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Seattle Author Elana Zaiman Urges People To Write 'Forever Letters' To Loved Ones

Autumn Azure Photography
Elana Zaiman

In this day of Tweets and texts and likes on Facebook, it may seem like a throwback to pick up a pen and write a letter. But Dec. 7 happens to be National Letter Writing Day, and Seattle author Elana Zaiman is urging all of us to sit down and write letters to our loved ones.

Zaiman, a rabbi and chaplain at The Summit At First Hill, a retirement community, has written a new book called The Forever Letter: Writing What We Believe For Those We Love.

She said she was inspired by an ancient Jewish tradition of writing what’s called an ethical will, in which a parent would write to his or her children to explain how to live a meaningful Jewish life.

Zaiman said when she was a teenager, her father, also a rabbi, wrote an ethical will to her and her siblings. It was compiled in a book from his synagogue and he told her to guess which one he had written. She quickly narrowed it down to a few and then he confirmed that it was one of the ones she had selected. She said she immediately started reading it.

“I just cried and cried,” Zaiman said. “It was maybe eight paragraphs. It was the heart of my father. I felt like he was able to really be who he was, express himself, and even state what he wasn’t pleased with about himself.”

She said that willingness of her father to reveal his flaws meant a lot to her because people in her community put him on a pedestal as the rabbi of a large congregation.

“So it was this realization that he saw himself as human,” Zaiman said. “And that letter has meant so much to me. I’ve read it over the years. I keep it when I feel like I need to hear his voice – we’re on opposite ends of the country, I pull it out. So I come back to that letter often.”

From that history of ethical wills, Zaiman came up with the idea for a “forever letter,” which she describes as something meant to uplift the recipient.

“The sense of this is that there’s an urgency,” she said. “Because what do we most want to say to the people we love about them, about us, about the relationship? And why don’t we say it?”

Overcoming writer’s block can be difficult and capturing the meaning of a relationship on paper can be tough.  Zaiman acknowledged that but said it’s worth it. She said one way to get the words flowing is to set aside a good chunk of time.

“Make yourself a cup of tea, get yourself all cozy, and just begin to say, 'What is it that I most want to share with this person about our relationship?'” she said.

As for holiday cards, Zaiman encouraged people to go beyond pre-printed cards and take the time to write individual messages to people – and if possible, to send them “forever letters.”

“What better gift can we give than really sharing our authentic selves with the people we love?” she asked.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.