Four decades of 'Rechov Sumsum': Israel's own 'Sesame Street'

On March 13, 1983, the first episode of Rechov Sumsum was broadcast on Israeli Educational Television. It was an immediate success and remains relevant today.

 ‘EACH EPISODE featured a specific educational lesson with its own localized priorities.’  (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
‘EACH EPISODE featured a specific educational lesson with its own localized priorities.’
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)

Exactly 40 years ago, Kippi Ben Kipod, the most famous Israeli porcupine and main character from Rechov Sumsum, made his debut in Israel’s version of Sesame Street, which became one of the most important children’s shows of the era. Kippi played alongside characters such as Moishe Oofnik, Arik and Bentz, Ugifletzet, Kermit the Frog, Kruvi and Dafi. 

The American version of Sesame Street, which debuted in 1969 as a TV program that prepares children for first grade, included animation, short video clips, and scenes involving puppets and real people, with lots of singing, that took place on the mythical Sesame Street.

In November 1971, the US version began being screened in Israel and 50 other countries around the world, with localized voice-overs. At first, it was known in Israel as Rechov Hahaftaot (street of surprises).

In the 1970s and 1980s, Israeli Educational Television began developing original children’s content and screening quality shows that were highly successful. In 1981, the Israeli channel decided, in coordination with the American National Educational Television Network, to create an Israeli version of Sesame Street that would use content and puppets that were created especially for an Israeli audience. Ruth Ben-Shaul was in charge of the project and worked with a list of talented writers, such as Yehonatan Geffen, Avner Katz, Itzik Weingarten and Ilana Loft. Rina Papish was the director. 

“The idea of creating an international department for the American Sesame Street meant that the same format would be used for each country that was interested in creating its own Sesame Street, but each country could alter the content to fit its unique culture and social structure.”

Rina Papish

“The idea of creating an international department for the American Sesame Street meant that the same format would be used for each country that was interested in creating its own Sesame Street, but each country could alter the content to fit its unique culture and social structure,” Papish explained.

 Kippi Ben Kipod (Big Bird’s porcupine equivalent): Beloved characters on the ‘rechov,’ adapted from ‘Sesame Street.’  (credit: Israeli Educational Television) Kippi Ben Kipod (Big Bird’s porcupine equivalent): Beloved characters on the ‘rechov,’ adapted from ‘Sesame Street.’ (credit: Israeli Educational Television)

“Each episode featured a specific educational lesson and would focus on its own localized priorities. The Israeli version was produced thanks to American businessman Ron Lauder, who donated the necessary funds to Israeli Educational Television for this purpose. 

“The pilot episode aired in December 1982. At the time, I was nine months pregnant with my daughter (Daniela Spector, who is now a singer-songwriter). I would always smile when I thought about how she and Kippi were born at the same time.

“As soon as the contract with Israeli Educational Television was signed, our entire team flew to New York to participate in a workshop at the Sesame Street office to learn how to construct a hybrid series, create content and ensure that everything remains balanced,” she recounted. 

“The first step of this gargantuan project was to create a new set design for the Israeli version,” Papish recalled. “The set designer and I traveled around the country, photographing all sorts of different streets and neighborhoods. Then, back in the studio, the set designer created backgrounds and props that would set the scene.” 

“We worked from a list that had been created for the original Sesame Street, with more than 1,000 topics that had been formulated by child psychologists and educators,” explained Motti Aviram, who produced Rechov Sumsum starting from its third season. “We based our episodes on these topics, adapting them for Israeli children.”

ALONG WITH the American characters that were adapted to the Israeli version, such as Ugifletzet, Arik, Bentz and Kermit, a number of new characters were developed specifically for the Israeli version, like Kippi Ben Kipod, a pink porcupine with orange quills who wears green shorts, red gloves and a bandana around his neck. His checkered slippers became so well-known over the years, that this type of shoe became known as “Kippi shoes.” 

Kippi, who was meant to serve as the main character, much like Big Bird did on the American version, was designed by Avner Katz, who played the role of the owner of the neighborhood café.

“Ruth Ben-Shaul held a big conference and invited individuals from all across the art spectrum, including screenwriters and actors,” Papish recalled. “It turned out to be this huge brainstorming session, and one of the topics was the character that would be the equivalent of Big Bird. 

