How an expat’s road trip across the U.S. sparked the idea for Israel’s most intriguing podcast
Mishy Harman, host of ‘Israel Story,’ reveals his inspiration and a Season 5 sneak peek.
This story, like so many adventures before it, began with a cross-country road trip. Mishy Harman, a Jerusalem native who had spent seven years living in the United States, was about to head back home to Israel. But before he left, to mark the end of this chapter in his life, he packed all of his belongings into the back of his 2000 Ford Focus station wagon. He and his dog Nomi began their journey in Cambridge, MA and drove 13,000 miles through 35 states, ending in San Francisco. As Harman recalled it, "I was going, in the words of Simon and Garfunkel, 'To look for America.' "
Weeks of solitude out on the open road provides a man with a certain kind of circadian rhythm unlike no other. Time is marked by pit stops and billboards and roadside attractions. This was 2010 in the nascent days of podcasting and Harman had just bought his first smartphone. Before the trip, a friend helped him download dozens of episodes of "This American Life," the popular public radio program that tells stories about a wide array of people through first-person audio essays, field recordings and found footage.
"Outside of Vicksburg, MS, I listened to my very first episode of 'This American Life,' " Harman remembered. "I didn't realize it at the time, but it was a moment that put me on an entirely new trajectory, which continues until today. It was this magical moment because even though I was sitting in the car and the voices were coming out of out of my speakers, I was being magically transported to all these lives of Americans who I would otherwise never meet or interact with. One story would be about someone growing up in a farm in Iowa and the next story would be about undocumented Salvadorian immigrants in Plano, Texas. It was extremely exciting, and exposed me to the richness of American society that I'd never really encountered before. And all I could think about was how well-positioned Israel would be for a similar project because Israel really does have such a wide, varied population with such a rich human tapestry with people coming from different traditions and different countries and living different kinds of lives."
Upon his return to Israel, Mishy huddled with three friends and they hatched a plan to launch a podcast called "Israel Story." "We had very humble expectations," Harman said. "We were four people, and each one of us had a girlfriend and two parents. We said that a measure of success would be if we would get all 12 of those people to download our episode." Like any good broadcaster, he pauses for effect before adding, "11 out of them did; one of the fathers bailed on us."
Despite that apparent lack of support from one family member, the new show struck a chord. Those early episodes featured stories about a professional whistler, a messianic cow, and Israel's burgeoning medical marijuana industry. One of Harman's favorite shows from that first season was called "Love Syndrome" about an Israeli woman who serially adopts children with Down Syndrome. NPR broadcast the episode in honor of both Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, where it was heard by millions of people. "When we released it, it prompted a whole bunch of people to adopt babies with special needs – so that was really quite something," Harman told From The Grapevine.
A new season of stories
The show's new season – its fifth – kicks off on June 30 with a whole host of stories that are sure to entertain. Listeners will find out about a mysterious clock heist that went unsolved for a quarter-of-a-century, a DIY attempt to land a spaceship on the moon, a quixotic dream to create an Olympic baseball team and nationwide protests over cottage cheese.
The new season will, not surprisingly, also feature a handful of corona-themed episodes. One episode, for example, will tell the stories of three celebrations in the age of COVID-19: a birth, a wedding and a birthday. Another episode will feature interviews with some of Israel's first patients inflicted with the disease.
The show has grown from a hobby between a few friends to a production that now includes 16 people – including musicians and editors. The podcast boasts listeners from 194 countries and has upwards of two million downloads a year. Prior to the pandemic, they often traveled to perform live shows in front of fans at theaters across the globe. And, this April, they hosted a day-long virtual festival called IsraPalooza. Broadcast over Zoom, it featured performances from Israeli musicians, cooking demonstrations from Israeli chefs, workshops with Israeli artists and panel discussions with newsmakers.
"Practically speaking, I hope that our team continues to grow," Harman said about the future. "That we're able to produce more, that we can venture into new fields – maybe films and spinoff podcasts."
For the 36-year-old Harman, storytelling comes naturally. He studied history at Harvard, archeology at Cambridge and wrote his PhD – a biography of the first Protestant missionary in Ethiopia – at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "We all gain from listening to each other and learning from each other no matter if we agree or disagree. If I've learned one thing from working on 'Israel Story' all these years, it's how rarely people actually conform to those stereotypes that we apply to them."
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