New kids on the block

Ethiopian and Israeli-Arab characters join the cast for a new season of 'Sippuray Sumsum,' Israel's multi-cultural take on 'Sesame Street.'

sesame street 88 298 (photo credit: Yossi Tzavker/Hop TV)
sesame street 88 298
(photo credit: Yossi Tzavker/Hop TV)
The memorable characters from last season's Sippuray Sumsum, or Sesame Stories, have returned with a fresh cast of neighbors. Modeled after classic TV series Rehov Sumsum, Israel's version of Sesame Street, the show's season premiere is scheduled to air during Hanukka in December. Filming, however, began last week, with heavy fighting continuing to roil northern Israel and Lebanon. The timing, cast members said, couldn't have been more appropriate. "We're living in an extreme period. We deal [on the show] with sensitive issues like tolerance, and we say our lines with warmth and caring for one another ... It's beyond politics," said actor Dror Keren, who's reprising his role this season as neighborhood resident Tzahi. While lumbering purple porcupine Kippi Kipod, the Israeli equivalent of Big Bird, is no longer on the series, cast members now include actor Yousef "Joe" Sweid (HOT soap opera Ha'Alufa) and Shai Fredo. Returning cast members include Hend Ayoub and Keren, who on Tuesday was nominated for Israel's top film acting prize for his work in adult drama Aviva My Love. Guest appearances will also be made by Jewish actors Gila Almagor and Tal Berman, pop musician Margalit Tzanani and Israeli-Arab actress Amal Murkus. On the second day of shooting, children in the studio's live audience could hardly contain their enthusiasm, giggling as a young woman walked by wearing a lavender muppet named Abigail on her shoulder. "What's so funny?" the muppet asked. "This is my first performance, and I really love it ... I can really create a character and fly with it," said Shani Cohen, the actress who provides the voice of Abigail. With a background in theater, Cohen is among the newest additions to the cast, and said she was pleased to be filming a children's show as fighting continued in the North. "We enter a world of innocence where everyone helps each other. There's a war outside, and we've escaped into the solution," she said. The organization behind the show, the Sesame Workshop, is a non-profit admirers call the world's largest promoter of children's education. Local versions of Sesame Street, produced with the support of the Sesame Workshop, are made around the world, with each program focusing on issues effecting children in that region. "The basic precepts of Sesame Street are shared around the world: social and emotional skills, sharing and cooperating, cognitive learning," said Danny Labin, a project manager and educational consultant with the Sesame Workshop. "In Israel, we focused on respect and understanding. The series introduces children to the concept of 'the Other,' who they may not meet in everyday life even though they may live across the street." The Sesame Workshop has teamed up locally with Hop!, the children's channel, to develop the curriculum for its Israeli program. The series will be dubbed in Arabic, and this season's cast includes Ethiopian and Arab muppets. Shai Fredo, who provides the voice for Ethiopian muppet character Malkamo, says he jumped at the opportunity to depict an Ethiopian character in a positive light. "There aren't a lot of Ethiopians in the media, and most Ethiopian characters I've played have a lot of stereotypical problems," he said. "Here I'm just Malkamo ... a regular guy." Like Dror, new cast member Yousef Sweid earned an Ophir Award nomination Tuesday, with the Christian Arab actor from Haifa recognized for his performance in this summer's decidedly adult-oriented The Bubble. On Sippuray Sumsum, Sweid provides the voice for Mahbub, a gifted muppet musician. The actor underwent a weeklong training for his new role under the guidance of veteran puppeteer Gil Ben-David, and says he's pleased about the inclusion of Mahbub on the show. "Many children are afraid of Arabic," he said, echoing Labin just a bit. "They see it as an enemy language. Mahbub is a funny character, and other [Hebrew-speaking] characters sing with him. They learn how to count in Arabic. From these small things, you get children to like 'the Other.'" Inspired by the American version of Sesame Street, the series strives to keep young viewers' attention with a mix of live action sequences, animation and short educational segments. The show has changed over the years but is easily recognizable to anyone who watched it as a child. That, cast members say, was part of the attraction of appearing on the new season. "It's kind of like coming back home. It's a real neighborhood of people who have a good dialogue and a common sense of humor," Keren said.