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Israel Story

            As part of my search for alternative sources of entertainment this summer, I went looking for more podcasts. I loved the Duolingo French and Spanish podcasts so much that I ran through them too quickly, and I was hoping to find something like them, both educational and fun to listen to at the same time. I started by searching for more French and Spanish language learning podcasts, but while most of them offered plenty of opportunities for learning, they weren’t quite as entertaining as the Duolingo stories. I also tried a series of podcasts recommended for people who liked the ones I already listened to, without much success, and then I put in every other search term I could think of that might spark my interest. In among the avalanche of new podcasts to try, I found one in Hebrew called Israel Story but I quickly found myself out of my depth. My Hebrew is improving, but it’s not Israeli level yet. It took only a few seconds of squinting to realize that there was an English version of the podcast, with just enough Hebrew in it to make me feel like I was challenging myself, but not so much that my brain would explode. I found that I could listen in on conversations in Hebrew, while focusing on the almost simultaneous English translations, and meet all kinds of people I would never hear about on the news.

“Any dog stories?”

            I started by listening to the present day episodes, set during the early weeks of the Covid shutdown in Israel. The podcast made a point of interviewing members of the Ultra-orthodox community to try to understand why they didn’t seem to take Covid seriously at first, and to hear about how they had been struggling since then, both from backlash and because they often live in very crowded, multigenerational apartments, without the ability to use Zoom on the Sabbath to join communal prayer services. I found their stories compelling, and irritating, and complicated, and heart breaking. And I was hooked. So I went back to the beginning of the show, four or five seasons earlier, and I’ve been binging ever since. I didn’t know how much I’d been missing that ground level point of view until I started hearing stories that could fill in the empty spaces.

            The original model for Israel Story, unabashedly, was Ira Glass’s This American Life on NPR, and the host of Israel Story, Mishy Harmon, even had a clip of Ira Glass on the first English episode of the show, giving his, sort of, blessing. The Point of view of the podcast is liberal, both religiously and politically, but it has respect for people across the spectrum. They didn’t shy away from telling the story of an Israeli Jew, originally from the Ukraine, in love with a Palestinian from the territories, even following the couple to a tent in the desert, because there was nowhere else where they could live safely together. But the show also takes the time to meet Orthodox and Ultra-orthodox Jews and explore their lives in a way that respects their beliefs and their individual lives. And there’s no attempt to offer answers, or to simplify moral quandaries, even when the host himself is desperate for some hope. He thought that one story they were following would turn out to be a beautiful, generous, multicultural story, but he learned that he had to accept people for who they are, even when it means you won’t get the story you were hoping for. If you follow the real story, you’ll learn instead the truth of someone’s real life and feel richer for it.

“No, I won’t.”

Of course, the host and his fellow producers are Jewish and Israeli, so their choices about which stories to tell, and how to tell them, are inevitably biased towards their own experiences, beliefs, and hopes. Any attempts to suggest otherwise would be silly.

            My long term hope is that once I catch up on all of the English episodes, I’ll be able to go back and try the Hebrew version again. Maybe when I’m more familiar with the stories, I’ll have a better chance of understanding the Hebrew narration. But in the meantime, I feel like my view of Israel is growing in complexity. I’ve listened to serious and not so serious stories of Israeli lives: learning about silly songs sung at the Eurovision competition, and Ultra-orthodox Jews living covertly secular lives, and a random campaign for one man to get his picture on the wall of a tiny Humus restaurant in Jerusalem.

            Maybe, someday, when I can finally get to Israel, I will feel like I’ve been there before; like I’ve been in that restaurant, or heard that voice, or met that tour guide telling stories on the streets of Jerusalem. People say that the best way to travel is to meet the locals, so maybe, for now, I can get the best part of travelling to Israel without having to leave my apartment. That works for me, and it works for Cricket and Ellie too.

I want to wish everyone a Happy and Sweet New Year, Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, human or canine or feline or bird. May we all be healthy and safe and have reasons to celebrate our good fortune in the year to come!

“Shana Tova!!!!!!!!”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

62 responses »

  1. Happy and Sweet New Year to you, too, Rachel!
    I’ll add my hope that the coming year brings celebration to all planet occupants.
    No more darkness.

    Reply
  2. Thank you, Shana Tova! Have you listened to Rabbi David Aaron? Very encouraging.

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  3. Thank you. Apple slices and honey. Happy New Year to you 🍎

    Reply
  4. Hola Rachel, si necesitas una mano te recomiendo que leas el libro cien años de soledad, del autor García Márquez colombiano. Te ayudaría mucho con el español y en Vox app tienen podcasts gratis de muchos autores latinoamericanos.

