Syrian-born divinity professor discovers America as the land of opportunity
by Lew Harris
Jack Sasson remembers disembarking from the ship, the Leonardo de Vinci, and setting foot in America for the first time.
"When I came down the gangplank, I found a nickel and I thought, 'This is the land of opportunity,'" said Sasson, who will be installed Sept. 12 as the first holder of the Mary Jane Werthan Chair of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Vanderbilt. The formal installation ceremony, slated for 6 p.m. at Sarratt Cinema with a reception afterward, is open to the public. Sasson came to Nashville in 1999 after a distinguished, 33-year career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Sasson was almost 14 years old when his family arrived in New York City in 1955. He was born in Syria but the family, sensing increased hostility to Jewish people in that country, moved to Lebanon when he was 6.
"As soon as we got there, my mother went to the American consulate and applied for immigration for our family," Sasson said. "We applied and then forgot about it because the immigration laws were such that they admitted only a very limited number from the Arab world. Then in the mid-1950s, we got word from the consulate that they had enough places for our family. They said, 'You have a few weeks to decide; otherwise, you lose your turn.' So we decided to come to America."
The family moved to a Syrian enclave in Brooklyn. All members of the family spoke Arabic and French but not English. Still, two of Sasson's oldest sisters found employment at American Express. An older brother went to work for a relative. Sasson's father, who knew five languages but not English, had a harder time making a living.
"He would go on the road selling things here and there but basically it was not an easy life for him," Sasson said. "It's always the same immigrant story of parents who come here already mature and are sacrificing for the sake of their children. If they had come here in their 20s or teens, it would have been much better for them. I have to say that I could never imagine a more forceful way for parents to display love for their children. They really came here with nothing."
Sasson and two brothers were enrolled in the public school system. He entered Abraham Lincoln High School as a sophomore.
"I was much too young for the level they put me in," he remembered. "What happened was that when I was interviewed, the person interviewing me flattered herself because she spoke French. She thought I was a genius because I spoke French but that's what I knew -- French and Arabic. I did not know English"
Sasson encountered major culture shock at Lincoln High.
"Boys and girls were talking to each other," he said. "Boys and girls were walking hand-in-hand, making jokes with each other. It was amazing. In my world, boys were here, girls were there, and you didn't have anything to do with each other. Here also there was a school system where students could kibitz with the teachers. In Lebanon, we had teachers who would throw a box of pencils toward us for being sassy."
After graduating from Lincoln High, Sasson enrolled in Brooklyn College, part of the City of New York college system that provided free tuition and a stipend for books. He lived at home and graduated with a degree in history in 1962.
Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., offered him a full tuition scholarship and a $1,000 stipend for graduate study. He intended to get a doctorate in Islamic studies but was not pleased with the doctoral thesis he was being forced to do. So, despite having done all the course work in Islamic studies, he switched to Ancient Near Eastern Studies and earned his doctorate in that field in 1966.
"In 1966, (academic) jobs were a dime a dozen," Sasson said. Colleges and universities were exploding with new programs and they were hiring like crazy. Tons of money was coming from the government to do it. I was invited for interviews by about five or six colleges."
He visited the University of Connecticut and was offered a job. He also visited the University of Wisconsin and the University of Illinois. But the beauty of Chapel Hill captivated him when he visited the University of North Carolina.
"It was springtime when I visited and Waltham was still dank and dingy," Sasson said. "When I came to North Carolina, the natives were practically naked, the birds were singing, the sap was rising and the azaleas were in bloom. I was young and it was beautiful. I fell in love with the place and when they offered me a job before leaving, I signed right there."
Sasson rose from assistant professor to associate professor in1972 and then to full professor in 1977. He was appointed to the prestigious Kenan Chair in 1991. He also served as chair of the Department of Religious Studies from 1988-93.
He served as president of the American Oriental Society in 1996-97 and president of the Society for Biblical Literature in 1988. Sasson is an editor for the "Ancient Near Eastern and Bible" portion of the Journal of the American Oriental Society. He was chief editor of Scribner's Civilization of the Ancient Near East from 1990 to 1995 and is a member of the editorial boards of three other journals.
At North Carolina, Sasson served as president of the Faculty Club, served on an advisory committee on endowed scholarships and was a member of the Faculty Athletic Committee. He also was a member of the Faculty Council, the Arts and Science Advisory Committee, the Library Board and the Faculty Assembly Delegation.
"Professor Sasson is one of the most widely recognized people in the world in the field of Ancient Near Eastern studies," said Joseph C. Hough, dean of Union Theological Seminary in New York and former dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School. Hough, along with Albert and Mary Jane Werthan, was instrumental in bringing Sasson to Vanderbilt. Mary Jane Werthan died Aug. 15 at age 92.
"The Werthans invited us to their house to meet them when I was being recruited," Sasson said. "Mary Jane, her husband Albert and her sister Elizabeth were incredibly hospitable. Since coming here, my wife and I have enjoyed supper with them a number of times. We are both very sad that she is no longer with us, but she has left a legacy of civic, cultural and educational accomplishments that will continue to benefit a great many people for a long, long time to come."
Sasson has been extremely pleased at the Divinity School, both with his colleagues and the students.
"This place is terrific," he said. "The student body is wonderful. I find them alive, dynamic, even if occasionally rather anxious. A good number of them are reshaping their careers and lives, so they worry a lot about what is expected of them. But they are bright and alive and ready to tackle anything, often bringing knowledge and expertise from their own careers."
Sasson and his wife, Diane, are also very pleased with Nashville and the friends they are making in the city. If they can convince their children (three boys and a daughter-in-law) to visit them more often here, they think that their lives could not be bettered.