How a Brooklyn Jewish day school principal taught ‘Sesame Street’ how to celebrate Shabbat
Characters from Sesame Street bake challah together for an episode titled “Shabbat Shalom”. Courtesy Sesame Workshop

By Jackie Hajdenberg
May 21, 2024

(JTA) — Amanda Pogany works as the director of a Jewish day school in Brooklyn. But recently, she added another bullet point to her resume: consultant for “Sesame Street.”

Pogany weighed in on three new episodes of the educational children’s TV show, all of which feature human characters explaining Jewish traditions to the show’s iconic puppets. (Two aired this spring, while a third will air next year.) In one, Elmo and Big Bird learn to make challah for Shabbat. In another, a child writes a musical showcasing her fathers’ Cuban and Jewish traditions.

“The goal of this is representation, which is also why it’s so powerful,” Pogany told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “The Jewish community is very diverse. The biggest challenge, I think, for them and for me, was: Who are we authentically representing?”

Since the show’s inception in 1969, the set, cast, and music of “Sesame Street” was grounded in Harlem-based African American culture, and the educational material was designed to help preschool-age children who came from disadvantaged backgrounds prepare for school. In the decades since, the show has tackled thorny subjects including racism, disability, religion, international conflict (including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), HIV/AIDS, 9/11, military deployment and incarceration.

“Sesame Street” has long included Jewish characters and themes. In a 1974 sketch, original cast member Will Lee, playing greengrocer Mr. Hooper, answers the phone in his busy store, where shoppers are speaking English, Spanish, and American Sign Language, and has a brief conversation in a language the shoppers don’t understand. He tells them it’s Yiddish, and goes back to his conversation with his aunt Sarah.

For the latest episodes, Pogany, who heads Brooklyn’s Luria Academy, got involved via her husband, Aaron Bisman, a vice president of audience development at Sesame Workshop. Bisman made the introduction when the company was looking for a consultant with experience in Jewish education and a focus on young children. The connection generated a process in which Pogany would give feedback on scripts and Sesame Workshop would ask the educators on its team to revise.

For “Shabbat Shalom,” which aired in April during Passover, the result of the collaboration focused on a staple of Jewish education.

“In school, young [Jewish] children, one of the ways they prepare for Shabbat is they learn to braid challah because it’s something that’s very hands-on — it’s tactile, it’s manipulative, it’s fine motor skills, it’s all sorts of things,” Pogany told JTA. “So I think for Jewish children, for kids who either attend Jewish preschool or don’t, I think the experience of seeing the challah braided if they’ve ever eaten challah or made challah, they will connect to that in a very significant way.”

In the episode,  a water leak in an apartment forces Charlie, a young girl, and her parents to get creative with their Shabbat plans, and they move their dinner outside. They only have until sundown to get everything ready for a picnic-style Shabbat meal.

Big Bird understands there is urgency but also doesn’t know what Shabbat dinner is. Elmo seems to know a bit more but admits he has never been to a Shabbat dinner before.

“Sesame Street” characters typically aim to represent the actors’ heritage and background, and Violet Tinnirello, who plays Charlie, is Jewish. Charlie reminds Big Bird that in a previous episode they celebrated Hanukkah together.

Charlie’s family explains challah and the kiddush cup to Elmo and Big Bird, and Charlie’s father makes a beef and potato stew recipe passed down from his bubbe. Charlie is responsible for braiding the challah, and teaches Elmo and another character, Tamir, how to do a complicated six-strand braid, which she compares to braiding hair. She even goes into detail on the egg wash and sesame seeds.

Choosing which aspects of Jewish ritual to incorporate was Pogany’s biggest challenge, she said.

“If there’s going to be a Shabbat dinner, are we worried about halacha, Jewish law? And are we worried about the food being cooked before sundown? For some families, that matters. For others, it doesn’t,” she said. “In the episode, the oven breaks, and so it’s like, oh, well, if they borrow a different oven, then are there kashrut issues?”

Amanda Pogany poses in Big Bird’s nest on the Sesame Street set. Courtesy Amanda Pogany

Those kinds of details might sound arcane to some, but for Pogany, they were essential to depicting Judaism as it is actually experienced. “We want it to feel like it’s actually Jewish,” she said. “I’ve seen television shows where they’re going to dance the hora because that’s a Jewish dance, on Hanukkah — even though those things are not necessarily related to each other.”

While authenticity was key to the episode, Pogany and the team at Sesame Street were also aware of young children’s attention spans. But they found a way to include some of the blessings that are said at a Shabbat meal without overwhelming the episode.

“There’s the blessings over the wine and the grape juice and the challah and the candles,” Pogany said. “And so we talked about — is it ‘too much Jewish,’ to have all the blessings?”

Instead of doing all of them, Charlie’s family recites the blessing for the grape juice in Hebrew (Elmo says Hebrew “sounds beautiful”) and her parents recite their own version of the traditional blessing for the children, and include their special guests.

“We love you and we’re proud of you — all of you — for being exactly who you are,” they say. “May you always be safe and protected, may you grow to be healthy and peaceful and kind.”

After their dinner, the segment cuts to two real children, Judah and Brooke, sitting on a stoop, who briefly discuss their own family dinner traditions. Judah, wearing a kippah, explains that his family has Shabbat dinner on Friday nights, and they say a blessing before they eat. Brooke says that her family has a Sunday meal, and they, too, say a blessing before they eat.

“Shabbat Shalom” was not the first episode this season to deal with Shabbat.

Pogany also consulted on “Our Family Musical,” which aired in March. In that episode, Mia, daughter of Dave and Frank, has a school project where she is tasked with explaining her family culture. As the daughter of dual-culture parents — Cuban and Jewish — she feels stuck, because she does not know that her classmates will understand.

She decides to write a musical, explaining that for Shabbat, they eat ropa vieja, a traditional Cuban beef dish (which has Sephardic roots), and her dads sing Spanish and Hebrew lullabies when she goes to bed. In one of the musical numbers, the family shows their different New Year’s traditions, eating 12 grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and then eating apples dipped in honey and pastelitos de guayaba for Rosh Hashanah.

But before she decides to write a musical, Mia, too, thinks having a Shabbat meal is a great way to share her culture: “I wish I could have the whole class over for Shabbat dinner, which is a special meal we have every Friday, so they could see what it’s like to be in a family that shares two different cultures,” she says.

While the episodes were conceived before the current Israel-Hamas war caused some American Jews to question their place in a diverse society, some viewers said watching them felt like a balm at a difficult time.

“Thank you @sesamestreet,” one mother wrote on Instagram about the “Shabbat Shalom” episode. “Our Jewish children deserve to see themselves celebrated and loved. But we adults needed it just as much (maybe more) right now.”

Pogany and Bisman have three children, ages 8, 12, and 15, who also grew up watching and feeling connected to “Sesame Street.” Pogany said that while they’re older than the show’s intended audience, they are still excited to see Shabbat dinner depicted — a feeling she hopes carries over for the tens of millions of children who see the show on HBO’s Max streaming service.

“It’s my hope that when kids see this and see themselves, or see themselves represented, that that will feel really meaningful for them. And we think a lot about belonging, and wanting them to feel like they belong — and I hope that they feel like they belong on ‘Sesame Street’ and they belong on television, and they belong in the world,” she said. “When you see something like a Shabbat dinner, you feel like you belong.”

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