‘This American Life’ becomes an Israeli story

Four young men take on the task of telling the tales of Israel, channeling NPR’s Ira Glass for Army Radio

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Radio producers of the 'Israel Story' podcast (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Radio producers of the 'Israel Story' podcast (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The sabra storytelling frontier is about to expand as “Israel Story,” a local version of the American radio program and podcast “This American Life,” finds its way to Israeli radio. From Sunday through Wednesday, December 9-12, the first four episodes of “Israel Story” will be broadcast at 7 p.m. on Army Radio.

The Army Radio advertisement for 'Israel Story,' being broadcast during the week of Hanukkah (Courtesy Israel Story)
The Army Radio advertisement for ‘Israel Story,’ being broadcast during the week of Hanukkah (Courtesy Israel Story)

What started as something of a lark by four wunderkinder with an appreciation for long-form storytelling and a love of the land may become the Israeli counterpart to that award-winning weekly National Public Radio podcast.

And it was all foretold by Ira Glass, the award-winning host of “This American Life” who met with two of the founders last year and asked if they were planning to rip off his program.

Well, actually — yes, they were. But only in the most complimentary of ways.

Mishy Harman, Harvard grad with a love for 19th-century missionaries and long-form storytelling (Courtesy Israel Story)
Mishy Harman, Harvard grad with a love for 19th-century missionaries and long-form storytelling (Courtesy Israel Story)

“We had no expectation at all how this would play out,” said Mishy Harman, the 29-year-old, curly-headed force behind the project. “We wanted to bring podcasts to Israel, so we started doing it, and we didn’t know what to expect. Out of nowhere, it mushroomed into something much larger and started spreading.”

It did grow out of Harman’s adoration of the quirky 18-year-old NPR radio show, which tells tales of Americana both middle-of-the-road and fantastical. Harman, along with his “Israel Story” co-founder and friend, Ro’ee Gilron, went to college in the US, Harman at Harvard and Gilron at Brandeis. During that time, like any self-respecting overachieving pair of Israelis, they also started up a company, MuseTrek, a mobile application for sharing thoughts about places visited, and went on a “mega-long, 13,000-mile road trip” with Harman’s dog, Neomi, during which they spent many hours listening to “This American Life” podcasts downloaded by Gilron.

“Sometime along the way it became clear to me that when we got back to Israel, this would be our next project,” said Harman.

It was only when they had both made their way back to Israel, and reconnected with mutual friends Yochai Maital and Shai Satran — all four met as participants in Noam, the Conservative movement’s youth program in Israel — that Harman began pondering the concept of creating the Israeli equivalent of “This American Life.”

The four creators of 'Israel Story,' from left, Yochai Maital, Shai Satran, Mishy Harman and Ro'ee Gilron (Courtesy Israel Story)
The four creators of ‘Israel Story,’ from left, Yochai Maital, Shai Satran, Mishy Harman and Ro’ee Gilron (Courtesy Israel Story)

“We didn’t know anything at all about how to go about this,” said Harman. “But we thought there was a real dearth in non-news, long-form nonfiction in Israel, and what makes ‘This American Life’ so good is really the writing, a radiophonic version of ‘The New Yorker’ or something, and that’s sort of what we were going for. We wanted to bring stories of normal people who aren’t in the news.”

It’s a serious journalistic endeavor, said Gilron. The goal, added Maital, is to “capture something real about Israel, but it’s an ongoing quest to show the different sides of the country.”

Hard at work on 'Israel Story' (Courtesy Israel Story)
Hard at work on ‘Israel Story’ (Courtesy Israel Story)

The concept clearly appealed to their binational natures, as they are all children of North American immigrants and possess that ability common to those who live here but have experienced the world outside Israel to focus a lens closely on Israeli life. And while none of the four are journalists by trade — Harman is working on a PhD about 18th-century missionaries, Gilron is working on his PhD in neuroscience and history, Maital is working on a teacher’s diploma after eight years in army intelligence and Satran will be starting a Master’s in clinical psychology next year — they know what it is to research and tell a story.

It helped that Nancy Updike — yes, related to that Updike — who is the longtime producer of “This American Life,” happens to live in Tel Aviv, and was available to talk about the concept with Harman and Gilron.

As they’ve mentioned in previous interviews, one of the most important things they learned from Updike was the so-called “edamame rule,” referring to how much background and context is necessary for listeners. Unlike Israeli journalism, where much of the background and history is assumed to be known, American public radio — and journalism, for that matter — is all about providing context. In the edamame example, one never uses a word like edamame without following it with comma, the Japanese soybean, comma. In “Israel Story,” that requires explaining even well-known subjects such as the Israeli army masa, the many-kilometer trek made at the end of basic training, or the post-army journeys taken by Israelis abroad.

Shai Satran in the studio (Courtesy Israel Story)
Shai Satran in the studio (Courtesy Israel Story)

It also helps that Harman, often the main narrator, has a voice that channels the friendly, erudite quality so endearingly familiar to Ira Glass listeners. Most importantly, perhaps, they’re a gregarious bunch; inquisitive, open, interested and more than a little aware of the humor and possible stories evident in almost any situation. Given their overlapping networks and worlds, they’ve made sure to venture farther afield in their attempt to relate stories from the whole of Israel, not just Tel Aviv, remarked Harman.

