Grover does Jerusalem


A few years ago, my family stumbled onto the 1990 six-volume DVD-set Shalom Sesame, a kitschy but completely adorable romp through Israeli and Jewish culture led by Oscar the Grouch’s Israeli cousin, Moishe Ufnick; Kippi ben Kippod, a large pink hedgehog who was the Israeli counterpart to Big Bird; young Israeli actors; and a host of American Jewish celebrities including Mandy Patinkin, David Brenner and a very young Sarah Jessica Parker. 

On Rehov Sumsum, just as on the original Sesame Street, people and puppets convened in the neighborhood square, celebrated letters and numbers, and embraced the universal mitzvah of respecting our fellow beings – no matter whether they had splotchy skin, fuzzy fingers, purple noses, or a crazy love of cookies.

Now, timed for Chanukah 2010, Sesame Workshop is releasing a new 12-volume Shalom Sesame – still teaching the holidays, still making them “brought to you by” the letter chet and the number shemoneh – but this time updated to reflect the 20 years of demographic and cultural change that has taken place in Israel and North America.

This time, the Israeli actors include Russian and African immigrants; the puppets include an Arab-Israeli character named Mahboub; the American celebrities are a little less Borscht Belt and a little more Christina Applegate and Jake Gyllenhaal, both of whom have a Jewish parent and loosely affiliate with the Jewish community, but hardly have the defining ethnic identity of a Patinkin or a Brenner. And, of course, in the 2010 version, the pop culture references are updated: In the Chanukah episode, we get Extreme Makeover-The Temple Version.

Overall, Shalom Sesame 2010 embodies the Jewish adaptation narrative – infusing the richness of our old traditions (the Chanukah story, Ernie and Bert) with the dynamism and variety of modern life.

My kids, ages 8, 5 and 3, gave the new Shalom Sesame three thumbs up. Our 8-year-old said of Volume 1 (called “Welcome to Israel”), “This was a good introduction to Israel.”

Our 5-year-old said, “It’s a nice way to meet a new country.” Our 3-year-old declared, after back-to-back viewings of the first two 22-minute DVDs, “This was kinda long.”

But all three of them have returned to the videos again and again, and while they watch, there is very little blinking going on.

My own favorite moment in the Shalom Sesame 2010 comes in Volume 2, “Chanukah: The Missing Menorah,” when Baby Bear, the furry little Sesame Street character whose speech impediment makes him pronounce Rs like Ws, is teaching his buddy Telly Monster about Chanukah. It’s “CHanukah,” he insists, demanding that his friend perfect the guttural chet. “Now let’s play dweidel!”

It is quite amazing to watch my kids so mesmerized by Sesame Street – in whatever land – exactly as I was mesmerized by it some 40 years ago.

L’dor v’dor, generation to generation, and across the world – Jim Henson was onto something really good.

E. Kinney Zalesne is a consultant, an author, a D.C. mom and a lifelong fan of Sesame Street.