#38: Rabbi Sandy Sasso 2018
Midrash: Re-imagining Children’s Literature, March 27, 2019
In this episode, Calvin University chaplain Mary Hulst interviews Rabbi Sandy Sasso about Judaism, feminism, and why children’s books are so important. Tracing her own journey as a faith leader and children’s author, Sasso reflects on how narrative Midrash inspired her to reimagine how to write biblical stories for children.
- Sandy Sasso,
- But God Remembered
- God’s Paintbrush
- Noah’s Wife
- Who Counts? A Hundred Sheep, Ten Coins, Two Sons
- The Marvelous Mustard Seed
- Regina Jonas
- Jennifer Hecht, Doubt
Karen Saupe (host): [00:00:01] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
On today’s episode, Rabbi Sandy Sasso talks with Pastor Mary Hulst about ordination firsts, the importance of good stories for children, and more. This is Rewrite Radio.
I’m Karen Saupe, and I co-chair and teach in the English department at Calvin College.
On this Rewrite Radio: Calvin College chaplain, Mary Hulst—first woman ordained in the Christian Reformed Church in the US—interviews Rabbi Sandy Sasso—the first woman to have been ordained a rabbi in Reconstructionist Judaism. Sasso and Hulst discuss Judaism, feminism, and why children’s books are so significant.
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is the author of several nationally acclaimed children’s books, including For Heaven’s Sake, Noah’s Wife, and The Shema in the Mezuzah, which won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for Best Illustrated Children’s Book. Sasso credits her rabbinical and interfaith work with shaping her interests in the discovery of the religious imagination in children, as well as in the connection between spirituality and the arts.
Sasso is the Director of Religion, Spirituality, and the Arts at Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary. Based in Indianapolis, she has been active in arts, civic, and interfaith communities. She has served on numerous boards addressing issues of women’s equality, education, hunger, philanthropy, the humanities, and the arts. She has been president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and chair of the annual Indianapolis Spirit and Place Festival. She also writes a monthly column for the Indianapolis Star.
And now, from the 2018 Festival of Faith & Writing, a conversation between Sandy Sasso and Mary Hulst.
Chaplain Mary Hulst: [00:02:35] So, how did God’s Paintbrush come to you? How did you start to think, “I need to write books for children”? Or, “I really would like to write a book for children”?
Rabbi Sandy Sasso: So it’s actually a very interesting story. I was taking a class at Christian Theological Seminary, which is a Disciples of Christ seminary in Indianapolis, because I decided after a number of years working in a congregation that I wanted to get a doctorate in ministry. And I said, “You know, I work with a lot of kids. I think I’ll take a class in religion and children.” And the professor said, “Well, here’s your assignment, do this paper.” And I go, “Oh, that is so boring to me, I don’t want to do that paper. Would you mind—” I didn’t quite say it that way, but, I said—”Would you mind if I try to write something for children about God because all the books that I read about God are not ones I want to share with my children.”
I just thought it was a paper. And I wrote what became God’s Paintbrush, and I got an A, and I said, “Great, we’ll put it away and I’m done, I did my assignment.” And actually it was my husband Dennis who said, “You know, you ought to send it to a publisher.” I said, “You’ve got to be kidding; I’ve never written a book before.”
So I sent it to publishers, I sent it to every known publisher, both religious and general press. I received every known rejection letter for six years, and then a new publishing house was created and someone told me about it and I said, “What do I have to lose? I’m just going to send it to them. The worst they can do is say no. I’ve already got plenty of those.” I sent it to them and they said, “This is just the book we’re looking for.” And, surprise to me and everybody else, it was one of my bestselling books.
I could tell you a little bit about how the story came about and how I got to write it. So my daughter who is now in her 30s, she was about five years old. She went to a Jewish day camp, and one day she came home from the day camp and she handed me a picture of a lovely, benevolent-looking grandfather. And I said, “That’s lovely, could you tell me more about that picture?” And she said, “Oh, yes, you see, they asked us to draw a picture of God.” And you have to understand, I was one of the first women rabbis, I talked a lot about religion and women and feminism to my daughter, so she looked at me, I looked at her, and she says, “Don’t worry Mom, I know God’s not a man. But when at first I handed my counselor a blank page, but they said I had to draw something, and this was all I could think of.”
Now, at first I thought I was enrolling her in seminary. A blank page, she knew you couldn’t possibly depict God, and then I realized she’s five years old and she has a vivid imagination and a world full of images, and when it came to talk about that which is of ultimate significance in her life, the only thing that she could come up with was a grandfather, a single image. That’s when I wanted to write something which provided the opportunity for children to see the divine in the many images they experience in their life. Not so much what God could do to them if they were bad or for them if they were good, but what they could do because of God. What could their faith enable them to do that they would otherwise not be able to do.
And I’m going to be talking in my session about not telling kids things that you later have to correct.
Mary: [00:06:32] Like about Santa, or the Easter Bunny. I used to say this to my congregation all the time: “If you tell them Santa is real, and then later you say, ‘But he’s not really...’ and you’re telling, ‘God is real,’ later they’re like, ‘Is that still a thing?’”
