By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
I’m a big fan of the Muppets. I don’t remember when I first saw “Sesame Street,” but I believe it must have been when I was in junior high or high school. My favorite Muppet at that time was Oscar the Grouch. I could relate to his grouchiness, a trait that remains with me even now. (I’ve thought about getting a T-shirt printed that says, “Chronically Cranky” just to warn people.) I also had a Cookie Monster puppet that I took with me to college. A friend who was a big Elton John fan used to borrow Cookie when he played his toy piano, which someone gave him as a gag gift.
A few years back, a friend complained on Facebook that the only container she could find to put her lunch in for the next day had Abby Cadabby on it. I immediately searched for an image because I didn’t know who that was. Turns out Abby is not only a Muppet, but a fairy with wings and a wand. I happen to be a big fan of wings (I have several pairs I’ve used as part of Purim costumes) and, while looking at the images, fell in love with the Abby Cadabby doll. Another friend – one who is tolerant of my idiosyncrasies, although she has been known to shake her head in exasperation at some of them – bought me that doll for my birthday, which I would bring with me when we would celebrate my birthday, her birthday and her daughter’s birthday with an ice cream treat. (I later promised her daughter not to bring Abby with me because she was embarrassed by my flying Abby around while we waited for our ice cream.)
People at my synagogue are familiar with Abby because I’ve brought her to the Purim activities. I usually wear one of my pairs of wings because Abby feels uncomfortable if she is the only winged individual there. She also attended the last year’s Zoom Purim activities and people have noted that I don’t need a pet because I have Abby for company.
But it’s not Oscar, Cookie or Abby who is making headlines lately. The news has featured the controversy between Elmo and Zoe concerning her pet rock, Rocco. I’m not that familiar with Zoe, but I am a big fan of Elmo’s appearance in the book “The Monster at the End of This Book: Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover” by Jon Stone. (I like the book so much I did a report on it in a Hebrew class when I was in rabbinical school.) It seems that a clip from a 2004 episode from “Sesame Street” has gone viral. According to one report, the clip has been replayed more than seven millions times (as of January 10) and has people taking sides in the Twitter universe.
The conflict is relatively simple: Elmo wants to eat the last oatmeal cookie available. Zoe says he can’t eat it because Rocco wants the cookie. Elmo makes fun of Rocco, stating quite clearly that a rock with no mouth can’t eat a cookie. They never discuss if Zoe really wants the cookie, but it’s clear from other videos that have been posted that Zoe treats her rock as a living creature who is different from other rocks. (When someone offers her a replacement rock after Rocco goes missing, she refuses because it’s not the real Rocco.) Although some people are on Zoe’s side (including the actor/wrestler known as the Rock, who notes that he does eat cookies), many people take Elmo’s side.
The debate is funny, but it also has a serious side. While in general it doesn’t matter if Zoe has a pet rock and believes it’s alive and eats, that can become a problem when her belief affects others. The conflict between Elmo and Zoe has been used to teach how we should respect each other and not make fun of people, even when we disagree. Yet, are there limits to this? Are some customs and laws wrong, even if other societies follow them? Mutual respect is far easier when we live in different countries, but can become a problem when we share one. Or when we don’t believe a rock/person should take something from us – in this case, a cookie, but in other cases, our livelihoods, our right to vote, to practice our religion, etc. – that doesn’t belong to them.
But I’m going to stop the analysis now because this light-hearted debate may be what people need during these divided times. Just be careful, though, with whom you discuss this: you and a friend may end up arguing about who is right – Elmo or Zoe.