Eight-year-old Sruli Slodowitz from Pico-Robertson likes dressing up as his favorite hero; no, it is not Batman, Superman or even Harry Potter -- but Agent Emes, "an ordinary kid with an extraordinary mission" who is the 11-year-old protagonist in a new mystery adventure video series for Jewish children.
Agent Emes (from the Ashkenazic pronunciation of the word emet -- truth in Hebrew) learns in yeshiva by day and battles the forces of evil at night. As a yeshiva student he wears black pants, a white shirt and a yarmulke -- at night, as Agent Emes, he dons a trench coat, fedora, mustache and sunglasses and he heads down to the Tov Me'od (Hebrew for very good) Headquarters by way of a revolving bookcase and foils the evil plans of Dr. Lo-Tov (Hebrew for no good).
The "Agent Emes" videos are the latest attempt to do what some educators and Jewish producers say is absolutely necessary in this visual age -- to give children Jewish content in a language they understand: the media. While the Christian community has managed not only to entertain their own, but infiltrate the mainstream children's video and film markets with funny series like the 3-D animated "Veggie Tales" series, which teaches theology and values to kids, the Jewish community is still struggling to find the money and vision to produce videos, DVDs and television shows that Jewish children will watch because they want to, not just because they have to.
"Jewish educational videos and DVDs for use in schools, camps or in Jewish homes are a very important complement to the other kind of learning that Jewish children engage in," said professor Sara S. Lee, director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. "I think that the Jewish videos are good, but they can't compete with the millions of dollars that are invested [in children's shows] for PBS. That's unrealistic."
But people like Leibel Cohen, the Pittsburgh filmmaker who produces the "Agent Emes" series, or Jay Sanderson, the CEO of the Jewish Television Network (JTN) and the executive producer of JTN's "Aleph... Bet... Blastoff" puppet series, which is broadcast on public television and sold as videos, think that the Jewish community can produce programming of which they don't have to be embarrassed.
"I wanted to create something that was done on a professional quality level," Cohen told The Journal. "What was out there until now [in Orthodox children's entertainment] was very inexpensively produced, and recognizable as being subpar to the other programs that are out there. Within our obvious budget limitations, the 'Agent Emes' videos are well acted and professionally lit, and the sound is good and the writing is good."
So far there are two episodes in the "Agent Emes" series: "The Fish Head," where Agent Emes makes the world safe for shofar blowing by preventing Dr. Lo-Tov from creating rotten rams horns, and "Rabbi Napped," where Agent Emes retrieves his kidnapped rebbe (teacher). Cohen's son, Sholom Ber, plays the title role.
Cohen produced the videos for $20,000 each, and though they have a certain corny sweetness to them, it's possible that children raised on visual diets of gargantuan budget productions like "Finding Nemo" or "Toy Story" will be unimpressed. Nevertheless, the nascent series is fast becoming a hit in Orthodox homes across America, and Cohen is hoping to market the series to Conservative and Reform homes and schools, as well.
Orthodox parents contacted for this article said their children watch the videos repeatedly, and the Agent Emes Web site guestbook has myriad testimonies from people all around the world who profess their love for the videos.
While "Agent Emes" is at the mid- to lower-budgetary scale of Jewish children's entertainment and primarily aimed at Orthodox households, the "Aleph... Bet... Blastoff" series, which costs JTN about $100,000 per episode to produce, is on par with a program like "Sesame Street" and is specifically aimed at children who are less educated about their Jewish identity. In these videos, the Mitzvah Mouse sprinkles the puppet children with magical matzah meal and takes them on journeys to meet famous Jewish people, like Abraham and Maimonides, and teaches them lessons about why it is cool to be Jewish. Sanderson estimates that the shows have been watched by millions of children, and he thinks that the community should be producing more of them.
"Strong Jewish programming has a particular value, because it makes Jewish children feel like they are a part of something," he said. "The Jewish community seems to have unlimited resources to spend on education, but it's the same old, same old. Generally, the Jewish community just wants to build another day school, but 75 percent of Jewish kids are not even going to consider going to those schools. Who is going to reach those kids who sit in front of a TV? The Jewish community has been afraid and reticent to speak the language that kids want spoken, which is media and which will make them feel like their identity is important."
For more information on Agent Emes, go to www.agent-emes.com. For more information on the Jewish Television Network, go to www.jtn.com .