Sandy: Right. We don’t have Santa and the Easter Bunny, but we do have other things, like, the crossing of the sea, did the sea really split? And a variety of other things, and so how do you tell the difference between a true story and a truth story? And that’s how I usually talk. It depends what the age is to kids. They want a “Is this real? Did this really happen? Really happen?” And I say, “We have to talk about the difference between a true and a truth story. It may not be true, we don’t always know about all of the facts, it may not be a factual story, but it sure is a truth story, and let’s talk about what that truth is.”
Mary: That’s a great distinction, which I think in the Jewish tradition is much stronger than in particularly the Protestant Christian tradition, where it’s like, “This is what Scripture says, period.” And what’s fun about your stories is that they go beyond and add to and run parallel with the text. So, one of her stories is about the wife of Noah. And the wife of Noah scatters seed, she’s the one who collects the seed for the ark.
Sandy: I made that up, you know that?
Mary: I know, I totally know. [audience laughter] But just, the images are also terrific. And it’s this whole telling of how she gathered the seeds and where she went and I thought, “This is just such a distinctly—” now my own little research into Judaism, you’re so much more comfortable just saying, “What if this happened?” So, talk a bit about where that comes from, and the history of Midrash, and your work in that area, too.
Sandy: Sure, I’ll say a few words about Midrash. If you want to know more about how it developed historically or whatever, I’m happy to share that. And this is one of my favorite books, Noah’s Wife. And just to tell you how it came about: I had a Sunday School student, a young girl, who came over to me one Sunday morning during Sunday School and said, “Who is Noah’s wife?” and I had no answer. I don’t know. She’s some lady that went on the ark with Noah, and I had no idea what she did, and that really bothered me. Part of what I do in my writing is try to give voices and stories and names to women that don’t have any. And sometimes I would like to give stories to men who don’t really have stories, we’re missing pieces of it.
So I went to look in rabbinic sources. So you understand that after the Hebrew biblical canon was closed in 90 CE, the interpreted tradition of Judaism continued, in many ways, the rabbinic tradition and interpretation of the Hebrew Scripture is what the New Testament does for Christianity, to the Hebrew Scripture. So we both start with the same Scripture, we have the Hebrew Scripture, but we understand it differently, because they are two different strands of interpretation.
[00:09:57] Now, the rabbinic interpretation includes a variety of different ways of doing it, but one way of interpreting is called Midrash. The word Midrash, M-I-D-R-A-S-H, really means to search out. So when the rabbis would read the texts, they would say, “Hmm, something seems to be missing. I don’t know this person’s name, I don’t know what Cain and Abel argued about, it doesn’t really say.” So the rabbis would imagine filling in those blank spaces. Sometimes they would also say, “I’ve got a problem with this text, like, why didn’t God stop Cain from killing Abel? Or why didn’t God accept Cain’s sacrifice? That’s very troubling to me, so let me write something that sort of resolves my difficulty.”
So there’s many different forms of Midrash, one of them is Midrash on the Law, which will interpret the Law that way, and it’s always verse-based. So it’ll take a verse, and then it’ll go on to explicate that verse. But there’s the kind I’m really interested in is Midrash Aggadah, or narrative Midrash. So they look at the narrative portions of the Bible and they tell more narratives.
And they don’t only tell one. You could have ten rabbis tell ten different stories about the same verse. They are all considered sacred, because the way the Jewish tradition understands the Bible is that it is meant to be interpreted. So it only stays alive because it moves through each generation and each individual anew. And that person and that generation adds its own voice and perspective to the story and to the text.
I mean, in many ways, you do it in Christianity, I just don’t think you call it the same thing, but you do. I mean, the New Testament is certainly a Midrash on the Hebrew Scripture, because you’re taking text and you read them one way, we read them a different way. So there are these wonderful collections of narratives that are just a godsend to writers because they give you ideas and they help you reimagine a story in a way that really speaks to you.
So, in writing Noah’s—I can say more about that if you want, but—in writing Noah’s Wife, I said, “Well, look, I’m first going to look at the rabbinic literature, there’s got to be something.” And I found two things. One was Noah’s wife’s name was Naamah, because her deeds were niimi. And the word naamah means pleasing, because her deeds were pleasing, and already I’m thinking, “It’s so much better than what I thought. I thought she was going to clean up after the animals,” and I’m thinking, “This is not an image that I’m going to promote.”
Actually, there’s a little opera—did you know this? I can’t remember who did it—where Noah’s wife is drunk all the time, and they have to carry her on the ark because she’s pretty much zonked out, and I’m going, “What kind of image and model is that for women?” So I think, I might have found a footnote somewhere that says Noah’s wife’s name was Emzerah, which means mother of seed, I said, “I know what she did, and surely someone else has written this,” and no one else had. I said, “She collected two of every plant and every seed. How did the garden grow afterwards, I mean, everything had been wiped out.”
So I had her with a many-pocketed apron carrying two of every plant or every seed onto the ark, planting a garden on the ark, which is not for food, but for Noah and the family to take refuge from the smells, imagine, of the animals, and that after the flood, she replants the earth’s garden. And there are many pieces that fit into this story, like why we have dandelions, and how the olive branch got there.
