Q&A with Mishy Harman: Capturing Israeli life on the radio

Mishy Harman

The CJN caught up with Mishy Harman, one of four creators of Sipur Israeli, a weekly Israeli radio program that’s dedicated to delivering slice-of-life stories in long-form, journalistic style and is modelled after the acclaimed American radio show and podcast This American Life

Having debuted the show’s second season on Israeli radio Aug. 23, the Sipur Israeli team – Harman and childhood friends Roee Gilron, Yochai Maital and Shai Satran – created an English-language version, which aired Aug. 18 on Tablet magazine’s weekly podcast, Vox Tablet, and will run monthly for the next five months. 

Your website says you began in Israel as a “small podcast.” How did you parlay that into a prime-time slot on national Israeli radio station Galei Zahal? 

We were four childhood friends doing completely different things but all big This American Life fans. We thought it would be so cool to produce an Israeli version, but didn’t know anything about radio. It took us more than a year to create the first episode, because we had to teach ourselves everything. 

So, of course, we had really humble expectations that it would just be our friends and family indulging us. And for the first episode, it was. But then we made a second episode, and it went viral, because someone with 5,000 Facebook friends shared it. Suddenly, it was a thing. 

I happened to see the head of Galei Zahal at some event in Jerusalem and without any shame went up to him and said, “My name’s Mishy. I have this podcast I think you’d really like.” 

He passed it onto someone and they decided to take a risk on us. We did a four-episode pilot for them during Chanukah 2012, and listeners wrote in saying they would stay in their cars waiting to hear the end of a story. So, Galei Zahal gave us a weekly spot on Friday afternoons for our first season and Saturday evenings for our second season.

What prompted you to create an English version?

We thought it was important on a number of levels. I’d gone to college in the United States, and it seemed that, for a lot of my friends who were Jewish but unaffiliated, the content they were consuming about Israel characterized it either as a place of violence or this flourishing Middle Eastern Silicon Valley… neither of these captured the nuanced Israel that I love.

We met with Julie Subrin, executive producer of Vox Tablet. They were doing a lot of stories about Israel anyways, and it seemed like a good match… we felt this [show] was an opportunity to bring stories of regular Israelis to English-speakers. Hopefully, we’ll continue after running the six pilot episodes.

Do you anticipate your English-speaking listeners being mostly Jewish?

Realistically, they probably will, but I hope they won’t all be. 

Our show is very clear about trying to capture Israel, instead of trying to capture Jewish Israel. For example, in the first episode, we had a story about a Christian from Jerusalem, and we’re definitely going to have stories about Arabs and Eritrean refugees.

I hope people who might not otherwise express interest in Israel will still be hooked on the stories because they’re in some ways very universal. 

Is the English version a translated carbon copy of the Hebrew version?

Some English episodes are translations of the most popular stories from the Hebrew version, and we’ve gone back and re-interviewed sources in English, but not all of the Hebrew stories are translatable. Stories are different when you tell them in a different language, and people are different when they express themselves in a language that’s not their mother tongue.

So, some English episodes have been done exclusively for the English show – stories based in Israel or stories about Israelis no longer living in Israel.

Do you feel compelled to modify your English content to account for cultural differences?

Every country has a kind of national bank of shared knowledge, so yeah, we sometimes find ourselves having to explain aspects of Israeli culture and figure out how to talk about it.

We generally try to shy away from the typical political narrative arcs people hear about Israel. A lot of North American Jews have a specific notion of what an Israeli soldier is like, so in our first English episode, we have a story about this anti-heroic soldier who’s constantly faking sick.

Our goal is not to do PR for Israel but to present it with all its complexities, failures and successes. Some stories are very critical of Israel, others not. We have stories of refugees, Arabs, Orthodox Jews – we try to present a more complicated picture of Israeli society. 

Your website indicates that the show avoids heavy political topics. Was this a conscious decision?

In a way, it’s a question of what “political” means. Often, in Israel, when people say politics, they refer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The goal of the show is definitely not to be a commentary of what people hear in the news. 

We wouldn’t have a story on the war in Gaza or the Iranian bomb. But we might have a story about the zookeeper in the Gaza zoo and how he doesn’t have enough animals, so he uses taxidermy. Of course, this touches on the political, but we always look for the human interest angle. 

How closely is Sipur Israeli based on This American Life?

In terms of format, every show has a theme and different acts featuring a different story, like This American Life does.

A senior producer from their show happened to be living in Tel Aviv when we were starting out and taught us what they knew. Also, Ira Glass [the host of This American Life] has helped us promote our show a lot.

We’re completely up front about the fact they’re our inspiration. We learned a lot by sitting and listening to their stories over and over and analyzing what makes for good storytelling. Early on some of our ideas for show themes came from themes they’d done. As we continue we’re trying to move farther away from This American Life themes and find our own voice.

How do you usually come up with story ideas?

We think of a theme for a show that really interests us and bring in stories that connect to it, or sometimes, we’ll have one phenomenal story that we’ve heard or that someone’s pitched to us and we’ll ask, “How do we build [a theme] around that?”

Typically, we’ll try to think of themes that seem like they relate to one thing but can actually be approached from different angles.

Some episodes will have just one limited factor. For example, for this one episode, we went to every house at 48 Herzl Street in cities across Israel and interviewed people who lived at that address, hoping to gain some cross-section of Israeliness.

The bios on your website suggest that you and your co-creators all have “day jobs,” in addition to producing the show. How does that work, logistically?

Yochai is now working full-time for the show, but Roee and I are both doing PhDs, and Shai is doing a master’s. I’m trying to finish my PhD in history as quickly as possible so I can work solely on the show. I mean, I probably already work between 40 and 50 hours a week on it anyway.

Three of us live in Tel Aviv, and I live in Jerusalem, though I have spent this past year studying in Wisconsin. Everyone talks daily.

The first season was done with absolutely no budget and took about two years to make. Now that there is a budget – we did a big crowd-funding campaign and have a few foundations backing us – we’re trying to transition to a full-time staff scenario.

That first season was probably worked on primarily between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., and now we’re becoming more systematic and serious and will hopefully get our own studio. We currently work out of the Galei Zahal studio, but we’d like to move toward greater independence and have a full-time sound engineer.