A Shanda in Shpittsburgh!

What makes a hero? Is it his cape or his capabilities? Or is it simply enough to “do good,” to help those around you in times of need? As adults, we might not remember the significance of these questions, but for a child, they are paramount. In answer to the call, Agent Emes has returned to confront these questions and more as he tackles “The Case of the Missing Pushka.”

“The Case of the Missing Pushka” is the third release in the “Adventures of Agent Emes” video series from Pittsburgh filmmaker Leibel Cohen and his Jewish Media Development Center. Their project utilizes a religiously observant superhero to offer an entertaining and educational alternative for Jewish children aged 6 to 12. As such, the series certainly assumes some prior knowledge of Orthodox custom and vocabulary, but thematically it proves accessible to a broader Jewish audience.

In this installment, under instructions from Mr. Bronstein, the pushka (charity box) he donated to the Shpittsburgh synagogue has been kept unopened for 18 years; now that time has passed, the money inside can finally be used. But before anyone at the synagogue has a chance, someone steals the pushka under the cover of night, with all the evidence pointing to the evil Dr. Lo-Tov. Agent Emes takes the case and, as he gets closer to the heart of the mystery, each clue overturned seems to reveal yet another possible suspect.

The episode is laden with campy humor and wacky characters reminiscent of the 1960s “Batman” television series or “Get Smart.” From the 4-foot yeshiva-student-cum-secret-agent himself to Dr. Lo-Tov’s bumbling sidekick, Clarence, it takes a certain childlike appetite to appreciate. But beyond pure entertainment value, the episode delivers lessons on what it means to be a hero, modesty in charity and honoring one’s parents. One definitive characteristic of Agent Emes is his ever-expanding knowledge of Jewish custom and tradition, which helps him find out his adversaries. Furthermore, the culprit’s identity in the third episode indicates that Agent E is interested in downplaying Jewish stereotypes and negative imagery.

“I’m not a rabbi,” said Cohen, the series producer, in an interview with the Forward. “But I take what little I’ve been able to learn and package it in a way kids will enjoy. They’ll want to learn about who they are, and feel like they’re a part of something larger.”

And what about future episodes? Cohen indicated that the next episode has been halted midproduction because of financial constraints, but that he hopes to find a way to finish soon. The fourth episode’s script wraps itself around Passover. The fifth episode has been written about Hanukkah. There seems to be no shortage of material for future episodes, and despite its modest Orthodox origins, Agent Emes has captured the hearts of children of varying backgrounds.

“Thousands have seen it and enjoyed,” Cohen said. “One of the most exciting things for me was to find out that other [non-Orthodox] Jews were showing it to their kids.” Agent Emes holds promise, but the low-budget nature of its productions hints that Cohen’s Media Development Center continues to scrape for funds, leaving little left with which to advertise. On one hand, as the Agent Emes Web site guestbook indicates, the series has been wildly popular within the certain circles in which it has been shown. On the other hand, it seems confined to those same groups. Could this be the end of Agent E? Stay tuned…

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A Shanda in Shpittsburgh!

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