by Michal Hoschan­der Malen

JBWs Michal Hoschan­der Malen inter­viewed Rab­bi Sandy Sas­so about the many children’s books she has authored and about where she finds the in­spirations for her stories.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen: Rab­bi Sas­so, your love­ly books, although geared to young chil­dren, are filled with spir­i­tu­al con­nec­tions and a sense of reach­ing beyond our dai­ly lives. Can you tell us a bit about your over­all philoso­phies and how you are able to trans­mit some of that feel­ing to a new generation?

Rab­bi Sandy Sas­so: I began writ­ing for chil­dren in the late 1980s. I want­ed books about God, spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, and the Bible that I could read to my own chil­dren and the chil­dren I taught. Most of the children’s lit­er­a­ture in these areas was either too preachy or con­tained ideas that chil­dren would be prone to reject when they grew old­er. Chil­dren have an innate spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and they are capa­ble of talk­ing about life’s big ques­tions. Often adults are afraid of the con­ver­sa­tion. Writ­ing about the sacred, the divine, doesn’t mean sim­pli­fy­ing the con­cept, just the lan­guage. When I write, I address a num­ber of ques­tions: How might chil­dren expe­ri­ence the sacred in their dai­ly expe­ri­ences? How might they come to under­stand Bible tales as more than ancient texts, as liv­ing sto­ries of which they are a part? How can sto­ry be a way hon­or­ing the spir­i­tu­al lives of chil­dren and encour­age a con­tin­u­ing conversation?

MHM: The new Noah movie has reawak­ened inter­est in the old Bible tale and one is remind­ed that you wrote a book only a few short years ago fea­tur­ing Noah’s wife, Naamah. Please tell us about your vision of Naamah and why you think she is an impor­tant fig­ure for the youth of today. How much, if any, of the Naamah char­ac­ter is based on any­thing hint­ed at in the Bib­li­cal text? What can we learn from the Noah sto­ry about the world we live in now? Are there any lessons we can car­ry away with us? 

RSS: Often when I read Bib­li­cal nar­ra­tives what fas­ci­nates me the most is the voice that is miss­ing. When a stu­dent once asked me who Noah’s wife was, I had noth­ing to say. I decid­ed to look at rab­binic sources to see if they might tell me some­thing. I found two names, Naamah and Emz­er­ah. Naamah means pleas­ing” and Emz­er­ah, Moth­er of Seed.” That wasn’t much to go on, but it was enough for a sto­ry. Noah saved the ani­mal life. I imag­ined that Naamah col­lect­ed two of every seed, plant­ed a gar­den on the ark and replant­ed the earth’s gar­den after the Flood. 

I write that as Naamah was col­lect­ing all the plants to bring on the ark, she passed by the dan­de­lions. God tells her again to gath­er seeds of every plant. Naamah knows that means the dan­de­lions too. Because she had ignored them God made cer­tain that dan­de­lions would cov­er the earth. 

Soon after the book came out I received a call from the assis­tant to the Sec­re­tary of the Inte­ri­or of the Unit­ed States! He told me that he had read my book and want­ed to know where I had found the part about the dan­de­lions. The need for envi­ron­men­tal preser­va­tion was essen­tial and he want­ed to know the sacred source. I told him that I found it in my imag­i­na­tion. He was dis­ap­point­ed. He need­ed some­thing a bit more ancient! 

Toward the end of the book, I sug­gest that it is Naamah who puts an olive seed in the mouth of the raven and encour­ages him to drop it to the earth. When the dove returns with the olive branch, Noah says it is a mir­a­cle; Naamah just smiles! 

It is impor­tant for young peo­ple to know that noth­ing and no one is unim­por­tant; that even when they feel ignored, they are loved. They have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to care for the earth, to con­tin­ue to plant the trees and the gar­den, to care for our envi­ron­ment. It is more impor­tant now than ever. I also want our young peo­ple to come to real­ize that they shouldn’t wait for mir­a­cles; they can make them happen.

MHM: We more recent­ly reviewed two of your oth­er books, The She­ma in the Mezuzah: Lis­ten­ing to Each Oth­er and Creation’s First Light. The She­ma in the Mezuzah was a won­der­ful sto­ry about com­pro­mise. What is the source for this story? 

RSS: The sto­ry is based on a twelfth-cen­tu­ry argu­ment between two great schol­ars, Rashi and his grand­son, Rabbe­nu Tam. They dis­agreed about how the mezuzah should be placed on the door posts of the house. Rashi thought that we should put the mezuzah ver­ti­cal­ly. Rabbe­nu Tam believed it should be in a hor­i­zon­tal posi­tion. In the end, they compro­mised and decid­ed to slant the mezuzah. I had known about this debate for a long time and told it as part of a ser­mon. Then one day when I was think­ing about what sto­ry to tell at a fam­i­ly ser­vice, my hus­band Den­nis asked, Why don’t you tell the sto­ry of the mezuzah?” I took his advice and the kids loved it! It was the begin­ning of The She­ma in the Mezuzah. Because it deals with the impor­tance of lis­ten­ing and com­pro­mise, it isn’t just a sto­ry for chil­dren. Many peo­ple who read the book sug­gest that I send it to Congress! 

