Israel Story

Israel Story

Popular podcast’s live performance celebrates Israel@70 in Tenafly

Yochai Maital and Mishy Harman tell an Israel Story onstage.
Yochai Maital and Mishy Harman tell an Israel Story onstage.

People love stories.

There seems to be a primal urge toward stories; the desire, the need to know what happens next just propels us forward.

Stories can be disarming. They’re so much more personal than speeches or position paper or rants or talking points. They can allow you, the reader or listener, to meet someone, a person, with a history and parents and a birthplace and a set of physical and emotional characteristics, and to react to that person. They can go around or underneath or blithely above people’s usual defenses.

The Israel Story does that.

It’s a radio show that became also a podcast that became also a live show — that live incarnation will be at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades later this month, sponsored by Congregation Beth Sholom of Teaneck (see box) — and it tells stories from Israel. Not, despite its name, THE Israel story; there is no one Israel story, its founders would tell you. No, there are many stories in Israel, each authentically Israeli.

And, they say, their work is not at all political. The show is deeply smart, but it is apolitical.

“We position ourselves very carefully in that regard,” Mishy Harman, one of the show’s four founders, said. “Israel Story really was kind of born out of the realization that there were these meta narratives about Israel. The first one was the news narrative — Israel is a place of violence and conflict and Bibi and Iran. The other narrative was classic Israel advocacy, hasbara — look at how homosexuals love living in Tel Aviv! Look at how many Israeli companies there are on the Nasdaq! Look at Israelis saving people in Haiti and Nepal.”

Yochai Maital tells a story onstage for the Israel Story. (Avishag Shaar-Yashuv)

It’s not that neither of these narratives are true. They’re all true. But “having all spent time abroad, we all felt that neither of those narratives was capturing the real complexity of what was going on. And it wasn’t engaging people — or at least it was engaging only the people who would be engaged anyway.

“The majority of young people, the Jews I went to college with” — Dr. Harman, 34, graduated from Harvard in 2008, after three years in the IDF — “were Jew-ish. Those are the American Jews who found it increasingly hard to reconcile their interest in Israel or engagement in Israel with their general world view and their politics.

“It’s hard enough for a lot of Israelis,” he added.

“So these young Americans don’t have their parents’, or even more their grandparents’, emotional attachment to Israel, and as a result they just weren’t interested. So we thought that if we could tell human interest stories that portray the rich human tapestry that is Israel, then perhaps we could get these people on board.

“We have no hasbara pretensions whatsoever,” he added; like Israel Story, Dr. Harman is earnest, but not too earnest. “Israel Story has no meta goal of getting people to think that Israel is a wonderful place, and in many of our stories Israel comes across as a horrible place, but we do have a goal of getting people engaged in what’s going on there. But we carefully avoid being grouped together with hasbara efforts. The Foreign Ministry wants to use our material, but we are very careful not to do that.”

Their Israel is a real, deeply human, infinitely quirky place, where various shades of religious beliefs and practices and different religious traditions and cultural assumptions butt up against each other. Sometimes they mix. Sometimes they don’t.

“We try to humanize Israel,” Dr. Harman said. “Israel is like any other place — but maybe even more so, because there is such a diversity in terms of where people have come from and what traditions they have, and all of this is boiling in extremely close quarters.

“We want to tell the stories about what life truly is like in Israel. The stories of a different Israel, stories that people aren’t likely to hear in the news.”

Below, Israel Story’s core team: Hannah Barg, Yochai Maital, Shai Satran, Mishy Harman, Zev Levi, Yuli Shiloach, and Maya Kosover. Right, Peter Fogel, Hannah Barg, Ari Wenig, and Mishy Harman stand on Tell El Ful, the subject of the episode called “King of the Hill.” (Avishag Shaar-Yashuv)

About five and a half years ago, when the idea for the project first germinated, the stories were the ones they knew about, Dr. Harman said. “Originally, they were mainly from our own social network, our families, and so forth. And then we started diving into all kinds of local newspapers and blogs, and following up on Facebook. We also embarked on these conceptual projects, where we would go outside of our bubble and search for stories.”

So who is this “we”? Israel Story was started by four guys, four men who have been friends since they met in a camp sponsored by Noam, the Masorti movement’s summer program in Israel. (Masorti is the Conservative movement outside North America.) They’ve been friends ever since, through high school and the IDF and college and graduate school, sometimes in close touch, sometimes not so close, sometimes in different dyads within the quartet, but always in touch.

Although Dr. Harman does not put it in these terms, it is also clear that all four of the Israel Story founders are comfortably upper middle class. They are all now in their mid-30s. They each had begun an academic career before the Israel Story engrossed them. They all speak the kind of utterly fluent and colloquial English that makes the utterly fluent, entirely Israeli-accented Hebrew they speak when they use place names, say, in a sentence almost shocking. How do they do that? But they do.

