Indiana Citizen: Sandy Sasso

Brie Stoltzfus

Rabbi Emerita Sandy Sasso is in her second year of retirement from 36 years of leading Congregation Beth-El Zedeck with her husband (Dennis C. Sasso) as the first rabbinic couple in Jewish history.  It’s been a busy couple of years: Sandy has spent her time traveling nationally and internationally for speaking events and conferences (when we met she had just returned from the Women’s Religious Leadership Conference in Berlin, which celebrated the 80th anniversary of the first woman rabbi in the world), become the Director of the Religion, Spirituality, and the Arts Initiative at Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary, continued writing (including a new book, published in September 2015), continued to speak on the subject of children’s spirituality to congregations, and worked with an L.A. theatre company that will produce a series of dramatic interpretations of some of her teachings.

She’s busy with activities that utilize her gifts and interests. But, as she explained to me, they’ve also been expanding and stretching her in other ways too. I spoke with Sandy about what she’s been doing, as well as how these activities connect with the idea of citizen leadership and civic engagement.

What role does your Jewish faith have in the involvement you’ve had in a variety of artistic, religious, civic communities?
The Jewish tradition teaches me to be involved in community. I am responsible for the quality of life of the place in which I reside.  That obligation begins with the city in which I live. There is a wonderful quote from Hillel, who was a great sage in the first century of the Common Era, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I and if not now, when?” I am accountable to my family, my synagogue and the Jewish community.   But that is just a beginning.  My Jewish faith commands me to pursue justice, seek peace, to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God in every place in which I find myself.
Speaking and teaching strike me as difficult things to do—and they don’t always come naturally.  So I wondering if that comes naturally to you or if you’ve worked your way into being comfortable with these types of activities that come with the type of work that you do.
I was an exceptionally shy child and I never wanted to be up in front of a group of people, but I loved writing and discussing ideas.  When I discovered my passion, I also found my voice.   The butterflies disappeared.  A little bit of nervousness is good; it keeps your fresh.  I found that I loved to find ways to communicate with others that might open up new ways of looking at the world.
That had struck me as I was reading about your background and how you knew from an early age that you wanted to be a Rabbi, I wondered if you always had a propensity for public speaking or being a public figure, or if that had to come over time.
We would have winter plays in elementary school, and there would be three candy canes and two of them would have speaking parts.  I was the third candy cane! I suppose people who knew me then would be surprised now.  I learned that you should never settle on being one thing. Don’t let other people define who you are.  Be open to stepping out of your comfort zone; you might just find it the very best place you can be.  I did.

When it comes to writing, you’ve described yourself as a storyteller. And you’ve authored many books at this point. It seems like your interest in writing came naturally. Is that true?
I always wanted to be a writer from the time I was in 6th grade. I remember, my civics’ class teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we were older and then he asked us to interview somebody in that profession.   I wanted to be an author.  I couldn’t imagine interviewing a real author.  It was a moment I will never forget.  I thought of majoring in English, but I was drawn to classes about religion.   That is what inspired me to write.  Ultimately, I felt the best way to combine my interests was in the rabbinate.
In my congregation, I became a storyteller.  I collected folktales and legends.  I listened to professional storytellers.  I retold those stories, and then I started to write my own.  Stories are the ways we structure and understand our lives. People know facts; stories, they remember.  Sometimes we forget that a good story is not just important for children, but also for adults.

