It’s unfashionable to defend Israel too publicly just now; chronic latent anti-Semitism in much of the world frequently is set off by official Israeli actions that are either inexplicable or distasteful to the rest of the world — often including in the liberal diaspora — and it all explodes in a toxic mess.
When that happens, the bedrock of decency and goodness and pride and courage that undergirds the modern state of Israel is hidden in the noxious fumes.
How do we talk about Israel honestly?
Probably there are many ways, although most seem to escape us. But the creators and performers who have put together the Israel Story seem to have found a way.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on a podcast. But the live show that the company performed at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly — one of its many stops across the country — shows that it can work.
The thing about Israel Story is that it is not polemical. As Mishy Harman told us a few weeks ago, it works hard not to take sides; in a country where taking a side, loudly, fervently, and as often as possible, is not only a birthright but an active responsibility, that’s an impressive accomplishment, all by itself.
In this performance, Israel Story celebrated the country’s 70th anniversary through music, which, as its cofounder and most visible presence, Mishy Harman, said, is the one thing most likely to evoke good feelings rather than provoke high dudgeon. It started with the story of Hatikvah, the anthem that Theodor Herzl hated, whose lyricist, the drunken loutish poet Naftali Herz Imber, did not see as a song, and whose music came from a random Romanian folk tune. Israel Story also talked about the Israeli Arab football star who was proud to represent his country but could not sing the anthem, because the words “nefesh Yehudi” — the soul of a Jew — did not apply to him.
We heard the stories of Naomi Shemer, who wrote the iconic “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” — Jerusalem of Gold — and of Meir Ariel, the IDF veteran who countered it with Yerushalayim Shel Barzel” — Jerusalem of Iron — angry lyrics to the same soaring melody.
We heard the stories of many other songs, including some of the catchy pop pieces that won the hilariously cheesy Eurovision contests, and we heard the songs, sung and accompanied by a group of talented and gorgeous young musicians. They brought to mind the Sabra liqueur ads of my childhood, glossy full pages in the New York Times magazine section that showed photos of stunningly beautiful, impossibly glamorous Israelis. That was what Israel looked like then.
At the end, we heard “Shir le’Shalom.” We heard about how it was first performed, how it was controversial, how it was iconic. We saw a video of it being sung at a peace rally in Tel Aviv in 1995, including a visibly uncomfortable Yitzhak Rabin, who was both shy and tone-deaf. Minutes after that video was filmed, Rabin was dead; we saw the blood-soaked copy of the lyrics that had been removed from his pocket.
One of the striking aspects of Israel Story is how low-tech it is. Israel is high-tech heaven, and podcasts themselves are the result of high-tech magic — what do you mean that a little flat box you carry in your pocket can grab words and sounds from the sky and funnel them into your ear? — but the performance itself is clever — lots of brilliant stop-action animation on screen — but in a way that relies more on timing than technology. Not high tech but high technique.
In a way, it is a reversion to radio as it used to be — the theater of the mind. You listen and absorb and visualize and imagine.
And you see Israel as a place of so very many stories. Of people, and their various truths. And of hope, and of love.