The Muppet Beit Midrash
Tue, 01/11/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
The human cast of “Shalom Sesame.” Messages about “pluralism, coexistence, modernity behind the cute ‘Sesame’ characters"
The human cast of “Shalom Sesame.” Messages about “pluralism, coexistence, modernity behind the cute ‘Sesame’ characters"

Slapstick goes far with the young set. The first episode of the new “Shalom Sesame” collection opens with Anneliese van der Pol, star of “That’s So Raven,” on a flight to Israel. The klutzy flight attendant —everyone’s cute and furry blue pal Grover — serves falafel to Anneliese and a falafel ball ends up on her curmudgeonly seatmate’s head.

The same uptight muppet, who is dressed in a suit, appears in “Chanukah: The Missing Menorah.” This time, the offending object on his head is a latke.

Both scenes drew peals of laughter from my esteemed viewing panel ranging in age from 14 months to 5 years. Asked about his favorite part, Coby Shulman, 5, of West Orange, N.J., responded, “When the latke fell on his head.”

After nearly 25 years, the creative minds at Sesame Workshop have developed 12 new, slapstick-laden episodes of “Shalom Sesame.” The new series is aimed primarily at the American market to educate viewers here on basic Judaism and life in Israel. Viewers will recognize some of the characters from the long-running television series and the familiar “Sesame Street” style — using short skits, musical numbers, animation, colorful puppets, and real-life footage to entertain while subtly educating the audience.

But, said Shari Rosenfeld, vice president of international project management for Sesame Workshop, “a lot has changed [since the first round of Shalom Sesame]. The marketplace has changed as well as the reality of life in Israel. And there’s such a paucity of quality educational resources serving the young Jewish population.” Topics in the “Shalom Sesame” series include the Jewish calendar, Hebrew language, holidays, Jewish ethics and values and Israel.

Gone is the 1980s Kippi Ben Kippod, the friendly neighborhood porcupine, and in his place are multi-ethnic characters, a website, and future YouTube channel. “Kids and families are no longer only consuming television as their main media diet so the Internet is key,” said Rosenfeld.

The human and muppet cast tries to represent the diversity within Israel. Furry friends include Mahboub, a musical Arab-Israeli boy; Avigayil, a spunky Israeli tot; and the Israeli grouch, Moishe Oofnik, who appeared in the original series. The flesh-and-blood residents of Rechov Sumsum (Sesame Street), where the show is set, are a cross-section of the Israeli population. There’s Boris, a teenager from Russia; the nature-loving Lemlem from Ethiopia; Kobi, the antique dealer who wears a crocheted kipa; and the bubbe on the set, Shoshana. And there’s no room for politics on Rechov Sumsum.

“What’s interesting to me are the deeper messages that hide behind the cute ‘Sesame’ characters and childlike dialogue — messages about pluralism, coexistence, tradition, modernity, and more—which are probably depicted too subtly for children to grasp independently but are ripe for further exploration through well-developed activities and lessons,” wrote Shira Hammerman in an e-mail. “I see a lot of potential here.” Hammerman is a doctoral student in education and Jewish studies at New York University and a mom from my viewing panel.

Although the literature states the target audience is ages 3 to 8, the familiar characters (such as the Count, Big Bird, Bert and Ernie) and engaging methods of storytelling appeal to viewers of all ages. “We see our primary target audience as the most minimally engaged because we see ‘Sesame’ is such a unique tool for reaching out and presenting some of this content,” said Rosenfeld.

In a nod to the adult viewership, plenty of celebrities make lighthearted cameos. There’s Ben Stiller, dressed as a wedge of cheddar, singing the virtues of cheese. In the forthcoming Passover episode Jake Gyllenhaal finds the afikomen in his shirt pocket and in another one Cedric the Entertainer tells a riddle, “What has a lot of dough, is braided and is worth waiting all week for?” (The answer: challah.)

“The challenge was we really wanted lots of different kinds of people to feel comfortable while they watched,” said Rabbi Leora Kaye, the U.S. content adviser for “Shalom Sesame” and program director at Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. “We know the Jewish continuum is so different. It includes people who are really observant and people who aren’t Jewish. That automatically means you have to be pretty fluent in lots of different types of languages.”

For instance, one of the topics mulled over like rabbinic scholars in Talmudic debate was how to define a mitzvah. “To some people a mitzvah is a commandment and to other people a mitzvah is an obligation,” said Rabbi Kaye. The word choice was extremely important so an unaffiliated Jew could grasp the concept while not alienating an observant one.

The end result is an adorable “Mitzvah: Impossible” skit with Agent Grover choosing to accept his mitzvah mission of visiting Avigayil when she is sick. In the segment a mitzvah is defined as “a rule from the Torah that teaches us how to behave and be good to one another.” This video clip and many others, including games and educational resources, can be found at ShalomSesame.org. The site was launched in December and will eventually contain a wealth of related content for parents and educators, according to Rosenfeld. The developers want “Shalom Sesame” to be used as an outreach tool for educational organizations and synagogues.

“Teenagers, young adults, adults, older adults all find it engaging and really charming, and it speaks to them,” said Rosenfeld. “I think that’s the power of ‘Sesame Street’ in general and we really tried to translate that into ‘Shalom Sesame’ as well.”

This month features the release of three new DVDs including one for the often-neglected holiday of Tu b’Shvat, titled “Grover Plants A Tree.” The two others are “Shabbat Shalom, Grover!” and “Mitzvah on the Street.” Every six weeks or so another two episodes will be released culminating in a boxed set available in the fall.

“Whether you look at Torah or Talmud or Midrash it’s always about telling a story, and ‘Shalom Sesame’ is just another way of telling the story,” said Rabbi Kaye. “There’s a narrative and a visual text, and you can learn from it.”