“The idea was that Kippi was like the Israeli sabra cactus – prickly on the outside, but soft inside. Katz made a drawing of Kippi. Until today there’s a disagreement about whether it was Yehonatan Geffen or Avirama Golan who came up with the idea of using a porcupine.”

The person chosen to portray the character of Kippi from 1983-1987 was Sarai Tzuriel, a young stage actor who was just starting her career. “Nobody knew my name; I’d only had a few gigs in children’s shows. One day, a friend of mine told me they were doing auditions at Israeli Educational Television, and she offered to put my name on the list,” Tzuriel recalled. 

“I was beyond excited. I had thought my first audition had gone pretty well, but they told me I needed to work on my voice, and so I went home completely devastated. It was the first time I’d ever done a scene not in my own natural voice. 

“To my complete shock, the very next day they called me for a second audition. Then, on Friday night, I received a call from Rina Papish who told me they were offering me the role, but that there was a small snag, since the American company had wanted a short man, not a tall woman, for the role of Kippi. The Israeli channel requested to use a woman, and in the end, they received approval – and we got down to work straight away. 

“I had never seen the American version of Sesame Street, so when I walked in and saw the huge set they’d created for the filming of the first episode of Rechov Sumsum, I was so shocked when everyone in the studio stood up and gazed at me. Later, I found out that more than 50 people had tried out for the role of Kippi, so everyone was curious to see who they’d chosen in the end.”

In regard to playing Kippi, Tzuriel said, “The script was amazing. My biggest problem was getting inside the costume, and then having to act while wearing it. The shoes were humongous. The costume was so heavy, and I had a really hard time breathing. I remember that one of the directors came up to me and said, ‘You do know that Kippi is going to be a star, but you won’t be.’ 

“I understood right away what he meant, and that was totally fine with me. I figured if I did a good job, anyone who was in the business would at some point ask who was playing Kippi. And besides, I absolutely adored the work. I understood that the most important thing was being able to function while wearing the costume.”

On March 13, 1983, the first episode of Rechov Sumsum was broadcast on Israeli Educational Television. “The show was an immediate success,” Papish said. “The TV station was at its peak then, and Rechov Sumsum brilliantly rode this wave of success. It was an honor to have directed the first two seasons.”

Tzuriel added, “The show was a success from the very first day it was broadcast, and everyone instantly fell in love with Kippi. The atmosphere on the set was amazing, and we all became best friends very quickly.”

For the second season, a new character named Moishe Oofnik joined Rechov Sumsum, who was played by Gilles Ben-David. Oofnik was the equivalent of Oscar the Grouch from the American version. He was a brown puppet with a red nose and one long unibrow, who lived in a blue car and was constantly complaining. 

 MOISHE OOFNIK, Oscar the Grouch’s Israeli cousin (credit: Israeli Educational Television) MOISHE OOFNIK, Oscar the Grouch’s Israeli cousin (credit: Israeli Educational Television)

“When we sat down to talk about what Oofnik’s character would be like, we asked everyone to jot down a few characteristics of what they thought would work well. All I did was think about how to describe my husband, and to this day I think Oofnik is very similar to him,” Papish laughed.

Recalled Ben-David: “In 1984, I had just completed my university studies when a friend of mine started working on Rechov Sumsum. So I went for an audition, and I was chosen to play Oofnik. This role was really fitting for me, since Oofnik is a non-conformist, and so am I. 

“Oofnik is still part of me. My dream had been to perform in a play by Molière, but since we worked for two months on Rechov Sumsum, then a month off, then another two intense months on, during which time we’d rehearse and rehearse, then spend 10 days filming, so I never had enough time in between to work on something else. But that was fine, since I fell head over heels in love with the puppets.”

Tzuriel recalled a memorable incident that took place during the 1991 Gulf War. “During the war, we were the only people in Israel who’d been granted permission to perform live shows. Gilles, who played Moishe Oofnik, and I would host guests in the studio. This was really helpful to children during this difficult time, and I will never forget how proud I was to participate in that.”

Some of Israel’s best actors appeared in one or another episode of Rechov Sumsum. During the first season, actors such as Miki Kam (as one of the residents of the neighborhood), Natan Detner (as a young neighbor and friend of Kippi), Yona Atari (as the older neighbor), Albert Iluz (as a new immigrant from France), Shmuel Shilo (as a tool shop owner) and Hanna Roth (as a bakery owner) took part in the show. The characters of Arik and Bentz were played by Shlomo Bar-Aba and Yosef Shiloah, respectively; Kruvi was played by Israel Gurion; and Kermit the Frog was played by Eyal Bertonov.

