With the fate of the Tokyo Olympic Games still up in the air, our season finale tells the story of a dream to introduce a sport to a nation, and a nation to a sport. But it is a dream made up of as much pain and disappointment as it is joy and triumph.
In Barcelona in 1992, after four decades of reliable disappointments, judokas Yael Arad and Oren Smadja made history by becoming Israel’s first Olympic medalists. Their success catapulted a relatively esoteric martial art into a national craze. Today, judo is one of the three most popular sports in the country.
Peter Kurz, a faucet and kitchen sink exporter, saw the lasting impact of Arad’s and Smadja’s pioneering achievements, and dreamed of doing the same with baseball. And indeed, in the fall of 2019, a new-look Israeli national baseball team played for a chance to represent the country in the Olympics. This was a big deal, for two reasons: First, only six countries from the entire world would compete in Tokyo, and second Israelis don’t, by and large, even like baseball. So you might think this Olympic bid is the ultimate underdog story—sort of the Jamaican bobsled team of the Middle East. But it is, ultimately, much more complicated than that. It is a tale that combines heartbreak and jubilation, balances national pride and athletic prowess, and touches upon questions of leadership, education, and belonging.
In the intro, “Yael and Oren,” host Mishy Harman goes back to the two miraculous days in July 1992 that made every Israeli boy and girl want to become the next international judo champion.
Act I: “Jews on First.” Producer Joel Shupack brings us the story of Team Israel, the unlikely national baseball team. From the epic 51-0 defeat in its inaugural game in 1989 all the way to a history-making chilly day in September 2019 in Parma, Italy, we hear from current players, people who were forgotten along the way, and one man who wouldn’t let anything stand in the way of his dream.
Joel Shupack scored and sound-designed the episode with music from Blue Dot Sessions. Sela Waisblum created the mix. Thanks to Asaf Bar Yossef, David Leichman, Alon Leichman, Ophir Katz, Zach Penprase, and many other members of Team Israel—past, present and future—whom we talked to while working on the piece. There’s a lot more about Israel and baseball that we weren’t able to include in this episode. If you’re interested in the topic, check out the films Holy Land Hardball and Heading Home. As always, thanks to Wayne Hoffman, Esther Werdiger, Sheila Lambert, Erica Frederick, Jeff Feig, and Joy Levitt. Finally, thanks to Clara Fuhg, Michael Vivier, and Alicia Vergara—our wonderful production interns—for their incredibly hard work, dedication, and thoughtfulness throughout the season. The episode’s end song is “Lifney She’Yegamer” (Before it Ends) by Idan Raichel.
Listen to the episode here, or download it from Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify. You can hear all of Israel Story’s episodes in English here and in Hebrew here.
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