The children on the television program seen climbing a slide in a playground look like any kids one might see on "Sesame Street" in the United States except for one thing: they speak in Hebrew, Russian and Arabic. Welcome to "Rechov Sumsum," Israel’s version of "Sesame Street."
The program, which debuted in Israel in 1983, has gone through three transformations in the Jewish state. When the fourth version makes its debut during Chanukah next month, it will be the first time in nearly a decade that new episodes of the show’s original version have been produced.
The big difference in the new shows will be emphasis. The original shows focused on basic literary skills, the importance of early childhood and Israel’s multicultural society, according to Shari Rosenfeld, an assistant vice president of Sesame Workshop’s international division.
But creators of the new program believe children today "have access to basic cognitive skills but need development of social skills focused around mutual respect and understanding," she noted. And because language is a part of a person’s identity, characters will teach different languages.
"Counting will be more about language and exposing others to languages," according to Veronica Wulff, a producer for Sesame Workshop. Alona Abt, executive director of Israel’s Hop! Channel, which is co-producing and airing the new programs, said her station wanted to bring the show back because of the changes occurring in the Jewish state.
"Israel’s residents currently face strong internal polarization, but they continue to coexist while facing external threats," she said. "At this time it is important to provide Israelis with courage and a collective sense of resilience, regardless of their ethnicity or religious beliefs."
"We need normalcy and a sense that it’s okay to continue living our lives," Abt continued. "And what’s the best way to do this? We believe in starting with children. We want to encourage children to be open-minded, to value their culture, respect others and to demonstrate a long-term vision of how great life can be."
When the program first started, it was produced in cooperation with Israel Educational Television. But, Rosenfeld said, "Israel has changed a lot over the years, including the changing media landscape. That’s why for this production we decided to leave Israel Educational Television" and team up with Hop! Channel.
"It is designated as the channel for young people, where parents feel safe knowing their kids are watching that channel," she said. ‘It’s a trusted channel and the most watched by children in our target audience."
The new program will run daily during holidays and then once a week.
There were more than 200 episodes of "Rechov Sumsum" when it was first produced, enough for four or five seasons.
"The show became part of the cultural fabric of Israeli society, and the characters are still cultural icons," Rosenfeld observed.
One of the show’s original characters, a hand puppet named Moshe Oofnik, gained such fame that he became the subject of a popular Israeli song. Oofnik is the cousin of Oscar the Grouch, a character known to millions of American "Sesame Street" fans. They bear a striking resemblance to one another, except that Oscar is green in color and Oofnik is rust-colored. Oofnik was the contrarian on the program, "gruff in a sabra-esque [native born Israeli] kind of way, but also sweet," Rosenfeld said.
The new program will consist of 40 episodes and feature the first-ever Arab-Israeli Muppet character, 5-year-old Mahboub, who exhibits unstoppable curiosity and a musical talent. The program’s creators said his inclusion is designed to contribute to the show’s effort to model an inclusive Israel. Human characters will include a native Jewish Israeli, Tzachi, an Arab Israeli, Ibtisam, and Irina, a Russian Jewish immigrant who owns the street’s Magic Trick Shop. She is played by Eugena Dodina, a famous Israeli actress.
"We are focusing on issues within Israeli society," Rosenfeld said. "We have a new street. It’s still Rechov Sumsum, but the set is different. We worked hard to reflect Israel’s landscape and to make it look like itís part of a city, with buildings and a water tank [in the background]."
Abt said that in designing the new street, the creators wanted it to be both credible and aesthetically pleasing. The buildings on the set include ’50s-style homes, tall ’70s-style buildings, a skyline of the solar towers, as well as a grocery store and magic shop. "One of the street elements we are extra excited about is a greenhouse," Abt said. "Not only is this modern, but it gives us room to expand upon the curriculum as our characters take care of plants and raise vegetables."
Sesame Workshop, which was founded in 1968 and is based in Manhattan, is the nonprofit educational organization behind the "Sesame Street" series, which is produced in more than 30 countries and is seen in more than 120 countries, according to Wulff. A new production of "Sesame Street" was launched in 1994 following the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians. "The original funders of ‘Rechov Sumsum’ came back to Sesame Workshop and said ‘Rechov Sumsum’ did so much for Israeli children in helping them to appreciate the diversity in Israelís multicultural society, wouldn’t it be great if ‘Rechov Sumsum’ could once again help prepare Israeli children for what was about to unfold: hopefully the opening of the doors in relations with our Palestinian neighbors," Rosenfeld recalled.
That led to the development of a program called "Rechov Sumsum/Shara’s Simsim," which was a co-production with Israel Educational Television and Al Quds University’s Institute of Modern Media. It was an Israeli-Palestinian "Sesame Street," which was broadened in the late 1990s to include Jordanians because of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty signed in October 1994.
These programs, Rosenfeld said, "focused very much on the message of mutual respect and understanding."
"Rechov Sumsum/Shara’s Simsum" were actually two separate shows that included all the Israeli-Palestinian material. A subset of that material was created as a separate program for exclusive broadcast in the Palestinian territories and was simply called "Shara’s Simsum."
"But Arab viewers also had access to Israel’s Channel 1," on which "Rechov Sumsum/Shara’s Simsim" was shown, Rosenfeld noted. "We started in the 1980s focusing on Israel’s multicultural society and then it became a tool to address issues of mutual respect and diversity on a cross-border basis," she said. "Today in 2006, we return to ‘Rechov Sumsum’ in Israel [alone] and we have brought back Oofnik and his original puppeteer, Gilles Ben-David."
A new girl hand puppet, Abigail, an inquisitive 3-year-old, is being introduced and Noach and Broach, two hand puppets from the program that aired last season called "Sippuray Sumsum" or Sesame Stories, are returning. "Sippuray Sumsum" debuted in 2003 as an outreach initiative for Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan and focused on tolerance, child-empowerment, empathy and respect.
Abt said she believed that "Rechov Sumsum" can be equally relevant today, serving as a "window into how children and adults from different cultural backgrounds, and fantastic puppet creatures with childlike characteristics, share similar feelings and ideas as our viewers. … In Israel, diversity is often perceived as negative due to longstanding stereotypes. We want to present diversity as something to celebrate, and demonstrate a feeling of unity, encouraging children across Israel to feel safe, enjoy learning and reach their highest potential."