And so the interesting part—I’m just really going to talk about more of this tomorrow—but the interesting part is when the book came out, I got a call from the Secretary of the Interior of the United States. It was a message on my answering phone. We had no cells phones then. And I said, “Secretary of the Interior? Why?” So I call and the person on the other end says, “We got your book on Noah’s wife.” And I’m going, “This is a good sign for an author, right?” He said, “So you know the part where Naamah saves the dandelions, even though everybody overlooks them? We really like that because we can save the pandas, but no one wants to save the ugly creatures, so tell me where did you get that?” And there was a part of me that wanted to lie. [audience laughter] I just wanted to say, “Oh, I was researching this ancient sacred manuscript in this dusty library and...” I said, “Well, I got it from my imagination.” And he says, “Okay, thanks, bye.” [laughs]
Of course I would have loved it if I had found it in some ancient scroll, but it felt like an ancient story, and I wanted to keep the story to feel like it could have happened, could have been written in biblical times, it fit the way the narrative was told. And I do have Sunday School kids who have gone to other Sunday Schools and have insisted to their teachers that Noah’s wife was Naamah and she collected two of every seed and when they say, “No, that’s not true, it’s not in the Bible,” they say, “Yes it is.” So that’s the power of story.
Mary: [00:16:04] You choose interesting stories to write about. One of them, when I was looking, is Cain and Abel, and I thought, “Well, I don’t know of anybody else who has written a children’s book on Cain and Abel.” And I thought, “What led you to choose that?” It’s just such an interesting tale, and I’m just going to hold up pictures while you talk about it.
Sandy: Cain and Abel. So, it’s very interesting. I found this Midrash. That’s—Cain and Abel is this one. I found this Midrash, which I can read you, which I always found very fascinating and I thought I could write a book, and I’ll tell you how this happened. This is a tiny little Midrash that says, “In the beginning, God created each tree so that it could yield many different kinds of fruit. Then Cain killed his brother Abel, and the trees went into mourning. From then on, each tree would yield just one kind of fruit. Only in the world to come will the trees return to their full fruitfulness.”
Now, I just love this Midrash because it meant that when violence entered the world, nature changed. It wasn’t just that Cain killed Abel, but Cain changed the whole environment, the whole natural world by violence. So I thought it would be really fun to make up those fruits. Many different kinds of fruits grow on trees. So there are apples and plumelons, and I had great fun mixing fruits together, except for spellcheck that didn’t like any of them. [audience laughter]
Then I decided, “Look, there’s a lot of anger around. And the story that talks about anger the best is the Cain and Abel story.” I wanted to put on Cain’s shoes. I’m not willing to accept that I couldn’t do something that came out of anger without thinking. So I start by saying Cain and Abel really like each other and they’re both really nice kids. And then Cain offers a sacrifice that is not accepted as Abel’s is, and I say the sacrifice is equal to Abel’s because there’s nothing in the text that says it’s not. We just interpret it that way because we don’t like it. We want to say, “Well, it was fair because Cain wasn’t a nice guy.” This is not true.
And the power of the story is that he was treated unfairly because that’s what happens to a lot of us, right? We give our best and somebody else gets the reward. And that’s how kids feel. “I tried my hardest and so-and-so got picked first for the team. I have a right to be angry. But what I don’t have a right to do is then go out and do violence against someone.” So the book became a question of what do you with your anger when it is righteous anger, when you have a right to be angry, so what do you do with it?
And that’s basically what I did for this book, and the response has been amazing. When I first proposed this to the publisher, I said, “I have this really good story about Cain and Abel. What do you think, would you be interested in it?” And he says, “You know, Cain killed Abel.” [laughs] And I said, “Yeah, I do know that.” He says, “Do you think parents will want to buy a book like that?” I said, “Parents know that their kids get angry and they act out, and I think they would want to buy a book in which a child could express his or her anger.”
And that’s exactly what happened. We did an exercise with this book and one parent said to me, “Thank you. My child has been angry and I’ve never known why, and he’s never been able to express it.” And I can tell lots more stories about that, about how kids have responded to being able to express their anger and talk about ways of creatively dealing with it. But I don’t want to give away everything I’m talking about tomorrow, so.
Mary: [00:20:19] I think a key to every children’s book, particularly for the younger readers, are the illustrations, and you have paired up with some amazing artists. So, how did that happen, and was that the publisher? was that you? Because every book is, they’re just fantastic.
Sandy: In most cases, they’re the publisher. In fact, I sometimes have artists that I like and I tell the publisher, and the publishers have the artists send in his or her portfolio and I’ll take a look at them and decide if I think it works. There’s one artist that I am a good friend of and the publisher liked her work and we worked together a few times. But most of the time I don’t know the artist. And the only thing I’m asked by the publisher is, “What is your vision? What are you thinking? What kind of art are you thinking? What mood do you want to set?” And then the publisher will take that and share it with the artist.
Many times I have zero idea what the artist is going to do. I do get to look at it as it goes along, and usually I can give some input, but sometimes my input is dismissed [laughs] politely. Now, if something is inaccurate historically, then of course it will be corrected. So there was one book I wrote where the princess in the book I thought was anorexic and it really bothered me, so I said to the publisher, “The princess is too skinny.” And the next picture I got she’d gained ten pounds. So something like that, but then another picture I said, “I don’t like Naamah’s nose,” and they said, “Thank you very much for your input, but they’re not changing it,” so it’s very interesting. There is a dialogue, but I usually don’t speak with the artist, except for the one I’m good friends with.
