Abe Sass, A Mensch for All Seasons
The following profile I did on Abe Sass reminds me that extraordinary individuals are all around us. He’s married to a dynamo named Rivkah Sass, one of the most honored public librarians in the nation and because of her much feted work in that field she is obstensibly the star of this couple. But as I found out and as I hopefully succeed in sharing with readers like you Abe has a story worth knowing and celebrating too. He’s packed a lot of living into his life and because he’s pursued such a wide range of interests and experiences he’s brushed up against all sorts of historic people and places and events that I trust you will find as compelling as I did.
Abe Sass, A Mensch for All Seasons
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Jewish Press
When your wife is a force of nature named Rivkah Sass, a recent national librarian of the year honoree and a much-in-demand public speaker, it could be easy to get overshadowed. The Omaha Public Library director’s dynamic personality can take over a room. Abe Sass doesn’t mind. In fact, he loves the attention Rivkah gets. You see, he’s not only her husband, but her biggest fan.
“Rivkah has an incredibly difficult job and I really believe she’s already changed the world in Omaha. She is committed,” he said.
There’s no real chance of him being lost in her limelight though. He’s every bit as accomplished as she and cuts a larger-than-life figure in his own right. A veteran psychiatric social worker, Sass has worked in several hospitals, he’s consulted school districts and he’s maintained his own private practice. No longer a full-time therapist, he volunteers his services to clients these days.
Sensitive and empathic as he may be, he’s no shrinking violet. He’s a charismatic presence at library activities and events with his warm smile, quick wit, hearty laugh and earthy demeanor. His six-foot-plus height and full beard help him stand out from the crowd, as does his animated demeanor, which flashes from dramatic whisper to basso profundo boom, all spiced with expletives and dollops of Yiddish.
This son of militant, immigrant garment workers in New York grew up a progressive thinker and activist. He was a rank-and-file soldier in the civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s. He was at the historic march on Washington, D.C. in 1963 when Martin Luther King. Jr. articulated his dream for universal brotherhood. He was a member of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. He took part in his share of demonstrations on behalf of equality and justice.
He’s never lost his social conscience or political fervor, either. He’s remained engaged wherever he roosts, from the tenements of lower Manhattan to the halls of academia to the psychiatric wards at hospitals in California, Washington and Oregon. In Omaha he’s a familiar figure wherever ideas are exchanged, whether a community forum or a book reading or an art opening.
He often conducts therapy sessions in the mid-town home he and Rivkah inhabit. The couple’s place is an expression of their passions. They’re both lovers of literature, art and discussion. They place high value on friends and family. They do puppetry. They tell stories. They champion the underdog. They support causes. They entertain guests. Fittingly, their home is adorned with books, paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, puppets, photographs of loved ones, mementos, keepsakes and campaign buttons emblazoned with liberal slogans, such as “Fight Racism” and “Swords and Plowshares.”
“Everything we do and have done is on our walls,” said Sass, gesturing to the overflow of objects about him in his living room.
He noted a small figurine of a black girl holding a book in one hand and a globe in the other, “which really fits who Rivkah is and who I am,” he said. The figurine is perched at the edge of a table atop which are also an old camera, a pair of cut-outs from artist Wanda Ewing’s black pin-up series and a button that reads “Black Power.” Sometimes there’s a button with a black hand, a brown hand and a white hand coming together that says “Let Us All Be Good Neighbors.” Taken together, he said, the display “is almost like a snapshot of a world that is and a world we could have. In many ways that represents to me where we need to go and, unfortunately, where we haven’t always been.”
Sass traces his humanist bent to his growing up poor in the Chelsea slums of New York City. He never knew his father, an artist, a presser, and Communist Party member who a year after Abe was born in 1938, went to Europe to try and rescue family only to be “swallowed up in the Holocaust.” His mother, Sylvia, endured “a miserable working life,” but sought much more for herself and her only child.
“She gave us a cultural life,” Sass said, “and so on Fridays she and I would go to the Cooper Union Forum to hear lecturers speak and on Saturdays we would go to all the museums in the city, particularly the free ones. In her own gentle, quiet but militant way she was saying, We all need to have certain basic things, rights and freedoms. She’s the one who taught me if there are people on a picket line they’re there for a reason, because they need better working conditions, better salaries, better benefits, and ‘we don’t cross picket lines.’
“All of her contemporaries were militant Jewish garment workers and wherever there was a rally there we were. I was just a kid, but everything they did made crystalline sense to me. It’s through her I met Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson. We would go to places where they were singing. We had a dear friend who was a wonderful militant woman. My mom and I would go with her to like a fraternal gathering place, where they would have speakers, singers. Seeger would come. Robeson would come. It was really cool. One of the major moments for me is when Robeson shook my hand and I felt, wow.”
