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The Best Laid Plaids

February 11th, 2018

 Judah Kauffman

On Sunday I walked into the Tel Aviv Opera company on a mission. The company was selling off its old costumes in anticipation of Purim, a Jewish holiday marked by big masquerades and dress-up parties. My plan was to talk to as many people as possible on mic about what they were buying, or what the ultimate, most fabulous Purim costume was, or whether dressing up helped them feel more themselves. It’d be like Billy On The Street meets Project Runway.

I had even started writing the script for a Vox Pop in my head. If you’re unfamiliar with Vox Pops, they’re a kind of radio segment where a series of people answer the same question one after the other. It’s a kind of voice-montage that gives the listener an idea of what a cross-section of society thinks about an issue. Here’s a favorite example of mine from NPR’s ‘Invisibilia.’

I could hear it in my head. I’d find a hulking soldier going through princess costumes, a little girl trying on a monster costume, a boyfriend arguing that there-was-no-way-in-hell he’d wear tights in a couple’s costume. I thought I’d even sprinkle in some existential reflections from people about what it really means to focus so much on how we dress up.

So when I walked into the costume sale, I confidently strode up to the first English speaker I could find. “The ultimate Purim costume?” she asked bewildered,  “Um, Queen Esther maybe…? Am I on the radio right now?”

And that sort of set the tone for the next two hours. Most people vigorously waved their hands at the sight of my microphone, as if I was offering them a dead squirrel to speak into. I didn’t find my soldier or my couple or my existential musings about masks. Just a bunch of normal, busy people fighting over a couple racks of frilly shirts.

Purim is based around the biblical Book of Esther. A central device of that text is peripeteia, the reversal of fate: victims become victors, tragedy turns to celebration, and those on high are brought low.  And so, in thinking about my botched costume sale adventure, I wonder if a story of plans not bearing out like I thought is actually a successful Purim story after all.

 

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The Shape of Things

February 1st, 2018

Judah Kauffman

Lately, I’ve been wishing I could be more like my friend Adina. Adina is a geometer. Or, more accurately, she’s is a postdoctoral student of geometry at the University of Toronto. Sometimes, at Shabbat lunch, she frantically tries to explain her favourite shapes to me; they are the kinds of shapes that loop through time and dimensions and planes. Just thinking about those shapes requires a bending of the imagination and several leaps of faiths about the contours of our world.

I, like most people I bet, grew up thinking that all shapes could be more or less classified into circles, rectangles, and triangles; on occasion, I admit, I run into the odd rhombus. But anything that takes a shape outside of that small set of possibilities becomes too hard to describe.

As a radio journalist I’ve trained my mind to think about stories as having a very specific shape, like geometric cookie cutters to describe the world.

Late Tuesday night, I walked back to my house in south Tel Aviv. It’s a gritty and historically neglected neighborhood made up of  mostly African immigrants, some documented, others refugees and asylum seekers. And as the police and government have cracked down on the African asylum seeker community, as they try to ‘clean up’ the area, it certainly feels like a neighborhood in tumult. On Tuesday night, as I walked by a fenced-in construction site, I heard the voices of children playing from behind the fence and the hushed whispers of adults. I live in an area where families are trying to make do, living wherever they can. And walking by those sounds, my first, glaring thought was, ‘Should I record this? It could really make great tape!’

And then I stopped

 

My reaction to the public issues of homelessness and social demonization hadn’t been sadness. Hearing these possibly homeless people, my reaction wasn’t empathy. It wasn’t even curiosity. It was just that their nighttime whispers could help me make a great radio story.

A few days later, I was listening to a segment from ‘On The Media’ about stories that don’t make it to the news. Stories of political movements (with hundreds of thousands of people involved) that get ignored by the media because there are no captivating characters or story arcs. These movements are too “slow,” made of committee meetings and spreadsheets and carpools. They don’t have the shape of a “proper” story, so the media doesn’t tell them.

And I’m not 100 percent sure how these experiences are connected for me. I do know that, when a friend confides in me, I don’t want my first thought to be, “this story has a great story arc.” And when I see something slow and complex happening in the world, I don’t want to ignore it because it doesn’t have that arc. So, lately, I’ve been wishing I could be more like Adina. What would it be like, I wonder, to re-imagine the shape of a story worth telling.

 

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How to Get Sidetracked Whilst Scoring Music

December 18th, 2017

Ari Wenig

1 new email in your inbox.

Mishy Harman added a comment to the doc “King of the Hill” and assigned you a task.