Talk to me a little bit about your thoughts about children’s spirituality and how your children’s books.
Children have a deeply spiritual life. There is extensive research to back up that claim.  What children don’t have is the language to express their spiritual life. It is our responsibility as adults to provide them with the language.  People often think that they need to tell young people what to believe.  But what is most important is to help them have a conversation about their own faith journey. 
Children have big questions! ‘Why am I here?’, “What’s my purpose?”, ‘What happens after I die?”.    Sometimes we dismiss these questions or try to avoid them.   On the one hand, we do not think children aren’t ready for that kind of talk.  On the other hand, we not really sure what we believe, so we don’t know what to tell our children.  The truth is that children aren’t as interested in the answers as they are in the conversation.  They aren’t afraid of the question mark; we are.  It is ok to say, “I don’t know. This is a really big question; let’s talk about it together.”
When I started writing for children and conversing with them, I was struck by their amazing insights.  I learned so much.  It was incredible.
I started writing for children, because when my son and daughter were young I couldn’t find anything children’s book about faith that I wanted to read to them.  There was great children’s literature, but when it came to talking about God and faith, the stories were preachy, narrow and not very engaging. I wanted to write something more interesting, more open in order to help children find the soul that was a part of them.
I remember you saying in an earlier interview that you really have to know a concept to write a children’s book because you have to parcel down these big concepts into language they understand.
One of the hardest things to do is to use simple language to convey a complex and difficult topic.  Sometimes we hide behind philosophic language.  Often people who are not experts in the field have little idea of what we mean.  Perhaps we are not so certain ourselves.  If you can express something in simple language then you really understand what you want to communicate.
One of my favorite philosophers is Martin Buber, who wrote about the philosophy of dialogue.   He spoke about the importance of relationships, and connections which he described in I and Thou.   This book has had a powerful influence on me.  I decided that I wanted to write a children’s book about I and Thou. I really wasn’t sure that it was possible.  After God in Between was published, a Butler professor told me ‘I read your book in class today’ I said ‘You did!? Why?’ and he said ‘It’s I and Thou, isn’t it?” I said, ‘Yes! Yes! Wow!’  You can have these big conversations with children.  The question is the language you use.
Language and connection seem to go hand-in-hand. This reminds me of an interview with Faith and Leadership in December of last year where you said, “ If I were to talk about my own theology, I think of it as a theology of encounter. I feel that I experience the divine and the sacred in the connections with other people.” I found that to be really fascinating. Can you expound on that idea of experiencing the divine and sacred in connections between people?
We are all created in the image of God.  The closest we can come to knowing the divine is through others.  That is what I wrote about in God in Between.   My life has been about making connections.  In the beginning, when I began rabbinical seminary in 1969, feminism was entering the public sphere.  I thought of myself as a feminist, but I also was deeply committed to my Judaism.  Feminism did not address my Jewish soul and Judaism did not address my feminist soul.  Those years of study were all about find a bridge, a connection.
There were other encounters as well – between children and spirituality, arts and religion, one religion and another, family, career and community.  I found the sacred in the intersection.  It was in that liminal space that the imagination flourished.
Ultimately, I believe tradition is what people create.  It is always changing.  When you get hold of tradition, you are supposed to allow it to move through you and not just pass it on without leaving your imprint.
You connect a lot of these themes in your books. Can you talk to me about your new book, Jewish Stories of Love and Marriage?
The idea for Jewish Stories of Love and Marriage started ten years ago when my daughter was getting married.  I wanted to give her a gift of love stories which included her own.   In searching for the very best Jewish love stories, I looked to a friend and folklorist, Peninnah Schram.  She suggested a number of beautiful narratives.  As we were talking, I proposed that we put together an anthology of Jewish stories of love and marriage.  Not only could we provide an important historical collection, we could also show the evolving and eternal nature of romance.  There was nothing like this available.
Neither of us had time then.  But when my daughter and son-in-law were celebrating their tenth anniversary, we both found that we were ready.   As we discovered unknown tales, I became more and more excited.  There was such power and beauty, a combination of joy and sorrow, defeat and triumph, spontaneity and tenacity.  We came across stunning love letters and decided to devote a section of the book to them.  As I looked into the relationship of historic personalities, Alfred Dreyfus (the Jewish French captain falsely accused of treason) and Lucie Hadamard , Martin and Paula Winkler Buber, I was witness to playful wit and compassionate longing.  I came to understand in a much deeper way how their relationships sustained them and fostered their creativity.
I decided I needed to write my own love story with my husband, Dennis.  As I wrote, I began to relive the feelings that brought us and bound us together 45 years ago.  Remembering your beginning love story is not only important for you, but for your children and grandchildren. 
We are aware that sometimes love doesn’t last.  Yet even in the case of a divorce, children need to know that they came from love.  The story helps them do that. 
The book includes many contemporary stories that tell about relationships that were unknown to our ancestors.   As authors, we expected to see differences and we did.  But what startled us the most was how some things remained the same.
Like what?
There were always challenges. There were no fairytales.Consider the Bible- there are stories of jealousy and competition, conflict and war.  Certain characteristics always made for strong relationships- commitment and perseverance, forgiveness and patience.
With all of this in mind, how would you define excellent citizenship for yourself?
As a member of a community, you share in the responsibility of contributing to and improving the quality of life of that community. There are a variety of ways of doing this.  It means helping to develop infrastructure, business and the economy.  It means making certain that all our children have for a good education. It means bringing beauty through the arts and planting gardens.  It means speaking out and caring for those on the margins and showing kindness to others.  It always means being part of the political process, being certain that all people’s voices can be heard.
The wonderful thing about Indiana is that it’s small enough to make a difference. I grew up in Philadelphia: I spent three years in New York.   Indiana, being a smaller city, has made such a big difference. People have asked me, ‘Were you happy with moving to Indiana? It’s so different from the East Coast.’  It is different and that is what I like about it.  Here you can get involved.
I’ve seen Indianapolis grow culturally. When I first arrived, I was worried about the lack of diversity.  So much of that has changed.  There is a strong investment in the arts which is crucial for the life of the city.  We live in a world in which we are always in a hurry. We expect instant answers…art tells us to ‘stop.’  Visual art, music, literature requires us to pause and to reflect.
In Hebrew the word ‘to pay attention’ [translates] ‘to give your heart to something.’ Art helps us do that. It helps us see beyond the surface of things, offers different perspectives, perhaps one that we may not have imagined. A good piece of theater, an incredible book, an amazing painting and a moving piece of music all connect us with one another, with other cultures.  They build community.
[…] Art can help us see not just what is but what can be. That is why I’m so excited about working with community artists [through Butler’s Religion, Spirituality, and the Arts seminar]. I haven’t written poetry in a very long time. But after each seminar with the artists I felt compelled to write a poem.  The seminar has brought out a part of me that has been submerged for a long time.  That happened “in between”, in the interaction of one artist with another.  All of a sudden, I was in a different place.  That is, I think, what inspiration is, seeing what is familiar as if for the first time, being able to see connections you have never seen before.
 ‘What does it mean to be a good citizen?’ It means to be honest about what is, and to imagine what can be.  It means to always be asking: How can we do better, how can we be more inclusive, more just, more compassionate?  We need to build bridges, and ask ‘What connects us?’ In part, it is the simple fact that we are all human.   I like meeting people, and seeing where our lives, our stories intersect.


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