He said he gained an awareness beyond his years “when we marched in the May Day Parade for working people and we’d get hit by rotten eggs and cabbages and comments like, ‘Go back to Russia’ or Dirty Commie.’” If all the protests he’s been a part of — from fair housing to sane nuclear policy to immigration reform– have taught him anything, he said, it’s that “there are people in this world that just don’t get it. I’m not a pessimist but I believe many people just don’t see there’s a big picture, and I believe one of the things we suffer from — all of us — is we only focus on ‘me.’ It’s dangerous…Unless we really see and feel connections we wind up with a perspective that’s very constricted and myopic.”
Action, not apathy. “We have to reach out and do something for people who need an assist up. It’s like that powerful saying, When they came for him, I didn’t say anything, when they came for her I didn’t say anything, and then when they came for me, nobody said anything. It’s still the same. It hasn’t changed,” he said.
The “cruddy” area he came from offered some valuable lessons on human relations and social conditions. Being the only Jewish kid on his block gave him a sense for what minority really mean.
“We lived in a terrible apartment building on West 18th Street,” now the trendy art neighborhood of New York, he said. “It was a little, dinky three-room apartment. I lived there through my 20s. It was tense and tight and loud and crazy. When you’re Jewish and you grow up in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood you’re an oddball by definition. I was more of an oddball because my aura was a softer aura and the softness not only came from enjoying the sanctuary of the orthodox synagogue I grew up in, but also” from being a reader and an art lover among street kids.
“The kids I was desperately trying to fit into I really had a hard time with, because they were busy kicking other people’s asses and that really was not something I felt comfortable with. And when it came to like stick ball and football and all that shit, nuh-uh, it was like, ‘Oh, get out of here, Abe.’ I was totally useless.”
To survive, he had to find his own schtick.
“Everybody had their thing on the block. You gotta have something to get a rep, OK? My rep was on Sunday nights, when we’d gather on a stoop and I would tell stories to these same kids…just make ‘em up out of my head…and I had them, because I could weave a tale, and I loved it. I shined in that moment.”
At PS 11 Elementary School and at Charles Evans Hughes High School he mixed with Jews, Irish, Italians, African-Americans, Greeks, Asians and practically every other nationality-ethnicity. “It was a potpourri of people,” he said. “You talk about a spectrum, it was all there.”
He fondly recalls the summer camps for “underprivileged children” he attended, and later was a counselor at. They further exposed him to a multi-cultural stew.
“My best friends were always Puerto Rican kids, black kids, Asian kids. I used to drive my poor mother crazy because every summer I’d come home from camp talking like I’m a kid from Harlem. She would say, ‘What kind of talking is this?’”
Counselors at camp, he said, “were usually (university) psychology or social work students. They were there because they had a desire to be there to help kids. Every summer I looked forward to it. When I became a counselor it was a joy for me to help a kid who was going through shit clear out and get away from it and say, Bye-bye shit, I don’t need you anymore. I knew I wanted to do this.”
He credits a camp director with giving him sound career advice. At the time, Sass was weighing what to do after high school. Though he felt called to be a teacher-counselor, he felt stymied by his lack of funds.
“He said, ‘Abe, you’ve got it. If you want it, go for it. The money will show itself. Don’t hold back ‘cause you don’t have the money.’ I totally trusted him and he was right. He was absolutely right. I was lucky enough to go to City College, which didn’t have tuition, and then Columbia University gave me a full tuition scholarship.”
Going from the lower Manhattan ghetto to elite Columbia was quite a leap.
“I was a lucky guy. I was just so happy. I was in fat cat city. That was the best training I could of had and it has helped me right through till now. There just happened to be a confluence of forces that brought these dynamite people to Columbia during those years.”
Above all, he said, he learned “you’ve got to start where your client is. I mean, it sounds glib, but it’s very important to really hear what this person in pain has to say before you lay any agenda out, before you take your freakin’ notes, before you say, ‘Well, where were you born?’ and all that kind of social history bull shit.”
For him, the core of where the therapeutic focus needs to be was brought home by a case study of a subject with “a mouthful of rotten teeth.” Sass posited, “What would it be like walking around day after day with a pain in your head? Is that going to throw you off balance? Yeah. So, we were like back to Abraham Maslow. Basics, man. I have met a lot of people who have spun their wheels with a lot of therapists and they still haven’t dealt with the basics, and it’s sad.”