Dr. Harman’s own story is very Israeli, and the way he describes the details makes it clear that he is a storyteller. First — this part he didn’t talk about, but Google does — there is his grandfather, Avraham Harman, the London-born, Oxford-educated third ambassador from Israel to the United States. (He followed Abba Eban and was followed by Yitzhak Rabin.) One of his children — and therefore one of Mishy’s aunts — is Naomi Chazan, the Israeli legislator, champion of women’s and human rights and liberal causes, and general public intellectual.

Mishy Harman was in an intelligence unit in the IDF, and then he went to Harvard, and then to Cambridge University for a master’s degree in archaeology. There, he looked into ancient Middle Eastern pig bones. “The question is why did the proto-Israelites stop eating pig?” he said. “The short answer is I really don’t know.

“This is a question that has been fascinating researchers for decades,” he said. So, the longer answer involves the Philistines, because “it seems that there is at least some archaeological evidence that the pig prohibition was a reaction against the Philistines’ diet.” The Philistines recently moved into the area, and started pushing eastward, away from the seacoast.

“The evidence of the pig bones was pretty dramatic,” Dr. Harmon said. “Wild boars do exist in the area, in that period — 13th, 12th, 11th centuries — it’s not like today. Then, you would eat what you could hunt, so not eating something that is abundant is peculiar behavior. Prior to the arrival of the Philistines, there was pork consumption in the proto-Israelite sites — not a ton of it, but about 10 percent of the bone assemblages contain pig bones.

“There is a lot of literature about whether you should call those people proto-Israelites or Canaanites,” he said parenthetically, before resuming his main narrative.

“But once the Philistines arrived and started moving inland, and settling right next to the local inhabitants, you see a dramatic drop, to literally 100 percent no pig bones. It looks like a differentiation strategy.”

Fawz and Muhammad Qutob told their story to Mishy Harman — and
he told it to us.

Next, Dr. Harman — Mr. Harman then, or more likely Mishy to almost everyone — went back to Hebrew University. His doctoral dissertation is a biography of the first Protestant missionary to work in Ethiopia (or Abyssinia, as it was then). “He was Swiss, worked for a British missionary society, and I spent so much time with him that I felt that we were dear friends,” Dr. Harman said. Of special interest to Jews, this missionary, Samuel Gobat, who later became the bishop of Jerusalem, “was the first outsider to interact with the Falasha” — the Jews of Ethiopia — “and to a large extent he was the one who got that story going. He went back to Europe and proposed a mission that would be directed primarily at Falasha Jews.”

So it is clear that Dr. Harman is a man of widely ranging interests. But until about six years ago, those interests did not include podcasts.

“The truth is that this whole project was entirely accidental,” he said. “No one of us had any inclination that we were going to become podcasters. Right before I came back to Israel, in 2011, I went on a really long road trip across America with my dog. My friend, Ro’ee” — that’s Ro’ee Gilron, one of the other founders, who went to Brandeis, did a project at NASA, and is working toward a doctorate in neuroscience — had downloaded This American Life — the Ur of storytelling radio and podcasts, the model and goal of so many newer, younger podcasters — “because he assumed I would spend a lot of time in my car.

“I had never heard of podcasts before. Ro’ee had been my best friend for about 20 years. I knew he had kind of far-out ideas about what is enjoyable, so I didn’t listen to his podcasts. Instead, I turned to books on tape and some music. Once I reached the Bible Belt, I found Christian radio, which I found fascinating, and I couldn’t get enough of it — and then at some point I got enough of it, and I started listening to these podcasts.

“And then I had this really magical experience, where I was sitting in my car with my dog, and suddenly, in my ears, with my headphones on, I found myself being transported to all sorts of communities all over America and all across the world, meeting people I would never otherwise meet, hearing their most intimate stories, in their own voices.

“It was a dizzying whirlwind. One story is about a billionaire in a Wall Street board room, and the next is about an illegal avocado farm in California, and there is also everything in between.

“Nothing like this at all existed in Israel, even though there is a high interest in radio here, because a lot of Israelis have cars, even more than in most other Western countries, so a lot of people listen to radio all the time, but it’s mainly talk or news or music. We wanted to change that.

“So I came back home and talked to some of my closest friends, and we all got excited about it.”

They worked, at first at night, after their other jobs and obligations were finished, teaching themselves, with help from This American Life’s mastermind Ira Glass, among others, learning the technology and tradecraft they needed. Eventually, they realized that Israel Story was a full-time, all-consuming thing. Not a hobby. A passion.