So here’s a funny story about this one: So this book came out—I had this on my desk on September 10th, 2001. I got my first copy, and I went to the office the next morning after I saw what had gone on, and I just opened to this page, there’s a page in here which says, “After Cain kills Abel, one killing becomes two, two killings become four, and four killings become sixteen, and sixteen killings become war.” And I remember the artist talking to me and saying, “I don’t know how to draw that,” and I want to show you what she drew, and remember... I want to show you what she drew, which will take just a second. Remember this came out September 10th, 2001.
These are buildings that are being toppled. I mean, I went to my office, opened this up, and I just had chills. And I called the artist, and I said, “How did you do that?” and she says, “If I had to do that now, I couldn’t have done that.” It was just a very bizarre, bizarre feeling, and I actually used this book to talk about 9/11, because any time I showed the kids that, “What do you think this is?” they said, “New York.” And that was really bizarre. So you’ll never know when your story is going to have meaning at the time.
Mary: When you think about the spiritual formation of children, what are some of your hopes in literature? in congregations? What do you see that you think, “This is a really good thing,” and what are the things we do with children you’re like, “Ugh, not so much”?
Sandy: [00:24:12] I think the most important thing is to honor the spiritual lives of children. Sometimes we believe that children are really not ready to talk about a spiritual life, because those are big questions and they’re abstract questions, and we as adults are having trouble ourselves figuring out how to respond and engage those questions, “So let’s just give kids simple things. We don’t have to deal with the big questions of life and death and the meaning of life and why am I here. Let’s do silly little stuff. And they’ll play all the little games and then everything will be fine.”
But that’s not true. Children have a deep spiritual life. There’s been tons of research on this. And it’s our—What they don’t have is a language to express it. In fact, some of the experiences of children, we should be in touch with again, because they have this great—what is spirituality? They have this great spontaneity, this sense of surprise, this sense of total immersion and engagement, attentiveness, they see things we don’t see, they have playfulness. This is all about spirituality.
Except, how do they express that? And my feeling, as many others have written, is through story. If we can give them good stories that put them in touch with those elements of the spirit, then they have a language to talk about what’s important to them. Unfortunately, I think some of the books for kids on religions are too preachy. I mean, you want to teach...there is a point to teaching certain things. This isn’t about giving them facts. Let me tell you what the Bible—let me tell you what happened on the fourth day of Creation. Well, that’s all very interesting, but that’s not what the Creation story is really meant to teach, right?
We need stories that help children develop a relationship with the narrative and can see themselves in in, rather than stories that tell them what to believe, they need stories that help them talk about what it is they believe. Because otherwise we’re just imposing our own beliefs on them, and they’re not where we are. And I think it’s just honoring the place they are. I learn so much when I get quiet.
I used to say, when I started telling stories in the pulpit, I used to say, “Now, the story means that you should be good to each other,” or, “The story means you should be honest,” you know. And then I realized, “This is ridiculous.” I needed to let the children tell me what the story meant to them, and I learned so much. It’s just this openness to a conversation. I know many—we’ve had, when I used to teach in the Sunday School, I would have Sunday School teachers come to me and say, “The class is asking lots of questions about God. Could you come in?” I’m going, “Why? I mean, of course, I’m going to come in, but they don’t need an expert, they need you. You’re the important person in their lives. They want you to talk to them.”
And I remember once I was asked to come into a class, and I had a list of fifteen questions, and I don’t know, they were fourth graders, I’m like, “Oh, my God, how am I going to answer these questions?” You know, where does God live? Does God do...? I said, “There’s no way I can answer these questions. So I said, “I see you have a lot of questions about God, let me tell you a story.” And I told them this story which had to do with, I mean I could tell you sometime, it had to do with in a sense the hands of God, your hands and your hands are the hands of God, two people who were helping each other.
And at the end of the story, I said, “Okay, I want everyone to raise their hands.” And they did, and I said, “And your hands and your hands are the hands of God.” And that’s how I talked about God. And it’s one of the first times parents also, “What’d you do to my children?” They loved what happened in Sunday School. So, that’s how I like to respond, with narratives.
Mary: How did you start storytelling? Where does that come from in you?
Sandy: You know, it’s hard to say. I always wanted to be a writer. When I was in I think it was sixth grade, I had a civics class and you had to decide what your career should be, and naively, I said, “I want to be an author.” And I remember we had to interview someone who actually had that career, and I go, “An author? That’s like interviewing God. I don’t know if I could actually do— Somebody has a book with their name on it.”
So, somehow the teacher found me this author, and the funniest thing was it fit the typical stereotype. My father, who I said, “Do not get out of the car, I’m here on my own.” I’m sixth grade and I don’t drive, so anyway, forget that. We drive up this long circular drive at this sort of mansion-like house. The author, who I don’t remember, comes out in a silk smoking jacket, [audience laughter] and with a pipe, [laughs] and he walks me into this gorgeous library with this, you know, antique desk, and walls lined with books, and I don’t remember anything else but said, “Yes, this is exactly what I want to be!” [laughs]
Anyway, so I always wanted to write. When I started, when I was a rabbi in a congregation where I had to do a lot of family services, I realized the only way I could really engage kids and get their attention was to tell stories. So I start telling them, and then I realized I didn’t know how to, and I actually went to a storytelling conference in Indianapolis, and I also bought, and now you know how old I am, I bought cassette tapes of storytellers, and I sat in my den at home and I played the tapes of storytellers over and over again. I was trying to learn the kind of rhythm that they used in telling the story, the style, and I realized it wasn’t just get out there and read a story.
