Mishy Harman, host of Israel Story, reveals his inspiration and a Season 5 sneak peek.
In the summer of 2010, native Israeli and Harvard grad Mishy Harman gathered his belongings and his dog and embarked on a 13,000-mile road trip across the United States. Just outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi, he said, his life trajectory changed. It was when Harman switched from listening to books on tape and Bible Belt radio to an episode of This American Life.
As he listened, Harman remembers being transported into the lives of different Americans across the country. In what he describes as an invigorating and dizzying moment, he said his conception of American reality was expanded.
“The first thought I had was maybe we could do something like this in Israel, create an Israeli version of This American Life, because Israel is this rich human tapestry of so many different traditions and backgrounds and identities,” he said.
Two years later, in the summer of 2012, after visiting TAL studios in New York to learn more, Harman and three childhood friends released the first episode of their podcast, Israel Story. At the time of its release, Harman said about a dozen close family members and friends downloaded the first episode.
Just a few months later, Harman secured a prime-time Friday afternoon slot on Galey Tzahal, Israel’s leading national radio station. Now, in 2020, at the start of their fifth season, Israel Story has a production team of 15 people and hundreds of thousands of listeners.
Before starting the podcast, Harman said he and his friends had humble expectations for its outcome. They aspired to share multifaceted stories of individuals from different cultures and backgrounds — people who might not otherwise get to interact in an extremely fragmented Israeli society. Harman said he hoped that by eliminating a visual element of storytelling, listeners might be able to suspend their judgments of the show’s guests just a little bit longer.
“Maybe you would be able to listen to a story and forget for the first 90 seconds that the person is a Bedouin teenager or an ultra-Orthodox grandmother, and just listen to them tell a story and relate to them,” he said.
Reaching Out to an American Audience
After the end of a successful first season on Israeli public radio, Harman saw a larger potential for what started as a late-night passion project. After writing 1,000 letters of inquiry to various foundations in America, he realized Israel Story would need to be adapted to suit a larger audience.
“That was the very first time we had the somewhat counterintuitive idea of making the American version of the Israeli version of This American Life,” he said.
With a grant from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, Harman and his team created new English seasons of the podcast and formed a partnership with Tablet Magazine and the Public Radio Exchange. With this adapted show came the opportunity to portray a more nuanced version of Israel to an American audience.
For Skyler Inman, who moved from the United States to Tel Aviv in 2017, it’s the attention to detail on the podcast that helps allow for these nuances. Now a full-time producer on Israel Story, Inman said that a team member may spend six to nine months working on a story for one episode, among other projects.
“From start to finish, there’s so much attention that goes into every square inch of the tape, a fine-toothed comb,” she said. “It’s a pretty amazing experience from a learning perspective.”
Israel Story and COVID-19
Amid a global pandemic, however, the Israel Story team has had to come up with innovative approaches to their carefully produced podcast.
Harman said that COVID-19 has posed massive challenges for the show, especially in terms of fundraising. Originally, the team had their annual world tour scheduled for April and May, which was eventually canceled due to the pandemic. Harman said this live tour usually accounts for about a third of their annual budget.
“We were worried we were going to run out of money,” he said. “We tried to think of every possible way to keep the operation running.”
Inman, who joined the podcast in February, about a month before the pandemic broke out and Israel issued strict quarantine measures, said she has been impressed by Harman and other team-members’ creativity in the wake of the health crisis. She said that one day in April, Harman came up with an idea — a 12-hour long cultural extravaganza on Zoom.
Inman says that two sleepless weeks later, on April 29, Israel Story held its first “IsraPalooza,” an all-day 12-hour event in which team members interviewed celebrities such as basketball player Amar’e Stoudemire and Arab-Israeli news anchor Lucy Aharish. Additionally, the Zoom festival featured a live concert, a cooking class and a self-portrait workshop. Inman said the event garnered huge support and attracted people from all over the world, including Americans, Australians and South Africans.
“Everything came together in this very magical way,” Inman said. “People were reaching out to us for weeks afterwards saying how bright a light it was.”
In addition to their impromptu Zoom festival, Israel Story has had to adapt their fifth season to a world under COVID. The show now includes a COVID-19 mini-series, entitled “Alone, Together.” The first episode of the fifth season, released on June 30, shares moments of celebrations in Israel during a health crisis quarantine. The episode features the story of a Chabad rabbi and the extraordinary lengths he went to for his newborn son to have a bris, which included chartering a private jet to Ben Gurion Airport.
Inman said that all podcasts are having to figure out how to weather the current health crisis and economic climate. But she added that the show’s response to the pandemic, including the mini-series and other online events facilitated through the Israel Story Facebook page, has come with some silver linings. “It’s been bringing our show closer to our audience in a way that I wouldn’t have expected,” Inman said.
The Future of Israel Story
Though the podcast has shifted course during the health crisis to tell the story of Israel during COVID, Harman said he looks forward to the opportunity to continue to share more narratives through the podcast. He said his work on the show has given him an eye-opening perspective on the limitations of his own life experiences and presumptions about others.
“You feel that you know so much about someone that it almost obviates the need to talk to them,” Harman said. “Having worked on this project for nearly a decade, if I’ve learned one thing, it’s how rarely people actually conform to stereotypes.”
In the future, Harman said he is excited to continue to expand the diversity of the podcast’s audience. He explains that originally, Jews composed about 90% of Israel Story’s listeners. Now, that figure is closer to 75%, indicating a broader diversity of listeners.
Inman said the diversity of voices on the show remains paramount as well. She said the podcast’s multidimensional narratives take listeners outside of their comfort zone and beyond a “Birthright version” of Israel.
“I think it’s good for people who love Israel, and I think it’s good for people who are critical of Israel to have their conception of the place expanded each time they listen to one of our stories,” she said.
In the end, Harman hopes these narratives will help listeners expand beyond their own echo chambers. While he tries to avoid overtly political content on the podcast, he noted that ultimately, the deeper premise of Israel Story, and the original goals behind the show, are inherently political ones.
“The idea is that a person is a person,” he said. “And we will only benefit as a society if we listen to each other and if we open our minds to seeing what life is like through someone else’s eyes.”
Download episodes at israelstory.org.