At first, Israel Story — in Hebrew, it’s called Sipur Israeli — was made in Hebrew. That was logical. But soon, “we realized that we wanted to start doing episodes in English, so that people can get more engaged in conversations about Israel.” The team started a still-ongoing partnership with Tablet, the online Jewish magazine. “That was a real leap for us, because in Israel we were kind of pioneers in the field. There wasn’t anybody who was doing the kind of radio we were doing, so we knew that if we continued to do it well, people would be interested in it.

“But we knew that in America, we would be competing for the ears of people who were used to listening to This American Life and Radio Lab. It required a whole new level of production.

“But Tablet had an existing platform, and it already had a podcast, and we worked with their wonderful audio editor, Julie Subrin.

“At first, we thought that we could take our best stories from Hebrew and translate them, but we realized that unlike the way it works in films, radio doesn’t work that way. We had to go back to the interviewees and record them again, in a new language — sometimes in a language that they don’t have.

“In the end, when you do that, sometimes the stories get better, and sometimes they fall apart.

“But we also realized that the audiences were different enough so that the stories were different, and today the operations are different. We are the same one organization, but most of the stories in Hebrew aren’t in English, and vice versa. Maybe only about 10 to 15 percent of the stories are shared.

“A lot of people listen to the English stories in Israel, but the majority of people who listen to Israel Story in English are not in Israel. They are in North America.”

A word about radio and podcasts — many radio shows, particularly the ones with highly produced, scripted narratives, are available as podcasts, which are unlike radio in that you can listen to them whenever you want to, and you can go back and hear what you’ve missed or go forward should you hit a boring patch. But Dr. Harman and his friends seem often to use the words almost interchangeably.

Lely Shemer shows Mishy Harman CDs and books about her mother, Naomi Shemer.

After the move from radio to podcasting — and with a much bigger staff and budget, thanks at least in part to the Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation — the team next began live performances. (Many podcasts now offer live performances, but unlike many of those, these are not unscripted discussions. They are stories, Israel Stories, read onstage.)

Israel Story’s first live show was at the JCC in Manhattan — most of their performances are at JCCs and other Jewish institutions, and to primarily but not entirely Jewish audiences.

At first, Dr. Harman said, “We were quite concerned. Here we were, coming to New York to perform, but people could just choose to see “Hamilton” instead. It didn’t seem that we were really offering something that could be a viable option. But then it went very well, and the audiences were very receptive, and we came back with that first live show, Herzl 48, many times.”

The conceit of that show is that because there are so many Herzl Streets in Israel, going to the building at #48 on each of those streets would be likely to produce a huge range of stories. It did. Other live shows told love stories or women’s stories, and “there was a live show where we selected little things that happened on Yom Ha’atzmaut” — Israel Independence Day — “at 10-year intervals that illuminated Israel’s larger story. We had another show with intertribal couples — Jew and Arab, secular and religious.

Mishy Harman lives in Jerusalem now, with his fiancée and two dogs. One of those dogs, Nomi, a Vizsla, is the one who went on the road trip with him, and the other, Golda, is Nomi’s daughter. When you call him, you hear them in the background.

Yochai Maital, on the other hand, now lives on the Upper West Side, at least until his wife finishes up her master’s degree in environmental science at Columbia; after that, the plan is for the two parents and their two young children to move back to Israel.

Mr. Maital is another of Israel Story’s four founders. After the IDF, where, like the other Israel Story founders, he was in intelligence, he studied creative writing.

“I think that really our mission is simple,” he said. “To tell people stories, and on a deeper level to create an environment that lets people listen to each other, and to different perspectives on life.

“You get a prism, where you are transported to a different experience and look at the world in a different way. It is a powerful and transformative experience. It can be very personal.”

It is not political, Mr. Maital said. “We are not necessarily trying to be an advocate for Israel. This is not hasbara. But we bring stories from Israel. We bring the Israeli perspective, whatever that means — both broadening Israelis’ perspectives and broadening the world’s perspective on Israel.”

The fourth founder is Shai Satran, who was working on a graduate degree in clinical psychology when the Israel Story bug bit.

Israel Story’s new production, Mixtape, tells Israel’s stories through music. “We are exploring underlying tensions within Israeli society through the lens of some of Israel’s most iconic songs,” Dr. Harman said.

Who: Israel Story
What: Will tell stories of Israel in a live performance, “Mixtape: The Stories Behind Israel’s Ultimate Playlist”
Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Ave. in Tenafly
When: On Tuesday, April 24, at 7:30 p.m.
Why: As part of the community’s celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut and Israel’s 70th anniversary
How much: Tickets start at $18; $12 for students; sponsorship-level tickets are $36, $180, $360, and $720.
What else: The lead sponsor is Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, which has provided the inspiration and work that brings this program to Bergen County.

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