By Lesley Simpson.
When the famous writer Sholom Aleichem died, his family discovered he had written more than “merry stories”. The comic writer, whose real name was Solomon Rabinovtich, had left his family what is sometimes called a “love letter from the hereafter” also known as an ethical will. He suggested his family could honour his memory by saying Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for mourners, but he also offered his family another option: reading his most hilarious stories on the anniversary of his death each year. His name would be remembered with laughter. And this year-2016- will be the 100th anniversary of the event his descendants have organized with love and laughter.
Jewish civilization is known for its textual culture-we have inventive midrash, Talmudic debates and rabbinic sermons, essays and blogs. We are people of the Book, right? But what about what might be called the voix populaire, the voice of the ordinary folks like you and me? I became curious about this tradition and noticed that Canadian voices were not well represented in the literature.
People are familiar with a legal will which divides assets. The ethical will is about someone’s hopes, dreams and moral legacy. It is not legally binding and is more of a love letter about life itself. Most– but not all letters–are written from parents to children and grandchildren. Sometimes young people write one as well. People without children write to family and friends. Public figures (including rabbis, community leaders and philanthropists) also write them and those often presume a more public audience. Some letters are funny, some are serious, some are long and some are short. The narrative voice is as various as the people who write them. They are part of a longstanding Jewish tradition that is not well known and the subject of my PhD research. I am a student in Jewish studies at York University. In my other writing life I write Jewish picture books (lesleysimpson.ca). Prior to returning to school, I worked as a journalist for Canadian daily newspapers, hence my love of stories!
I am issuing an invitation to the Jewish community at Holy Blossom to contact me if you have written an ethical will you would be willing to share for my future research. It’s my hope one day to edit a Canadian collection of these voices which have not yet been publicly represented .
Please send queries to [email protected].