Rarely have I had the opportunity to review a book written by someone I know – what an intimidating responsibility this is. Lucky for me, I found this book by Elana Zaiman – a woman I grew up with and whose path randomly crossed mine so many times over the years – very engaging and helpful. So much so, that I’m contemplating writing a few Forever Letters of my own.
The “forever letter” is an outgrowth of the ethical will, a will or letter that expresses your thoughts, wishes, stories, or apologies to anyone of significance in your life. Elana’s rationale is that when you put pen to paper, you can pour out your heart, but at the same time think through exactly what you want to say to a special person in your life. Many of us can write things we cannot say – whether they sound too corny or make us cry too much or feel too awkward – and sometimes we feel the other person may not be able to hear what we have to say directly from us without reading it in a letter. In addition, having something written allows for someone to potentially keep it with them long after you are gone.
Elana has traveled around the country, giving workshops on this subject and peppers each chapter with anecdotes about individuals grappling with the complex issues these letters raise. How do I transmit to my children the values I hold dear without leaving too restrictive a “commandment” when I die? How can I express anger at a parent for their absence but not sever a tie with them? Is it too late to apologize to my sibling after all these years? There is a lot of emotional baggage that is dragged out of storage when you are talking about these types of letters and writing them, actually putting these feelings into words that are permanent can have lasting effects. This must be done very thoughtfully. And each chapter is therefore written with this in mind, giving examples and prompts and guidelines to encourage the writer to be reflective and mindful, but also loving and honest in the writing of these letters.
Elana includes a lot of personal vignettes, her own forever letter that she received from her father that triggered her understanding of the impact of these letters, and her forever letter to her own son. These are powerful and allow us into her life in a very intimate way. She shares her own vulnerabilities – mistakes and successes – and allows us to see her not just as a rabbi, spiritual leader, and speaker, but as a human being with a deep emotional life and normal human frailties. Likewise, she emphasizes that these are components of the best forever letters.
If you are contemplating such a letter – or if you’ve never heard of one! – this is a compelling book for you to read!