It makes sense to think of Israel Story as the Jewish state’s This American Life.
Like This American Life, the ur-podcast that first gave us stories in our ears on our own schedule, Israel Story is a radio-show-turned-podcast that tells stories that are deeply revealing about the societies in which they’re set exactly because they’re entirely specific. Both podcasts tell real people’s stories; they appeal to the story-craver inside most of us. Because who doesn’t want to listen to a gripping story?
Israel Story, which has been clear about its derivation from its American model, started out in Hebrew about 10 years ago, but it switched to English about three years later. Since then, it’s delivered narratives that show Israel as a real place, full of people as odd, impressive, imperfect, driven, lazy, funny, serious, mixed-up, morally clear, morally muddled, and generally human as they are everyplace else.
Until now, Israel Story also has been clear about its imperative to remain apolitical. Often it tells the stories of highly political people, and the people behind Israel Story — its four founders and everyone else who has come to work for it since — generally have deeply held political convictions, but those convictions have remained outside the podcast.
Israel Story has grown over the years; it’s gone from being entirely decentralized — an already-in-place configuration that served it well during covid — to having a physical base in Jerusalem. “We do a story night in Hebrew, in Jerusalem,” one of its founders, producer Yochai Maital said. It has a studio in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot, which is always hopping — when it’s not being used for Israel Story, it’s being leased out to other nonprofits.
Now, though, Israel Story is working on a slightly different kind of podcast. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered?” is a limited series that examines the story of each of the people who signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence — the Megilat HaAtzma’ut — in time for Israel’s 75th birthday. Coincidentally, the podcast is coming out at a time of great turmoil within the state, as its basic premises — Is it Jewish? Is it democratic? Should it be pluralistic? Should it be theocratic? — are being contested.
Mr. Maital — who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with his wife and children for now and will be at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck with a live program on Sunday (see box) — said that an impetus for “Signed, Sealed” is “that the time when the declaration was signed was the last time that we had some kind of broad consensus in Israel.”
It was signed in May 1948, just before the United Nations declared Israel as an independent nation. It was written in a great hurry — the whole process took just three weeks — and it was signed with great intention — kavannah — but without the back-and-forth of committees and levels of authority and legal review that any document, much less such an important one, would get now, three-quarters-of-a-century on.
Although most of the signers were Askhenazi men, the organizers “made an active effort to include other people; there were Yemenites and Mizrachis and some women. Everyone voted unanimously to accept the text.
“The Arabs weren’t invited to the table — but we were fighting a war at that time.
And it wasn’t so very long ago. “It’s not like the American Founding Fathers, who have already moved on to the land of legend,” Mr. Maital said. “Our own founding fathers are only once removed; there are still people alive who remember them.”
The podcast series begins with a trip to the archives — also, and coincidentally, in Talpiot, a visually unimpressive neighborhood that gives little obvious sign of the riches it holds — where the Declaration itself is housed. There were no copies made when it was signed, so there is just the one original. Mishy Harman, the “Israel Story” founder whose voice is most familiar to the listener, is the narrator who gets to be in a room with the document. He is audibly moved; perhaps there exists a hardhearted listener who will not be moved as well, but that would be a rare listener.
The podcast series includes some archival recordings of each founder for whom such recordings can be found, and then an interview with a living relative — a child, a grandchild. “We were interested to learn how far the children and grandchildren have gone in terms of their politics and their thinking about Israel,” Mr. Maital said.
“It is shocking to hear Ben Gurion’s grandson, Yariv Ben-Eliezer, call Israel an apartheid state” — as he does in the podcast — “but on the other hand, other people have become more extreme on the other side. There are some who say that Israel should not be a democracy; it should be a theocracy instead.”
He talked about the podcast’s apolitical nature; its founders increasingly have found that a difficult stance to maintain at all times, although it still seems to be a goal. “We think that maybe this represents trying to forge a new way forward,” he said. “Being entirely apolitical started to feel like a bit of a copout.
“I think that it dawned on us — slowly, this is not a one-day realization — that it is not true or accurate to say that we are apolitical. We were striving to be, but the truth is that everything is political. We are political. We do have an agenda.
“We do have an agenda. It is pluralistic. Hearing different sides is important to us,” and that is inherently political. “We want our studio to be a place where everyone is comfortable. We want it to be a place where everyone can have civilized conversations. We are open to hearing both sides. We are unaffiliated and will continue to be.