University life also fed his activist and culturist sensibilities. The Cold War was at its peak. Vietnam was just getting hot. The civil rights movement already underway.
“In college I hung out with The Beats and we were all counterculture,” he said. “We didn’t see the way it was going as the way it needed to go. We felt there was a world out there of creativity, art, exciting ideas and some of that meant taking a stand and a lot of that meant looking at the fact there are a lot of people who are not free, who have less opportunities than we do. So I started into that and my mother, of course, was very proud of that.”
He participated in sit-ins, some to show support for the activists down south “getting their heads plunked.” He was tempted to be a freedom fighter himself in Jim Crow country, and once “I was all but on my way,” before something came up.
He and a friend did go to the nation’s capital for the famous MLK-led ‘63 mass March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“We both felt this would be an important thing to do,” he said. “Several of our friends were going…We drove there. It was wild because all these cars were on the road and people were waving at each other. I mean, we all knew where we were going. It was an amazing experience.
“We first gathered at the Washington Monument, where there were singers and all kinds of speakers, and then we walked to the Lincoln Memorial. It was a hot day and…every once in awhile somebody would pass out, but we were all so tight the person would be lifted up with hands and gently moved to the outer perimeter, where medics and assundry volunteers were set-up. It was like pre-mosh pit.”
The impact of the huge, unified crowd, estimated at 250,000, and of the speakers, capped by King’s rousing “I Have a Dream” oration, was “very, very powerful.”
Last month Abe accompanied Rivkah to D.C. for the American Library Association Conference. He retraced the march he made as part of that great procession 44 years earlier. By the end, he had a Mr. Sass Goes to Washington experience.
“I wound up one late afternoon walking the exact same path. It was hot. I went straight to the Washington Monument. It was very spiritual. Half-way between it and the Lincoln Memorial there’s ‘a Kodak moment’ spot where there’s a little display with a photo of the wading pool that day in ‘63 with all those people.
“I continued on to the Lincoln Memorial. I went up where his Gettysburg Address is engraved on one wall and I don’t know what possessed me, but I started saying it out loud. I know it pretty much by heart. And this group of tourists came over and we’re all looking at it together as I’m reading it out loud and they’re like, right there with me, and I just kept on going.”
He’d had some practice with the speech. Back at PS 11 he was selected to portray Lincoln for a school assembly. On his nostalgia trip back to D.C. all those years later, he didn’t stop with “Four Score and Seven Years Ago…”
“When I was done, I turned and I walked to the wall where his second inaugural address is engraved, and this same group of people followed, and I read that out loud. They were right there with me again. The greatest thing was I called our daughter and I told her where I was and I told her how much I loved her.”
Sass said when his daughter Ilana was a young girl she’d have friends over the house and invariably get down from a shelf the book, The Negro Since Emancipation. The back cover has an image of demonstrators in the ‘63 march and there’s the young Sass towering above the throng. His daughter would proudly proclaim to her pals, “That’s my dad.” “It was very special,” Sass said.
The melting pot experiences Sass had the first half of his life gave him an enriched perspective he carries with him to this day.
“I love my roots, I really do. I treasure them. I feel really good about having been introduced to so many wonderful ways of thinking. The weird thing is, even though there were many aspects of it that were very, very uncomfortable, I’m so glad it happened that way. Because thinking about who I am now I really feel like I viscerally can feel, for example, what people in parts of Omaha feel when they’re talking about the kind of shitty conditions they’re living in and have been living in for years and there’s no f___ing excuse for it. There really isn’t.”
Not long after moving with Rivkah to Omaha about four years ago, he attended a north Omaha town hall meeting at which Mayor Mike Fahey and his cabinet responded to issues confronting the inner city. Sass said an older woman pointedly asked how it is the cracked streets and backed-up sewers area residents like her knew as kids are still in disrepair decades later, and, how come residents out west don’t have these problems. No real answers were forthcoming. The gap between black Omaha and white suburbia apparent in the void.
“It’s hard to even try to say what I was feeling as I sat there,” Sass said. “Here we are in 2007 and there’s all this stuff about segregation…The struggle goes on, and you can’t be blind to it. You really can’t be blind to it.”
The poor, old working-class woman kvetching about inequality reminded him of his mother, each asymbol of the proletariat struggling to get by.
“She would go the shop and sit behind a sewing machine all day long busting her chops,” he said of his mom. “And she worked and worked and worked, and when she was 62-years-old she was wasted. It’s very, very sad.”
