Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (1947–) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights
Born 1947; Education: Temple University, B.A., 1969, M.A., 1972; Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, ordained rabbi, 1974; Christian Theological Seminary, Doctor of Ministry, 1996. Religion: Jewish.
Office—Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, 600 West 70th St., Indianapolis, IN 46260.
Manhattan Reconstructionist Havurah, New York, NY, rabbi, 1974–77; Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Indianapolis, IN, rabbi, beginning 1977. Gleaners Food Bank, president, 1992–93; Butler University, Indianapolis, adjunct professor beginning 1996; Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, lecturer, 1995—; director of POLIS project "Urban Tapestry," 1998–2000. Member, Mayor's Task Force on Human Relations, 1987–88, Jewish Fund for Justice Rabbinic advisory committee, 1995, and Women's Fund of Indiana advisory board, 2000–02. President, Indianapolis Board of Rabbis, 1986–88; Member of board of advisors, Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis, and Indianapolis Children's Choir board. Chair, Spirit and Place (annual arts festival).
Honorary Doctor of Humanities, DePauw University, 1986; Special Merit award, Vermont Book Publishers, 1992, for God's Paintbrush; Children's Books of Distinction Award finalist, 1994, for In God's Name; best books of the year honor, Publishers Weekly, 1995, for But God Remembered: Stories of Women from Creation to the Promised Land, and 1996, for A Prayer for the Earth; Sagamore of the Wabash award, Governor of the State of Indiana, 1995; named among Influential Women in Indiana, Indianapolis Business Journal, 1997; honorary D.H.L., Butler University, Indianapolis, and Doctor of Divinity, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, both 1999; honorary degree, Christian Theological Seminary, 2000; Helen Keating Ott Award for Outstanding Contribution to Children's Literature, 2004.
Call Them Builders: A Resource Booklet about Jewish Attitudes and Practices on Birth and Family Life, Reconstructionist Federation of Congregations and Havurot (New York, NY), 1977.
(Author of foreword) Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah, Jewish Lights Publishing (Woodstock, VT), 1992.
God's Paintbrush, illustrated by Annette C. Compton, Jewish Lights Publishing (Woodstock, VT), 1992.
In God's Name, illustrated by Phoebe Stone, Jewish Lights Publishing (Woodstock, VT), 1994.
But God Remembered: Stories of Women from Creation to the Promised Land, Jewish Lights Publishing (Woodstock, VT), 1995.
A Prayer for the Earth: The Story of Naamah, Noah's Wife, illustrated by Bethanne Andersen, Jewish Lights Publishing (Woodstock, VT), 1996.
God in Between, illustrated by Sally Sweetland, Jewish Lights Publishing (Woodstock, VT), 1998.
For Heaven's Sake, illustrated by Kathryn Kunz Finney, Jewish Lights Publishing (Woodstock, VT), 1999.
God's Paintbrush Celebration Kit, Jewish Lights Publishing (Woodstock, VT), 1999.
What Is God's Name?, Jewish Lights Publishing (Woodstock, VT), 1999.
God Said Amen, Jewish Lights Publishing (Woodstock, VT), 2000.
Cain and Abel: Finding the Fruits of Peace, illustrated by Joani Keller Rothenberg, Jewish Lights Publishing (Woodstock, VT), 2001.
Noah's Wife: The Story of Naamah, illustrated by Bethanne Andersen, Jewish Lights Publishing (Woodstock, VT), 2002.
(Editor) Urban Tapestry: Indianapolis Stories, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 2002.
Adam and Eve's First Sunset: God's New Day, illustrated by Joani Keller Rothenberg, Jewish Lights Publishing (Woodstock, VT), 2003.
Abuelita's Secret Matzahs, Emmis Books (Cincinnati, OH), 2005.
(Co-editor) Siddur Kol HaNoar (The Voices of Children), Reconstructionist Press, 2005.
Butterflies under Our Hats, Paraclete Press (Orleans, MA), 2006.
