Celebrating Sukkot on Sesame Street

My wife and I took our daughter to see Sesame Street Live last week at the Times-Union Center in Jacksonville. Surprisingly, it was really an amazing and fun show. They used bright colors, songs, and objects to teach words, letters, numbers, and concepts. I don’t have to tell you the impact that Sesame Street has had on society. I am sure you have watched Sesame Street, either as a parent, child, grandparent or someone who was interested in seeing your favorite celebrity interact with a little red monster.

Created by Jim Henson, Sesame Street just began its 43rd season on PBS last week and as of 2009, it was broadcast in 140 countries throughout the world. According to Entertainment Weekly, celebrities apparently were lining up to try to get a guest appearance on Sesame Street. They said that this is when you knew you finally made it: you were a success once you were on Sesame Street. And that speaks to Sesame Street’s success.

With the creation of Sesame Street, producers used  educational goals and curriculum to shape its content for the very first time and the impact is clear: A poll from 2008 showed that 95% of Preschoolers in America had watched at least one episode of Sesame Street by the time they were three. The claim was that this was different than sitting a child in front of a television. The tv was not a babysitter; the tv became t teacher. This was an educational tool – teaching our children letters and numbers, as well as morals and values.

According to producers the Children’s Television Workshop, the show uses a strong visual style, fast-moving action, humor, and music. Since they believed that children had a short attention span and couldn’t sit still to learn for an hour, they had multiple different segments throughout a single episode. Episodes were not hour-long storylines and plots. Instead, they were curriculum based short segments, interrupted by puppet sketches, short films, and animations sequences.

Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of “The Tipping Point,” wrote that Sesame Street was based on a single insight: “if you could hold the attention of children, then you could educate them.”

The same is true for adults. With our busy schedules, we barely have two minutes to stop and sit down. When did we assume that adults could sit still for long periods of time, even though as children we were unable to do so? As first graders, we sat on the floor, colored with our crayons, and moved around the classroom from activity to activity. Then, all of a sudden, as college freshman, we were expected to sit still in a 300-person lecture hall for ninety minutes. The longer we sit still, the more we zone out and become disconnected. This is why many may have trouble connecting to the ideology, theology, and liturgy of the High Holy Day experience. We can’t seem to focus once we are sitting still for too long. Why can’t we return to the interactive and hands-on education experiences of our primary educational years?!

Sukkot immediately follows the High Holy Days. Sukkot heightens our senses through the building of the Sukkah and dwelling in it, and the shaking of the lulav and etrog, On Sukkot, we aren’t meant to stay in the synagogue and sit still. We shake, we march, we spend time outdoors. Sukkot is like an episode of Sesame Street. While all cannot and may not sit still for a long lecture, everyone can connect to an episode of Sesame Street.

So allow Sukkot to be your educational tool, your version of muppets and monsters. Don’t worry about sitting through the full episode. Challenge yourself by participating through a short segment: spend an afternoon dwelling in a sukkah, take a moment to shake the lulav and etrog, march around with the four species instead of sitting still in the pews. Each experience is but a couple of moments and yet, each experience allows us to connect with God and community in a way that we find challenging on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The amazing thing about sitting with my daughter and watching an episode of Sesame Street is that she talks to the television. Elmo or Big Bird or some other muppet looks directly into the camera and asks the viewer a question. She (and I’m sure most children) respond as if she is having a private conversation with the Sesame Street characters. The show is meant to be an interactive experience. The same is true for Sukkot. We do not sit still. We do not zone out, stand up, sit down, stand up, and sit down. We participate! So, take a lesson from Elmo and participate, even if just for a moment. Participating for a moment is more rewarding than sitting still for hours.

Chag Sameach!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Celebrating Sukkot on Sesame Street

  1. Great post, Jesse. I wonder what, if anything you would add to these comments following last nights debate? If you don’t mind, you’ve given me an idea for shemini atzeret sermon and I may also talk about Sesame Street.
    Rafi

    • Hi Rafi, glad you enjoyed the post… and I’m glad that my Torah gave you an idea as well. I’d love to see your teaching as well. As for last night’s debate, well I’ll keep my own personal politics aside, I think Sesame Street is the most influential and successful early childhoof educational tool of the past half-century. Something so successful that has such an impact on so many should have full support of all who believe in early childhood education. Chag Sameach!

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