The most prevalent word in the Hebrew Bible is not God, heaven, or hell; it is the conjunction and, signified by the Hebrew letter vav. Rabbi Sandy Sasso, it seems, has grown fond of this humble word. In her children’s picture book The Story of AND, she tells the story of a girl who loves to count the conjunction in everything she reads.
The picture book, published in 2019, could be construed as something of a commentary on Sasso’s own life. Sasso, after all, is the world’s first female Reconstructionist rabbi AND noted author AND director of the Religion, Spirituality, and the Arts Seminar (RSA), a program of the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute.
On Feb. 20, the Religion, Spirituality, and Arts Seminar opening reception and performances will take place at the Jewish Community Center. Twelve local artists will showcase their works that reflect on the story of Jonah from the Bible and the Quran. In April, RSA will begin taking applications for its next seminar, titled Noah’s Ark: The Environmental Imagination.
The twelve artists in the current RSA seminar spent eight sessions together discussing interpretations of the Jonah text. In much the same way that Sasso herself breathes new life into ancient biblical stories in her children’s books, they used these texts as inspiration for their work — in media ranging from paintings and theater to music and spoken word poetry — or reimagined the text in very personal ways. They then developed their art in conversation with Rabbi Sasso and with each other.
“This year I have been studying the book of Jonah for an RSA seminar that I direct,” Sasso noted recently on her Facebook page. “I discovered two essays, one by George Orwell, titled, ‘Inside the Whale,’ and the other by Salman Rushdie, titled, ‘Outside the Whale,’ both of which forced me to think about how we see ourselves as writers. Do we write in the midst of the storm in order to make some sense of it or, at the very least, to identify it? Or do we allow ourselves to be swallowed by the whale, to return to the ‘womb,’ safe from the chaos … ?”
Painter Megan Jefferson, perhaps inspired by such meditations on Jonah, created a painting called “Inside the Whale,” for the current RSA seminar. The painting also draws upon her own personal journey of healing and recovery.
“Maybe God chose to swallow Jonah to give him space, nurturing, some time to heal, and some comfort,” Jefferson said. “So my first piece is about being in this dark space but feeling very held and supported and comforted by this divine energy.”
Fellow RSA seminar artist Courtland Blade is a minister at Robinson Temple, Church of God in Christ, as well as a prolific painter. Through the lens of African American history, he depicted the story of Jonah as one imbued with contemporary resonance. In his painting, “Jonah, Preach to the People,” Jonah is portrayed spit up by the whale, washed up on the shore of the White River, with the Indianapolis skyline — instead of Nineveh — in the background.
Spoken word artist Manon Voice will perform a piece that starts out as storytelling, segways into a dialogue, and ends in spoken word. “I have asked a couple of people from class to help me out,” she said.
Inspired by the Jonah story, her work is titled “In Here together” and it relates to “the messiness of trying to find one another among individual and collectively imposed walls.”
Manon Voice received a 2020 Robert D. Beckmann Jr., Emerging Artist fellowship for her work in spoken word poetry. She will use the money from the fellowship to fund her trip to Turkey this May, to visit the key places in the life of Sufi mystic poet Rumi.
Crossing the Indiana State Line
Sandy Eisenberg Sasso grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she was born in 1947. As she grew older, she became increasingly involved in her Reform congregation, deciding that she wanted to be a rabbi at the age of 16. In 1969, Sasso entered the second class of rabbinical students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, where she met Dennis Sasso, who would become her husband.
Sasso was ordained in 1974. After serving at separate New York congregations, the Sassos accepted positions as rabbis at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis, which made them, in 1977, the first married rabbinical couple in history.
“This was an incredible opportunity for us,” said Sasso, “But I was apprehensive … The only thing I knew about the Midwest was Chicago … I didn’t know what to expect. I always told the story that, when we were driving here from New York to settle, we had the radio on us as we crossed the Indiana border. It was giving the hog and soybean report. And I said, ‘Oh my goodness, where are we?’
Despite her initial apprehensiveness — and the initial reluctance of some to accept a female rabbi — she became deeply involved both in her congregation, and in the city of Indianapolis. She continually sought “opportunities for connection” in the world of nonprofits and civic organizations. She has served as president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Gleaners Food Bank, and as chair of the Spirit & Place Festival. She has also sat on the board of the Indiana Humanities Council, and many other boards as well, and is co-founder of Women4Change Indiana.
She wrote her first children’s book during a class she took on children and religion at Christian Theological Seminary: “I said, look, I can’t find anything about God that I want to share with the kids I’m teaching, and my own children. And instead of writing a paper, a theoretical paper, I asked, ‘Can I try my hand at writing something for kids about God?’ So the professor said, ‘Yes if you give me some reason that you’re doing this.’ And many years later I got published.”
