TV puppet on Trump: “I know a Russian puppet when I see one!”
Since the mid-1950s, the iconic sock puppet Lamb Chop has said whatever’s on her six-year-old mind (as well as the mind of her creator Shari Lewis, and since Shari’s death in 1998, the mind of Shari’s daughter Mallory).
Now the sassy little sheep, who is proud of the fact that nobody’s ever pulled the wool over her eyes, is speaking out about Donald Trump. In her first-ever meme on social media, Lamb Chop states, “I know a Russian puppet when I see one!” followed by the hashtag “notmypresident.”
Can you tell me how to get to Jewish ‘Sesame Street’?
Oscar the Grouch and Moishe Oofnik, his Israeli cousin who lives in a recycling bin on Rechov Sumsum in Tel Aviv, opened up what would turn out to be the most explosive plenary session at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.
They introduced the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose address that included talk of resisting some Palestinian demands on settlement building would be rambunctiously interrupted by left-wing activists, creating a buzz throughout the rest of the three-day conference in early November.
The two Muppets, however, were at the GA for something much less polarizing—to help roll out “Shalom Sesame,” a new version of the iconic children’s puppet show that is geared toward a North American Jewish audience aged 3-7.
The 12-part DVD series, which was given a soft release in late October, was taped in Israel using the Muppets and the set of the Israeli version of “Rechov Sumsum,” the show on which Moishe Oofnik stars. It is aimed at presenting life in Israel and Jewish culture to North American Jewish children that they may not ordinarily receive.
“We don’t look at it as being about religion but tradition and culture,” Shari Rosenfeld, the vice president and project director for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the “Sesame Street” franchise, told JTA. “We want to provide building blocks with Jewish literacy, an introduction to Hebrew language learning, to showcase the Jewish people, and to create a connection between the U.S. and Israel.”
Sesame Workshop enlisted an education advisory board that represented a diverse cross-section of the Jewish community, Rosenfeld said.
The project is a revival of the “Shalom Sesame” series that ran from the mid-1980s to early 1990s and also was an outgrowth of the Israeli version of the show. That project consisted of 11 VHS tapes and actually was run on PBS. Rosenfeld estimates that about 1 million copies of the tapes were sold.
The new version will be released on DVD and be available for sale online and at Jewish bookstores. It will be rolled out officially Dec. 5 with a screening at 120 JCCs across the country.
The Sesame Workshop, out of which Sesame Street has been produced for 41 years (previously under the name The Children’s Television Workshop), now produces 20 versions of the show with puppeteer groups based in countries ranging from China to Ireland to Jordan. Though its U.S. ratings have sagged in recent years, the show in its various forms is aired in 120 countries.
“Shalom Sesame” is the first attempt by the workshop to reach out to a specific ethnic group.
“The closest thing we have done to this is the Mosaic Project in which we created content from our shows in Arab countries,” Rosenfeld said. “That didn’t have the same kinds of legs as ‘Shalom Sesame.’ ”
The Sesame Workshop is looking at this as a pilot for potentially addressing other religious and ethnic groups.
“Sesame Street” in its various forms has not shied away from difficult issues.
Its South African version has a character with AIDS. The show broke ground in the United States when it first aired in 1969 with black and white characters living on the same block, which got it banned in Mississippi. And its Israeli show has Arab-Israeli and Palestinian characters.
“Shalom Sesame,” however, promises to be a bit more vanilla, despite its GA debut.
“It is not designed to meet the needs of children in Israel or Palestine, but it is designed to meet the needs of North American children,” the Sesame Workshop’s spokesman, Philip Toscano, told JTA.
“I know we take a lot of time trying to take the basic fundamentals of trying to teach about Israel and about the holidays and that kind of thing. I don’t think you will see the Muppets talking about the major political conflicts of Israel, Palestine and the rest of the Middle East.”
Master of Puppets
He worked aliens on “Men in Black,” operated penguins in “Batman Returns”and helped bring the brontosaurus to life in the first “Flintstones” movie, but ace puppeteer Len Levitt says his most rewarding work was the children’s show “Alef … Bet … Blast-Off!”
Levitt — who brings his puppets to Jewish Community Library on Oct. 14 — created the show on Jewish Television Network (JTN). For decades, he has toured the nation, entertaining Jewish children.
Perhaps the fact his career started at age 12, while attending Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, had something to do with it.
“They brought in a nice Presbyterian woman who made marionettes for children,” said Levitt, 44, who operated his King Ahasuerus puppet for the shul’s Purim spiel.
With buddies John Seed and Sean Cassidy (no relation to the ’70s teenage heartthrob), Levitt created Puppet Conspiracy, a group that performed at churches and synagogues. They had a staunch supporter in Cassidy’s father, the late actor Ted Cassidy (Lurch on “The Addams Family”).
“In eighth grade, we made a film,” Levitt recalled. “Ted helped edit the script, and coached us on filmmaking.”
After receiving his master’s degree in puppetry in the mid-1980s, Levitt went to production company Alchemy II, home of talking teddy bear Teddy Ruxpin, at the height of that toy’s popularity. He built characters, wrote scripts for Ruxpin programs and even acted.
At the time, there were no shows about Jewish holidays, Levitt said, so he created “Chanukah at Bubbe’s” and “Passover at Bubbe’s.” The videos impressed JTN’s Jay Sanderson, who greenlighted “Alef … Bet … Blast Off!” (1994 -1998).
Outside Jewish foam-and-felt circles, Levitt made movies, was hired for various “Star Trek” series and landed the Holy Grail of puppet gigs, working for the late Jim Henson on what turned out to be Henson’s last project, “Muppetvision 3-D,” a Disney attraction.
“He had a very clear idea of getting what he wanted,” Levitt said. “Jim was a pleasure on the set.”
But, Levitt’s heart will always be in Jewish children’s entertainment, he said. “When I do a show in Minneapolis or Fort Lauderdale, it stills brings tears to my eyes, seeing a roomful of Jewish kids who are interested and having a great time.”
Len Levitt visits the Jewish Community Library on Oct. 14. For information, call (323) 761-8648. For more info, visit www.jewishkidvid.com .