[00:30:38] And I began to adapt some of their techniques and pick up some of their favorite stories, so. Yeah, I listened forever. I still [laughs] have those cassette tapes, but I don’t have anywhere to play them. So then I sort of developed it over time, and I ended up using stories in adult sermons, and I discovered that that was the only thing the adults remembered that I said. I couldn’t repeat a story, but I could repeat a sermon.
Mary: I think every preacher understands that. Every time you use the illustration, you’re like, “Okay, I’m playing this card. Can’t play it ever again.” Because, yes.
So, you have this congregation. And you were writing. How did you balance, or not, that and parenthood, and all the things?
Sandy: Not well. No, I mean the thing was I didn’t write as much as I do now. So, often my writing came from my work in the synagogue, like the child says, “Who’s Noah’s wife?” Well, I probably would never have thought to look up that story if it weren’t for that question. So, many times what I was doing was creating what I thought was missing and that I couldn’t find to use in my own educational programs, so in part that.
Sometimes it started so, I mean, one time I told a story just to kids because I needed something for a family service, and when I was done, my husband is a very good promoter, he says, “You need to write a book about that.” I said, “Really?” So then I took that story I worked on for the service and I adapted it and it became a book.
So, you know, it sort of was integrated into what I did. But, yes. And I always tested them with my kids. So it was always nice to have my own kids at home to read the story, and believe me, they are brutally honest. “No, Mom, that’s the most depressing story ever written. Make it happier.” You know, there are lots of responses I’ve gotten.
Mary: Well, that’s a great—one of my questions was, what feedback have you received from children over the years about the stories and the images that are presented in your books?
Sandy: Well, that’s the best part of course. When I speak to kids’ classes, I speak all over sometimes, to secular schools sometimes, to religious schools and congregations and churches and synagogues, and I’m just amazed by how thoughtful children are and what they take from a story. I have a few examples, I don’t know if you want...
So, I wrote this book that is very dear to me called In God’s Name. I think there’s a copy out here. Because I was hearing kids saying, “The way I call God is better than the way you call God. My name for God is better than yours.” And I go, “Whoa, I don’t think so.” So I wrote a story called In God’s Name where each person calls God by a different name and each person thinks his or her name is better than the others. And their names for God come out of their own experiences. And then they come together and in the end they realize all the names are good, and then they call God One.
But the names I used tried to reflect a child’s life, so there was mother, father, friend, healer, and then I used that story in a service on the Day of Atonement, which is when everybody comes to synagogue, and I asked the kids what did they want to call God, now that they know there are many names. And there was a little boy whose mother, one of triplets, whose mother was suffering from breast cancer. And he stood up in the congregation and said, “I want to call God healer.” And I thought that was the most profound prayer I heard all day.
Now, many years later, his mother passed away. He became an astrophysicist. And he came back to the synagogue for high holidays, he’s an adult now. And it so happened was one of my last sermons, and I wanted to talk about those moments that impacted me the most in my rabbinate, and I told that story.
And then the little boy who was now grown came over to me and I said, “Oh my God, I didn’t know you were here. Did you recognize yourself in that story?” He said, “Yes, I was the little boy.” And I said, “I will never forget that.” And he said, “Neither will I.” Those are one of those precious moments in the rabbinate. So if somehow what you write can touch a child... And there are other examples like that, but that’s probably the most powerful.
Mary: [00:35:31] You do a lot of work with the stories of women that aren’t told. And I’m wondering, when I read But God Remembered, I thought, “How different our world would be if these were actually Scripture stories,” because the women are on par with men, and they’re part of the whole scene. I kind of got sad, I thought, “How different our lives would have been, as clergywomen, how different the church, the synagogue,” all of these things would be so different.
So I was wondering, what have you heard back from girls and young women and older women when you’ve been kind of weaving the stories of women into the histories that we share.
Sandy: Well, I used to teach a class in the synagogue, which was just for women, on women characters from the Bible. And I would play with the Midrash and do exactly here. And women were blown away. Actually, I remember some of the women saying, “I didn’t know I could do that.” Meaning, I didn’t know I could take the Scripture and make it my own. I thought, not just that it was in the text the way it was written, but the men who interpreted the text were the authority, and I didn’t think that I as a women had any authority interpreting the text.
So this opened up the possibility for women to tell their stories. I mean, it was quite amazing what came out from that. Of course, for girls it’s wonderful because it says, you know, “You’re part of our sacred literature, you’re part of our stories, your stories are important.” And these are important models for women.
And I think for men, too, because they recognize that we share a sacred responsibility and it isn’t just one taking over the other but walking as partners hand-in-hand. That’s why the stories are so important to me. I mean, because you know you have to understand, I didn’t know these stories growing up. When I decided to enter rabbinical school in 1969 secular feminism, as we know the second big wave of feminism, just was starting. It totally did not touch religion, totally.
