In last year’s iteration of the Religion, Spirituality, and Arts Seminar (RSA), led by Rabbi Sandy Sasso, artists discussed the biblical Jonah text and took inspiration from the text for their own artwork. The artists — in media ranging from paintings and theater to music and spoken word poetry — considered a wide variety of textual interpretations of the text, from multiple religious perspectives.
This year the story of Noah, in a series titled Noah and the Environmental Imagination, will be the text that the artists will consider. While they won’t necessarily be pondering the question of whether we shouldn’t all be building arks, as it were — because of flooding due to climate change — they will be using the lens of Noah to focus their attention on some of the most urgent issues of our time.
The 12 RSA artists will then share their works through presentations and exhibitions to the public, to religious organizations, congregations, schools, libraries and community groups.
The RSA, a program of the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute, just received a three-year grant from Lilly Endowment to continue their programming.
Sasso, who served as a rabbi for 36 years at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, was the first ordained female rabbi in Reconstructionist Judaism. She and her husband Dennis Sasso became the first married couple in Jewish history to serve jointly as rabbis.
The interview took place on Zoom on Aug. 14.
GROSSMAN: Rabbi Sasso, you can fill in the parts that I missed about your biography, to start off.
SASSO: Well, I came to Indianapolis, Indiana in 1977, and served as a rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck until 2013, so 36 years with my husband, Dennis Sasso who is still rabbi of the congregation. I retired in 2013, and I became the director, actually the creator of the Religion, Spirituality and Arts Initiative, which began for a few years at Butler University, and then has gone to [the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute], and I’m very delighted to be there. We’ve done three years there and we’re really looking forward to this year. In addition, I am a children’s author so I have about 20 children’s books that I’ve written and I’m still working on that.
GROSSMAN: I heard news that you folks at the Religion, Spirituality and Arts seminar at IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute have received funding through the Lilly Endowment to continue. So can you tell me a little bit about that and what it will allow you to do?
SASSO: Well, this is a three year grant and so we actually have a three year proposal centered around environmental issues, and also sacred texts. We’re very excited, because we’ve never done a cycle of three years before. And we’re really looking forward to expanding the program, doing more public events once we get past COVID-19, and engaging more artists. To give you an idea of this series that we’re going to be doing over three years so this year we are doing Noah’s flood: Noah and the Ark and the Environmental imagination. I’m going to say more about that in a minute, but the two other two other years are well actually three more years, and two other years our [theme is the well]. We’re going to look at wells as a source of sustenance and spiritual life in religious traditions including Islam, in the New Testament and also in the biblical story of Miriam as well. So the well is a very different place of pilgrimage than the mountain where we usually think of pilgrimage. The mountains, the place of revelation, is a place where we go up, and we’re often alone, but the well is a place where we gather together so we’re going to look at those particular texts. And then the third year we’re going to do rivers.
So, you can see there’s a water theme here and there of course many important rivers and different religious traditions, in the Hindu tradition, Jewish texts, and also Christian texts. So that’s going to be the three year cycle. We’re adding in some non-Western traditions to have a conversation with Western traditions. And we’re really looking forward to it. I’m happy to talk a little more about the Noah portion.
GROSSMAN: Absolutely. please. You said it might not just be about environmental themes this year but maybe some other thing that’s intruding into our lives in a quite dramatic way.
SASSO: This was the theme, before we knew anything about COVID. And of course we wanted to talk about the environment […] flooding, who gets saved, who doesn’t get saved, where do the floods begin, all kinds of very interesting questions, but then, of course, we were confronted with a pandemic. And one of the images that’s very strong in the Noah story is the ark, and he is shut up inside the ark. And so the whole issue of quarantine, and containment … Do we see the ark as a place of safety, or do we see it as a prison, or possibly is it both? And how does that relate to our own experience? And are there arks anymore? So I think there’s going to be a lot of interesting questions that we’re going to explore. We have an outstanding faculty, and a very diverse group of artists.
GROSSMAN: Well there, what there is an ark of sorts down in Kentucky, right, at the Creation Museum there’s an ark …
SASSO. Well yeah …
GROSSMAN: We’ll move on from that. But maybe it would float, I mean.
SASSO: Float, that’s appropriate, down the river. Interestingly enough, the word for ark and in Hebrew תֵּבָה (tebah) really, means a box.
SASSO: The same word that is used for what we call the basket, in which Moses is placed on the river Nile to save him from drowning.
