Telling Israel's story

A podcast featuring offbeat stories about day-to-day Israeli lives has become a hit – and now has an English language stage version.

‘Israel Story’ producer Mishy Harman performs last November at the Jewish Community Center Manhattan (photo credit: KOON / JCC MANHATTAN)
‘Israel Story’ producer Mishy Harman performs last November at the Jewish Community Center Manhattan
(photo credit: KOON / JCC MANHATTAN)
IT’S ALL about the story. Or rather, it’s all about being told a story.
The growing popularity of a quirky Israeli-produced nonfiction radio show and podcast shows that a well-told tale will find an enthusiastic listening audience.
The hit podcast “Israel Story” (Sipur Israeli), in both its Hebrew and English versions, offers personal tales (once termed “human interest” stories) about people in Israel you’d otherwise never hear of.
So far, they’ve included the Chabad rabbi and father of six who discovers he is a she; overheard religious matchmaking encounters on an outside staircase; the couple in Safed who adopt children with Down syndrome; a tour of Tel Aviv’s gigantic failed “new” central bus station, which has become a modern day Tower of Babel; the Palestinian- American who travels to the West Bank looking for a bride who looks like Queen Rania; and the Druse villagers who claim to show proof of the transmigration of souls.
Not the sort of content one typically gets about Israel.
“Israel is usually presented in one-dimensional narratives and characterizations,” says Mishy Harman, founder and co-producer of the award-winning “Israel Story.” “It’s either a place of violence and terror, [UN] Security Council resolutions or Iranian bomb threats. Or there’s the counter-narrative pushed by Israel advocates of Israel the start-up nation, inventing cherry tomatoes and gay-friendly Tel Aviv.
“But this doesn’t get at anything complex or nuanced or personal about Israel,” Harman continues, “and that’s what we’re trying to do in the podcast.”
If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember old-time radio dramas from the golden days of network broadcasting before television. The BBC’s venerable “Book at Bedtime” is still popular. The explosion in the past few years of the digital phenomenon known as podcasts, something like radio on the installment plan, has demonstrated the eternal attraction of the oral tradition of storytelling.
Named for the original Apple iPod music player, “podcasting” via the Internet has become hugely popular, especially in the United States. Two years ago, the true-crime drama “Serial,” hosted by the granddaddy of narrative podcasting “This American Life,” became an international sensation.
It was, in fact, “This American Life” that inspired Harman, a Jerusalem native, to conceive of the idea for an Israeli equivalent.
Binge-listening to tapes of “This American Life” podcasts on a 2012 cross-America car trip, Harman became hooked and figured, why not produce an Israeli version.
Returning to Israel, he enlisted three childhood friends from the Conservative Jewish youth movement Noam in Israel: Roee Gilron, Shai Satran and Yochai Maital, and later, Maya Kosover, to launch the project – initially in Hebrew only.
Although they all have advanced academic degrees from Israel and abroad, none had a background in radio or media. They received help from “This American Life” producer Nancy Updike, who was based in Tel Aviv at the time, and then Ira Glass, the public radio doyen who launched “This American Life” gave them a crash course on radio documentary in the New York studios.
“So, you’re the guys who are ripping off my program,” Glass reportedly joked when he met the Israeli team.
Podcasting in Israel has yet to take off the way it has in the US. What one hears on local radio is generally quite limited – mainly talk shows with interviewers in varying degrees of aggressiveness or politicians yelling at each other.
“WE BEGAN this show as a hobby, essentially,” recalls Harman, who holds a PhD from Harvard in history. “None of us came from radio. None of us knew anything about this other than the fact that we enjoyed ‘This American Life,’ which lets you jump into people’s lives and see reality through their eyes in a way that would be impossible in daily life,” he says. “We were trying to teach ourselves how to write for radio, how to record, how to edit, to do everything. It was essentially a start-up with no profits.”
It took the team a year to produce the first three episodes, which were posted online.
They’d assumed at first that the programs would be something their families and friends would listen to, but, to their surprise, they reached a critical mass of listeners. Meeting Army Radio head Yaron Dekel at a party, Harman asked if he could send Dekel a tape and get his opinion. Dekel loved the program, ran a pilot that was a huge hit and subsequently gave them a regular weekend broadcast slot.
Quoted at the time in The New York Times, Dekel said he “liked the idea of a quality documentary program about Israeli life. I’ve been in the radio business for 30 years, and I hardly remember there being something like this in the 21st century,” he told the Times.
When the group decided to launch an English- language version, they partnered with Tablet, a daily online magazine of Jewish news and culture that already had an existing podcast. Vox Tablet (since discontinued), at the time, had a listening audience interested in content from Israel, thus it seemed a natural collaboration.
At first, they tried to translate the Hebrew- language episodes into English, but soon realized this generally didn’t work ‒ particularly since the Hebrew versions assume the audience understands certain definitions and backgrounds.
“Unlike films where you can just subtitle, to redo a piece in a new language means going back to all the interviewees, rerecording them in a new language, often not their own,” explains Harman. “Sometimes it works, but we realized that stories change a lot when you do that; sometimes they get better and sometimes they get worse.”
