Monday, August 10, 2020

Q&A with Sandy Eisenberg Sasso

Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is the author of the new children's picture book Judy Led the Way, which recounts the story of Judith Kaplan, the first girl to have a bat mitzvah. Sasso's many other books include Regina Persisted and A Very Big Problem. The first woman to be ordained as a rabbi by the Reconstructionist movement of Judaism, she lives in Indianapolis.

Q: Why did you decide to write a children's picture book about Judith Kaplan, the first girl to have a bat mitzvah?

A: There are two reasons. First, I knew Judith—her daughter said to call her Judy—quite well. I was a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and her husband, Ira Eisenstein, was the president. We spent a great deal of time with them. They came to the celebrations of our children, and I felt it was a very close relationship.

One thing we felt was that Judith’s story hadn’t been told. There were articles and references in books, but it seemed to be a more significant story and one that had never been told from her point of view.

Mordecai Kaplan was way ahead of his time when he decided girls should have bat mitzvahs, but it was Judy who had to decide to do it!

And because I had a personal relationship with her, I felt her story needed to be told. She was at my daughter’s bat mitzvah—my husband and I are both rabbis and it was hard to talk as rabbis to our daughter. Nobody could do better than Judith Kaplan. She made a very strong point, that it was important to celebrate your Judaism.

That was the personal connection. The other reason is that I’m interested in telling stories that haven’t been told fully. Regina Persisted was about the first woman rabbi in Berlin. After the Holocaust, people who had worked with her never mentioned her. It was a double dying—she died in Auschwitz and then her story was killed.

It’s children who need to hear these stories, to hear about the resilience and courage of these women, as role models.

Q: How did you research the book?

A: Fortunately Judy had written some about her own experiences, but I did a lot of research. I spoke to Judy’s daughters and asked about pictures and about what they knew and what she had told them. I tried to get direct accounts.

I looked at the research—I researched the period to put it in the right historical context. For the illustrations, I was very careful to pull pictures from that period of time.

Q: Did anything especially surprise you?

A: Some of it I knew. I didn’t make the connections between women’s suffrage and Kaplan’s decision to have a bat mitzvah. I didn’t think as much about the period in which this arose.

Like my entry into the rabbinate—I was ordained in 1974. If there hadn’t been a burgeoning feminist movement, I don’t believe that would have happened. For me, it was about how to bridge my love of Judaism and my feminism.

I thought a lot about what a 12-year-old girl would be experiencing. It wasn’t the difficulty in learning the material—she was academically brilliant. She started to read at 2 ½, and was learning Hebrew at 3. She was a prodigy in music and she knew English, Hebrew, and French. I didn’t know she had skipped some grades.

Usually it’s about the men. I took classes with Mordecai Kaplan and Ira Eisenstein, so this is not to diminish them.

She wrote the English translation of the song “Chanukah, O Chanukah.” Nobody ever said who it was attributed to. She remained very much her father’s daughter in terms of theology. In the original Yiddish, the song says, Praise God for the miracles. She didn’t include that. She believed human effort brings about redemption, and that the effort is divine.

Her daughters said, Yes, she had the first bat mitzvah, but what she should be known for was her extraordinary contribution to Jewish music.

What she created was a collection of materials that put together music for children. She did the first Jewish songbook for children, and created and broadcast radio stories on the history of Jewish music. She had a huge influence on the Jewish musical tradition.

Q: What do you think Margeaux Lucas's illustrations add to the book?

A: We have one picture of her younger than 20. How you can take an older picture and imagine what she looked like at [a younger] age…I love seeing what illustrations can do!

We did a lot of research on what people would have been wearing, what the hairstyles were, and seeing it all come to life was very powerful.

The only thing I didn’t know was that there was separate seating at that time. She was sitting up in front with the men while the women were in back. I could imagine that would have been a little scary.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?

A: Lots of things. There’s a piece in this book about asking questions. She was always inquisitive and not afraid of asking hard questions. You can question things as Judy did. If it doesn’t make sense to you, don’t just accept it.

It was important to put in what Kaplan and Judy thought about God. It offers another way of looking at that.

And you can overcome your anxieties. To overcome something that hadn’t been done before—don’t let that stop you.

Judy was just like any other 12-year-old girl. This says it doesn’t matter if you’re very young or if you’re a girl. You can do extraordinary things. Don’t let your age or gender stop you.

There’s something very joyful about the story and her relationship to Judaism and to music.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have another book coming out this summer—A Very Big Problem, coauthored with Amy-Jill Levine, a scholar at Vanderbilt. We worked on telling stories and parables to understand the New Testament [in a way that’s] not negative to Jews. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the parables—it was later that that interpretation came in; it was not negative originally.

We joined together—she’s a scholar and I’m a children’s book writer. How can we get kids to appreciate that story about creation? How can each part of creation think it’s best and God should love it most, but come to realize each part is important?

I’m working on another book, Good for Nothing. The idea is that someone plants a fig tree and it doesn’t grow, and someone wants it cut down but the children say, Let it grow and we’ll take care of it.

And I’m working with an environmentalist on a story about climate change.

I’d love to write another story about a powerful woman.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The main thing is that Judy needs to be known not just for the first bat mitzvah—an incredible catalyst for an enormous change in Judaism—but she made an enormous contribution to the history of Jewish music.

At her second bat mitzvah, in 1992, all the women [present] who had had bat mitzvahs since then marched with the Torah. It was so powerful to see what she had started.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

1 comment:

  1. Sandy, Great to read about the first Bat Mitzvah. Wish we Presbyterians had a ceremony that exciting for our young girls to look forward to. Nancy Kriplen