Author Of The Forever Letter

An Interview with Elana Zaiman

1. Your new book is titled, The Forever Letter. What exactly is a Forever Letter?

A Forever Letter is a heartfelt letter we write to the people who matter to us most to communicate our values, wisdom, appreciation, hopes, and love, to ask for forgiveness, and to forgive. Our intention: that our letters or the messages that our letters impart are meaningful enough for our recipients to want to hold onto them forever.

2. What inspired you to write The Forever Letter?

The Forever Letter was inspired by the centuries-old Jewish tradition of the "ethical will," a letter parents would write to their children to pass on their values.

I had been teaching on this topic of ethical wills for years before I realized that I was, in fact, creating a new kind of letter. Ethical wills specifically refer to letters written by the elder to the younger generation, but the letters I was speaking, teaching, and writing about were letters that could be written by the younger to the elder generation, or by people in the same generation to one another.

Also, some of these ancient letters possessed a rather commanding tone, and while I was encouraging people to write letters sharing values, and sharing hard truths with love, I was not encouraging a commanding tone. In fact, over the years I have spent a lot of time in my workshops speaking to how important it is to be attuned to our tone, and to meet the persons to whom we're writing where they are and not where we want them to be.

3. You've talked about how you were inspired to write The Forever Letter because of your interest in ethical wills. How did you initially become interested in ethical wills?

My interest in ethical wills came in my teens. My father, a beloved congregational rabbi and community leader, came home from synagogue one day and handed me a booklet with the title: "A Collection of Ethical Wills." He said, "Here, one of these is mine. See if you can guess which one." I had no idea what ethical wills were, but I read my father's introduction, got the gist, and made my way through the booklet to see if I could find my father's letter. The rest of the story you can read about in the book, but that letter had such a deep impact on me that I continue to return to it when I find myself in a reflective place, want to hear my Dad's voice, or when I want to return to a certain period in our family history.

4. You're the first woman rabbi from a family spanning six generations of rabbis, with your career spanning rabbinical work at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan to being a chaplain in the elder community to working with teens and college students. How has your work in all of these different settings with all of these different age groups been instrumental in your desire to write The Forever Letter?

Over the years, as a rabbi and as a chaplain, I've heard a lot about the pain people carry because of unresolved issues in their families and in their relationships. Today's contentious political climate contributes even more to this pain. My desire has always been and continues to be: to bring people together to authentically share and communicate with one another. I view the Forever Letter as a tool to help people look more honestly at themselves and at their relationships and to help them better communicate what they most want the people they love to know about them, and what they most want to share with the people they love.

5. What do you hope readers will take away from reading The Forever Letter?

Connecting with the people we love and care about is one of the most important things we can do. To connect in writing, to put ourselves on the page is not only a gift for we who write (to enable us to reflect on ourselves and our relationships), but also for the people to whom we are writing (who receive a hug in written form).

About Elana Zaiman

Elana Zaiman (Seattle, WA) is the first woman rabbi from a family spanning six generations of rabbis. She's also a chaplain and a writer. Elana travels throughout the U.S. and Canada as a scholar-in-residence, speaker, and ...

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