Israel Story podcast is back with a new season of off-beat tales

The show focuses on real life in Israel, not the Israel of tourism posters or news headlines, and tells fascinating stories that you would likely never hear if you did not tune in.

 ISRAEL STORY'S Mishy Harmon with his staff. (photo credit: Courtesy)
ISRAEL STORY'S Mishy Harmon with his staff.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

“The Israel that people hate and the Israel that people love are both imaginary places, and we wanted to tell the story of our Israel, that was not glorifying and not vilifying the country,” said Mishy Harman, the co-founder, host and senior producer of the Israel Story podcast, which is modeled on This American Life, the US public radio program and podcast.

Harman and his friends from the Noam youth group, Roee Gilron, Shai Satran and Yochai Maital, initially created the podcast nearly 10 years ago in Hebrew on Army Radio, and added an English version a few years ago. Now, the English edition has become the largest Jewish podcast in the world – “by a wide margin,” Harman said – with hundreds of thousands of listeners in 190 countries. It can be played or downloaded at the Israel Story website ( or, as they like to say on This American Life, it is available “wherever you get your podcasts,” and a new season started running recently.

The show focuses on real life in Israel, not the Israel of tourism posters or news headlines, and tells fascinating stories that you would likely never hear if you did not tune in. The podcast follows very much in the quirky and evocative footsteps of its American inspiration: an early show looked at 24 hours at an Israeli pancake restaurant, similar to the This American Life episode about a Chicago diner. A recent episode took a similarly comprehensive look at a day in the life of the YMCA in Jerusalem during the pandemic, interviewing people at the gym, a preschool and other activities there that attract people from all religions. The new season features an episode called “Pigging Out,” which takes a taboo-smashing look at dietary laws, examined through everything from interviews with archaeologists who believe ancient Hebrews did eat pork at times to a trek through a forest near Haifa with a woman who has, of all things, a pig phobia, on a quest to face her fears and find wild boars. Other shows have looked at the complex saga of American-born Israelis trying to popularize baseball in Israel; soldiers’ memories of the Tel Saki battle in the Yom Kippur War, told in two episodes; and Palestinian stand-up comedian Ghazi Albuliwi’s quest to find a woman as beautiful as Jordan’s Queen Rania to marry so he can please his ailing father. The show also features fiction, including stories by acclaimed writer Etgar Keret, whose work also appears sometimes on This American Life.

Sitting at a café near the First Station in Jerusalem, Harman blends in with the hipsters – quite a few of whom are his friends and stop by to chat – as he talks about the long, strange trip Israel Story has been for him.

He grew up in Jerusalem and still lives here and is aware that, “There are roughly a million people [in the capital], about a third are haredim [ultra-Orthodox] and a third are Arabs, but growing up here I had very limited social interaction with people who were not pretty similar to me... Of course I would meet people from other groups, but in a split second, I had constructed an entire story about them, I would label them, I would put them in a box; you start piling up all these presumptions about who these people are ... In a few seconds you’ve created this entire story which actually obviates the need to actually hear their story and as a result you don’t.”

 ISRAEL STORY'S Mishy Harmon out in the field. (credit: Courtesy) ISRAEL STORY'S Mishy Harmon out in the field. (credit: Courtesy)

Harman has an unusual background for someone in radio. He grew up in a family of academics, writers and journalists and did his army service not in Army Radio, but in a house demolitions unit, which he recalls as “a complicated period of time, because I was basically ideologically opposed to what I was doing in the army... It was a challenging time.” He studied history at Harvard and later taught there, studied archaeology at Cambridge and got his PhD at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he wrote a biography of the first Protestant missionary in Ethiopia. He is married to an Italian woman and has a young daughter.

AFTER GOING on a cross-country trip in the US and discovering This American Life, he realized that a podcast would be the perfect medium to tell Israeli stories, and his friends agreed. “We thought that with a podcast – which wasn’t something that really existed in Israel then – we would be able to essentially play this trick on listeners where we would be eliminating the visual aspect so people would have a hard time placing the person they hear... People speak with accents and speak in idioms but maybe for 60 seconds or 30 seconds you’d be a little bit confused or thrown off about who this is and it would allow you the rare opportunity to practice your empathy muscle and actually listen to this person as a human being.”

He is very pleased that soon after the podcast began to air, “thousands of people wrote in, saying, ‘Last night was the very first time in my life that I listened, I actually listened to a story of an ultra-Orthodox woman from Safed who adopts children with Down syndrome or a Bedouin teenager.. or a Russian immigrant who works as a night watchman in a parking lot’ or whatever it is.”

While they started the podcast on a shoestring budget, learning to master the technical and logistical side of producing as they went along, Harman is proud to say that now there is a staff of 15. “At first it was just a hobby,” he said. Initially, he sent letters to more than a thousand Jewish organizations and groups looking for funding and now Israel Story is produced in partnership with Tablet Magazine and the Jerusalem Foundation.

“We have the tremendous luck and privilege to be independent, which is both a curse and a blessing. It’s always difficult to fund this operation and every year you start from scratch, that’s the curse, but the blessing is that we have the tremendous opportunity to choose the stories that interest us,” he said. “We are very intentional about our blind spots” and the staff tries to include voices from every community in Israel.

Harman is happy, he said, “That we get emails from time to time from people in all kinds of unlikely countries, like Chad and Iran.”

As you would expect from the producer of such a show, Harman asks nearly as many questions as he answers, always on the lookout for a new story. He admits that he tries to steer clear of politics on the show but realizes it’s in the nature of this kind of enterprise that “everyone’s going to be upset about something.”

Finishing his coffee, he headed off to take care of a typically Israeli bureaucratic errand with his family. “If I’ve learned one thing in the last 10 years it’s how rarely people conform to these stereotypes we have of them,” he said, as they walked away.