Just before summer break, my youngest daughter came home and told me that she had searched the ‘the lost box’ (‘Kofsat Avedot’ in Hebrew) at school for her missing water bottle. The lost box? After a moment (or two!) of confusion, I realized that she was referring to the ‘the lost and found box’ of my American childhood. And in that split-second adjustment, I began to wonder if the Hebrew version is just another example of Israeli fatalism. Where is the second half, ‘the found’ — which gives us a dose of American optimism and a more hopeful ending? Is it possible that there are more profound implications to the descriptive terms Israelis and Americans choose? Or perhaps I was just reading a bit too deeply here…
Luckily, I have a few good ways to check myself when I start to veer towards stale cultural generalizations about daily life in Israel. First, I can just do my job, which gets me around the country, meeting new people and continuously reminding me that it is impossible to oversimplify anything about life here. And on the days when I stay closer to home? I can listen to the podcast “Israel Story” — a one stop shop describing the Israel I know and the Israel that I still have yet to discover. The quirky. The mundane. The whimsical. And the serious too.
On this podcast, you can hear about anything. Let’s say – rap music. How about meeting the 83-year-old grandmother who upon returning to Israel was bumped up to first class and found herself seated next to Kanye West (she tried to teach him Hebrew). Or you could be listening to a hit rap song composed by the author David Grossman, whose lyrics are entirely based on bumper stickers gathered from cars all over Israel.
By design, “Israel Story” brings us stories of Israel that go far beyond the standard fare of politics, the peace process or examples of a start-up nation. And simply in doing so, it helps to revise old scripts precisely at a time when people are less willing to buy pre-packaged versions of life here.
And as we know, there is a power to stories. They have a way of connecting us. Stories can easily disengage us from auto-pilot mode. More often than not, we recognize pieces of ourselves in other peoples’ journeys, forcing us to shed preconceptions that we may have of ‘the other’ – whoever that may be for us. Just by hearing stories, we are reminded of how vastly similar we all are.
“Israel Story” itself has its own well-told origin story. It began when Mishy Harman was traveling across the Bible Belt of the United States in 2010 and as a gesture of friendship, Ro’ee Gilron, his childhood friend, downloaded episodes of Ira Glass’s “This American Story,” one of the most beloved radio shows in America. Within a few years, Ro’ee Gilron, Mishy Harman, and two more childhood friends, Yochai Maital and Shai Satran took a very unexpected career detour by becoming radio producers and storytellers. With the blessing of Ira Glass, they developed an official Hebrew ‘knock off’, and their new way of telling stories quickly became one of the most popular shows on Israeli radio.
By 2015, their growing team was producing content both in Hebrew (“Sipur Israeli”) and in English, and began touring North America a few times a year for live shows. Now in its fourth season, the English version, hosted by Tablet Magazine, has hundreds of thousands of listeners from 187 countries, ranging from Canada and South Africa to Iran, Iraq and Papua New Guinea.
Mishy Harman explains that radio is the perfect medium for the mission of “Israel Story”, which is a registered nonprofit and decidedly apolitical. With radio, you can’t see who is speaking and therefore don’t have any time to pre-judge before you are already knee deep in their personal story. Prized stereotypes are likely to be swapped for a more open-minded mindset. The podcast helps translate the messiness and the simplicity of life here, both for its audience in the country or outside of it, either listening in English or in Hebrew. As Mishy tells it, “If our listeners come out thinking ‘Israel is more complicated than I thought,’ then it is a success for us.”
And more examples of the stories? You can hear from individuals making their way to Israel, including a fourteen year old who snuck onto an EL AL flight in 1967, an Eritrean refugee who fell in love with Anne Frank’s diary at an Ethiopian refugee camp and translated it into Tigrinya before arriving to Tel Aviv, and an Iranian gay poet who has been figuring out his legal status after coming here in 2015. You can listen to the story of an Ultra-Orthodox woman in Safed who has six biological children, including a son with Down Syndrome, who then adopted three more children with special needs. Or you can meet a Palestinian taxi driver whose career as a tour guide took off after he began listing his phone number between the graffiti and artwork on the barrier wall in Bethlehem.
And you can be surprised when the producers of “Israel Story” relate their own life stories, like the time that Yochai Maital enlisted his friend to drive to his army base with a jar of bees as part of his furtive efforts to get him a few sick days off to visit an American girl named Molly. You go to places as far away as Nairobi, Kathmandu, or Beijing, but you always get brought back to Israel.
Once asked how the stories originally told in Hebrew are then reproduced in English for “Israel Story,” Shai Satran reflected on the translation of stories, explaining that “somehow what gets lost in translation also gets found.” Yes, isn’t that true? Isn’t that ultimately how the stories of our lives unfold? In the midst of all their surprising turns, stories are the way to find deeper truths and meaning – no matter what language we speak.
And guess what? After asking around a bit, I found out that a few schools in Israel actually refer to the pile of unclaimed items as ‘the lost and found box.’ So there is room for optimism after all, and certainly lots more room for interpretation…