“We’re so similar, the four of us, and we’re very cognizant of that,” he said. “We’re trying to cover bases. We’ll get better at that.”

They’ve also held several evenings dedicated to live storytelling, in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beersheba and Haifa, thinking they would come across stories that could later be retold on “Israel Story.” That hasn’t necessarily happened, but the evenings have helped build up a community of listeners around the show.

At a storytelling evening hosted by 'Israel Story' (Courtesy Israel Story)
At a storytelling evening hosted by ‘Israel Story’ (Courtesy Israel Story)

Like “This American Life,” each nearly-hour-long episode of “Israel Story” is centered around a theme, often including interviews with or stories told by guests, for example writer Etgar Keret, an Israeli whistler who was invited to a Chinese competition, and Harman’s own sister, Haaretz journalist Danna Harman. They spent a 24-hour period at the Pancake House at a highway stop outside Herzliya, interviewing waitresses, cooks, and customers as well as the guys at the car wash next door; devoted a significant chunk of time to telling the story of an Eritrean refugee, a good friend of Maital’s; and included five separate stories in the first episode about starting over, including one from a Tel Aviv composer who tells how he was indirectly responsible for last summer’s social protests started by rabble-rouser Daphni Leef.

“We are importing a different kind of content,” said Harman, “and there’s always the debate of whether we’re doing something that’s overly complicated. We want to hit the balance between something complex and interesting and not too oversimplified.”

Then again, when you’re attuned to the peculiarities of life and the characters that surround you at all times, it’s not hard to find stories to tell.

We met one rainy Tuesday evening at the sprawling, rundown Army Radio studio in Jaffa, where awkward 19-year-olds dressed in army greens are the ones handling the taping of “Israel Story.” In that typical intersection forged by a teenage sergeant whose royal blue underwear sticks out of his too-roomy army-issue pants, three of the “Israel Story” tellers set up shop, opening GarageBand on their Macs to test volumes and voices, and prepare to take orders from their young producers.

Three of the 'Israel Story' tellers with a Galei Tzahal producer (Courtesy Israel Story)
Three of the ‘Israel Story’ tellers with a Galei Tzahal producer (Courtesy Israel Story)

“We’re being guided by a 19-year-old,” laughed Harman.

It could be a scene out “This American Life.” Or “Israel Story.”

What’s interesting about the endeavor is the quest to make an American concept familiar to an Israeli audience. English speakers all, the creators did briefly consider doing “Israel Story” in English, because there are so many more potential podcast listeners in English, as well as people who are more accustomed to consuming long, in-depth journalistic pieces.

Gilron recollected a conversation with the woman who handles the email list for graduates of the army’s “8200” intelligence unit, a 50,000-person Who’s Who in Israel — folks who would be ideal “Israel Story” listeners. But when she heard that each episode is nearly an hour long, she asked them why they didn’t make each story one minute long.

“It’s just not a YouTube clip,” chuckled Gilron.

That said, they’re sticking to Hebrew and the local audience, even though they don’t yet have a sense of who their average listener will be. Their parents and friends have been tuning in, although they may have lost some listeners following a Facebook thread asking for peoples’ favorite counterfeit stories, including any about faking orgasms. There might have been a bit of a backlash, Gilron acknowledged, from those who didn’t feel that subject was suitable for a family program.

Yochai Maital was new to the storytelling format before joining the 'Israel Story' team (Courtesy Israel Story)
Yochai Maital was new to the storytelling format before joining the ‘Israel Story’ team (Courtesy Israel Story)

Despite the intense time commitment, this project has become a focal point for all four, one that begins every night at 10 p.m., when they open their laptops and begin sending emails frantically back and forth until about 3 a.m. The sheer number of hours required for each episode — 300, approximately — has cut into their personal lives, particularly for Maital who is married with a newborn, as well as for Gilron and Satran, both of whom have girlfriends. Harman, for the moment, is single.

Maital, who didn’t know “This American Life” before Gilron and Harman introduced him to it, finds himself “listening like crazy” to the American show every day, “doing everything” while listening to the NPR podcast but hearing all kinds of details of how a show is interwoven, now that he’s familiar with the format.

Ro'ee Gilron, the scientist of the crew (Courtesy Israel Story)
Ro’ee Gilron, the scientist of the crew (Courtesy Israel Story)

Gilron, the scientific entrepreneur of the bunch, hopes it can become something bigger, with more radio hours and more resources, given that all four have been financing the project on their own so far. The show will air more episodes this summer on Army Radio, with 12 episodes, their entire first season, broadcast over the course of three months.

“Ultimately, we’d like this to be an Israeli ‘This American Life’ — to be an establishment,” said Harman. “Who knows where it goes from there? We’re living our goal at the moment, we’re here.”

Most Popular
read more: