A still from the television show 'Three, Four, Five and a Half.'(YouTube)

Betty Misheiker passed away earlier this year in Jerusalem. She was 96 years old. She had legions of Israeli fans, although few of them knew her name. I was one of them: When I was 5, I sat down on the blue corduroy couch in my parents’ sunken living room to watch the premiere of one of Misheiker’s most famous creations, a television show for kids called Three, Four, Five and a Half. It soon became my obsession.

Misheiker was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and moved with her family to a remote village on the cusp of the Bushveld when she was a small girl. The nearest school was miles away, too arduous a journey for Betty, the family’s youngest, to make on a daily basis. While her three siblings trekked to their classrooms, she stayed home and read books, using her imagination to make up the friends she didn’t have in real life. Being a daughter of the South African wilderness, these imaginary friends were often wild animals.

Eventually, Misheiker moved to Johannesburg and, soon after World War II broke out, married a soldier. He was shipped away to the front, and she enlisted as an ambulance driver, in case the war ever reached the home front. It never did, and Misheiker, relieved, spent her days talking to a young man she had just met, a dashing intellectual named Ronnie. When the war ended, she divorced her husband, married her beau, and started a family. It soon grew bigger: Betty’s sister passed away and left her children in the care of her youngest sibling.

With a gaggle of toddlers to support, and with Ronnie employed as a newspaper reporter, Misheiker had little time to think about a career of her own. But when her children grew older, she again found herself alone in a home with nothing to turn to but the products of her imagination. She wrote a short story about a young boy who desperately wants to visit the circus but cannot afford a ticket. It was sad but descriptive, deftly capturing the feelings of yearning for something that lies just beyond one’s reach. She showed the story to Ronnie, who sent it to a local magazine. It was published, and it won Misheiker praise.

She began writing furiously. Unlike many young authors, she reveled in detailed criticism of her work and insisted that each publisher who rejected her explain his decision at length. She was at work on her second novel when a friend came by asking for a favor: Might she, perhaps, write a song for a new radio program for children? And could she make it about a giraffe? Misheiker, no stranger to dreaming up make-believe animals, was moved to try; almost immediately, she came up with a little ditty about a giraffe named Jerry.

It was a hit. Soon the South African Broadcasting Corporation called and asked for 13 more animal songs, and when those, too, were successful they hired Misheiker to write three new programs per week. It was more than Misheiker could take. She started doubting her own ideas, turning to Ronnie for advice and inspiration. Before she could make sense of her rising career, TV came calling as well: Introduced to South Africa in the mid-1970s, the fledgling medium needed as many gifted storytellers as it could find, and Misheiker was entrusted with a creating an educational show for kids. She did, and her work won international awards for its innovation and charm, including a prestigious prize from Japan’s ministry of education.

Her new-found acclaim meant a slew of new job offers, but Misheiker and her husband resisted them all. Instead, they made aliyah and settled in Jerusalem. An ardent Zionist, Misheiker was thrilled with the idea of creating shows for Jewish children; that she spoke no Hebrew didn’t bother her. She met with the director of children’s programming at the sole Israeli television station, a formerly haredi woman with a passion for TV named Esther Sofer, and suggested a weekly program, 20 minutes long, in which actors would perform staged readings of famous fables to puppets. Misheiker would write in English, and someone would translate it into colloquial Hebrew. Sofer gave the green light, and Three, Four, Five and a Half premiered in September of 1980.

Moved by the news of Misheiker’s death, I shared some old episodes of the show with my friends. One, Tablet’s Wayne Hoffman, said that it looked “like the love child of Jim Henson and Sid and Marty Krofft got locked away in an asylum where he put on puppet shows with a budget of $2.98.” That’s an accurate description. It’s also a generous one, capturing the mad energy and strange sense of wonder that characterized all of Misheiker’s work. The premise for Three, Four, Five and a Half was simple: Two puppets—one a blond, phlegmatic donkey named Chompy; the other a bulbous, green, hyperactive alien named Einshem, Hebrew for No Name—look on as two actors enact classic fables. Like the Muppets Statler and Waldorf—the two cantankerous old men in the theater’s balcony—but for the toddler set, Einshem and Chompy would often interrupt the proceedings with wisecracks. And everyone, puppets and humans alike, seems explicitly aware that they are partaking in a scripted television show about the staging of a theater production, which means that the fourth wall is shattered early and often, with the actors sometimes apologizing to the children watching at home that the budget wasn’t big enough for a proper set.

And that’s what made the show so great: It felt less like something adults would prescribe for your general edification and betterment and more like something you’d come up with yourself if you were stuck alone at home and were slightly feverish and had nothing to do for entertainment but tell yourself stories and interrupt yourself with a goofy and hazy stream of running commentary. A few years later, Israeli TV would grow up, and its shows would begin to resemble the far more polished American productions Israeli kids could now watch via the newly arrived satellite and cable providers. But for a brief moment, television meant two puppets ranting as some of the country’s finest actors told stories by I.L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem. I’ve loved other shows before, and lord knows I’ve felt passionate about others since, but I can’t remember anything that felt as magical, immediate, and warm.

Like most of Betty Misheiker’s fans, I had no idea who she was until I read her obituary. In a way, that’s a fitting tribute. A universe as anarchic and gleeful and self-contained as the one she created on Three, Four, Five and a Half hardly seemed in need of a creator. Like all great works of the imagination, it looked like it had always just been there, poor in means but of infinite promise, just waiting for some child to sit down and watch and giggle.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Betty Misheiker died this week in Jerusalem.


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