Talking about Israel

Talking about Israel

It’s always interesting to see a podcast host in real life, in the actual flesh.

You’ve heard a voice in your head, coming straight to you through your earbuds; you know intellectually that it’s coming from a real person, but it just doesn’t make sense. It’s probably like seeing a movie star in a supermarket, equally confusing although far, far, less glamorous.

The podcaster I saw was Mike Pesca, a onetime sports and NPR reporter who’s been making the Gist for years and years now; he says that it’s the oldest ongoing podcast there is. He was on a small panel at Brotherhood Synagogue on Gramercy Park in Manhattan. I knew about it because he’d mentioned it on the podcast; he said that it wasn’t safe to advertise it openly but he could tell his listeners about it.

Why wasn’t it safe? Because it was about Israel.

Mr. Pesca, who is half Italian Catholic and half Jewish — he grew up on Long Island, as I did, when there were only two ethnic groups in existence, Italians and Jews, so any intermarriage had to be between those two groups. There simply wasn’t any one else. It was called matzah/pizza. But I digress — had gone to Israel soon after October 7. He’s very smart, a gifted interviewer, and a compulsive if occasionally self-satisfied player with words; his interviews from Israel were long, sensitive, moving, and good.

At Brotherhood, he talked about his belief that the state of Israel is a brilliant and necessary way to keep Jews safe. He’s not uncritical of Israel’s government, but he is very sympathetic to the state. So was the other speaker, podcaster and writer Nancy Rommelmann.

The surprising part was the audience. I’m used to New Jersey and the Upper West Side. Some of the people there looked like they’d be at home in those places, but any others looked downtown. Very downtown. Lots of piercings, tattoos, and improbable hair colors. Lots of gender-queer looks. So I expected hisses and boos. I feared that the questions would be hostile.

They weren’t.

Many of them were bewildered — how do I explain to my friends, my classmates, my relatives why I am supporting Israel? How can I tell them what’s going on? How can I get them to listen? Where did all the hate come from, and how can we make it go away? All of them are hard questions, and many of them were far beyond what the panelists could answer.

But still I was reassured by them, and by the audience. It might just be because we’re conditioned to fear by now, and that is a terrible thing. But it might also be because we’re not as alone as we fear we may be.


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