Contributor to books, including Women and Religious Ritual: An Interdisciplinary Investigation, edited by Dr. Lesley A. Northup, Pastoral Press, 1993; Life Cycles: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones, edited by Rabbi Debra Orenstein, Jewish Lights Publishing (Woodstock, VT), 1994; Bar/Bat Mitzvah Basics: A Practical Family Guide to Coming of Age Together, edited by Helen Leneman, Jewish Lights Publishing, 1996; Falling from Grace, edited by Kent Calder and Susan Neville, Indiana University Press, 1998; Women's Torah Commentary, edited by Elyce Goldstein, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2000; Hineini in Oour Lives, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003; and I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004. Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Reconstructionist; contributor of monthly columns to Indianapolis Star, 1998—, and Beliefnet.com, 1999—.
Author's works have been translated into Spanish.
Work in Progress
Co-editing Nurturing Child and Adolescent Spirituality: Perspectives from the World's Religious Traditions, for Rowman & Littlefield.
Sandy Eisenberg Sasso was the first woman to become a Reconstructionist rabbi when she was ordained in 1974. She has written a number of religion-based books that celebrate young people's natural curiosity and show the benefits of accepting differences among people in their conception of God. In her first book for children, God's Paintbrush, Sasso explores the nature of God in words that are "well within a child's frame of reference," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Sasso asks readers to reflect on such things as whether God can cry and how to be a friend to God. Although some reviewers find Sasso's works inappropriately anthropomorphic in their descriptions of God, others praise the uplifting quality of her prose. Sasso, who was the second woman to be ordained as a rabbi, has also received praise for the multicultural focus and poetic rhythms of her prose. In addition, her woman-centered focus in books such as A Prayer for the Earth: The Story of Naamah have resulted in works that "add … nuance and depth" to the traditional stories of the Old Testament, according to a Publishers Weekly critic.
Sasso's first book for children, God's Paintbrush, presents short essays on a variety of experiences common to children, along with related questions for adults and children to discuss together. Some critics have found the amount of text and the great variety of issues raised in the book overwhelming, and the verdict on the book's usefulness has been mixed. Reacting to the "sheer number of situations described, feelings explored, and questions posed," School Library Journal contributor Susan Kaminow remarked that "perhaps [the book] would be useful in religious classes." Noting that books on spirituality are sometimes a "dicey proposition," a Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that "[c]ommendably, Sasso doesn't presume to answer the questions but instead allows readers to ponder and formulate their own answers."
A writer for the Children's Literature Web site interviewed Sasso about God's Paintbrush on the tenth anniversary of its publication. The author commented that, initially, her original publisher had wanted to remove the questions from the ends of the chapters because "parents are afraid of the conversation. They won't buy the book." Sasso took out the questions, but when her publisher didn't publish it, she took it to Jewish Lights Publishing. They loved it, but said there was just one thing that needed to be done: "Could you put in questions?" Sasso explained that was the moment she knew she'd found the right publisher. "Children aren't afraid of questions without answers until we make them afraid," Sasso told the interviewer. "Books of faith ought to be filled more with awe than answers."
Sasso's 1994 effort, In God's Name, presents a story that explains why there are many different names for God by showing that each person finds in God a reflection of what he or she most values in the world. Hence, some call God "Healer," others "Giver of Light," and others "Protector." Although the people in Sasso's story are first puzzled and then angry when they learn of others' names for their God, they eventually come to understand that each name points to a different aspect of the same God. "This book glories in the thought that there is one true nondenominational God who fulfills each description offered," remarked P. Finn McManamy in the Vermont Times.
In God's Name received generally favorable reviews, some of which highlighted the book's multicultural focus and universal applicability. Mary Wade Atteberry singled out Sasso's prose for special praise in her review in the Indianapolis Star: "The spare and poetic text, rich in metaphor, is impressive in its simplicity…. Sasso has taken a concept and deftly developed a story children can absorb." Although a contributor in Kirkus Reviews found In God's Name "a little too earnest," Atteberry commented: "It is always pleasant to find a story that suggests the possibility of peace and unity among people—even when it is a children's book."