God’s Paintbrush, illustrated by Annette C. Compton, was published by Jewish Lights Press in 1992.
“There were very few really good books on theology for children when I started writing,” said Sasso. “They were very preachy and I wanted to talk about a real big subject in a way that could engage kids conversation … My early books God’s Paintbrush, In God’s Name, God in Between; they all were written in order to think outside the box and invite kids into a conversation that honors their spiritual imaginations.”
A New Chapter
Sasso retired from her position at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in 2013. Around this time, she got it in her head to start the Religion, Spirituality and Arts Seminar. “I had this idea that I should create a seminar in which we could bring artists together to talk about these texts and look at them from the point of view of religious interpretation,” said Sasso.
RSA began in 2014 and the first story they tackled was the binding of Isaac. In subsequent seminars, they explored the stories of Cain and Abel, Creation, Adam and Eve, and Lot’s wife. The seminars were initially sponsored by Butler University, through the Faith and Vocation Center. Last year, they moved to IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute.
Sasso wasn’t interested in working with only Jewish artists.
“It didn’t matter what faith tradition they came from,” she said. “It didn’t matter if they came from no faith or rejected religion, I just wanted them to be open to reading this particular narrative. I wanted artists who were open to reinterpreting these stories who didn’t feel bound by any particular way of understanding.”
The RSA may be unique. “I don’t think it’s done anywhere else,” said Sasso. “There are arts and religion programs across the country and I’ve been looking into some of them. They are either not interfaith; Christian, or are Jewish. They’re either non-interfaith or they don’t cross disciplines.”
What drove Sasso to create RSA is what she perceives as a gap between the world of contemporary art and the stories of the Bible. From writing children’s books, she knew about the power of illustration to open up children’s imaginations. But she saw that the Bible was no longer a go-to source of inspiration for many contemporary artists as it was, say, for Michelangelo.
“All of a sudden it seemed to me there was a disconnect in the art world from these texts that had been sacred to different religious traditions,” she said. “I thought that was unfortunate, because new eyes — new creative eyes — on these stories could give us a new way of looking at this and perhaps also free us from certain interpretations that have been unhelpful, let’s say, in our society.”
Sasso, who has also written the occasional book for adults, continues to write books for children, some of which address the “unhelpful” readings of some New Testament texts.
“I’m doing a series of books with Amy Jill Levine, a New Testament scholar at Vanderbilt, and she writes a lot about how some of the ways in which Christian tradition have treat told the parables in ways that are anti-Jewish,” she said. “I would listen to her speaking to adults. And I asked, ‘Why are we still teaching children the parables the same way, because they’re learning this anti Jewish component, and then you have to correct it when they’re older?”
Sasso suggested to Levine that they write a children’s book together: “She said ‘I’m not a children’s book author and I said, ‘I’m not a New Testament scholar.’ And then we developed a partnership.” One result of those collaborations is a book titled The Marvelous Mustard Seed, published in 2018, illustrated by Margeaux Lucas. (Sasso has also frequently collaborated with Indianapolis-based illustrator Joani Rothenberg.)
Also published in 2018, was Regina Persisted, An Untold Story, about Regina Jonas, the first woman ever ordained as a rabbi. Jonas, who grew up in pre-World War II Berlin and was ordained in 1935, was murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. In 2014 Sasso took part in a trip to Prague and Berlin, organized by the Jewish Women’s Archive and American Jewish Archives, to honor Jonas. Very in the West even knew this history because the records of her existence were not uncovered until after the Berlin Wall came down.
The itinerary included Theresienstadt, the concentration camp in the Czech Republic where Jonas had been interned, where there is a memorial bearing her name.
Sasso became convinced that she needed to tell children this story.
“I worked really hard in doing research to be able to create a full character of Regina Jonas because most of the material we have doesn’t really describe her. I wanted to make her three dimensional. I did a lot of research and in the process, I found a photo of her that the American Jewish archives didn’t know existed. This was a friend of mine’s personal possession and I managed to get the photo out.”
Regina Persisted is the first children’s book ever written about Jonas.
These days Rabbi Sasso is just as busy as ever writing children’s books; next on the horizon is Judy Led the Way, the first Bat Mitzvah. It’s the story of Judith Kaplan, the first girl to celebrate a Bat Mitzvah publicly in America. The Religion, Spirituality, and Arts Seminar, of course, keeps her busy as well. Sasso is impressed with the Indianapolis arts scene in which she’s been immersed through the program. She’s also impressed with how diversity in the city has increased since she arrived 43 years ago.
“From my perspective, it’s much more ethnically diverse,” she said. “It sounds silly but just from the restaurant offerings, [I was] like, where is all the ethnic food? Now, of course, I hear different languages spoken and different cultures presented.”