Leaders Up

The Story Behind
Israel Story

The Story Behind  Israel Story
Mishy Harman behind the microphone.

Mishy Harman is on the phone…again. No, he’s not securing an interview for his award-winning podcast Israel Story, he’s speaking to his parents for the seventh time today. Nothing’s wrong, he’s just checking in. His brother and sister average four calls per day with their parents as well.

“For us, it’s wonderful to have three great kids,” shared Dorothy Harman in an Israel Story podcast episode. “I think we’re very lucky. We like to share all that’s going on—all the stories.”

Mishy with his parents, brother, and sister.

Those stories include accounts of Mishy’s grandfather, Avraham Harman, who served as Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., and Mishy’s aunt, Naomi Chazan, former Israeli Knesset Deputy Speaker. He also recalls his father’s stories about growing up in 1950s Jerusalem. And those shared by his grandmother, Zena, during his numerous daily visits in her house across the street.

Stories, characters, and narratives like these have shaped Mishy. After serving in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), he studied history at Harvard University in the U.S., not only because it allowed him to delve into people’s journeys, but also because it fulfilled his curiosity about life in general. “My father said studying history was like fooling the system because you get to concentrate on any subject,” he recalls. “If you study music, Beethoven is part of history. If it’s physics, then space exploration is part of history.”

Furthering his studies, Mishy studied archeology on a scholarship at the University of Cambridge in England. There, he participated in excavations and wrote about the fairly esoteric subject of what iron age pig bones can teach us about Jewish dietary restrictions.  

Mishy was inspired to create Israel Story after listening to This American Life.

After spending seven years abroad, Mishy was at a crossroads, unsure of where his journey would lead him. “I was jealous of friends who knew they were going to be journalists or doctors,” he says. “But I had almost too many interests.”

His plan was to return to Israel to complete his PhD at the Hebrew University. But first, he celebrated his time abroad with a 13,000-mile road trip around America. He bought a Ford Focus station wagon and visited 34 states in four months, accompanied by his dog, Nomi (named for his aunt) and episodes of the hit podcast This American Life, suggested by his best friend Ro’ee Gilron.

“It was a magical experience that changed my life,” he shares. “The podcast transported me into the lives of Americans I would never otherwise meet.” After downloading nearly 100 episodes, Mishy was inspired to create an Israeli version. He collected his closest childhood friends—Shai Satran, Yochai Maital, and Ro’ee—none of whom had experience with podcasts, media or journalism—and reached out to This American Life creators, who offered advice to help the team succeed.

Mishy and his team worked late nights, learning the ins-and-outs of podcasting, all while he was still working to complete his PhD. It took one year, but at last, the first episode of Israel Story was ready. “We thought our only listeners would be our girlfriends and parents,” admits Mishy. “We had zero hopes that it would be a massive success.”

Yet, it was. After handing a disc to the head of IDF’s radio station, Israel Story was offered a pilot, and soon after, a primetime slot. The first episode was released in January 2012 in Hebrew, followed by an English version in 2014.

Four seasons and 50 episodes later, Israel Story now has an additional four seasons and 42 episodes in Hebrew, 15 producers and hundreds of live shows under its belt. People listen from all around the world.

The apolitical human-interest stories shared on Israel Story are what fuel its success.

The podcast explores Israel beyond the headlines, instead offering listeners apolitical human-interest stories. “We’ve made it a point to profile any type of person as long as they illuminate the Israeli experience—whether they’re Muslim, Christian, rich, poor, gay, or straight, Ethiopian or Russian,” explains Mishy. “A person is a person, and their story is their truth. It’s hard to object to that.”

While Mishy says he’s driven by Jewish values, including compassion, inclusion, and love, he recalls Isidor Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize for physics. “As a child, every day when he came home from school, his mother would ask him, ‘Did you ask a good question today?’ Asking questions has guided me in this process,” he says.

As the show’s host, Mishy has interviewed people from all walks of life who share their private, painful moments, from a husband struggling with gender identity, to an Ultra Orthodox Jewish woman whose husband lost faith and lives as a secular man. “One of the great privileges of this project is meeting people who invite me into their living rooms and kitchens,” shares Mishy. “I’m humbled by how genuine and honest they’ve been, and I develop real feelings of love toward many of them.”

Mishy loves interviewing people of all walks of life, who share private and even painful moments.

Mishy is hard-pressed to choose a favorite episode, but settles on two: “Whither Thou Goest,” a Shavuot special of three modern-day Ruth stories, and “Operation Hulda”, a narrative about a man searching for someone he met more than half a century earlier at the Western Wall.

Currently, Israel Story is hosting Facebook Live events, where formerly featured guests share updates since their stories aired. Also in the works is a COVID-19 mini-series. Listeners are invited to record a sentence or two about their daily lives during this pandemic (see below).

Mishy is catching his breath after IsraPalooza, Israel Story’s 12-hour long Israeli Independence Day zoom event, which attracted more than 10,000 attendees worldwide with featured interviews, cooking classes, art workshops, and live concerts.

So what’s next? Mishy says he’s always on the lookout for good stories, and receives many emails pitching ideas, including a TV show based on the show. Anything is possible.

In the meantime, Mishy is sure to talk it over with his parents.

What’s Your Coronavirus Story?

Israel Story is putting together a mash-up of listeners from around the world, sharing a sentence or two about their daily lives during this period. And they want to include you!

Send a quick voice message with a brief story, thought, or even just a single sentence about your life in the time of Coronavirus. It can be anything at all. Begin by stating your name and where you live (“Hi, I’m Maya from Haifa and…”) or you are welcome to send it anonymously too. Please keep the voice messages short (under 2 minutes), and share your story/thought/feeling the same way you would to a friend. To participate, send your message to Israel Story via WhatsApp at +972-58-540-8822 or email at contact@israelstory.org.

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