The upbeat, evocative podcasts, sponsored by Hadassah, have achieved acclaim in a fractured world that COVID-19 has made even more fractured, shining light on the everyday intertwined lives of Arabs and Jews who have developed deep bonds despite a complicated reality.
The podcasts “give people little postcards of hope,” Kraft, 49, explained in a recent Zoom interview, “and I don’t mean that in a cheesy, simplistic way.” They reveal relationships among Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, that are happening in small and large ways around Israel. Kraft combines her astute reportorial skills with sounds and voices to create fascinating narrative stories.
The podcast, which has just broadcast its 25th episode over the past two years, tells stories set in Hadassah Hospital, Jerusalem. One recent episode featured an Arab and Jewish midwife working together during the challenges of corona – as well as stories around Israel and the West Bank. Each podcast features Kraft’s observations that are woven into conversations with people, along with evocative music, allowing listeners, as Kraft says, to “parachute into people’s lives.” Israel has a wide variety of podcasts, including The Israel Story, started in 2011 and its English version in 2014, which shares unusual stories of ordinary Israelis. But The Branch is the only podcast that focuses on stories of cross-cultural exchanges among Arabs and Jews.
Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, Kraft said her parents were always news junkies. She grew up surrounded by newspapers. Her father worked as a journalist for many years, and she said it isn’t surprising that she became a journalist. At the University of Wisconsin, she worked at the school newspaper. Since then, Kraft has worked for The Associate Press in Jerusalem and Johannesburg and has also reported from Pakistan, Jordan, Tunisia, Russia and Ukraine. She was a 2012 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and a 2015 Ochberg Fellow at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. She is now the Israeli correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. On November 25, she received a B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem Award for Journalism Recognizing Excellence in Diaspora Reportage for her work on Jews in America for Haaretz.
Kraft said that The Branch is a way for listeners to appreciate real communication between people that goes deeper than current social media and texting. She illuminates interpersonal relationships among people who are from different sides of the Arab-Jewish conflict. They care for one another despite what Kraft calls a historical divide that is often difficult to navigate.
There are episodes about the famous: “Love Wins,” for example, which explores the marriage of Jewish Michal Baranes and Muslim Yakub Barhum who live in Ein Rafa, a village 10 kilometers outside of Jerusalem and run “Majda,” a celebrated restaurant that captured the heart of Chef Anthony Bourdain.
Other episodes cover relationships that few people have heard about, for instance, a Jewish-Israeli soccer coach and an Arab-Israeli soccer player who plays for the team of Bnei Sahknin in the Galilee; a pair of Muslim and Jewish rappers who formed a hip-hop group, System Ali, in Jaffa; and an episode featuring Michal Zackai, owner of ShakShuk restaurant in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market, and Mahdi Martur, a Palestinian cook who, Kraft says, is Michal’s “right-hand man.” Kraft said that what makes their story so powerful is that neither of them are social activists who set out with a political agenda; their relationship developed naturally, despite all differences. In the episode, Kraft explores how Michal tried to help Mahdi through a labyrinthine bureaucracy when he built a house on land that is under neither Israeli nor Palestinian Authority jurisdiction (the house was eventually torn down).
Residing in Tel Aviv with husband Gilad Rosenzweig, an urban planner, and their two children, Kraft said that she loves the transition from print to broadcast journalism. She suspects that listening is what people always did, when they “sat around a fire telling stories.”
“There’s a joy to just listening,” she said, and what makes The Branch vibrant is the fluid, seemingly informal way the stories evolve. She explained that an episode does not begin when she sits down with someone to interview them. Rather, it starts when listeners hear the knock on a door, the laughter of someone’s child, the buzz of a drone flying overhead or a cow mooing. All these sounds give listeners an intimacy that they might not get from reading.
“Something about audio distills the moment,” Kraft said. “You can hone in on this one sense. Listening to people’s voices connects a different part of your heart.”
She believes that when you’re listening to a story, it feels as if it is just you and the person telling the story. Listeners are moved by the way a parent might talk to a child, let’s say, and they respond to the way another person hesitates, filled with emotion.
One episode is about two artists: Faten Elwi, an Arab-Israeli from the town of Umm al-Fahm, and Hadass Gertman, a Jewish-Israeli, who lives nearby. They met as mothers of young daughters at the height of the violence of the Second Intifada in 2003 and have collaborated on various art projects over the years. The women stitch together dresses in joint art projects that have been displayed in the Umm al-Fahm Art Gallery.
Kraft said that her biggest takeaway from doing the podcast is her realization that the most resilient relationships are the ones in which the people don’t ignore each other’s identities but rather “dive into what’s difficult.” In fact, she has received mail from both Israelis and Palestinians outside of Israel who thank her for the podcasts, telling her that these are the stories people need to hear.
Kraft works with producers who help her build the narrative storyline and develop the structure of the episode. Her current producers are Yoshi Fields and Julie Subrin. When Kraft speaks at her studio in Israel, Julie Subrin, in New York, reminds her, “Just speak as if you’re telling me the story.” “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a labor of love,” Kraft said.
She said she’s discovering more and more of these cross-cultural relationships and is no longer worried she’ll run out of material. Kraft also appears in another podcast, The Patient Is In, sponsored by the start-up company, Stuff that Works, which explores how people deal with chronic health issues with “grace and determination” and find answers.
When people ask Kraft how they can find time to listen to the podcast, Kraft laughed.
“Don’t you have to fold laundry?” she asked, adding that she can no longer wash a dish or take a walk without listening to a podcast.
“It’s a way to be transported into other people’s lives,” she said. “By listening, we’re journeying into the world that they inhabit.”