Say shalom to a new Sesame

Israeli and American producers are gearing up for the newest season of the beloved children's show.

January 26, 2009 12:23
Say shalom to a new Sesame

Sesame Street 88 248. (photo credit: Courtesy)

In a small office north of Tel Aviv, at the home of the Hop! television station, a team of educators, producers, consultants and writers is being assembled slowly for the channel's next major project. The new program is an ambitious, conscientious exploration of Israeli culture targeted at four- and five-year-olds. On the surface, viewers will only see bright colors and funny voices. But behind the scenes, Rehov Sumsum may be the one of the most complicated productions in Israeli television today. "We affect children's vision of the world, and we try to choose responsibly how we influence them," said Alona Abt, CEO of Hop! As part of the Sesame Street pantheon of television shows, which spans dozens of countries, Rehov Sumsum is technically under the auspices of Sesame Workshops, the nonprofit educational center. But because the show is a coproduction, Hop! is managing the details on its own. The station treats that control cautiously, but also with an eye toward its own agenda. "In Israel, nearly everything becomes political," said Abt with a wry smile. "With this age group, we have a duty to portray not only how reality is, but how it can be." That guiding philosophy has made Rehov Sumsum a flagship program in the portrayal of a pluralistic society in Israeli television. The show oftentimes finds itself as one of the only educational outlets for Israeli Jews and Arabs to learn about one another. Now, that outlet is expected to expand once more - all the way to the United States. In what international Sesame Workshops director Danny Labin described as a "long overdue" move, this season of Rehov Sumsum - the first new season since 2006 due to puppet-availability limitations - will be adapted for a new season of Shalom Sesame, the popular children's program for American Jews. The original Shalom Sesame, which debuted in 1986 starring Sarah Jessica Parker, has not been updated since 1990. Hop! made the decision to delve explicitly into the Israeli-Arab issue with its 2006 season, which introduced "Mahboub," a muppet who speaks both Hebrew and Arabic. Accompanying Mahboub was Ibtisam, an Israeli-Arab character played by Hinad Iyub. This season's cast is a tightly kept secret, and Hop!'s staff declined to reveal which characters would be returning to show. But members freely suggested that they were committed to using Rehov Sumsum to represent the full demographic variety of Israeli society. IT CAN be difficult to deal with complex and sensitive subjects in a way that children can understand. Sima Toltzis, Hop!'s marketing director, expected the show to tackle "how to live in a democratic society" in small pieces. Toltzis, who immigrated to Israel from Moldova and grew up watching the original series, has now been tasked with preparing a massive outreach program to reinforce Rehov Sumsum's educational goals. For the 2006 series, that involved rolling out over 5,000 "conflict-resolution kits," which included things like hourglasses for children to use when they were feeling upset, and name cards to put children in charge of resolving conflicts between their friends. The kits, which were developed in both Hebrew and Arabic, were delivered to kindergartens all over the country. But Toltzis did not yet know how she would approach outreach for the new season: The issue is now more complex, because the materials have to be appropriate not only for Israeli Jews and Arabs, but for Americans as well. Chief script editor Michal Butel was grappling with the same difficulty. "We're going to have to learn what American audiences need," said Butel, a freelance scriptwriter and producer who got her start on Israeli satellite television. "We want to tell American kids something about Israel, Judaism, their roots. But we need to do it without being too religious." Butel was still trying to figure out how to portray sensitive issues of Israeli culture to American children, who would be watching at a considerable remove due to both their age and their distance. "It's better for me, and the writers, to think of the two shows as separate. But they are going to have to have common ground," she said. Labin, who oversees production of the Israeli television show, as well as shows in South America, will also be producing Shalom Sesame. His challenges are similar to Butel's. "Israel's demographics have shifted," he said. "The first series of Shalom Sesame no longer reflects that." The new series will have to reach out to an American Jewish audience that is today in a very different place than it was in the '80s. "Increasingly, over the past 25 years, liberal American Jews have a dilemma of how to reconcile negative images of political Israel with the idea of Jewish peoplehood," Labin said. "It's difficult for most American Jews to answer the question, 'What does this mean to me?' One reaction is to say: 'This isn't my story.' But that's not an honest answer for people who are concerned with Jewish identity. You can't walk away from Israel." Labin has been involved with production of Rehov Sumsum since 2002, when he made aliya. And though his job has called him back to New York, he has continued to manage Sesame's longstanding relationship with Israeli television. Part of that relationship has always been defined by Shalom Sesame, which to-date remains the only version of the show based around a demographic, rather than a nationality. Under his management, the American show will run 12 episodes for its first "season," borrowing material from the new Rehov Sumsum season. CURRENTLY, SESAME Workshops is planning to market the show directly to Jewish educational organizations. But Labin hoped it would also make its way to American airwaves for broadcasts on holidays or other special occasions. Ultimately, the new Shalom Sesame is meant to represent a pioneering effort in Sesame Workshops' attempts at expansion. If the show experiences the same success as its last season, the nonprofit has plans to develop other demography-based shows, like a Sesame Street for Arab-Americans, adapted from the Egyptian version of the show, Alam Sissim. Success depends on how the project fares at Hop! Butel was already seeing some early appeal. "My kids are six and three, and they watch Hop! far too much already, in my opinion," she said. "But they're very excited that it's their mom who's bringing them the new Rehov Sumsum." That's the recognition that Labin and Sesame Workshops are counting on to bring home their pluralistic message - both in Israel and abroad in the US. "This is one more educational project in a vast milieu of initiatives," he said, "so we should see it in proportion. But it has incredible potential."

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