How Elmo is Helping Me Convert to Judaism

How Elmo is Helping Me Convert to Judaism November 5, 2013

Once upon a time when it was way too late for 18 month-olds to be awake, my son sang gleefully from beneath the covers. “Elmo’s world!” he said as he tapped my phone with fingernail. His feet kicked happily.

You see, he’s become quite attached to the show since he discovered it on Netflix. Since then, it’s been the go-to show alongside a few other PBS favorites (Dinosaur Train, better known as “Grr! Roar!” to my toddler, is one such show) when we need a safe distraction for our rambunctious toddler. So when my son sees that an electronic can play videos, he immediately declares, “ELMO’S WORLD! LALALALA!”

That night was no exception.

“This one?” I asked, pointing to one of the videos displayed on the screen. He nodded. “Uh huh.” I played one. It was one with his favorite Sesame Street character, Elmo. He watched, completely entranced with the high pitched Muppet. After an episode or two of the furry red guy, I re-discovered a series that I had forgotten about: Shalom Sesame. I clicked on one. My son responded, nodding. “Elmo’s World.” He seemed to recognize that it was still Sesame Street, since it did have Grover and some other familiar characters. But Elmo? Nope. He watched anyway, though, although he did try to hand my phone back to me as if to ask me for the correct Elmo’s World. The videos available online are all much shorter than I’d like – about 2 minutes or so long on YouTube – but they’re still interesting enough to serve as a springboard into other things.

Here’s one on Tzedekah, or helping others:

And another, on Shabbat:

Now if you’re wondering why Sesame Street would have a Jewish-themed channel, well here’s what I found out. Shalom Sesame was originally produced over 25 years ago by the Sesame Workshop. It was brought back in 2010, which are when most of the YouTube videos featuring Grover are from.  And this isn’t new – Sesame Street actually airs internationally. And not the English version. Native versions. See Where We Work from Sesame Workshop for locations, which include areas like Afghanistan and Denmark.

Sesame Street doesn’t seem to be very popular in some conservative circles. In my searching I found this post by Patheos blogger Owen Strachan,

The Gospel Is for Baby Bear: On Sesame Street and Gender Confusion

Strachan writes,

The times, how they have changed. We’ve now transitioned culturally to an era in which the basic foundations of the Protestant worldview are under assault. This is true on many levels, from MTV (obviously) to sexual education in public schools to, apparently, the television shows aimed at tiny kids. This episode, “Baby Bear’s Baby Doll,” is subtly but directly overturning long-held conceptions of manhood and boyhood. Boys can play with dolls; there’s no reason they can’t do exactly what girls do.

The boundaries between the sexes are fluid. Behind this teaching is of course the view that there really aren’t what we call “gender roles” given us as a fact of our existence. Gender is a construct, to use academic language; it’s the differentiated vision of boys and girls our society has historically bought into, but there’s nothing fixed or unchanging behind it. We’re free in this modern and enlightened age to blur the boundaries, and to raise boys and girls in essentially the same ways, without specific training of any kind toward distinct manhood or womanhood.

Now I am very, very late in this discussion. And I do see where Owen is coming from. If your worldview is that boys should be boys (as defined by American culture), then they certainly shouldn’t talk with a lisp and play with a doll, right? Thing is, masculinity has changed a little bit over time, at least as far as these little things are concerned. Boys wore the equivalent of dresses until toddler age up until the twentieth century. Boys used to wear pink and girls used to wear blue. In order to teach traditional roles, we could roll down the slippery slope and just stop female education at 8th grade. Because really, they shouldn’t be working outside the home anyway…amiright?!

Maybe Owen would be happy to know that Baby Bear’s family is, at least in some episodes, Jewish. So… yeah. WE get the lispy plays-with-dolls muppet. You’re welcome.

While searching, I also found some backlash to the backlash:

1. Sesame Street: A Method to the Madness

Ben Bartlett wrote a series of posts on Sesame Street.

 2. How Sesame Street is Undermining Christian Values

This one’s great. Just read it.

Christian Sesame Street?

As far as I can tell, there isn’t a Christian Sesame Street. But why should there be? I mean, Christians have Veggie Tales, for crying out loud. Maybe Owen should discuss the problems with Larry’s “I Love My Lips!” – Great Aunt Ruth has a beard! Oh my!  And then there are the gobs of videos and educational resources that can be found in any Lifeway store across America.  And before you claim prejudice, note that one Gallup poll revealed that around 77 percent of Americans identify as Christian, so it’s not like it’s a minority religion. I mean, Wal-Mart blatantly labels the holiday shop as the “Christmas” section, and nativities can be purchased everywhere. So can crosses. And Easter cards. And all sorts of religious things. Now try it with a minority religion and see how far you’ll get. Trust me – not far. Not in an average American store anyway.

Back to the topic, though.

Conclusion = Sesame Street Rocks

I’m actually very happy to have a resource that my son connects with. I was crazy about Big Bird as a kid, and I’m glad that my son is excited about something that is at least age appropriate. And the fact that I can introduce him to Hebrew words and Jewish holidays and rituals – such as Shabbat and Hanukkah – are very important to me. I am not marrying into Judaism, so it’s just me. As mom and primary convert, I have to create traditions and values for my family. Sure I have some in-laws, but they’re not really practicing either. So it’s up to me. So thank you, Elmo, for helping make conversion for my family a little bit more fun.

Note: I do understand where Christians like Owen are coming from. But that is a topic I’ll reserve for another post, mmkay?

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