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.
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.
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!
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?