Friends who traveled to Israel this summer all came back with similar stories. They spoke about hearing the air raid sirens, scrambling to bomb shelters, seeing the Iron Dome intercept a Hamas rocket. If they traveled south, they described the resilience of residents living within minutes of Gaza. If they stuck to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, they recalled visiting busy tourist sites while war was waging just an hour or so away.
Seldom did I learn much about individual Israelis. You can blame the war, but even in quiet times we tend to plug Israelis into prefabricated Diaspora archetypes: the gruff but warmhearted bus driver, the dashing young soldier, the standoffish hasid. The stories we visitors tell tend to focus on our brushes with reality in Israel: how close we were to where the missile landed, how we felt when we stood in front of the Western Wall. Even when we have friends and relatives in Israel, we’d rather talk about the outsize events that we assume make for the best stories.
Regular public radio or podcast listeners know we are living in a golden age of broadcast storytelling. Radio shows and podcasts like The Moth, Radiolab, Snap Judgment, and Risk! often allow normal — albeit unusually articulate or engaging — people to tell stories not about world-changing events but ordinary dramas. First romances. Bad breakups. Health scares. Frustrating run-ins with the law.
Some of these stories are performed live, others carefully edited. But all these shows are making a sort of journalism of the everyday. You get to know these storytellers not as characters or archetypes, but as individuals inviting you into their real lives.
The best and most popular of these shows — This American Life — has spawned an unapologetic Israeli imitator. And it is the closest anyone has come in a long time to introducing the rest of the world — including diaspora Jews like me — to the messy, complicated, unpolished Israeli reality beyond the conflict, clichés, and hasbara.
A hit on Army Radio, Sipur Israeli, or Israel Story, is now available in an English-language version on Vox Tablet, the weekly podcast of the on-line Jewish magazine Tablet. After hearing the first episode this week, I made a fanboy call to Mishy Harman, the host and one of four close childhood friends who created the show.
“One of the biggest problems in how people perceive Israel is that everyone is trying to sell Israel in this uni-dimensional manner,” said Mishy, speaking from a Jerusalem studio before getting back to work on the Hebrew program’s second season. “Whatever the slant is, it completely takes over how you describe Israel. If you are coming from the Left, it is always in the realm of human rights and violations and what is going on in the West Bank or Gaza. And on the Right, you are trying to push what a wonderful place Israel is, by promoting how many Israeli companies there are on the Nasdaq and how Israel created the square watermelon.”
Israel Story, like This American Life, tries to get past these formulas by focusing on the “nuanced and complicated.” But we are not talking about closely argued analysis of the cease-fire plan or the Kerry mission. The first English episode featured a sweet and funny story by one of the show’s creators, Yochai Maital, about the painful lengths to which Israeli soldiers will go to get sick leave, or gimmelim. It’s not exactly anti-heroic (even as he plans to fake an injury in order to see his American sweetheart, Maital worries that he’ll be kicked out of his officers’ training course). But it’s a useful corrective for American Jews who tend to idolize the Israeli military.
“This American Life is popular because life is complicated, and people identify with stories in which you laugh and cry at the same time,” said Mishy. “Israel isn’t good at exporting a complicated message, and maybe that’s because there is so much vitriol” among and aimed at its people. Mishy said the show has already attracted critics who suggest that in portraying ordinary Israelis they are “supporting murderers.”
Still, the show is building bridges within Israel by telling stories and reaching audiences outside of what Mishy calls the “franchised, Ashkenazi, Tel Aviv elite.” He credits the medium. “There is a sort of labeling that occurs in Israel based on sight — people can immediately tell who is Russian, Moroccan, haredi, or Arab, and that colors your entire perception of them.” Radio invites you into a person’s story before you can jump to any conclusions.
The show airs in primetime in Israel, on one of its largest radio stations. Americans will have to hunt down the show on the Tablet podcast, but it’s worth it.
“I went to college in America, and many of my roommates and friends are Jews who have this really complicated relationship with Israel,” said Mishy. “Unlike their parents’ generation, they no longer feel this automatic emotional attachment,” and they don’t always trust information that sounds like “some sort of governmental postcard.” Israel Story lets them hear stories about those elusive creatures known as “regular Israelis.”
“Unfortunately, those stories are really needed,” said Mishy. “In social media, the war in Gaza was probably the most depressing element of the whole summer, because of the animosity and vitriol on both sides, really. People who seem just normal in everyday life go crazy on Facebook.”
Israel Story plays down the crazy and celebrates, if not the normal, then the personal. It’s a story that needs to be heard.