I remember going to seminary and that was the beginning of Ms. Magazine. Remember Ms. Magazine? Some of you were, you’re all too young to remember. Anybody here remember Ms.? Yay, okay. So it was just started, and I go, “Oh, yes, I’m going to buy every issue and it’s going to explain to me how to honor my being a woman and being a person of religion, of faith.” And it never did.
The early feminists, actually, most of them were Jewish, totally ignored religion. They had for the most part said, “Religion is patriarchal, we’re not paying any attention to it.” And I’m going, “I don’t have anybody to help.” On the one hand, I was deeply Jewish, very committed to learning more about Judaism, creating Jewish community, and on the other hand I would call myself a feminist. I cared very much about women’s opportunities and equality and voice and story, and there was no middle ground. It was trying to create that.
In fact, I didn’t enter rabbinical school as a feminist, I didn’t even know what one was. I entered rabbinical school because I loved being Jewish, and I would open the texts in class, and I’m going, “I’m not there. No one’s asking my questions.” And that’s when I started exploring what could women’s voices and stories bring to the text. Now, there was not a single book on the shelf about women and religion, not a single book. Because I’m going, “They’re asking me to speak about this. I’m going to look up—” that was my tendency, I’m a student, you look it up and then you know what to say.
There was nothing to look up, and I do recall deciding at one point, “Maybe I should write my PhD dissertation on women and Judaism because there’s nothing out there.” And I was discouraged from that. I was told, “Don’t write about women and religion. Write about something important.” [crowd gasps] So, I’m embarrassed to admit, I listened. Because it was enough being the only woman in the school and countering people who thought my being a rabbi would destroy Judaism, that I would also have to do something that was quote-unquote unimportant.
It was a mistake. Now there are hundred of books on this, and there was not a single one, so you know you’re sort of fighting that all the time.
Mary: One of your recent projects, which we were chatting about before, takes a story that was lost and reclaims it. Tell about, talk about that and when is it coming out so we can all read it?
Sandy: [00:40:35] So, this is a story I only found out about recently. I understood that I was the second woman rabbi ordained in the world. The first was in the Reform movement, Rabbi Sally Priesand, and then I was the second, from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I learned many, many years later that there was a women ordained in 1935 in Berlin, Germany. She served for a number of years, she was sent to Terezín—Theresienstadt—and then she was murdered in Auschwitz. I never knew her story, and most people in the Jewish community and even Jewish historians never heard of her.
Well, there was a woman who was doing a dissertation on her papers, who found her papers in the Berlin archives, and told this amazing story about a woman in Germany who went to a liberal rabbinical seminary, was ultimately ordained, confronted lots of problems, and served as a rabbi, and who actually served along with Viktor Frankl, and Leo Baeck, another famous rabbi, in Terezín serving the people there, giving them hope and counsel and teaching.
And when she passed away, no one told her story, so, many of the people she worked with survived. I don’t understand why that was left unspoken. And so a group of women—well, I have some theory, but we’ll discuss that another time [laughs]—I went with a group, the American Jewish Archives decided to have a trip of women rabbis following in the steps of Rabbi Regina Jonas [Regina is pronounced with a hard “G” and Jonas with a “Y” sound], who is the name of this woman. And so we all went to Berlin, we followed in her footsteps, learned a lot about her life, we dedicated a plaque in her memory in Terezín, with a beautiful service, and I said, “God, it needs to be a children’s book.” I go everywhere, “Anybody write that as a children’s book?” I mean, somebody tells be an adult story, I say, “Oh, it could be a children’s book.”
And it was very hard to do, because it’s one thing—there is a biographer of her as an adult, but you have to develop her character, and we don’t know anything about her character. I mean, we know the papers she wrote, we know where she got ordained, we know where she lived, and so the first time I wrote the manuscript, they go, “Mmm-nnn, that’s boring. That’s a nice little historical account.” I said, “You want me to make her an actual character? Oh, my God.” So I combed through everything I could find, letters, and everything to find out, what did she wear? was she klutzy? how did she talk? how did she relate to kids? And I created a character, which I think is pretty authentic.
And as I was doing it I found all these interesting stories about her that I never knew, and it was just absolutely–I now understand why people like history when they’re doing historical research, because there are surprises that you find every day. Including finding—there’s only one picture of her. But we found a second picture. A friend of mine who’s a rabbi, I was talking about her, I said, “Oh, you know, I’m writing a book on Regina Jonas,” she said, “I have her picture,” I said, “No, you don’t, you can’t possibly have her picture, there’s only one picture,” and she says, “Oh, no. A gentleman from her town took her picture when he was 14 years old, and saved it until he met a woman rabbi, and I was that woman rabbi and he gave me the picture.” [audience oohs] And it was taken in 1938. He thought it was so important, remember as a 14-year-old, that he kept it, brought it to America, imagine, kept in in a safety deposit box until he met a woman rabbi. And now the picture’s at the end of the book. I had to plead with the publisher to put it in, but I did it.
And yet I’m going, “God, here’s another...” Now she looks actually not like a stiff person, but somebody, you know, on the street, out on the patio. It’s just... And now I just found a letter written to Martin Buber in German that I’m getting translated, that said, “Please help me go to Israel. Life is terrible here, I need to leave with my mother.” And of course that never happened. But, we never knew that until recently.