He was reminded, too, of when he went to California in the mid-’60s, fresh from Columbia, and found an unfriendly climate. En route, he stopped for gas at a roadside filling station, where, he said, “this guy and I got to talking.” When Sass mentioned he was heading for Napa, he recalled “the man saying, ‘Oh, you’re going to love it, there are no niggers in Napa.’ Holy shit, I just about fell down. Could not believe it. That’s one of the things that propelled me to join CORE.”
Once there he was dismayed to discover a form of red-lining being practiced whereby “realtors in the area were knocking on doors and saying, ‘There’s a black family moving in down the street from you — you might want to sell your house now because its value is going to diminish.’ That was going on when I got there,” he said, “so I got involved in the opposite campaign.”
He threw himself into resisting city plans for razing an established residential neighborhood built during the war for shipyards workers and their families and building high-priced condos in its place.
“A lot of the people who lived there were going to get displaced,” he said. “We (CORE) got involved in a big campaign to stop that. We had rallies, marches.
“Also, we started a freedom school in a storefront and kids would come in and we’d help them with whatever their issue was. Helping people connect with their community is very powerful.”
Wherever he saw discrimination he tried meeting it head-on.
“Not too long after I got to Napa I went for lunch with my friend Frank, a black psychiatrist. We were in this local-yokel place. We ordered and we waited. People came in after us and were served while we’re still sitting there. We asked what’s going on and the wait staff said, ‘We’re out of what you ordered.’ So we said, How about such and such? And they said, ‘We’re out of anything you’ll order.’ We really got pissed off and like two days later a shit load of us showed up, black as black can be, man. I was one of the few white guys in the group.
“We were sitting there and we weren’t moving until we got served. We said, ‘If you don’t have it today, we’re coming back tomorrow.’ They just shit in their pants. And the name of the game was they changed their policy. But not because they’re kind-hearted. It’s the pocket book. It’s money.”
He noted another incident that happened when he lived in an apartment complex. Black friends of his from CORE came over and went for a swim in the pool. When they jumped in, the whites jumped out. The next day, Sass said, he found his car’s tires slashed. He had to insist the police treat the matter as a hate crime.
“It’s sad and it’s funny and crazy and pathetic and angry…all that stuff,” he said.
He knows how hard it is for people to change attitudes and behaviors. He’s spent the better part of his life helping people try to do just that. “When somebody is going through a terrible emotional crisis my job is to help them create a revolution within themselves because what they’ve been doing is not working for them. If the revolution is successful they move on and it’s like a different world.”
Abe and Rivkah have endured their own crises, including the loss of a son.
In order to grow and to conquer our fears, he said, we must take chances. “So frequently what we do — all of us — is let ourselves be preoccupied with the fear of what will happen. It holds us all back….A piece of what I do is to help people see that right now is what we have,” he said. “I think my gift somehow is to guide people through hard times. It’s an art. I think you’re either born with this gift or not of allowing someone into your skin and your getting into their skin, safely, without being made to feel violated.”
When he was In California he worked with his share of people whose substance and lifestyle excesses caused them to “freak out.” He’s done his own experimenting and, he said, “it’s given me a better understanding of what people go through.”
Since coming to Omaha he’s worked with individuals, couples and families on a pro bono basis. He and Rivkah volunteered as puppeteers, storytellers and Sunday school teachers in the Pacific Northwest. He’s performed at synagogues. He, Rivkah and a mutual friend formed the Rosebud Puppet Theater. He does much the same today at local day cares. The puppet characters are drawn from Jewish folklore and include Schlemiel and Lyzer the Miser.
As it takes a mensch to know one, he’s hooked up with some of Omaha’s most righteous folks, including Holocaust survivor Rachel Rosenberg, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, community watchdog Ben Gray and early childhood education pioneer Evie Zysman.
“There are people here that are very committed to justice and to fairness and equality. I just wish there were more of them and they had more clout and money,” he said.
He and Zysman, a former social worker, both hold degrees from Columbia’s School of Social Work. He adores her. “Hey, if I can be like Evie Zysman when I get to be her age, I’m home free. She’s a pistol, an absolute pistol. Formidable, incisive, cutting, sharp.” These kindred spirits don’t go in for the superficial chatter of the cocktail circuit. They prefer “Intense and meaningful dialogue,” he said.
He and Rivkah also count among their friends such local artists as author Timothy Schaffert, painter Wanda Ewing and sculptor Littleton Alston.
Like always, his friends are a rainbow coalition. Whatever one’s race or religion, he said, differences melt away “when you do things together. You become kind of like each other,” he said. Welcome to the wonderful world of Abe Sass.
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