Mitzvah Mouse is not yet a household word. But if some local TV talent gets its collective wish, Mitzvah could become a Jewish Mickey or at least a Yiddish Barney: a charismatic creature who teaches children values via television.
Barney, as you may not know if no one at your table still spills milk, is the purple dinosaur whose syndicated TV program has a whole generation of preschoolers singing less than immortal songs about the nature of caring (it means sharing, folks).
Mitzvah, its creators hope, is a more sophisticated guide for young people--a kind of rodent sage a la Maimonides. Conceived by veterans of children's TV and seasoned Jewish educators, Mitzvah--a puppet mouse--is the star of "Alef . . . Bet . . . Blast-Off," a series underwritten by the Jewish Community Foundation, the endowment arm of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles. Its creators hope PBS or some other major distributor will eventually pick up the show.
According to executive producer Jay Sanderson, executive director of the Jewish Television Network, there is no American-produced, Jewish-themed TV programming available for young children. "Go to the video store and look," he said.
With a grant of $300,000 from the foundation, Sanderson and his colleagues hope to fill that void with a series that celebrates the Jewish experience and features a cast of multicultural puppets and guest celebrities.
The first four half-hour episodes are being shot on the UCLA campus, Sanderson said, and he hopes funding will be found for 22 more.
As the 36-year-old Sanderson explained, he became acutely aware of the lack of Jewish programming for kids because he is the parent of 5-year-old Jonah (he also has a 5-month-old daughter, Isabelle). Although the Sandersons restrict the amount of TV Jonah watches, he talked constantly about such media characters as Batman and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Sanderson and his collaborators figured that if state-of-the-art puppets (with motorized eyes and eyebrows) could teach children the alphabet, they could also teach youngsters to value their Jewish heritage.
In each of the shows, puppet youngsters David and Rachel Boomstein travel through time with Mitzvah Mouse to an important moment in Jewish history. Mitzvah facilitates this miraculous transportation, not with goyische pixie dust, but with magic matzo meal. In the time-honored Jewish tradition, the lessons of the past are used to illuminate the problems of today, Sanderson said.
Mitzvah, whose name means an obligation, a good deed and a blessing in Hebrew, is no ordinary mouse. According to the series story line, Mitzvah was born in the tent of Abraham, the father of Judaism, and he has been present at all the great moments in the history of the Jewish people. The mouse stood, for example, "shoulder to ankles with the Maccabees," the ancient Jewish heroes whose triumph over their Greek oppressors is celebrated at Hanukah.
Although the creators of Mitzvah are too politic to malign Barney, they indicate that their purple guy has a less simplistic world view. One of the first episodes of the series, for instance, deals with charity, which all Jews are obliged to give, and the notion that everyone can help heal the world.
Playing Maimonides, guest star Ed Asner explains that there are different degrees of charity--the lowest being that which is given ungraciously. He also explains that it is better to give anonymously. And what is the highest form of charity? the puppet youngsters ask. "Giving someone a job so they won't be poor in the first place," the great rabbi answers.
The team that created the series includes puppeteer Len Levitt (whose mother served up a backstage lunch to the crew during a recent shoot), composer Phil Baron and writer Michelle Baron. All were involved earlier in the creation of the animated TV series "The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin."
Michelle Baron, 38, said she too, as the mother of three young girls, felt the need for Jewish programming. A resident of Pacific Palisades, Baron, who worked for Disney for more than a decade, said she also wanted to do the show because "it comes from a painful place in my own life." Unlike her own children, she said, she grew up in a house where there was little understanding and appreciation of Jewish tradition.
"The reason I'm so sensitive about this is I didn't have this when I was young," she said. As a child, she was even embarrassed to be Jewish, she said. Indeed until she was well into her twenties, she would tell people she was Russian, not Jewish, when asked her ethnicity. The show is an exploration and celebration of the Jewishness she has come to love.
Before shooting the first scripts, the producers sought input from followers of all the major streams in Judaism, from Orthodox to Reconstructionist. According to Sanderson, they received nothing but support from every quarter.
Like Jews in the real world, characters in the series represent varying degrees of orthodoxy, including an observant grandfather. Grandfather Avraham will help the children deal with one of the most painful issues in Jewish history: the Holocaust. Baron said she and her colleagues have not decided whether he will have spent the genocidal years in hiding or survived a death camp. The willingness to face such complex and troubling issues reflects the conviction of the creators that "children have brains and children can think," she said.
Although its purpose is serious, the show is full of humor, Baron said. During one episode, Dom DeLuise does a comic turn as Pharaoh. Only one other actor was even considered for the part, said Sanderson, "and Mel Brooks was not available." And while DeLuise is not Jewish, two of his children are married to Jews.
Although it is too early to tell, Sanderson and his fellows think Mitzvah Mouse could be every bit as big as the Barney. Mitzvah, Baron pointed out, is "fun, hip, cute and knowledgeable"--attributes which Barney doesn't know from. The producers can imagine a day when youngsters demand Mitzvah-decorated sleeping bags and walk-around Mitzvahs press the flesh at shopping malls.
"This is just the beginning of something extraordinary," said Sanderson. "I think this is going to take off in a major way."