Mishy Harman: “Sounds gorgeous. Is that an acoustic guitar? Can we make it an oud?”

Hmm. I don’t have an oud sound. I could spend some time playing with the acoustic guitar sound to make it sound more like an oud, but it still won’t sound like one. We have to finish this before we go to sleep tonight and there’s no time to get stuck into the internet. I guess I’ll have to ask some friends if they have a oud sound.

Message to Mendy P: Mate, do you have an oud sound that you can send me?

Message to Asher P: Ash, where can I get an oud sound?

Message from Mendy P: Ari brother, it’s in Logic Pro X under “world instruments.”

Logic Pro X is the recording software I use to do most of the music for episodes.

I know this software really well. I’ve never seen a “world instruments” category.

I open up the score for “King of the Hill” and check the instruments categories. No “world instruments.”

Message from Asher P: Hey man, when you downloaded Logic you had an option to download extra instruments. There’s an oud in those extras; you must not have chosen it.

Hmm. That’s promising. They’re probably accessible.

Download Options:

Instruments:

World:

Turkish Oud Lute.

Have a listen.

Yalla, that’s cool!

Download.

I agree to the terms and conditions.

“Your start-up disk has run out of space.”

Damn.

Okay, I suppose I’ll delete a bunch of data from my computer and move it on to my hard drive.

I plug in the hard drive, and come across a folder: Year 7 English Essays.

Wow, these must be funny.

27 minutes later, I realize I’ve wasted half an hour. That’s half an hour less sleep. For everyone. Come on Wenig, you’re weak.

Drag. Delete. Repeat.

10 minutes later:

Download of ‘Turkish Oud Lute’ commencing.

Open ‘King of the Hill’ google doc.

Reply to Mishy Harman. “Yeah man, coming right up.”

 

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Calling Jordan

December 18th, 2017

Hannah Barg

For our episode King of the Hill, we wanted to highlight Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian perspectives on the palace on Tel el Ful. My job was to get in touch with someone in Jordan, preferably Princess Muna al-Hussein, the mother of King Abdullah II. I had never attempted to get in touch with Jordanian Royalty before and had no idea how to do so, so naturally I started with Google. I read all about Princess Muna and discovered that she is the current President of the Jordanian Nursing Council. This was my only lead, so I tried to call the Jordanian Nursing Council but the person who answered only spoke Arabic. I then had to scramble to find someone who spoke fluent Arabic who could call back for me — this included me texting someone I didn’t know at all asking for help. Ultimately one of Mishy and Shai’s good friends named Yoni came to the rescue and called the Jordanian Nursing Council for me. Amazingly they gave him the phone number of Princess Muna’s assistant Emily. I was thrilled to be so close to reaching Princess Muna, I felt that I was only one phone call away from talking to Jordanian royalty. After working up the courage, I called Emily who it turns out has been working for the Princess for a long time. She told me that she knew of the palace but that Princess Muna does not take interviews anymore. She suggested that I try calling the Royal Jordanian Courts instead. I felt both proud of myself for getting so close to an important person but bummed that it ultimately didn’t pan out. I took Emily’s suggestion and spent the next week calling the Jordanian Courts until I finally reached someone. Overall, I learned the importance of cold calling people (even when they’re in another country), calling multiple times until you reach someone, and the amount of doors that open by simply saying “I’m an American journalist.”

 

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High-Fidelity Garbage

December 18th, 2017

Zev Levi

For every episode, we spend hours in professional recording studios, recording narration. Part of our time in those studios, however, is spent recording a range of sounds we don’t use.

 

You see, as close as recording studios can get, it’s nearly impossible to find a completely soundproof room. Outside noises always get in. Through cracks in a wall or an air-conditioner’s pipes, through a window’s imperfect seal or walls that aren’t thick enough, there’s always a tractor or a beeping machine or a school bell.

 

Once in the room, those noises make it onto the recording. Now, we could move to a different studio or digitally remove unwanted noises, but both those options affect the sound of a recording and would make the narration track inconsistent. So we “hold for sound,” until a noise stops.

 

We don’t know how long a noise will last, so we generally don’t stop recording – it could just be a second. But those seconds add up. And in the meantime, we sit, listening intensely to the noise and waiting for its end.

 

While recording narration for King of the Hill, we paused for the building’s elevator to stop humming. We stood by for a neighbor’s landline phone to stop ringing. While silently waiting for a chirping bird to fly away, I found myself thinking that we were paying for high-quality equipment to record very faint, unusable sounds that we didn’t want.

