Grover has been getting to know Israel. The furry, blue
"Sesame Street" character has visited the Dead Sea, Caesarea, the Western Wall
and even Jerusalem's shuk to sample the produce.
Along with Disney Channel star Annelise van der Pol, Grover
has been exploring the Jewish state as part of a Sesame Workshop production
called "Shalom Sesame." The 12-part series is geared toward North American
Jewish children and their families to forge a sense of Jewish identity by
providing a taste of Israel, Jewish traditions and culture. It will include
celebrity appearances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Debra Messing and possibly Ben
Stiller, among others, and is scheduled for a Chanukah 2010 release.
A 1986 production of the same name sold 1 million copies and
is considered the top-selling Jewish educational title.
More than 20 years later, it was time to update and overhaul
"The needs of the Jewish community have changed," said Danny
Labin, the project's executive director, speaking at the studio outside of Tel
Aviv where segments are being filmed.
Labin noted shifting demographic realities such as
intermarriage and Israel's large immigrant populations from the former Soviet
Union and Ethiopia. Two of the new human characters reflect this diversity in
Israel: One is an Ethiopian Israeli woman, the other a Russian immigrant.
Scripts and concepts have been reviewed with the help of a
team of senior experts in Jewish education representing the religious streams
and a range of backgrounds, from Chabad to Reform.
"We are trying to make something that is accessible to those
not ensconced in a formal Jewish framework to help parents feel more comfortable
and get them interested in a search for identity themselves," Labin said.
The project also intends to supplement the TV show with an
interactive Web site and other media platforms, including plans to use joint
online projects to help connect Jewish Israeli and American children with the
show as a vehicle.
In the first episode of "Shalom Sesame," the character played
by van der Pol - a Jewish-American actress who was named after Anne Frank - is
seen on a plane flying to Israel for her first visit.
After hearing Grover, cast as a flight attendant, shout out
"Kosher meal! Aisle 10!," they strike up a friendship and decide to travel
together throughout the country. Throughout the series the pair remain in Israel
- a device that lets children see various landscapes, meet Israeli children and
even learn a little Hebrew.
There are episodes on the Jewish holidays, mitzva themes such
as loving animals and treating others kindly, animation segments and interviews.
The Hanukka episode will feature a visit with a family whose menorah has
remained in the family for generations. The Rosh Hashanah episode opens with a
discussion about new beginnings as the audience sees an Israeli girl start her
first day at school and her brother learn how to blow a shofar.
IN AN exclusive interview with JTA, Grover discussed why he
was excited about the project.
"My home is 'Sesame Street,' but I love meeting people from
all over the world, and one of those places is Israel, where I have been able to
make new friends and learn," he said in his trademark high-pitched tone. "I have
learned a few words in Hebrew, like toda [thank you] and
boker tov [good morning], and that pretty much gets me
by." Eric Jacobson, the puppeteer who assumed the voice and actions of Grover
about 10 years ago after the legendary Frank Oz retired, said Grover seems to
connect with audiences young and old both in Israel and around the world.
"Let's start with that Grover is blue," Jacobson said during
a break from filming. "No one I know is blue, and therefore he can be anybody."
Three other puppets join Grover in the cast, including a floppy-haired Arab
Israeli named Mahboub.
Shahar Sorek plays another human character, an archeologist
who is religiously observant and wears a kippa. Often he is the one to explain
some of the Jewish rituals and Bible stories.
"I think it's important to protect and present our Jewish
heritage, and this is a tool for helping to do that," Sorek said.
The Sesame Workshop has co-productions with some 18
countries, including an Israeli version called "Rehov Sumsum" and a Palestinian
version called "Shara'a Simsim." "Shalom Sesame" is the first series intended to
reach out specifically to an American Diaspora audience, but similar programs
are planned for children of Arab Americans and of Indian Americans based on
"Sesame Street"-style programs in Egypt and India.
During a scene shot last week from the final episodes of
"Shalom Sesame," at a farewell party for Grover and van der Pol, a wistful van
der Pol looks around at her new friends and says, "I can't believe my Israel
adventure is over. It's been the most amazing experience of my life - the
friends, the fun." "The falafel!" pipes in Grover, prompting a round of laughs.
Shoshana, who plays an Israeli family friend of van der Pol's
character, turns to her and says, "You will always have a home here. You are our
mishpocha now, part of our family." The director calls
out, "OK everyone, get a little mushy now."