“A lot of left-wingers think that we are right-wing, and a lot of right-wingers think we’re left-wing.” That’s a sign of success, Mr. Maital said.
Even if that does sound like a continued attempt to be apolitical, Israel Story does not want to constrain its employees. “We are not the kind of journalistic organization that doesn’t let our people take sides,” he said. “People are very involved. They go to protests.”
“We couldn’t imagine that this project” — “Signed, Sealed, Delivered?” — “would be so relevant as it is now,” he said. “It gives it a new sense of urgency. It’s really cool.”
He talked about the new state-of-the-art studio in Talpiot. “It so quiet that it’s almost unnerving,” he said. “The other side of our operations is that we’re also a production company now. We produce things directly connected to us, and we also produce podcasts for other organizations. We got a grant for it, and we are obligated to give a substantial discount to NGOs.” That’s an obligation the Israel Story creators appreciate. “We have to work with any NGO, whatever its politics. A lot of groups are doing podcasts now — everyone from evangelicals to radical left-wingers to charedim. It’s really nice.
“We’re trying to be a little bit in both the Israeli and global scenes,” he added; the podcast scene in Israel is vibrant.
The program at Beth Sholom on Sunday night will be unlike the Israel Story tours; those are full productions, with large teams of reporters and musicians, and a full script. This one is small-scale and intimate — just Mr. Maital. “It’s a communal event, where we will devote an hour and a half to the Megilat Ha’Atzmaut.”
First, he said, “we’ll read through the text. It’s short; it will take about 10 minutes.” It’ll be read in alternating Hebrew and English, paragraph by paragraph. Then, using some audiovisual displays, “I’ll tell the story of how this declaration came to be. I’ll focus on the two words that are so glaringly missing from it — God and democracy.”
Next, he said, the audience will divide into chavruta — study pairs — and each pair will study two paragraphs. “We’ll try to think of what we should have changed, added, taken out. We can ask them whether they’d sign it, or if they’d shy away from it.”
Next, a video of Yariv Ben-Eliezer will lead to a general wrap-up, and then, finally, “there will be a chance to schmooze,” he said.
This program has been presented only once before; that was a few weeks ago, at the plenary session of a big conference at the iCenter in Chicago. That means that really this is the first time the program will have a chance to work as intended. “There was a big group of teachers; I gave them three minutes to talk, and then we moved on. This was just a way for them to see the model. Here, there will be time to engage with it.”
Like all the reporters on Israel Story, Mr. Maital mixes impeccable, unaccented English with Hebrew names and phrases in an Israeli accent that few Americans, no matter how well-educated in Hebrew, no matter how well-intentioned, can manage.
Mr. Maital comes by both accents logically. He’s the first in his family to be born in Israel. “My father is from Canada,” he said. “He came from a town in the middle of nowhere. He’s from Milestone, Saskatchewan, population about 2000.” (That was then. According to Wikipedia, in 2016, 699 people lived in Milestone.) “It’s wheatlands,” he said.
“My grandfather, who was first generation from Europe, got work washing bottles for Bronfman during Prohibition,” Mr. Maital said. “They’d smuggle them down south.” That would have been Samuel Bronfman, the patriarch of the Bronfman family, whose fortune came from bootlegging; most likely the liquor from Milestone went to Minneapolis. “My mother’s family was from the East Coast; they moved around outside Philadelphia and in New Jersey. Her father was a Hebrew school teacher.
“My mother and father were always big Zionists. They got together in a Zionist club when they were in university, and they moved to Israel the day after they got married.”
Mr. Maital’s grandparents named his mother Sharona, so she didn’t have to Hebraicize it when she made aliyah. That’s what having Zionists as parents can do. But his father was born Richard Mult; he’s Shlomo Maital now. And their son not only is grappling with Zionism as it has unfolded during the last 75 years, and as it continues to morph as it goes, he’s helping the rest of us understand it, both inside and outside Israel, through Israel Story.
Who: Yochai Maital of Israel Story
What: Presents “Signed, Sealed, Delivered?”
When: On Sunday, April 30, at 7 p.m.
Where: At Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck
For whom: It’s open to the community
How much: It’s free
How to learn more: Go to www.cbsteaneck.org