A few years ago, Mishy Harman took a 12,000-mile road trip across America with his dog, Nomi. Harman, who was returning to Israel after studying at Harvard and the University of Wisconsin, decided to immerse himself in American culture one more time by listening to local radio stations.

But when the anti-Obama rants on live talk radio reached an unbearable crescendo for Harman, he decided to listen to podcasts of “This American Life” that a friend had downloaded for him. More of a music fan, Harman was skeptical that a podcast could hold his attention. Nevertheless, he decided to listen and what followed, he recently told JewishBoston, was “a magical moment. There is something so intimate about listening to a podcast because it’s in your ears and transports you into this world of seeing life through the stories of other people.”

As Harman listened to episodes of “This American Life,” it dawned on him that there was no counterpart in Israel of the popular National Public Radio show. As he described it, Israeli radio is dominated by hard news and interviews with politicians. There was no programming in place to reflect “the diverse human landscape of Israel.”


When Harman returned home to Jerusalem, he approached three childhood friends about trying to create something similar to “This American Life.” Undaunted that none of them had experience in broadcasting or journalism, Harman and his friends turned to their source of inspiration for help—Ira Glass and the “This American Life” team. Glass invited them to New York to observe the inner workings of the show, and a year later the Israeli quartet produced their first episode of “Israel Story.”

Their hopes for an audience were modest. By the second episode, however, the podcast had gone viral and caught the attention of Army Radio, or Galei Tzahal, the station that dominates Israeli airwaves. After a trial run of four episodes, listeners clamored for more. The show’s first season premiered on the coveted Friday-afternoon slot, attracting more than 200,000 listeners.

Building on their success, Harman and his team decided it was time to expand to America. “We had all spent time in America,” said Harman, “and noticed these grand narratives of Israel that people subscribed to. These were narratives of terror and violence, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iranian nuclear bombs and, of course, Bibi [Netanyahu]. Then there were the Israel advocacy groups telling people how wonderful Israel is, how LGBTQ-friendly Tel Aviv is and boasting about the number of Israeli companies on NASDAQ. None of those characterizations captured the complexity of life in Israel. So we wanted to tell stories that would engage people who weren’t normally attached to the place culturally or ideologically.”

It wasn’t enough, however, to translate Hebrew episodes into English. The producers found they had to go back and re-interview subjects as well as address the cultural differences that cropped up. “There was an entirely different common denominator in terms of cultural knowledge,” explained Harman. “We began to realize more and more that the kinds of stories we wanted to tell in America and Israel were different and the audiences each wanted slightly different things. While there is overlap between the shows, more often than not we have produced episodes geared for either Israeli or American audiences.”

Israel Story Logo
Israel Story’s logo (Courtesy Israel Story)

One such episode produced just for an American audience is “Rabin Is…,” which covers the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s 1995 assassination. In six succinct vignettes that highlight interviews with family, friends and colleagues, the late prime minister is presented as a symbol, an icon and then just a man. Harman explained: “We produced ‘Rabin Is…’ only in English so that those six stories wouldn’t get lost in the Israeli media. Every single news outlet in Israel ran specials on the anniversary, and if we released it in Hebrew it wouldn’t be unique.”

An episode that did resonate with both American and Israeli audiences is “Herzl 48,” Israel’s equivalent of 123 Main St. There are 54 streets across the country, ranging from commercial boulevards to quiet roads, that bear the address Herzl 48, and the Israel Story team knocked on almost all those doors. In their travels, they met an Arab pharmacist who dispenses birth control, as well as a woman who gave birth to her son on the day her brother was killed in action in Lebanon.

In addition to collaborating with “This American Life,” Israel Story has had successful working relationships with WNYC’s “Radiolab,” “Snap Judgment” and Tablet Magazine, which hosts the Israel Story podcast on its website. Local NPR outlets across the country have also hosted individual episodes, and the podcast was just picked up by Public Radio Exchange—PRX—the largest distributor of public radio programming. “The growing percentage of Jews among our listeners is shrinking,” said Harman. “That’s a good thing. It means we’re getting more and more people involved in the conversation.”

Two years ago, the Israel Story podcast went on the road. Its first live show debuted at Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center, where it headlined an Israel Independence Day celebration. “‘This American Life’ had been staging live shows for a while and we thought it was a cool challenge,” said Harman. “We didn’t understand everything that producing a live show entailed.” Since then, the show has evolved into an elaborate production that includes live music, actors and stand-up comedians.

In the end, Harman still measures his success against his role model and mentor Ira Glass. “I once asked Ira about a specific story on ‘This American Life’ and he couldn’t remember all the details,” he said. “At the time, it seemed inconceivable to me because we had so few episodes and I remembered them all. But a lot has happened since then, and we have upwards of 50 episodes that I don’t always fully remember now.”

Israel Story will be live at Brandeis University on Wednesday, June 28, at 7 p.m. For more information and tickets, click here.

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