 

At every studio, we’re told that the noise isn’t being recorded. Or that it’s not noticeable. But we listen back to the track and it’s noticeable to us.

 

We’re told that no-one will care. We care. These tiny noises make a difference to the quality of an episode. And I like that we don’t compromise on quality.

 

The cost of a high-quality show is high-fidelity garbage.

 

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Ghost Questions

November 12th, 2017

Zev Levi

In a story’s cemetery scene, I ask a few questions to an old farmer. The thing is, my questions were recorded days after his answers. At midnight. In a different city.

 

For the story, “And the Lord Came Over with His Car,” Mishy Harman and I went to Balfouria and had a great interview with Amatzia Gilat in the local graveyard. Mishy asked some questions which got beautiful responses that we wanted to include in the story. The problem was that, to understand Amatzia’s responses, you needed to hear Mishy’s questions, and Mishy didn’t appear in the rest of the story. It would sound strange for Mishy to be absent from a story but to randomly ask a few questions in the middle.

 

To keep Amatzia’s tape in the story, we needed to record me asking Mishy’s questions. And the new recording had to sound like the original recording.

 

To match the sound quality of the cemetery interview, we used the same recording gear.

In the shared courtyard of my Jerusalem apartment building, we stood in a tree-lined corner. This was late at night, when there weren’t too many cars making noise on the road.

I listened to the original recording a few times and did a few takes trying to match the cadence and speed of the original conversation.

To mask the differences in sound between the Balfouria cemetery and the Jerusalem courtyard, we played the cemetery’s “room tone” over my questions. (Room tone is what a room sounds like when no-one speaks or moves.)

 

That way, the finished product sounds like Amatzia and I are in the same place at the same time.

 

Original tape:

Re-record:

Final product:

 

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The Prince with the Pineapple

September 24th, 2017

Ari Wenig

Welcome to the first Israel Story blog!

 

Israel is a country overflowing with milk, honey, and fascinating people. People who have come from all corners of the earth, who have travelled all roads, and are living in the 21st century in a land that has acted as the stage for tragedies, comedies, and endless drama for centuries. However, the process of putting together a podcast is such that we have a long list of stories that never get told – sometimes, as in the case of the story you are about to read, because the characters are too busy living their stories to take the time required to tell them. This blog is an inside look at the Israel Story process, and a chance to share the gems that didn’t make it to air, or that we feel require the written word and the reader experience to facilitate their proper internalisation.

*****

Before me was a stranger in a wheelchair with chocolate-brown skin and beady eyes. He was gazing at me like a child. I smiled politely, not really knowing what to say. He had a grin that I could only describe as…goofy, and he was dressed in traditional Sabbath attire: a white shirt tucked into dark pants.

 

“Shabbat Shalom!”, he declared, “I hope you’re having a wonderful afternoon on the grass of the Ben Zion boulevard. I’m sorry to disturb you, but I just was wondering if maybe you would give me the privilege of offering you this fresh and delicious fruit that I cut myself in my apartment just over there on Dizengoff street”.

 

The most incongruent part of an already bizarre image was an aluminium foil tray on his lap, filled with watermelon and pineapple. What do I say? This is not something you come across much in Tel Aviv, or anywhere these days, for that matter.

 

But admittedly, I was captivated by this man. He spoke with such clarity and contentment. Instead of being awkward and uncomfortable, I said:

 

“Wow, that is so sweet man, I would love some. Thank you so much.”

 

“No, thank you, Thank you for letting me give this to you.”

 

Okay. I am a production intern for a podcast – a podcast about beautiful and interesting stories and experiences in Israel. Had the Messiah of all stories just fallen into my lap? Who was this guy? I wasn’t going to beat around the bush, so I asked, bewildered:

 

“What’s your secret, man? How are you so – “

 

“Its altruism.” He paused for a moment, taking a breath, and looking off to the side. How did he know what I was going to ask? Does he get this alot? Or did he just know how…happy he looks? He continued:

 

“When you learn how to let go and just give, you have pleasure 24/7. I swear, 24/7 pleasure, all the time. Life is just so good brother, I mean, what do I have to complain about?”

 

And just like that, his wheelchair became his throne. His genuineness was unequivocal – you couldn’t not believe him. I was in awe. He elaborated:

 

“I have a great apartment, a beautiful woman, I have a job, I wake up every morning and go to sleep every night, I have my health, my family, friends, 24/7 pleasure, my friend.”

