes, but I don't have anything interesting to say about that, it's a black hole for me. Before I enlisted I did briefly contemplate going to one of the army entertainment or theater troupes, but they told me my [medical] profile was too high."

Tamam was the first in his family to study acting. Now his youngest brother, Meir, is also following in Amos' footsteps. "I didn't experience the scene of 'Go learn some profession that gives you a steady income.' No one said anything to me," says Tamam. "I said I wanted to study acting and my parents were immediately on board. They never told me: 'That is not a profession.' I think that, for them, the mere fact that I wanted to go to school was an achievement."

When he appeared as King Arthur in a sixth-grade play, he already dreamed of becoming an actor. Even then he loved to hog the limelight: "When you grow up in a home where there are six kids, you learn to fight for your spot, you want to be heard, want to express yourself, want to show your uniqueness. Later on I used the stage as a means of making the guys laugh. My buddies and I used to dramatize jokes we heard in the street and we'd put that on at the Ramle Youth Club."

He began his stand-up shows with three friends from high school - Asi Yisraelof, Shalom Michaelshvili, and Tzion Baruch. They performed together in the late 1990s and called themselves Ma Kashur. They began to take off after a year, after he dropped out.

Were you sorry you quit?

"Suddenly something caught fire there after it had looked like it was pretty much over. Obviously that sucks. I thought at the time that I had taken the wrong train, that I had missed the bus. On the other hand, they are like my brothers. They are people I am in touch with to this day and I was happy for them."

What led you to study acting?

"I saw that my friend Shahar Hason, who had been with us in Ma Kashur, was studying acting at Yoram Levinstein [drama school] and felt my soul being drawn to that place ... To go study acting for three years when you live in Ramle is borderline suicidal. It's crazy. Nor had I been to a play before that, aside from one or two from school. I certainly never came to a theater here in Tel Aviv ..."

He wound up at Seminar Hakibbutzim after failing the admission exams for the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio. "I made it to the final stage in the auditions and I remember that Nissan, of blessed memory, told me I was terrific, but in the end I didn't get in. I thought about giving up, but then a friend told me about Seminar Hakibbutzim. For the auditions I did a piece from Hanoch Levin's 'Yaakobi & Leidental.' I didn't even know the play. A friend gave me the monologue ... and I was accepted. I got lucky because an acting school can be a cruel and harsh place, and I'm not sure I would have hung in there, but the Seminar is something different - it's a warm place that respects people."

Tamam wasn't "one of the guys" there, though: "Everyone seemed, to me, to be very educated, and looked like they had studied theater already at Ironi or Thelma Yellin [well-known high schools in Tel Aviv]; they had experience, they knew what a play is. And I came along - how shall I put it - and was a stage lover but not really a man of culture. I didn't feel like a man of culture, but I wanted to be."

Was the struggle to fit in difficult?

"I remember the beginning, the moments when I felt I didn't belong. In a second you can be stuck in a battle with them, but it's a matter of making a decision not to feel like a victim. I was fortunate to meet good people along the way who believed in me - such as, for example, actress Tatiana Kanalis Olier, who was my sponsor in the first and second years. She kept telling me I was in the right place, I had something to give. Sometimes I work with teenagers and I see how another person can change somebody's life if he gives you a different point of view."

Today it seems like you've blended in completely.

"I have to admit that now, sitting in the office of the Cameri's director general, Noam Semel, with you interviewing me - I feel I belong. However, the sense of being a victim and the feelings of inferiority can fuel work, and that is what happened to me. To tell you that it doesn't exist at all would be a lie, and it's a good thing - this is my power. I achieve what I achieve - and I achieve a lot, thank God - because I have drive. I will forever remain the little boy from Ramle who came from a family with six kids, and my parents, those darlings Eli and Suzy, and the house with Kiddush on Friday night. I will always be from there."

Since he graduated from Seminar Hakibbutzim in 2004, Tamam's career has flourished. These days his face can be seen on practically every channel: He is Arik Arbel, an officer in a detective unit in the Channel 10 police drama "One Zero Zero"; the labor foreman Yaakov Buskila at a factory in the recent mini-series "Strike" on Yes Drama; a cab driver in the movie "Tur Ehad Lahalom," seen not long ago on Channel 10; Itzik Sapir, head of the intelligence division in the Mossad in the comedy feature "Kidon" ("Javelin" ), due in cinemas soon; and a shell-shocked soldier in "1973," that will also reach theaters soon.

On top of this, he is also the face of the fashion company ML. And before this he was a geeky ultra-Orthodox graduate of a hesder yeshiva on the television show "Srugim." He was also in the start-up sitcom "Mesudarim" and in the popular HOT series "Asfur." Tamam says modestly that he's been lucky.

He got his start in the 2004-2005 soap "Our Song," a role that nearly fell through after he was cast as the lead in a movie. Financing problems scuppered the movie, so Tamam found himself acting in the musical drama.

"It was a fantastic school for me," he says, "because for two seasons I was on set every day. I made all the mistakes possible, but I amassed 'flight time' in front of the camera, which in the end is experience."

How was the transition from Ramle to Tel Aviv?

"Let's set things straight. First of all, it's not like I grew up in Ramle in some neighborhood and never saw anything. Ultimately, Ramle to Tel Aviv is 17 kilometers as the crow flies. We're not talking about a situation where I packed a suitcase, flew three days and reached New York. Prior to Tel Aviv, I also appeared in Rishon Letzion at a comedy club.

"It's true that to uproot my life in Ramle and begin living in Tel Aviv was a shock, because of the transition to studies, the total commitment to acting classes, the rehearsals and shift work - and then in the morning rehearsals again."

