New Shalom Sesame helps to bridge Israel-disapora gap

herzliya, israel  |  Grover has been getting to know Israel.

The furry blue “Sesame Street” character has visited the Dead Sea, Caesarea, the Western Wall and even Jerusalem’s shuk to sample the produce.

Along with Disney Channel star Annelise van der Pol (“That’s So Raven”), Grover has been exploring the Jewish state as part of a Sesame Workshop production called “Shalom Sesame.”

The 12-part series is geared toward North American Jewish children and their families to forge a sense of Jewish identity by providing a taste of Israel, Jewish traditions and culture. It will include celebrity appearances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Debra Messing, Christina Applegate, Greg Kinnear and Cedric the Entertainer, among others, and is scheduled for a Chanukah 2010 release.

A 1986 production of the same name sold 1 million copies and is considered the top-selling Jewish educational title.

More than 20 years later, it was time to update and overhaul the content.

“The needs of the Jewish community have changed,” said Danny Labin, the project’s executive director, speaking at the studio outside Tel Aviv where segments are being filmed.

Labin noted shifting demographic realities such as intermarriage and Israel’s large immigrant populations from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Two of the new human characters reflect this diversity in Israel: an Ethiopian Israeli and a Russian immigrant.

Scripts and concepts have been reviewed with the help of a team of senior experts in Jewish education representing the religious streams and a range of backgrounds, from Chabad to Reform.

Michael Allan Rosenberg, 12, meets Grover as they walk through the Jaffa Gate during the filming of “Shalom Sesame.”

“We are trying to make something that is accessible to those not ensconced in a formal Jewish framework, to help parents feel more comfortable and get them interested in a search for identity themselves,” Labin said.

In the first episode of “Shalom Sesame,” the character played by van der Pol — a Jewish American actress who was named after Anne Frank — is seen on a plane flying to Israel for her first visit.

After hearing Grover, cast as a flight attendant, shout out “Kosher meal! Aisle 10!,” they strike up a friendship and decide to travel together through the country. Throughout the series the pair remain in Israel — a device that lets viewers see different landscapes, meet Israeli children and learn a little Hebrew.

Episodes feature the Jewish holidays, mitzvah themes such as loving animals and treating others kindly, animated segments and interviews.

In an exclusive interview, Grover discussed why he was excited about the project.

“My home is ‘Sesame Street,’ but I love meeting people from all over the world, and one of those places is Israel, where I have been able to make new friends and learn,” he said in his trademark high-pitched tone. “I have learned a few words in Hebrew, like ‘todah’ [thank you] and ‘boker tov’ [good morning], and that pretty much gets me by.”

Eric Jacobson, the puppeteer who assumed the voice and actions of Grover about 10 years ago after the legendary Frank Oz retired, said Grover connects with audiences young and old in Israel and around the world.

“Let’s start with that Grover is blue,” Jacobson said during a break from filming. “No one I know is blue, and therefore he can be anybody.”

Three other puppets join Grover in the cast, including a floppy-haired Arab Israeli named Mahboub.

Shahar Sorek plays another human character, an archaeologist who is religiously observant and wears a kippah. Often he is the one to explain Jewish rituals and Bible stories.

“I think it’s important to protect and present our Jewish heritage, and this is a tool for helping to do that,” Sorek said.

The Sesame Workshop has co-productions with 18 countries, including an Israeli version called “Rehov Sumsum” and a Palestinian version called “Shara’a Simsim.”