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So Just How Jewish Is Sesame Street?

The beloved children’s educational show Sesame Street gets a big upgrade this weekend — not too much unlike the city its fictionally based in: New York.

New episodes of the show will now show on the pay cable channel HBO and in the new season (46), they are being slashed from one hour to 30 minutes. But they’ll be more of them – 35, up from 18. Reruns of the new shows won’t air on their longtime free PBS home for nine months.

The New York Times noted the show’s gritty origins. “The “Sesame Street” that debuted in 1969, free to the public, was like a tenement commune run by hip parents and their artist friends,” this past week.

And now, on its shiny new street, with recycling and community gardens, The Times writes: “Cookie Monster chomps down on a treat at a sidewalk cafe table outside Hooper’s Store. You could imagine someone ordering the $20 prix fixe brunch around the corner.”

Ah, change. Some things, however, remain the same about the show and its parent company, the nonprofit Sesame Workshop which opted for the HBO move for financial survival: Its storied Jewish history.

The series, which is filmed in the Kaufman Astoria Studios, first premiered on November 10, 1969 and many look back with a slight tear in their eye when they think of the Jewish grocer Mr. Hooper. One of the most cherished characters, Mr. Hooper was the curmudgeonly, but lovable, proprietor of Hooper’s Store. He was played by the Jewish actor, Will Lee. Mr. Hoopers’ Judaism, though always assumed, was officially revealed in the TV special “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street.”

(Hooper’s Store, the Times notes, “has undergone a Williamsburg-like renovation.”)

In 1982, Lee abruptly died of a heart attack and the writers decided not to replace him. A special episode aired to help explain death to children and is considered by fans as one of the most moving and memorable episodes.

Years later a new character came to the block: baby bear. Baby Bear appeared in 1990 and became the best friend of Telly Monster. In the 2002 special “Elmo’s World: Happy Holidays!” Baby Bear and his family are revealed as Jewish. In the special, Baby Bear teaches Telly how to play dreidel.

It wasn’t exactly a coincidence that Jewish characters were on the show. Creator Joan Ganz Cooney is Jewish and so is Dr. Lewis Bernstein, the Executive Vice President of Research at Sesame Workshop. Bernstein grew up in a Jewish home, attended an Orthodox Jewish school, and spent seven years living in Israel. He is one of the authors of the book “What We Now Know About Jewish Education”, in which he elucidates that teaching children at a young age is part of the theology behind Sesame Street as well as Judaism.

Bernstein is also one of the brains behind Shalom Sesame, the Jewish education version of the American series, and Sha’ra Simsim, the Israeli/Palestian production of the show. Sha’ra Simsim included the first Arab character Mahboub, who speaks Arab and Hebrew.

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