When the team behind Israel Story -- Israeli podcasts modeled on the documentary radio show This American Life -- came to Chicago this past spring as part of a tour of live shows across America, they re-told Israel's 68-year history through stories, voices, and events that would have otherwise never made headlines.
But it is precisely these kinds of human interest stories out of Israel -- the ones dubbed by Israel Story host and co-founder Mishy Harman as "the beautiful and the ugly and the admirable all at once" -- that the young producers behind this global phenomenon are hoping to share with the world.
Their stories will return to Chicago next week on Nov. 15 and 16 for "Israel Story: That's What She Said," stories from pioneering Israeli women.
The original Hebrew episode called Sipur Israeli was produced by Harman and three childhood friends in 2012. It took them a full year to create their first episode, mostly because they had zero radio experience. "We had humble expectations," recalled Harman, by which he meant they thought their moms would listen and give them a thumbs-up on Facebook.
Instead, after three or four episodes, the podcasts went viral, which led IDF radio to offer them a prime time slot that draws hundreds of thousands of listeners every week.
Since 2014, the team -- which is now up to 13 -- has produced an English podcast, Israel Story, whose content is completely separate from the Hebrew shows. Israel Story is produced in partnership with Tablet magazine and distributed by Public Radio Exchange, which means many of the shows are picked up by National Public Radio affiliates broadcast around the country, such Radiolab or Snap Judgment.
In fact, one of the most popular episodes for mother's day was an Israel Story on an ultra-Orthodox woman from Safed who adopts children with Down syndrome.
The genesis for the show began when Harman was on a 13,000-mile road trip across America with only his dog and hours of This American Life podcasts to keep him company.
It was his friend, Ro'ee Gilron (now on the Israel Story team), who originally gave Harman the TAL podcasts. "I had never heard of a podcast before," said Harmon. And he'd never heard of TAL, either. But after a few episodes he was hooked.
"What was really amazing to me about TAL is how you're transported into the lives of other people who are living very different realities from you," he said. "Within the span of hour you may go from a Mexican migrant worker in an avocado field in California to a hotshot Wall Street investment banker in New York to life on a farm in Iowa. There is something weirdly intimate about these glimpses of people's lives. You feel this is expanding your own reality because you are able to step out of your own little concerns and daily life and understand there are a lot of different experiences out there."
And that is when the 30-something Harman, who grew up in Jerusalem and after his army service studied history at Harvard and then archeology at Cambridge, had what Oprah calls an "A-ha moment."
He wanted to create an Israeli version of TAL.
Trained and mentored by staff from TAL, the team behind Israel Story has now produced over 20 episodes in both Hebrew and English-which are downloaded around the globe. And to their satisfaction, what they've found with their English podcasts in particular is that they're successfully exposing people to a three- dimensional Israel.
"We get hundreds of comments after we release episodes that are overwhelmingly positive, but by far the most common note we get goes something like this: 'I stumbled upon Israel Story and started listening. This has become my link to connect to Israel in a way I never thought was possible since my bar mitzvah 40 years ago. Before this, I only related to Israel as a place in the news but now for the first time I can consider Israel a place that isn't all about the conflict but instead is a place full of people with different stories, traditions and backgrounds-just like us.'"
Israel Story's "That's What She Said," a new live show featuring the voices and stories of Israeli women, will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15 at the Laugh Factory, 3175 N. Broadway and at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 16 at SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston. Tickets for both shows are $10. For information and tickets visit www.jccchicago.org/programs/jewish-life. To listen to podcasts, visit www.israelstory.org/en.
Abigail Pickus is a Chicago-based writer and editor.