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Times of Israel PodcastA year in sound, conversation, music -- and laughs

Pop in your earbuds, it’s the top 5 Times of Israel podcasts from 2020

From Uganda to the Arava Desert, to our own homes under lockdown, the ToI’s weekly podcast has brought listeners an eclectic play list this year

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

The Times of Israel Podcast presents the Best of 2020. (Images courtesy/ iStock photo)
The Times of Israel Podcast presents the Best of 2020. (Images courtesy/ iStock photo)

A year ago when we decided to reboot the weekly Times of Israel podcast, I jumped at the chance to pick up the mic and create an audio magazine to supplement my colleagues’ fine writing.

Most of our 2020 Times of Israel podcast playlist is a mix of nerdy Jewish and archaeology stuff, in-house staff chats, conversations with experts in a wide swath of fields, and fun, tuneful talks with musicians.

But some interviewees are closer to my heart: I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with friends — about fun flicks with our New York-based film critic Jordan Hoffman, and about deep, nation-building concepts with Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman. Innumerable times I’ve spoken with my longtime colleague Haviv Rettig Gur, who has never failed to be an informative pinch-hitter on almost any subject (did anyone say budget?).

For Holocaust Remembrance Day, my 94-year-old former pediatrician (and de facto father-in-law) agreed to speak about a portion of his time as a partisan following an escape from a forced labor camp in Slovakia. It is a recording I will treasure.

Good riddance to 2020. (iStock)

I’ve made an effort to include women’s voices and have enjoyed chatting about kosher Jewish sex, Israeli pandemic surveillance, and annexation (remember that?) with a West Bank mayor. I’ve called on an activist lawyer and a lobbyist for the little guy. And my good friend, ToI’s culture editor Jessica Steinberg, has been tapped more than once for lifestyle advice (despite her over-the-top obsession with Thanksgiving).

In whimsical moments, a friend taught me how to build a chicken coop and chef Adeena Sussman gave me cooking tips I use until today. I got to run a pre-coronavirus crisis live debate, and our military correspondent Judah Ari Gross conducted a prescient interview with an Iran security expert just before Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force head Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani was assassinated.

At the start of the coronavirus lockdowns in Israel, I reached out to four leading comics in a duo of dialogues. I certainly needed the laugh then and look forward to many more in the coming year. Be sure to check out all our new podcast innovations hitting your ears soon.

The following are five of my personal favorite podcasts and why they stand out.

Flipping the switch

Before our environment reporter Sue Surkes set out on a trip to Uganda early in 2020, I asked her to forgo our traditional office chocolate and instead bring back some sound samples of her unique mission.

Surkes accompanied Innovation Africa, an Israeli nonprofit that has changed the lives of millions of villagers through its use of solar energy to bring electricity, clean drinking water — and even basic med-tech such as cold vaccine storage — to hundreds of villages across Africa. Check out villagers’ countdown to their first lightbulb’s illumination.

Israeli world music, even as borders are closed

I was honored to speak with two members of the world music band Yamma, singer Talya G.A. Solan and winds player Yonnie Dror. (Other band members include Aviv Bahar, Nur Bar Goren and Avri Borochov.)

The band incorporates Jewish music traditions from across the Mediterranean and Africa, and draws on the musicians’ musical and ethnic backgrounds. Their runaway hit is strangely enough a setting of Psalm 104. The YouTube video alone has gotten almost 6 million views. I peppered their songs throughout our conversation and had a great time doing it.

Let our chained women go

In what seems like a surreal enterprise today, just prior to the COVID pandemic, I reported from a 24-kilometer walk in the Arava desert to raise awareness of the situation faced by agunot, Jewish women who are refused a divorce by their husbands.

A little explanation: In Israel, Jewish law or ‘halacha’ has jurisdiction over lifecycle events such as marriage and divorce. However, divorce is tricky in that the husband must release his wife of his own volition. If he doesn’t want to, even if a religious court has told him to — or if he’s missing or incapacitated — she’s stuck.

For the third year running, legal organization Yad La’Isha and Marathon Israel organized an intensive walk to raise awareness of the issue. This year, some 300 women came.

A frank discussion on race

While race riots were roiling the United States, I reached out to Rabbi Sandra Lawson, the Associate Chaplain for Jewish Life at Elon University, to define terms, discuss racism in the Jewish community and talk about the burning issue of reparations for the descendants of enslaved people.

Lawson converted to Judaism in 2004 and when she was ordained two years ago, she became one of the first openly gay, female, black rabbi in the world. Today she serves as a campus clergy person, an educator and a musician.

Medieval poop chute

It is always a joy to go onsite as ToI’s archaeology reporter. In this case, my interviewee was a knowledgeable Israeli archaeologist — who spoke with the lilt of a swashbuckler.

I toured the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem’s Old City with Amit Re’em, the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Jerusalem district head. The museum is undergoing a huge renovation, which will make the Crusader-period building more accessible and double the space of the indoor galleries. But because they can’t build up, the museum, in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority, is going deep down into a Crusader moat that was filled in during the Ottoman period.

Re’em gives us a deep, detailed historical overview — and takes us behind the scenes at the excavation. Emphasis on the word “behind.”

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