“Everything was going really well. When the American production company saw that the Israeli team was so professional and serious, they pretty much gave us a free hand. In other words, we began doing the dubbing with Israeli actors here in Israel,” explained Kam. 

Rechov Sumsum felt like a real street, and our production was perfectly adapted to Israel. I will never forget how one day a group of children came for a tour of the studio. When they got to the set design where Kippi lived, they were shocked to the core to discover that Kippi wasn’t there. The visit had completely shattered their belief that Rechov Sumsum wasn’t a living, breathing place all day long. 

“In my opinion, no children should ever have been allowed inside the studio. It completely ruined the magic for them. And just as a funny aside – my nickname became Kippi, even though I never played Kippi,” Kam said.

Recalled Albert Iluz: “I was invited to participate as a guest on only one episode, but I never left and became a permanent part of the cast. Since I played an immigrant from France, I exaggerated my French accent. One of the beautiful parts of Rechov Sumsum is that there were people from all different backgrounds living there, including new immigrants. The cast spent so much time together rehearsing, so we really did end up feeling like one big happy family.

“One of the highlights of my time on the show was when we got to do a tour of the studio in the US where they film Sesame Street. I loved that on the show they called us by our real names, so children in the street recognized me as Albert.”

Dov Reiser noted that “To this day, people remember me saying ‘Ugi rotzeh ugiyah’ (Ugi wants a cookie) when I was playing Ugifletzet. At the time, Israel had only one TV channel, and so when Rechov Sumsum was on TV, every single child in the country would be watching our program. The show took off like wildfire. Every episode was carefully edited by Hasia Wertheim, our Hebrew-language guru.”

THE ORIGINAL Israeli Rechov Sumsum version was broadcast for five years, between 1983 and 1987, and a total of 65 episodes were recorded. During this time, famous Israeli singers were involved in the show as well, such as Yehoram Gaon, Shoshana Damari, Haim Moshe, Shmulik Kraus, the Dudaim, Gidi Gov, and Rotem Abuhav. 

The opening song was written by Eli Mohair, the melody was composed by Yoni Rechter, and it was sung by Gidi Gov, Dafna Armoni and the Tzadikov children’s choir.

“The fundamental ideology of the show was to include a variety of people with different outlooks, unique designs and music from a variety of cultures,” added Papish. “So many artists were excited to have a chance to participate in one of our episodes. Rechov Sumsum was a true sensation.”

What was the secret magic of ‘Rechov Sumsum’?

Papish: “It appealed to an extremely broad range of populations – to kids as well as to their parents. Our main goal was for it to be an educational program, but not dry and didactic. We also wanted to make sure there was lots of humor.”

Aviram: “The magic was that everyone began believing that the puppets and the characters were real.”

Tzuriel: “Each episode was based on research carried out by dozens of educational psychologists. Kippi was four years old when the show began, and he remained that age until the end.”

Reiser: “The show was not didactic at all, but very lively. We used a lot of humor and high energy. The viewers did not feel like it was trying to teach them something; the lessons were taught in a roundabout way.”

Kam: “The magic was that the show focused on relationships between people, between kids and adults, between children and their friends, and the fact that children were involved in the show, which made it fun for the whole family. The show was so Israeli and pure. It was the perfect place for kids to learn how to interact with other kids in their neighborhood.”

Do you think the show is still relevant in today’s reality? 

Papish: “Absolutely. I’m a grandmother of five, and I see what kinds of shows kids watch these days. When I’ve shown them footage from Rechov Sumsum, which is much more naïve than any other content available these days, they totally love it.” 

Tzuriel: “For sure. I think that many preschools in Israel would love to show their kids 30 minutes of Rechov Sumsum. Granted, the clothes the actors wore are a bit out of style, but the street is still the same street, and the content is top quality. It’s just as relevant today as it was back then.”

Ben-David: “Rechov Sumsum is an amazing series for little kids, and they need to be ready socially for school. I think this type of content no longer exists. Nowadays, parents plop their kids down in front of a screen and are completely unconcerned about what their kids are watching. That’s a shame, since there’s so much good stuff out there.”

Reiser: “I hear all the time from parents in their 40s that they wish a new version of Rechov Sumsum would be produced so their kids could benefit from this show as much as they did when they were kids.” 

Translated by Hannah Hochner.