GROSSMAN: That’s really interesting so it’s not just the same root but the same exact word?
SASSO: Exact word. You can imagine a reed basket flooding on the river Nile was not waterproof nor safe for a baby. So it’s a contained box and in both cases there’s a different story of redemption … Many people die when humanity is saved and then in the other Moses is saved and becomes a leader of the people of Israel and ultimately leads them to freedom.
GROSSMAN: Well, speaking of, you know, being in boxes and trying to save ourselves, how are you, ensuring that participants in the Religion, Spirituality, and Arts Initiative are safe?
SASSO: We decided to be virtual this year. Now we are about 12 to 13 artists with a number of faculty, and so it is not difficult to Zoom course we’d rather be in person, but Zoom allows us the possibility of also going into meeting rooms and having conversations so we are going to be virtual at least until the pandemic is over and we have a vaccine. By the way what that does is allow us to have some artists from out of state too.
GROSSMAN: Tell me about some of the specific skills, what some of these artists bring to the table in this particular iteration of the initiative.
SASSO: Yes, we call it the RSA for short.
SASSO: So we really have a great group of people, very diverse, so we have, we have painters. We have folk artists, we have installation artists, public artists. We have poets and writers, we have two composers, with really good backgrounds, very diverse cultural, age-wise. We’re really pleased with the group that we have selected this year.
GROSSMAN: And what you mentioned that you are also a noted children’s book author. What have you got on your writing table right now.
SASSO: I have two books that are just coming out, one that was just released mid-August, called A Very Big Problem [co-written with Amy-Jill Levine]. And it is a creation story. And the other one is called Judy Led the Way that will be released in September. And it’s the story of the first young woman to become a bat mitzvah in a ceremony in which she acknowledges her Jewish responsibility and that first one was in 1922 and her name is Judith Kaplan eventually Judith Kaplan Eisenstein and I was a good friend of hers. And it was a story that’s ever been told. I’m really interested in doing series on women whose voices had never been heard before to find ways of empowering other women to give them models. So that’s coming out, I am working on right now to other stories but I’m not ready to share that yet, which I’m very excited about doing this.
GROSSMAN: Please tell me. That will be Interesting.
SASSO: Well, the biggest events, or the biggest days on the Jewish calendar are coming up fairly soon. First Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and then Yom Kippur.
GROSSMAN: What are your hopes for a Jewish New Year of 5781, I believe it is.
SASSO: We are going to be mostly virtual this year which will be very different.
GROSSMAN: At Beth-El Zedeck?
SASSO: Yes because also that, yes, there will be the clergy will be in the synagogue, helping to lead most of the service so that varies. But most of it’s going to be virtual, which changes things a lot because part of the joy of the festival has been to gather together as a community. But this year, wow. This has been a really hard year. And it’s been hard because of the coronavirus. It’s been hard because of all the racism issues that have confronted [us], the deaths of young black people.
It’s been a challenging year so you know we usually the traditional blessing for the Rosh Hashana is “We wish you a good and sweet new year, שנה טובה ומתוקה”. Shana tovah umetukah. So I’m thinking of those two words good and sweet, and my wish centers around them. So first of all, sweet. I read some time ago, a story that said that if you put honey in the bottom of a mason jar, the beeks will fly in, you know, to enjoy the honey. But often sometimes they feel stuck, even though there’s no lid on the jar. And the reason is they don’t look up. So I’m thinking that we all feel a bit stuck. Stuck in our homes, stuck in a history that we’re not very proud about. And my wish is that we look up that we find a way to look to a future that is better than the one we have right now. And so we don’t have to be stuck, but we want to be stuck. We have to find a way out of the virus [and] not be stuck by a history of racism, we have to find a way to transform our communities and our country so that we can move forward. […]My wish is that we have a year of good choices. We’re in an election year, we can make some important choices. We have to make sure to go out and do that. So I wish for a year in which we can get unstuck. And a year in which we make good choices so our future will be better.
GROSSMAN: I think that’s a great place to end our conversation unless you have something else.
SASSO: No Dan thank you so much for calling on me to talk about the new year to talk about RSA and my books. I’m really delighted to be with you. And I do wish everybody a year of transformation, I hear that we get unstuck.
GROSSMAN: Thank you, Rabbi Sasso I saw so I really appreciate your talking to me today. Thank you very much for having me. Take care.
— Dan Grossman
Note: the author, Dan Grossman, in addition to working as a research assistant for the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute, is managing editor of NUVO, where you also find this article online.