So this discovery, I feel like a kid at a candy shop, “Oh, look what I just found out, it’s so amazing.” And so it was a real fun book to write.
Mary: [00:45:25] What will the title be and when is it coming out.
Sandy: It should come out in the Fall and it’s called—this was very hard to decide on—it was called Regina Persisted: An Untold Story. It went through many versions, the title, but I hope that was a good choice.
Mary: It has layers of meaning.
Sandy: Yeah, we don’t want it to just apply to Jewish kids. It’s a story about a woman who persisted against tremendous odds during a frightening time in history, and it really is a story for all, everybody, and that’s why we wanted to keep it that was.
Audience member 1: How do you spell her name?
Mary: And her last name?
Sandy: Jonas, it’s Jonas. In English, it’s Regina Jonas, and German, I think, is Regina Jonas [hard “G” and soft “Y” sounds], so it’s J-O-N-A-S. And many of the opposition that she received, because I would read it in the letters, I go, “Yeah, that’s what people said to me some (what was it) 40 years later they said the same things.” So, really interesting, I really felt attached to the story, because my life is a whole lot easier, but the opposition was still there.
Mary: Recently, you’ve turned to the New Testament for story ideas, and you’ve been writing about parables, so tell us how that came about.
Sandy: Well, I used up the whole Old Testament. [audience laughter] Might as well go with the next one. No [laughs]. So, this is really interesting. I know a New Testament scholar from Vanderbilt, Amy Jill Levine. Have anybody heard her? Okay, so you know how wonderful she is, and she writes a lot about New Testament parables and I’ve heard her speak many times, and what she tries to help us understand is how those parables were understood at the time of Jesus, because the people he was speaking to at the time were Jews, so how would it have been understood? And how come much later those parables are interpreted to be against the Jews? In a sort of anti-Judaic way.
So, I would listen to this and I go, “Gosh, Amy Jill, that is so wonderful. Why are you waiting until people are adults to tell them that the way they’ve learned these parables is mistaken, and it is actually harmful, because it creates prejudice and intolerance?” And she says, “Well, I have no idea how to write for children.” So I said, “Well, I write for children, but I have no idea about your scholarship.” So we developed a partnership, and we were very fortunate to find a publisher, John Knox, which now has a children’s imprint called Flyaway Books, just recently, and they were interested in working with us and we have a contract for four parable books.
The first one just came out, it’s here, it’s called Who Counts? A Hundred Sheep, Two Coins, Two Sons, so you know what they refer to. See, when I speak to a Jewish audience I have to explain the parables, totally. [audience laughter] “What’s a hundred sheep, two coins...” Anyhow. So it’s a great story, great illustrations, and in the back it explains why we told it this way and what were some of the misunderstandings that developed over time.
The second one, which will be out—there’s a sample outside, will be out in a month—is called The Marvelous Mustard Seed. I loved writing that one because I could play with size, small and big and it was like so much fun, and that also has a parent-teacher background.
And then the one we’re working on, the illustrations aren’t done yet, is the Good Samaritan, which we’re not going to call the Good Samaritan. We think we’re going to call it Who’s My Neighbor. Because words like “priest,” “Levite,” and “Samaritan” mean absolutely nothing to children.
Now, I told that to somebody and they said, “Well, actually, they mean absolutely nothing to adults, either,” [laughs] because we don’t live in a world where there are Samaritan’s walking around and priests and Levites, so we’re trying to make it more accessible for children.
And at the end in addition to explaining why we do it the way we do, we have a series of questions, like, “Imagine you are the lost sheep; are you the one looking, or are you the one that’s lost? Are you the wayward son or are you the elder son who feels nobody’s paying any attention to you?” So it sort of asks kids to enter the story where they are, and that’s the most important thing to do.
So, I’ve really loved the stories and it’s been a lot of fun to work with a scholar. It’s really been interesting. You can imagine the conversation. She writes to the parents, “Well, the exegesis of this parable—” I said, “No, no no no no.” [audience laughter] I said, “These are not your college students. These are lay parents. No, we’re not using those words.” And the kids, she would give me these big words, I’d go, “No, no no; we can’t use that word.” And then I would write something, “You don’t understand what I’m telling you.” I said, “No, maybe I don’t tell me again.” So we’ve had this back and forth.
And she lives in...where?...it’s Nashville, and I’m in Indianapolis, and we hardly ever get together. We do everything over email and the telephone, so it’s been a really interesting process, yeah. It’s been a lot of fun.
Audience member 2: [indistinct]
Sandy: So the one that’s out now is called Who Counts?: A Hundred Sheep, Ten Coins, Two Sons and the one that will be out momentarily is The Marvelous Mustard Seed. Marvelous, The Marvelous Mustard Seed. And we’ll I can’t guarantee you, I think the other one’s gonna be called Who Is My Neighbor, but we haven’t decided.
Mary: [00:51:38] We’ll keep our eyes open. We’re happy to open it up for some questions now, and our student will walk the mic around, so just put your hand up, ask your question.
Audience member 3: As a Jewish feminist, I often find it hard to keep my temper. How do you keep your temper [audience laughter] when you’re dealing with the amount of sexism that still exists within the Jewish tradition?