Another work of fiction, God in Between, takes place in a town where each household is isolated within its own windowless house, with yards and public spaces desolate and unused because of a lack of roadways on which to travel. Finally, the residents of this strange town, isolated from one another, decide to send emissaries out to seek God, who is said to solve all problems. The searchers return, having realized that God is between all people, and accept His presence will allow them to in-habit the spaces outside their own homes. Describing God in Between as "a puzzling picture book," a reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that the work would do little to help explain the concept of an ever-present spirit to small children. Perceiving God in Between as "didactic," Booklist contributor Ellen Mandel noted that Sasso's "nonsectarian urging to look beyond oneself, to look to help others and thereby find God will be welcomed" by those seeking books promoting diversity in spiritual matters.
Inspired by her own feminism, Sasso's nonfiction works include But God Remembered: Stories of Women from Creation to the Promised Land. The 1995 work comprises a collection of four midrashim—stories built on the few remaining Old Testament references in existence—that refer to certain characters: Lilith, the first woman in the Garden of Eden; Serach, a singer of psalms; Bityah, who scooped the infant Moses from the Nile; and the five strong-willed daughters of Zelophe-had who take their property claims argument directly to God. A Booklist critic commended the author's choice of tales, writing, "Although part of the pleasure of the book lies in its strong feminist voice, Sasso also tells good stories." Equally enthusiastic, School Library Journal contributor Jane Gardner Connor noted that the four tales "are competently told and fit well with the Biblical tradition." Calling the collection "engaging," a Kirkus Reviews critic praised Sasso's use of "lively dialogue and occasionally modern phrasing" in telling her ancient tales.
Through her focus in particular on the stories of women such as Noah's wife in her 1997 work A Prayer for the Earth: The Story of Naamah, Sasso attempts "to reclaim the names and stories of women, to help children and adults hear another voice," as she once told Something about the Author (SATA). "So many words, so many visions have been lost. Beneath the ruins of layers of civilizations lie the oral traditions that never found their way between the hard covers of a book. Research wedded to imagination can reconstruct them for a new generation." Writing in the Women's League Outlook for Conservative Judaism, reviewer Ethel Zager called A Prayer for the Earth "refreshingly different" and described it as "a powerful plea for environmental concern." Reviewing the book for Booklist, Ellen Mandel considered it "a tale that can be enjoyed by children of many denominations."
Sasso's picture book God Said Amen is set amid a pair of imaginary kingdoms, their residents both full of pride and certain of their own importance. The Kingdom of Midnight and the Kingdom of the Desert are both in need of resources: the Kingdom of Midnight has plenty of water, but no oil for lamps, where in the Kingdom of the Desert, oil is plentiful but water is scarce. It seems trade between the prince and princess of the kingdoms could solve all the people's problems, but each is too stubborn to ask the other for help. Two children convince the royalty to meet, but in their stubbornness, each waits for the other to speak first, and they wait so long they are turned to stone, leaving the children to wisely sort out the issues. "Sasso's lyrical style carries readers through the story," praised Tali Balas, writing for School Library Journal.
A Bible story provides the source for Cain and Abel: Finding the Fruits of Peace. While telling the traditional story of the competition between Cain and Abel to see whom God loves more, which ends in Abel's murder, Sasso also introduces the idea that an entirely different world, a world without violence, could exist if people would reach out to each other as friends. "Not since In God's Name … has Sasso crafted so child-centered a story capable of engaging the imaginations and spiritual intelligence of the reader," praised Linda R. Silver in School Library Journal. The story offers "a penetrating and ultimately hopeful response" to violence, according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Ilene Cooper, writing in Booklist, called Cain and Abel a "simple yet effective book" and commented on "the story's connection to today's violence," concluding that the book is "A thought-provoking offering for all times but especially now."
