Book Reviews, Words of Wisdom

An Interview With Elana Zaiman, Author of The Forever Letter

In the fall of 2017, BooksandBlintzes shared a review of Rabbi Elana Zaiman’s book “The Forever Letter”. We followed up with the author to find out more about her work and inspiration, and are excited to feature this follow-up interview.

INTERVIEW QUESTIONS with Rabbi Elana Zaiman, Author of The Forever Letter: Writing What We Believe for Those We Love

What is a forever letter? The Forever Letter

I conceived of Forever LettersTM as a process for self-reflection that focuses on healing, uplifting and deepening our most important interpersonal relationships. One of the outcomes can be letters that share our values and wisdom, ask for forgiveness or forgive, and express our gratitude and love. We hope that our letters are treasured as enduring, timeless gifts.

Why are Forever Letters so meaningful for you?

I have seen so much pain in families and in relationships. I know people who haven’t talked to family members or friends for years, not even remembering why they had not been speaking. I have found that sometimes these letters can open a door that has been closed for years and give a defunct relationship a jump start.

Do you think the letter writing process can be adapted for those who aren’t able to read and/or write due to disability? How do you think this could enhance or complicate the process?

If an individual cannot read or write, that person may still be able to speak their words for someone else to write them down.
This can be an amazing process, helping someone to get their thoughts and feelings down on paper in the form of a letter. Not only does the letter have the possibility of deepening the relationship between author and recipient, it also has the possibility of creating a deeper bond between the author and the person transcribing the author’s words on the page.
A complication can emerge in helping anyone write down their thoughts and feelings, and that is this: that the written word ends up sounding more like the person writing and transcribing the words than it does like the individual speaking them. Great care needs to be taken to hold onto the voice of the author.

What are the longest and shortest letters that you have ever written/seen others write?

I have seen letters of a few sentences, a paragraph, a few paragraphs, a few pages, many pages, book length. It depends on the desire of the author and the purpose of the letter.

Have you personally, or do you know of anyone, who has regretted something he/she wrote?

I don’t know of anyone who has expressed regret. In my book, I emphasize the importance of taking the recipient’s feelings into account before writing, as well as, putting aside the letter for a while and then re-reading it a couple times from different perspectives. Despite our best efforts, having regrets may still happen. If our heartfelt intention is to heal, uplift, and deepen our relationship then we can always reach out again.

You are a writer. What is it in you that impels you to write?

The need to know myself. When I don’t write for extended periods of time I lose a connection to myself, I feel less whole.

Elana Zaiman loves connecting wiElana Zaimanth people. She is the first woman rabbi from a family spanning six generations of rabbis. Elana travels throughout the U.S. and Canada as a scholar-in-residence, speaker, and workshop facilitator. She teaches and lectures at social service agencies, law firms, women’s organizations, private salons, synagogues, churches, interfaith-gatherings, geriatric residencies, and elder-law, health-care and financial and estate-planning conferences. She’s a chaplain at The Summit at First Hill, a retirement community in Seattle; a certified Wise Aging instructor (IJS), and Adjunct Faculty at Seattle’s Harborview Hospital CPE Program. In addition to being the Ethics and Spirituality columnist for LivFun, a publication for Leisure Care retirement facilities in 10 states, her writing has been published in The Gettysburg Review, The Sun, Post Road, American Letters & Commentary, and elsewhere. Elana also volunteers as a co-partner in the Seattle Limbe Sewing Circle, an intergenerational and interracial community which brings together Jews, Muslims, and Christians to create feminine hygiene kits for girls in Cameroon, Africa. Elana lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband and their son.

 

Book Reviews

The Forever Letter – Elana Zaiman

Rabbi Elana Zaiman is passionate about making connections. Her book, The Forever Letter, will convince any writing-shy scribbler that putting words onto paper (or typing them into a computer) is the most effective way to communicate what is in our hearts to the dearest people in our lives. Zaiman has been teaching and speaking on the topic for years, and her experience is evident in the book’s clarity and organization. She includes the questions, writing prompts, and detailed process notes that empower the reader to use it to write their own letters. While I read it as an e-book, many will prefer to be able to jot down their thoughts and ideas in the margins as they go.

This book does stir the pot with readers’ emotions. Zaiman uses her extensive professional background as both a pulpit rabbi and chaplain to challenge readers with difficult and intimate questions. The paradox of Zaiman’s forever letter is that it may be most valuable to its writer and reader at the time when it may be most difficult to write and read it. Forever letters can be a tremendous source of comfort and a powerful tool for connecting to the important people in our lives. But they are time consuming and thought-intensive to write, which makes it difficult to have them handy at times of crises. Forever letters could certainly be the basis of the sage Hillel’s famous teaching “don’t put off what you can do today”.

The tradition of the Jewish ethical will forms the backbone and background for Zaiman’s work, but she separates her explanation of this practice in an appendix at the end of the book. Readers who are less familiar with Jewish ethical wills and their history may find it useful to review this appendix before jumping into forever letters. Other readers may prefer to read it first as it more firmly grounds Zaiman’s book within the world of Jewish practice. Still others may overlook it altogether, particularly if they are more interested in the book as a practical resource for writing letters of their own.

Because the book’s subject matter is so deeply personal, Forever Letters is best left to the reader’s discretion. Parts of it could be useful for discussion and counseling with families who are planning life cycle events, and close friends will also appreciate having a trusted reading buddy with whom to reflect. Forever Letters is not a beach read, but as we begin to look towards the High Holidays, it could lead to a profound experience of possibilities in the new Jewish year.

I received a copy of this e-book via NetGalley specifically for the purpose of writing a review. The thoughts and opinions in this review are mine alone.