 

My intern bulb lit up. I began to build a profile:

Male, probably of Middle-Eastern background. Appears middle-aged but his essence feels so youthful it kind of throws you off. Physically handicapped. In a relationship, lives in an apartment on Dizengoff street in Tel Aviv. Healthy, social, good relationship with his family. Emotional state appears…ecstatic. Time to start on the story…

 

I choked. I had a river of questions almost flowing from my tongue, but they felt caught in the back of my throat, like water building up behind a boulder. I didn’t quite know where to begin. He told me he had to continue on his way, he shook my hand, and before I could begin to break the seal, he had gone.

 

I couldn’t allow myself to be passive about this. The story may have found me, but I still had a role in its’ unfolding. Come on, Ari. This is your job.

 

When I caught up to him, the waters flowed. I asked him where he lives, how he got here, and a little more about this fruit-based altruism. All he said was that 14 years earlier, he was living in New York and was in an accident that left him paralysed from the legs down. He wouldn’t give me more than that, but he explained how that accident was the beginning of the rest of his life; how that was the day he discovered the key to 24/7 pleasure, to heaven on earth, to eternal bliss.

 

And he finished speaking, just like that, leaving the story far from complete, and my production appetite nowhere near satiated. Who was he before the accident? What was he like during the initial recovery? Was this wisdom acquired through struggle and consequent growth, or did this accident leave him reborn into an epiphanous new reality? The questions fell like the pitter patter of rain on the windscreen of a car, driving me deep into the place that I needed to complete the picture of this journey: his past. Instead of letting me in, he wrapped himself in another, unrelated layer of obscurity.

 

“And do you want to know another secret?”, he proffered. “In a few weeks you’re going to see my name in the paper. I’m going to stand under my chuppah”.

 

I was confused. Why would he be in the paper for that? People are always standing under…

 

Oh wow. The man in the wheelchair has said that he is going to stand, and this story has taken a deeply complicated turn. What started as the odyssey of a generous stranger now has the potential to become a medical miracle, a national headline, a Messianic foreshadowing.

 

“What do you mean? How?”

 

“Just keep an eye out, all will be revealed. God is going to make me stand under my chuppah”.

This time, questions fell like heavy rain. God is in the picture? And is going to make him stand miraculously after a decade and a half of paralysis? How? The aura of youth? Pleasure 24/7? Pineapple?

And yet, somehow, once again, I found myself suspended in silence. It became clear to me that this was a man who dwelled in lessons learnt, rather than mistakes made. This was a man who had reconciled with the ones he’d hurt, healed his own wounds, and from his wheelchair, had found his feet again. This man had turned the shackles of his wheelchair into the comfort of a throne from which everything could be seen in perspective, including a bright and hopeful future.

 

This wasn’t a story he was going to revisit, because he had already let it go. There was something so childlike in his manner, so innocent in his wisdom, so pure in his gaze, and rather vague about his story. It was the vagueness of a journey so personal and deep that no words could do it justice. It was at this point that I relinquished the great chase for his story.

 

I observed him for a while, seeing him approach others lounging on the grass. Some seemed put off, saying “no thanks” and continuing their conversation.

 

That’s strange. Could it just be me?

 

He politely accepted their rejection, nodded, and continued on. Others graciously ate the fruit and then bid him farewell.

 

Ugh. Be a producer Ari. Just get his name.

 

I chased after him one more time, apologising for my persistence, and asked him.

 

“Ah. My name. Are you ready for this?

 

– Ben Melech-Cohen”

 

Translation: The son of a king and a priest.

*****

Needless to say, this was not your ordinary Saturday afternoon. And truthfully, I don’t know what I believe. I am yet to hear or read about Ben Melech-Cohen, the miraculous story of a physically disabled man from Tel Aviv who disperses summer fruits to strangers, and who, for the first time in 14 years, stood while under the chuppah at his wedding. I saw him once more in Dizengoff centre, wheeling around in a white shirt on a Tuesday night, this time without fruit in hand. I couldn’t get his attention before he wheeled away.

 

Ben Melech-Cohen showed me that some stories don’t need to be detailed or structured in order to be meaningful and didactic. And whatever it is that Ben went through, irrespective of what I believe, he seems to have learnt a very important lesson, which he is teaching by example: what to let go of, and what to hold on to. In his case, it was about letting go of a reality that was shocking, confusing, and painful, and holding on to that which may not always be tangible, but is very, very real: hope, faith, and the capacity to change.

 

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Welcome!

September 18th, 2017

Welcome to the Israel Story blog!

Keep an eye out for behind-the-scenes info about finding stories, what goes into making an episode, and what it’s like to be a member of the team.

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