Sasso again turns to the Midrash for Adam and Eve's First Sunset: God's New Day. In Sasso's story, Adam and Eve face the first night they experience with dread, certain that the sun will never return, and that the world will end. They pray that God will bring the sun back, but ultimately give up, angry with one another. Hopeless and afraid, they are greeted in the morning by a glorious sunrise. Sasso tells the story by "creatively and fruitfully expanding on a midrash," according to a Publishers Weekly critic. Reviewing the book in Booklist, Ilene Cooper commented that "Sasso's strength lies in the emotion the story engenders rather than the details of the plot." Susan Scheps, in her School Library Journal review, noted that "The story's message speaks to Jews and Christians."
Sasso once told SATA: "I have always admired the art of storytelling, marveling how a good story holds of an audience in a way no lecture or sermon can. As a rabbi I became the storyteller at family worship in my congregation and began to write my own stories. I fell in love with the sound of letters, the rhythm of words, and their power to invoke laughter, tears, hope. The beliefs about which I theorized in sermons, I began to write as stories.
"I write stories that honor our children's religious imagination. We do not give children enough credit for thinking about God and thinking profoundly. I wanted to give children a language to speak about what they care most deeply, a story about God in which they all see themselves reflected. So much of children's religious literature teaches how people are different in their beliefs. I wanted a book that celebrated those differences but also recognized that difference doesn't mean superiority and inferiority. If good words can inspire, so they can teach great tolerance and respect." "I write to teach and for joy," Sasso concluded. "It is a great privilege, awesome responsibility, and pure delight."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, September 1, 1995, review of But God Remembered: Stories of Women from Creation to the Promised Land, p. 54; February 15, 1997, p. 1029; October 15, 1998, Ellen Mandel, review of God in Between, p. 425; November 15, 2001, Ilene Cooper, review of Cain and Abel: Finding the Fruits of Peace, p. 573; December 15, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of Cain and Abel, p. 723; January 1, 2002, review of Cain and Abel, p. 768; January 1, 2003, Ellen Mandel, review of Naamah, Noah's Wife, p. 900; January 1, 2004, Ilene Cooper, review of Adam and Eve's First Sunset: God's New Day, p. 870.
Indianapolis Star, December 1, 1994, Mary Wade Atteberry, review of In God's Name, p. E8.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 1994, review of In God's Name; September 1, 1995, review of But God Remembered, p. 1287; January 15, 1997, p. 146.
New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1994, p. 30.
Publishers Weekly, December 14, 1992, review of God's Paintbrush, p. 56; November 6, 1995, p. 67; February 24, 1997, review of A Prayer for the Earth: The Story of Naamah, Noah's Wife, p. 83; May 25, 1998, review of God in Between, p. 83; April 1, 2002, review of Cain and Abel, p. 80; January 25, 2004, review of Adam and Eve's First Sunset, p. 251.
School Library Journal, June, 1993, Susan Kaminow, review of God's Paintbrush, pp. 100-101; December, 1995, Jane Gardner Connor, review of But God Remembered, p. 100; March, 2001, Tali Balas, review of God Said Amen, p. 220; February, 2002, Linda R. Silver, review of Cain and Abel, p. 127; March, 2004, Susan Scheps, review of Adam and Eve's First Sunset, p. 199.
Skipping Stones, January-February, 2004, review of Adam and Eve's First Sunset, p. 33.
Vermont Times, November 23, 1994, P. Finn McManamy, review of In God's Name.
Women's League Outlook for Conservative Judaism, winter, 1997, Ethel Zager, review of A Prayer for the Earth: The Story of Naamah, Noah's Wife.
BeliefNet.com, http://www.beliefnet.com/ (July 18, 2005).
Children's Literature Web site, http://www.childrenslit.com/ (July 18, 2005).
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Web site, http://www.rrc.edu/ (May 22, 2005).