MHM: Creation’s First Light is suf­fused with a sense of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and joy. Where do you get the ideas for your books and what moti­vates you to write for children? 

RSS: Often the ideas come from ques­tions — my own or oth­ers. I recall telling the cre­ation sto­ry from Gen­e­sis. I asked if there was any part of the sto­ry we could do with­out and still have all the sto­ry we need­ed. One per­son sug­gest­ed that we did not need the light of the first day, because we had the light of the sun and the moon. 

What was the light of the first day? I knew the midrash about the pri­mor­dial light that was greater than the sun and the moon and that it had been lost after Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowl­edge. Despite many sug­ges­tions in rab­binic text, I still was not sure where the pri­mor­dial light was hid­den. When my first grand­son was born, I looked into his eyes and I saw that light. It was then that I knew its name — the soul. 

When I talk to chil­dren about this sto­ry, they under­stand that spiri­tual light in ways I nev­er thought pos­si­ble. They can tell the dif­fer­ence between the light of the sun, the moon and the stars, the arti­fi­cial lights of lamps and flash­lights and the deep­er light of the soul. Our chil­dren have that spe­cial light and they want to tell us about it. It is up to us to insure that they have the lan­guage, so that it can con­tin­ue to burn more brightly. 

MHM: Can you share with our read­ers a few details about your writ­ing process? 

RSS: I read; I observe. Some­thing strikes me — a midrash, a ques­tion. Then a thought grabs hold of me and won’t let go. It is a bit like the ac­count of Jacob strug­gling with the angel. Only in writ­ing, I am wrestling with ideas and words, and I won’t let go until they bless me. I wrote many of my books while I was serv­ing as a rab­bi of a large con­gre­ga­tion. Peo­ple would often ask me, Where do you find the time?” When a sto­ry is in­side you, you can’t sleep if you don’t write it down. Time finds you — even in the mid­dle of the night. It is exhil­a­rat­ing and hard — lots of edit­ing and dis­card­ing, play­ful­ness and patience. 

If I am work­ing with a Bible tale or a midrash, I weave tra­di­tion­al texts with imag­i­na­tion and lis­ten for the silences. Some­times the char­ac­ters have a mind of their own. When you live with them long enough, they take you places you didn’t at first think you would go. You car­ry the sto­ry with you and in you. And when it is fin­ished, you give birth. And just like a child, the sto­ry takes on a life of its own. 

MHM: Are there any new books or sub­jects we can look for­ward to in the fore­see­able future? Do you have any hints or teasers for us to whet our appetites? 

RSS: There is a book that will be pub­lished in the fall that tells of the chest­nut tree behind Anne Frank’s Secret Annex. Saplings from that tree are being plant­ed in eleven places in the U.S. Anne Frank and the Remem­ber­ing Tree is the sto­ry of Anne Frank from the point of view of the tree. 

I am also work­ing on an adult anthol­o­gy with Penin­nah Schram on Jew­ish Love and Mar­riage: Sto­ries from the Bible to Con­tem­po­rary Time (work­ing title). 

I thought you might be inter­est­ed in the fol­low­ing expla­na­tion of one of my books because of the recent release of the movie. The Noah movie remind­ed me of my sto­ry of Naamah and the recent book and movie, Heav­en is For Real, make me think back to the book I wrote in 1999, For Heaven’s Sake. The sto­ry tells of a lit­tle boy named Isa­iah whose grand­fa­ther has died. Peo­ple tell him that his grand­fa­ther went to Heav­en and Isa­iah wants to know what heav­en is. He receives many answers, none of which sat­is­fy him. Final­ly his grand­moth­er takes Isa­iah to all the places his grand­fa­ther loved to vis­it and vol­un­teer. Then she says, I think, Isa­iah, we can get close to Heav­en and to God in a place in our hearts. I feel there is a part of Grand­pa in all the places and peo­ple we vis­it­ed today, and lit­tle bit of Heav­en, too.” I wrote this sto­ry in part because as a rab­bi I was often asked this ques­tion and most of the books I read were not sat­is­fy­ing. I felt a need for a nar­ra­tive that did not depict this world sim­ply as a wait­ing room for the world to come, but a real place where we can make life hell or heavenly. 

MHM: Thank you so much, Rab­bi Sandy Eisen­berg Sas­so. We look for­ward to many more cre­ative and beau­ti­ful books from your flow­ing pen. 

JBC thanks Jew­ish Lights Pub­lish­ing for help in facil­i­tat­ing this interview.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is a librar­i­an and edi­tor of ref­er­ence books. She is the children’s and young adult sec­tion edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World.

Relat­ed Content:

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.