When Sandy Eisenberg Sasso was 16, she decided to become a rabbi. She also wanted to be a writer. At the time, one of her goals seemed impossible, but she decided to achieve that one first. When she was ordained in 1974, Sasso became the first female Reconstructionist rabbi and only the second woman rabbi in the United States.
Sasso also achieved her other goal. She became an author and has written 13 books, 12 for children and one for adults. “From the pulpit, I preach,” she says. “In my books, I don’t preach. I want to open a conversation so they can figure out what they think. I tell a story and I want children to find their place in that story.” Her new picture book, The Shema in the Mezuzah (Jewish Lights, Oct.) was inspired by a 12th-century rabbinic debate about how to place the mezuzah. When children in her congregation liked Sasso’s version of the story, a new book was born.
Sasso, who has been a rabbi of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis since 1977, began writing in part because she was frustrated by religious books for children. She and her husband, Dennis, who is also a rabbi at the synagogue, have two children and three grandchildren. (When her first child was born, Sasso was the first rabbi to become a mother.) “A lot of the material in books was not intellectually credible or theologically honest,” she says. “I thought we were giving children ideas about God they would have to grow out of.”
Although it took six years to find a publisher, her first picture book, God’s Paintbrush, (Jewish Lights, 1992) has sold over 100,000 copies and was named a Parent Council Outstanding Book. Her subsequent books have often grown out of her work. When a boy in her congregation asked, “Who was Noah’s wife?” Sasso told him she didn’t know, but she would look it up. The answers eventually led to Noah’s Wife, The Story of Naamah (Jewish Lights, 2002), which was named a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year and won the Sugarman Family Award for Jewish Children's Literature.
Sasso wrote God’s Echo: Exploring Scripture with Midrash (Paraclete Press, 2007) for adults. “Children have a vivid imagination. In many ways they are freer than adults to enter the story, to find their place in it. I wrote God’s Echo to help adults do that.” While children can imagine well, she says, writing picture books is challenging because there are so few words. She often spends hours or days finding the right one. “I believe that children have a very deep spiritual life,” she says. “What they don’t have is a language to express it. Stories provide that language.”