Try to tell a child today that when you were a kid you used to write letters, and he will look at you strangely. He may even ask you if you wrote a, b, or c?
Once upon a time, children went off to summer camp and their parents would remind them to write letters. Wise parents would place self-addressed, stamped letters in their child’s suitcase before the child left to camp. Even wiser parents would remind their children that canteen money would be sent in response to letters written home.
Back then, during supper in camp, every camper would excitedly rush to the table, eager to find out if someone sent him a letter.
I have many fond memories from the letters I received from my parents, grandparents, and friends, when I was a camper. Aside from asking how things were going and hoping I was having a great time, my father’s letters often included lamenting about how poorly the Yankees were doing (in the early 1990s the Yankees were pretty bad). Without those updates, I would have had no clue. Those letters were our connection to the outside world.
These days, campers know the scores of every game often before their parents back home know. Campers also receive numerous printed emails delivered to their table each night. It’s rare for a camper to receive a handwritten letter. If he does, he may be confused about how to open it. Sometimes his teenage counselor is just as bewildered.
More than the information they contained, handwritten letters helped us feel connected to the writer of the letter.
According to the US Postal Service, the average home only received a personal letter once every seven weeks in 2010, down from once every two weeks in 1987. In recent years, the average American only received ten pieces of handwritten mail throughout the year! Who has time for stamps, stationery, and “manual” spell-check?
Cousins of ours who made aliyah a few decades ago were looking to move to a newly developing yishuv (settlement) in Eretz Yisrael. As part of the vetting process to decide if they were a good fit for the community, they were told that they had to submit a handwritten essay that contained certain pertinent information, which would be reviewed by a graphologist.
After they submitted it, the graphologist wrote a report describing their personalities and other information about them that she gleaned from their writing.
My cousin related that the results were eerie. The graphologist’s report was incredibly accurate. It was as if she had known them for years. All that from one essay written in his and her own handwriting.
Seeing someone’s handwriting is seeing a piece of the person.
The beauty of a handwritten note is that it shows deeper investment and appreciation than a simple verbal or emailed thank-you.
A valuable, yet often forgotten, way to enhance relationships is to leave written messages in different places.
A friend related that one year, before Yom Kippur, he left a personalized note in each of his older children’s machzorim, telling them how proud he was of them and blessing them with a wonderful year. Of course, he could have just told them. But he wanted them to have the written note that they could reread many times.
Personally, as a rebbe, I know how meaningful it is when I receive a handwritten, personalized message of gratitude from a student or his parents. Checks are always nice, but written messages recognizing effort and devotion are far more memorable.
Between spouses especially, handwritten notes are invaluable. A brief message of gratitude or affection left where the other spouse is sure to see it, can go a long way in keeping the spark of love aflame.
In addition, handwritten Torah notes are especially precious. When my rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, made aliyah with his wife in 1997, he had to downsize and leave behind many s’farim from his vast library. He allowed talmidim to take many of his s’farim.
To that end, I have in my possession Rabbi Wein’s gemara Kiddushin from his yeshivah days. It is marked up with many notes in the margins, as well as quite a few loose pages full of notes from his rebbe’s shiurim.
My zeide, Rabbi Yaakov Meir Kohn, was also an avid notetaker. Most of his notes, however, were written in shorthand, in a makeshift Lithuanian script in which all the letters of a word were connected, making it challenging to decipher. He also often wrote on the back of any paper next to him when he was learning, including old bills, invitations, and advertisements.
It is always a painstaking process, going from word to word, trying to decipher what my zeide wrote. Thankfully, I have had some success, and I feel blessed to have been able to glean a pittance from his wellsprings of knowledge through his written notes. But even the many notes that I cannot read – and don’t know what he meant – are very near and dear to me, because when I hold and read his writing, I feel connected to him.
In many yeshivos, a rebbe will hang up a small paper containing “mar’ei m’komos” (reference pages that are pre-studied in order to understand an upcoming shiur or Talmudic lecture). A friend related that in his yeshivah, students would vie to get hold of that paper after the shiur. Whoever got it would then tape it into the front of his gemara. It was a pride-thing to have the rebbe’s handwritten notes.
I don’t think my children can relate to having an old shoe box filled with old letters or short notes from former colleagues or friends? Periodically, when I come across my box full of old letters from decades ago, I take some time to read the messages. It brings back fond memories, smiles, and often evokes strong emotions.
We don’t print emails and display them on our desks or refrigerators the way we might with letters from friends. Handwritten notes have permanence and conveys a message of appreciation. It shows that we are willing to take a few minutes from our day to actually put pen to paper in an attempt to convey emotions and deeper feelings. It is a forgotten art that helps forge true and meaningful connection. What’s even greater is that those notes and messages remain for years to come.
As our world becomes more impersonal and regimented, it’s worthy to remember the value and unparalleled sense of connection of the written word.