    Reply
  5. Shana Tova. Have a sweet and Happy New Year.
    As I have no background in Hebrew, would the English version still be out of my reach of understanding?

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    • Not at all. Shana Tova simply means “A Good Year.” Sometimes we add Sweet onto the end. And then you have an excuse to eat every sweet thing you can find, you know, for the metaphor.

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      • I meant will watching the show be difficult with no Hebrew training. As an adult, 25 years ago, I took classes from a wonderful Rabbi. I have never had any skills at languages. My spouse and I dropped the classes . It was not for lack of trying. I had flash cards, tapes, lessons on audio to listen in the car. I was just not skilled enough.
        I took Spanish for 7 years and can only count to 100, tell you the days of the week, and a few phrases.
        My wheel-house does not include the ability to learn languages.

      • Sorry I misunderstood. The English version of Israel Story is completely understandable for non-Hebrew speakers, and they work hard at making the cultural references understandable as well. It really is a lovely podcast.

      • No worries. Thanks. I would hate to be frustrated from the start. I was able to speak to my almost 95 year old aunt, to wish her a Happy New Year. She is having difficulty understanding the lockdown and I wanted her to know it is still the New Year even as she cannot go to services for the first time in her life.

      • The proliferation of Zoom services for Rosh Hashanah has been extraordinary, but it’s still not the same as being in the synagogue with all of the familiar people and sights and sounds. Eating matzo ball soup seems to help.

      • She has not mastered the computer, even with numerous bits of help. I asked if the residence would have a Zoom service she could watch. The residents are currently not allowed out of their rooms, for anything but doctor visits. They have to eat in their rooms. It is so sad. She understands (sort of) the dire situations in nursing homes. I hope they were able to provide matzo ball soup for her. The Jewish residents are few in her current place. It adds to her difficulties. I try to console her in the knowledge that G-d does not blame her for not being able to attend services.

  6. Happy New Year Rachel and thanks for sharing. Allan

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  7. Happy New Year, Rachel. Sounds like you have a great way to spend the down time. Really interest listening and later a great way to improve your Hebrew. You’ll have to keep us informed how the Romeo and Juliet kids progress with their ‘forbidden’ love…in a tent.

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    • Ah, that’s a sad story. The boy was arrested for being in no man’s land and the girl, disillusioned, decided to leave the country. The fact that she COULD leave is part of the heartbreak of the story. She could travel almost anywhere and he could barely leave his hometown.

      Reply
  8. Happy New Year to you too Rachel

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  9. I am never aware of Jewish New Year. But if it is now, then I wish you and your mother a very happy one to come.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  10. Happy New Year to you! Good luck with your Hebrew, and if you want it in Spanish, then it’s ‘¡Feliz año nuevo! ¡Buena suerte con tu hebreo — y felicidades por tus posts interesantes y buen escritos!’

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  11. I realized that it was New Year’s when I went to order a virtual reality Jedi master game for my grandson’s birthday(I have no idea what it is, but he wanted it)from B&H who were closed until tonight to observe the holiday. Anyway, Happy New Year to you. I have a dear friend from high school who emigrated to Israel where he teaches at the University and raised his five kids. He says that it is impossible to explain the complexity that is Israel. He did say one of his kids built a house on the West Bank and he and his wife wouldn’t give them any money to help out. So I got a tiny window into his views. The podcast sounds wonderful. Life is always so much richer than sound bites will ever convey.

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  12. Shana Tova! Ellie and Cricket and Rachel and Rachel’s Mom. Wishing you a happy and healthy new year. Lucy, Xena and Amy

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  13. Happy New Year, Rachel! I hope you enjoy that visit to Israel, when you finally do get there. ❤ ❤ ❤

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  14. A happy and sweet New Year, Rachel!

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  15. Wishing you a Happy and Blessed New Year !! 💌

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  16. I know a of New-Yorker who wanted to escape Covid19, came over, had to stay quarantined at home for a fortnight and now is locked down like the rest of us. Can’t go anywhere over 1 km (in miles that’s 0.62). Is suffering a never-ending heat wave in masks, since the beginning of this month. No fun.
    Wishing you ‘next year in Jerusalem’, hopefully vaccinated.
    And in the mean time ‘hatima tova’ to you and all yours 🙂

    Reply
  17. Hi rachelmankowitz! Thanks a lot for following Suitcase Travel blog!
    Happy New Year to you ! Wishing you happiness and success!

    Reply
  18. How interesting. I hope everyone can live in peace and be tolerant towards all.

    Reply
  19. And if you’re looking for an online Chevrutah, or you know anyone who is, I’m ready to start back with Bereshit! 🙂
    Gmar Tovah,
    Shira

    Reply

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