‘This American Life,’ Israel-Style
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‘This American Life,’ Israel-Style

Holocaust survivors, Palestinians, ultra-Orthodox settlers and Israeli-Palestinian gay lovers: these were just some of the voices featured in the Valentine’s-themed live recording of “Israel Story.”

Last month creators of the popular Israeli radio program performed a live version of their show at the JCC Manhattan, as well as other venues here and in Miami. Combining live storytelling with recorded interviews, music and other media, the event juxtaposed love stories from some of Israel’s most far-flung and polarized groups.

The result was surprisingly heartwarming. Without actively trying to avoid contention, the show managed to glide over obvious fault lines and present an empathic, contemplative portrait of how different people in the country love, and how the country had shaped their love.

“I think that’s what people like about the radio show,” Mishy Harman, “Israel Story’s” founder and co-producer, told The Jewish Week in a recent phone interview. “It’s a way to relate to the State of Israel that isn’t about politics, but about the different people living in it. We have no agenda but to tell a good story,” he added. “That gives people the opportunity to suspend their political views and preconceptions, and connect on a human level.”

“Israel Story” (Sipur Israeli) is a long-form, nonfiction radio show and podcast, produced both in Hebrew and in English. Each episode has a theme and several stories that connect to that theme. Obviously, the show was modeled after NPR’s “This American Life” — or as host Ira Glass jokingly puts it, “shamelessly ripped-off” it.

As the now-famous origin story goes, Harman came up with the idea in 2012, after binge listening to “This American Life” for the duration of a 12,400-mile road trip across the U.S.

When he got back to his hometown of Jerusalem, Harman enlisted three childhood friends — like him, all native English speakers with at least one American parent — to make a “This Israeli Life” podcast together. With no experience in radio, it took them about a year to produce the first episode. The second episode went viral; the third was broadcasted on GaleyTzahal, Israel’s national Army Radio station, becoming an overnight success.

Since it first aired in 2013, the show has grown rapidly. In 2014, after becoming one of the most popular radio shows in Israel, “Israel Story” received financial backing from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, which allowed it to break into the English-speaking market. Distributed first on a monthly basis by Vox Tablet, Tablet magazine’s podcasting platform, and later as a free bi-weekly podcast on PRX (Public Radio Exchange), the show has been receiving an ever-growing flow of awards, honors and grants. The most recent one, from the Fohs foundation (a charitable trust formed in 1937 “to help build a Jewish homeland in Palestine”) will allow “Israel Story” to hire its first Arab producer.
“We were aware of the irony of a show aiming to represent Israel’s true diversity and complexity being produced by a pretty homogenous group of people,” Harman noted, adding that hiring an Arab producer would allow the show to become “truly inclusive.”

“Israel Story” keeps showing Israel from angles that are new and surprising, for both its Israeli and its American audiences. In Israel, it often does so by giving a platform to groups that are normally not heard. “When can you hear about a refugee on public radio? Only when he is involved in some crime, accident, trial, something like that,” Harman said. “But we tell the story about the day his daughter went to first grade.”

In the English version, the show aims to give depth to an otherwise “pretty two-dimensional view of Israel,” said Harman. A former Harvard student, he came to realize during his studies “that the kind of content Americans typically get about Israel is either all about terror and violence, or about Israel being an island of democracy, high-tech leader, etc.”

“I wanted to give a more complex, nuanced glimpse of the place,” he said. “I wanted to show it alive, like I see it.”

“Israel Story” will return to the JCC for another round of live performances in the spring.

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