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Can you tell me how to get to Jewish ‘Sesame Street’?

by Jacob Berkman, JTA

November 22, 2010 | 6:26 pm

Oscar the Grouch, left, and his Israeli cousin Moishe Oofnik visited the federations' General Assembly in New Orleans to promote "Shalom Sesame," a version of the iconic "Sesame Street" that is designed for young Jews, November 2010. (Daniel Sieradski)

Oscar the Grouch, left, and his Israeli cousin Moishe Oofnik visited the federations' General Assembly in New Orleans to promote "Shalom Sesame," a version of the iconic "Sesame Street" that is designed for young Jews, November 2010. (Daniel Sieradski)

Oscar the Grouch and Moishe Oofnik, his Israeli cousin who lives in a recycling bin on Rechov Sumsum in Tel Aviv, opened up what would turn out to be the most explosive plenary session at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.

They introduced the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose address that included talk of resisting some Palestinian demands on settlement building would be rambunctiously interrupted by left-wing activists, creating a buzz throughout the rest of the three-day conference in early November.

The two Muppets, however, were at the GA for something much less polarizing—to help roll out “Shalom Sesame,” a new version of the iconic children’s puppet show that is geared toward a North American Jewish audience aged 3-7.

The 12-part DVD series, which was given a soft release in late October, was taped in Israel using the Muppets and the set of the Israeli version of “Rechov Sumsum,” the show on which Moishe Oofnik stars. It is aimed at presenting life in Israel and Jewish culture to North American Jewish children that they may not ordinarily receive.

“We don’t look at it as being about religion but tradition and culture,” Shari Rosenfeld, the vice president and project director for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the “Sesame Street” franchise, told JTA. “We want to provide building blocks with Jewish literacy, an introduction to Hebrew language learning, to showcase the Jewish people, and to create a connection between the U.S. and Israel.”

Sesame Workshop enlisted an education advisory board that represented a diverse cross-section of the Jewish community, Rosenfeld said.

The project is a revival of the “Shalom Sesame” series that ran from the mid-1980s to early 1990s and also was an outgrowth of the Israeli version of the show. That project consisted of 11 VHS tapes and actually was run on PBS. Rosenfeld estimates that about 1 million copies of the tapes were sold.

The new version will be released on DVD and be available for sale online and at Jewish bookstores. It will be rolled out officially Dec. 5 with a screening at 120 JCCs across the country.

The Sesame Workshop, out of which Sesame Street has been produced for 41 years (previously under the name The Children’s Television Workshop), now produces 20 versions of the show with puppeteer groups based in countries ranging from China to Ireland to Jordan. Though its U.S. ratings have sagged in recent years, the show in its various forms is aired in 120 countries.

“Shalom Sesame” is the first attempt by the workshop to reach out to a specific ethnic group.

“The closest thing we have done to this is the Mosaic Project in which we created content from our shows in Arab countries,” Rosenfeld said. “That didn’t have the same kinds of legs as ‘Shalom Sesame.’ ”

The Sesame Workshop is looking at this as a pilot for potentially addressing other religious and ethnic groups.

“Sesame Street” in its various forms has not shied away from difficult issues.

Its South African version has a character with AIDS. The show broke ground in the United States when it first aired in 1969 with black and white characters living on the same block, which got it banned in Mississippi. And its Israeli show has Arab-Israeli and Palestinian characters.

“Shalom Sesame,” however, promises to be a bit more vanilla, despite its GA debut.

“It is not designed to meet the needs of children in Israel or Palestine, but it is designed to meet the needs of North American children,” the Sesame Workshop’s spokesman, Philip Toscano, told JTA.

“I know we take a lot of time trying to take the basic fundamentals of trying to teach about Israel and about the holidays and that kind of thing. I don’t think you will see the Muppets talking about the major political conflicts of Israel, Palestine and the rest of the Middle East.”

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