When “Israel Story” first became an American podcast, the team understood that they were appealing to listeners used to “This American Life” or “Radio Lab,” another popular American podcast. “Unless our podcasts sounded as good as theirs, we knew we wouldn’t get anywhere; we needed top-notch editors and top-notch musicians and scorers,” says Harman.
But there was no budget. Since each episode involves some 1,000 hours of work, continuing as volunteers was not tenable.
Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation came to the rescue in 2014 with its Bridging Communities/Media Fund for Coexistence providing the podcast with its first grant. Since then, “Israel Story” also has received significant funding from the FOHS Foundation, the Natan Fund and other foundations.
The program’s format is quite similar to that of “This American Life.” Each episode has a theme that connects two or three stories, each with music integrated into the narration.
“WE DIDN’T know what to expect when we first went on the air in the US, but suddenly it took off, and public radio stations started picking up our episodes, and our audience grew,” recalls Harman. The English version was a success, and even placed on several “best podcast” lists, including the Medium and the Atlantic. (The Hebrew version won the Israeli Mako and IDC awards in the best podcast competitions.) While it’s an accepted fact of life that everything in Israel is political, if not to say contentious, the producers of “Israel Story” have managed, somehow, to avoid controversy, though the episodes are anything but bland.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re trying to be apolitical since everything one does is some sort of political statement in Israel,” says producer Yochai Maital, the father of two young children and a major in the army reserves. “We’re always having that discussion: Is this story alienating? Basically, our political choices are manifested more in the type of stories we choose to tell. “There’s no shortage of people writing op eds and doing investigative reporting in Israel, so our specialty is not inserting our opinions into what we do, but sticking to telling somebody’s story,” Maital continues, citing, as an example, the story they produced of an Eritrean refugee.
“THE REFUGEE issue is very political in Israel, but our story doesn’t focus on him as an African asylum-seeker, the legal problems, or any of that. But we tell his personal story, of finding “The Diary of Anne Frank” in a dusty library in an Ethiopian refugee camp and translating it, and then losing the diary on his way to Israel. That story didn’t get any negative reaction,” he concludes.
“The bottom line in all our decisions is the power of the story. Even if a story is very political, we’ll go with it.”
In one of their more ambitious shows, “48 Herzl Street,” the producers visited every address in Israel named after the Zionist visionary Theodore Herzl, with the number 48 for 1948, the year of Israeli independence.
The occupants of each address had their own fascinating stories to tell – sometimes inspiring, sometimes depressing and sometimes comical. (Maital commissioned his father Shlomo, who writes the regular economics column for The Jerusalem Report, to do one episode of the program, which involved small businesses in Haifa.) Recently, the team has been touring the US with stage versions of the “Israel Story” podcasts.
The idea for a live show originated with the Jewish Community Center Manhattan, which commissioned a performance for its Israel Independence Day celebrations in the spring of 2015. The team took up the challenge of translating an audible story into a theatrical version – the invisible made visible, as it were.
“Israel Story’s” first stage production, combining live storytelling with recorded interviews and multimedia, was the adaptation of their original Hebrew language “Herzl 48” project, which meant returning to many of the addresses to film the encounters.
That first stage show was so successful, the team was able to make bookings in other venues in the US.
Megan Whitman, director of the JCC Manhattan’s Lambert Center for Arts + Ideas, who commissioned the first live show, recalls that “the event was a huge success for ‘Israel Story,’ the JCC and, most importantly, everyone fortunate enough to have been in the audience.”
SINCE THAT initial performance, the team has made three trips to the US to appear in diverse venues, the most recent in San Francisco.
These US tours, Whitman explains, “are reaching individuals who typically have few opportunities to directly participate in cultural events featuring Israeli artists.
‘Israel Story’ provides a sophisticated and, just as important, entertaining view into Israeli culture and history.”
Clearly, for most audiences, “Israel Story” is opening a window into an Israel they don’t often hear about.
The live shows are complicated and expensive productions, with the team hiring outside professionals to create the multimedia effects, musicians, and commissioning original music scores. These shows have meant an additional source of revenue for the group.
One story was staged as a live performance even before an audio version was produced. This was a profile of Mariam Abu Rkeek, a Beduin woman from the Negev town of Tel Sheva, who flouted her tribe’s demands to marry and developed a successful line of cosmetics based on desert flora. The staged story has footage using an aerial-drone shoot of Tel Sheva and a video of Mariam’s hands preparing herbs and oils.
This past November “Israel Story” staged a show called “That’s What She Said: Stories of and about Israeli Women,” a production commissioned by the JCC Manhattan.
“When we conceived of this show, the polls were showing the US elections to be heavily in favor of Hillary Clinton,” relates JCC’s Whitman.
“On November 9, we woke to a very different reality and a sold-out house for the event that evening. The audience was somber, and seeking community and answers.
While that was a big ask to make of the show, the stories the ‘Israel Story’ team shared were a very good balm for the hundreds of people who came to watch,” she suggests.
Season 4 of the English version of “Israel Story” is now in production.
A bunch of young Israelis are now making a living doing what they love – producing unusual, affecting and sometimes absurd tales. Now that’s a good yarn.