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A Promising Podcast

So sometime every Thursday, usually late afternoon, I pick up my phone, go to the podcast app, and search for what is without a doubt my favorite podcast.  And yes, every Thursday steady as sunrise, I see this week’s episode has popped and is patiently waiting for me to listen. And if I’m cleaning the kitchen, or walking the treadmill, or driving my car, and occasionally if I’m just sitting down somewhere comfortable, l put on my headphones, hit a couple of buttons, and it comes on, first with some guitar chords followed by a dramatic echo-y voice announcing “This is TLV1,” followed by a less dramatic announcement that “this episode may contain explicit language,” which often it does (not too explicit, but worth the warning if occasional expletives are not your thing). This podcast is the first I ever listened to, and the only one that forms an unbreakable link in my week.

I refer to The Promised Podcast from the aforementioned TLV1, TLV being, of course, Tel Aviv, TLV1 being a recording studio that produces six English language, Israel-oriented podcasts.

For those of us whose heart is in the East but who live in the farthermost reaches of the West, who long for a relationship with Israel of some depth and just a bit of inside information about Israel, The Promised Podcast’s power to connect the listener to Israel in general and Tel Aviv in particular helps ameliorate that longing.

For about an hour each week host Noah Efron in the company of three guests entertains, ensorcells, even enchants the listener as the listener receives an analysis of two or three news stories from Israel. But this is barely the whole story

The podcast’s production values are first rate. It contains none of the amateurish sloppiness and occasional narcissism one finds in many podcasts, you know, just a couple of folks schmoozing as if their daily lives are of ultimate interest to the world at large. Its several elements are woven together with a professional smoothness that makes listening a great pleasure, even for the mere sake of listening to what a podcast could sound like. In that sense, TPP is the fifteen-year-old scotch of podcasts.

But of course, there must be a great deal more than mere esthetics to draw me to it every Thursday afternoon.

The weekly hour or so is broken into seven components. The template is never boring, this in spite of the fact that, except when occasionally across the year there is some special reason to diverge, the pattern never varies. I find this comforting, like a ritual that never varies but rather serves as an anchor to my week. Thus, TPP is like an old blanket Grandma gave you a hundred years ago which you pull up to your chin and drink hot chocolate.

The guest list rarely varies. Appearing regularly are: Allison Kaplan Sommer, a reporter for Haaretz; Don Futterman, Program Director of the Moriah Fund for Israel; Ohad Zeltzer-Obida, a writer and editor lately absent as he is studying in Boston; Miriam Herschlag, the blog editor for this very paper; and Sally Abed, a member of the national leadership of Standing Together. I feel I must note that Ms. Abed is a Palestinian Israeli Christian, newly married by the way, whose presence brings a unique and more than occasionally painful note to her commentary.  Two of these five find their way to the studio to participate in conversation with the host every week.

The show opens with two brief essays by Noah Efron. The first is always something of note about Tel Aviv, a person, an event, a scientific advancement, a curious piece of Tel Aviv history. And the second is usually about a person Efron finds noteworthy enough to wax eloquent about, occasionally at some length. A recent essay concerned Benny Begin, which taught me a bit about Begin’s life and in particular his life as a Member of Kenesset and how seriously he saw that role. It also taught me about Efron the scholar who’d spend such time sympathetically profiling a man whose politics differs from his own.

After those essays, written, incidentally, with consummate skill, Efron being a master of the English language, come two or three topics concerning current events. This forms the heart of the show. Each member of the panel introduces a topic, and then the three of them have at it. As the panelists lean leftward, their views tilt that way as well. Most topics would already be familiar to anyone who attends to the news from Israel, but occasionally something new to me at least brings me up to speed on an issue. Their discussion, occasionally feeling a little ad hoc, are always worth the listen. They deal inter alia with Israeli politics, war and peace, elections issues between Palestinian Israelis and Jewish Israelis, the Occupation, Israel-Diaspora relations, elections—whatever is current. And they don’t mince words; it’s a lively and sometimes painful discussion that might leave the listener who cares deeply about where Israel is headed feeling despondent.

But then the show ends with a segment called What a Country. During this segment each panelist shares something interesting and Israel-affirming that’s occurred to them during the past week. These are usually autobiographical and always engaging, a view into the inside of both the country and the teller. But most important, this entre into personal lives and events serves as a counterbalance to the prior news analysis, leaving the listener who’d perhaps been pulled down by the news, now buoyed by these personal shards of daily Israeli life.

Punctuating each component is a singer or a musical group that’s featured throughout the show. This introduces a piece of the Israeli music scene perhaps unknown to the listener, as well as a brief hiatus between segments.  And as Yossi Klein Halevy is fond of saying, one doesn’t know Israel without knowing Israel’s music.

The show has a star in Noah Efron. He teaches at Bar Ilan University, where he founded the interdisciplinary program on Science, Technology, and Society. He possesses a quick wit and a deep insight into his adopted country, as well as that above-mentioned skill at wordsmithing. He’s a smart analyst a committed activist, and more than occasionally very, very funny. He will sometimes make a self-effacing remark, something that lies beyond modesty. Such remarks seem genuine, making me wish I could reach through time and space and hug Dr. Efron and say, “You’re not as terrible at you say you are.” But beside the obvious impossibility to perform that feat, it strikes me somehow that these self-critical remarks bear an undeniable Jewishness.

 At the end of every show, he invites the listeners to email, assuring us that over the course of time they will respond. To my mind this is the only untruth uttered on the show. To be honest, I’ve written and received some responses. Once, for reasons I no longer remember but can imagine, I mentioned in an email my Tel Aviv daughter’s part-time cupcake business. He contacted my daughter and bought a half a dozen vegan cupcakes for his daughter’s birthday. Alas, it did not appear on the What a Country segment. So ,the times he has responded to me, coupled with Noah’s generous act of cupcake-buying, offset the emails I’ve sent for which I still await a response. (I do imagine the show receives many, many emails, especially after a particularly controversial show. Stilll, if you’re not going to respond to everyone, don’t claim you will.)

Failure to communicate notwithstanding, this weekly nugget from TLV1 populated  with three good friends at a time, an hour or so that informs, buoys, goes by like a bullet train, but, above all, smoothly brings my heart and mind briefly from the West and into the East, is a great treasure in the vast podcast universe, one, I suppose my reader will understand by now, I recommend highly.

About the Author
Phil M. Cohen is a rabbi, author, novelist with interests in bioethics, Israel, fiction, Bible, and Jewish thought. His novel Nick Bones Underground won a Finalist award in the category of Debut Novel from the Jewish Book Council..
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