Sandy: I’ve moved in many different directions. When I started in rabbinical school, I...first I was flabbergasted. Because I grew up and as a teenager, I was totally welcome in my synagogue to lead services and do anything I wanted. They just loved it, and all the adults thought it was so cute, you know, that a young teenager is willing to be engaged in Jewish life. And all of a sudden I became and adult and people are going, “You don’t belong here.” I said, “I don’t get it.” So at first I was surprised.
I was angry at the beginning, but then I decided that the tradition belongs to me as much as it belongs to anyone else. It’s not— If I leave it, which I do know some people, in all the religions, some feminists, Christian feminists, Jewish feminists, left the tradition because they said, “Well, it doesn’t belong to me. It’s patriarchal, it’s not mine.” I said, “Who said? Tradition is what you make it. Tradition means what is passed on. So now they’re passing this on to me and I have a responsibility to reshape it. And if I don’t I am neglecting my role in the history of the people.
So I decided that I needed to own that tradition and work with it with two qualities: a sense of humility, meaning like, “Who am I? This is tradition of thousands of years old,” a humility, and also a sense of audacity, “Who am I not that I shouldn’t add my voice to the tradition?”
And really over the the last, gosh, what is it, forty, fifty years, the changes have been enormous, enormous, I mean, I can’t—people assume women can be rabbis. They’re surprised if a congregation doesn’t have a woman on the pulpit. Women have reinterpreted Scripture. They have written history to give women voice and place. This is not just true in Judaism, it’s true in all the religions. And they have really reshaped the tradition. They have reshaped theology, because when you question how you name God and if you don’t just name God He and Lord and King, then you have a theological issue to deal with. So I think it’s been amazing.
So someone once said, there was another feminist, “If the people won’t give me a seat at tradition’s table, I will set my own table.” And I respond, I remember I was in the same panel with her, I said, “No, I don’t want to set my own table. I want to sit at tradition’s table and rearrange the place settings.” I don’t want someone to say, “That’s tradition and that’s what the women do.” No, I want women’s voice to be part of that tradition.
[00:55:14] So I really think, I am like blown away by the many changes that have occurred, in all faiths, not that there’s aren’t still needed changes, I mean, we need it all over the country, right? Equal pay, a whole bunch of other stuff, but the change has been enormous, and I would say revolutionary.
Audience member 4: I teach literature at a Christian high school. I wonder if you have anything to say about not teaching just children, you know, like elementary school, but once they start growing up and asking more complex questions; I like what you said about sort of leaving room for them, not telling them what to believe, but letting them figure out what they believe. How do you do that with older kids?
Sandy: Well, I thought it was enough to be with the little kids. No, [audience laughter] I mean, I would say that every adult—and I would consider a teenager as sort of close to adulthood, right?—has to recognize that faith isn’t your own until you go through a period of doubt. That faith and doubt are handmaidens, meaning that if you just accept the faith that you are handed by your parents, that is...well, there is this—oh, God, I can’t remember—theologian who has four levels of—oh, it starts with a “W”—okay, Westerhoff.
Audience member 5: James Fowler.
Sandy: No, it’s not James Fowler, his is more complicated, but I think it’s Westerhoff has...
Mary: [muted] Developmental stages?
Sandy: Yes, development. So, he speaks about experienced faith, that is, the faith you experience as a young child, whatever you do, the rituals, the tactile experiences; the affiliative faith, which is the faith you learn in your community, in your church, what is sort of given to you, you identify with your group; then there is, I’m going to forget, it’s questioning or, it’s something like questioning faith; and then owned faith.
The interesting thing is if you don’t go through the third stage of questioning, you don’t really own your faith. All you’re doing is taking what somebody gave you. So I guess what I want to say for teenagers is that they need to feel it is okay to question. They need to feel it’s okay to doubt, that they’re not rejecting their parents—although they may want to, I don’t know [laughs]—and they’re not rejecting their faith, and they’re not rejecting their tradition. That there is a long tradition—
There’s a beautiful book, it’s not really for teenagers, called Doubt by Jennifer Hecht, H-E-C-H-T, which talks about doubt in all religious traditions, and it shows how each tradition has very famous writers and theologians who address the tradition of, “I don’t know, this doesn’t make sense to me, I have doubt,” so that’s one thing, to believe that doubt is a part of the process and not to discourage it and to encourage questions. I think that we’re often so afraid of questions.
And also to be quiet before we answer them. I read some survey somewhere that, I don’t know, teachers ask a hundred questions a day and they end up answering eighty percent of them themselves because, I feel the same way, I hate a vacuum. You ask a question, nobody says anything. But some questions, I mean, you have to be quiet for a while before you can engage them.
So I guess I would also find literature, I mean, I’m not an expert in this, that raises those questions so that it encourages—I think it’s always safer to have a discussion about a book than your personal life—so those kinds of books really make a huge difference.
Mary: We are at time, so let’s thank our friend. [applause]
Karen: [00:59:15] Our grateful thanks to Sandy Sasso and Mary Hulst.
Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing, located on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. Theme music is “June 11th” by Andrew Star.
You can find more information about the Center and its signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at ccfw.calvin.edu and festival.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes—and leave us a review to help others find this podcast. Thanks so much for listening and stay tuned for more from the Festival archives.