How did you support yourself?

"Wow, it was tough. I did every odd job imaginable. First of all my parents helped me, and I don't come from a home with unlimited means. My mother works in the bindery of a print shop - 30 years in the same place. My father is a butcher at Shufersal. I worked all kinds of jobs: I waited tables, did gigs, directed graduation parties for several high schools, wrote skits, wore a Mickey Mouse costume at malls and entertained kids. I didn't balk at anything."

His casting as Kazablan was not an obvious choice, but director Tzedi Tzarfati fought for him. Was he surprised to get the part? "Yes and no," he says, adding, "From the moment it was decided that I'm doing this part, Tzedi and I began talking and working and meeting. I really feel there is something in this part that really suits me - that through it I can tell our story."

When asked who his role model is in the theater, Tamam points to a poster hanging on Semel's office door of Gil Frank and Anat Waxman, who appeared with him in the play "Havdalah": "They are professionals of the highest level, stage animals, from whom I learned what precision is. They respect the profession, night in, night out."

You didn't get bored saying the same text 200 times?

"It is never the same, and you never know what will be. Think about it: Is it boring to have sex again and again?"

Your career is currently in its prime. How do you handle the success?

"I'm very glad that I am experiencing such a year at 35 and not at 25, because today I am equipped to deal with it. I also understand that it's only a job; I don't honestly think that it makes any difference in my personal life. I don't allow myself to get overexcited. When I landed the role on 'One Zero Zero' and there was a toast, they told me: 'You do understand that there's an entire series, an entire channel, riding on your shoulders?' And I replied: 'Nothing is riding on my shoulders. I have lines, I have scenes. I will do them, it's my job.'

"I know that today you might feel you're on top of the world, and tomorrow nothing is guaranteed. You have to work, make a living, and it's true that I enjoy my job very much and, in the process, feel like I'm in the midst of a dream-come-true."

But there were also hard years.

"Yes, and they followed good years. There was a two-year period when things slowed down. It's not that I didn't do things - I performed in Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' at the Arab-Hebrew Theater in Jaffa. It was an amazing experience, but with three or four performances a month you can't say you're working in the profession. But those two years of slowdown were an opportunity for me to do a little work inwardly. I threw out all sorts of stuff; I came to understand all sorts of things about myself. I stopped for a moment, looked from the side and realized things. Today I adopt what Albert Einstein said - a large postcard of him with a picture and quotes hangs in my room. He said that insanity is a situation where you do the same thing time after time, and expect a different result. Nowadays, when I want to get a result, I stop, look and identify how to attain it another way."

Tamam also began studying what he terms "inner essence." "I've been studying for five years with Yemima, who is a woman and not a method. These are studies of essence, Judaism and observation. I wouldn't like to talk about it, because it's something that you can't really explain. Every word will diminish this thing."

The only thing that can overshadow or compete with Tamam's love of acting is soccer. He even played for Beitar Ramle at one time. He once said in an interview, "The moment of scoring a goal is as close to God as it gets."

Didn't you get a little carried away?

"No, not at all. It is a moment in which there is nothing, there is unity - and for me God is unity. Did you know that soccer is the religion with the most adherents in the world? In Argentina, for example, there are churches where you pray to Diego Armando Maradona, the player who was into drugs, shot at journalists and is a provocateur. Millions simply believe he is God. It can't be explained."

Do you still play?

"Yes, sure. But I'm no longer as fit as I used to be."

Tamam is named after his uncle - his father's brother - who died in Tunisia at a young age from illness: "For my grandmother, who was in mourning to her dying day, I was a little bit him. They confused me a bit. They told me, 'You are him,' and he was the successful one, the handsome one. There was a big photograph of him in the living room in a suit and tie and hair gel, looking out with this piercing glance, and they always told stories about him where he was the smart one. There is a phrase in Arabic, 'Tahud omru' - which means 'Carry on his life.' That is what everyone expected of me, that I would carry on his life. It's what everyone kept telling me."

They suggested a role and you went with it?

"I didn't have much of a choice. So during that period when I was kind of observing things from the side, I suddenly saw I was taking something upon myself that was not mine, that wasn't me. Until 23 I had this thought that I too, like my uncle, was going to die young. In my period of observation, one of the insights was that I don't have to carry his life on my shoulders any more, that it's my life."

Are you religious?

"I'm traditional. I think I pretty much stayed on the same path as at home. I travel on Shabbat, but as far as I can help it, I don't work on Sabbath eves now. But there is something in my job that gives me great pleasure, and as far as I'm concerned, when I appear in a play I don't feel like I'm working."

Until recently, Tamam was in a relationship with the model and actress Adi Himelbloy, which was covered fairly extensively in the gossip columns. Tamam says they split a couple of months ago and he is not involved with anyone new. But, yes, he would like to be in a new relationship and wants a family.

When I say that his life seems pretty rosy and that he seems to be trying to justify the image of the good boy for whom everything is going fine, he says he is an optimist: "Maybe life really is smiling at me, and maybe it is possible that everything will be fine." But then he remembers that he does have one small problem after all: "I mentioned kids a moment ago, so there you have it: I really want kids and I don't have any, so not everything is so perfect."

Where do you see yourself in five years, or 10?

"I don't know. I hope that five years from now I will have many theater roles under my belt and that I will continue to be in the industry. And I hope I will be able to tell you at about at least one child."

Amos Tamam: 'It’s true that I enjoy my job very much and, in the process, feel like I’m in the midst of a dream-come-true.'Credit: Zohar Shitrit
Amos Tamam in the 'Our Song' musical drama.Credit: Zohar Shitrit

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