I had long been a print reporter with a serious crush on audio. But until the opportunity to host a podcast fell in my lap, becoming someone who was lucky enough to make audio stories seemed like an elusive dream.
Now I’m a year into the adventure of creating and hosting “The Branch,” a podcast about Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs, and Jews who work together, “even when it’s complex,” as the tagline says.
Each episode in the series, sponsored by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, focuses on a different pair who have become close through their work together. The original idea was to tell these as in-studio interviews, but the concept quickly changed to make these reported stories that are recorded, as much as possible, in the field.
Where I once chased words, I now also chase down sounds. One night a few weeks ago I found myself hanging over the edge of a goat pen in a Bedouin village, my microphone stretched out in the pitch-blackness toward the direction of a goat bleating. In another episode I tried to position myself on the edge of a stage to get the best audio of an Orthodox Jewish oud player singing classic Arabic love songs alongside his longtime musical partner, a secular Muslim pianist. And I have become attuned to the pitch of a voice, the peal of a laugh, and how those make characters feel real. That felt especially true recording a conversation between two prominent feminists and close friends—one Palestinian Israeli, the other Jewish Israeli—who together ask why leaders of the Women’s March in America think they have to agree on everything in order to work for the same cause and capturing one of them say, with a laugh, “Why do we all have to be in the same ship? Why can’t we be on different boats going the same direction?”
Every episode becomes my favorite one as I work on it, but Episode 10: “From Gaza to Tel Aviv” has special personal resonance. It’s the story of a rare friendship made possible by journalism and the captivating personalities of Jonathan Ferziger, NF ’96, aka my first boss (I interned for Jonathan in Jerusalem as a college student) and Saud Abu Ramadan, his fixer turned friend. It’s a connection that began over 30 years ago and has endured wars and heartaches and woven a path to include their wives and children in a place where people from Israel and people from Gaza, rarely, if ever mix, let alone forge life-changing friendships.
In our conversation held in Jonathan’s living room—in itself a minor coup as Gazans rarely get permits into Israel—they tell me of times they saved each other’s lives. Jonathan almost fainted in the crush of massive crowds in 1994 when Yasser Arafat returned from exile.
“I don’t know if you just poured water all over my face or something, but you got me up and it was over. You took care of me and that’s what always happened,” Jonathan says to Saud during our interview. “You know you take care of the people that you work with. I always felt safe because you were with me, because I definitely would not have been safe without you.”
And later when Saud has a heart attack, in part brought on by the stress of reporting in Gaza, Jonathan helps get him medical treatment in Israel.
The stories unfold, one more interesting than the next, from the smugglers they encounter running networks of tunnels underneath the Egyptian-Gaza border showing them their wares—everything from Viagra to KFC—to the time after the 2009 war between Israel and Gaza—Jonathan’s wife, who had been sick with worry for Saud’s family during the fighting, packs up a care package for Saud’s family that Jonathan then delivers.
One of our listeners wrote that when peace one day comes to this seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will be in agreements signed on by the leaders, but the groundwork for that peace will be made by people like those interviewed on “The Branch.” To be sure, if the political situation does not change, friendships like Jonathan and Saud’s will go extinct. But that listener’s sentiment pushes me forward to search for more stories of connection that challenge and defy the fear and doom and give room for those cracks of light that I, as a journalist, and my listeners, too, need to keep going in what feels like an extremely dark time.