I grew up in a world of personal letters — the kind written in pen (or, less frequently, in pencil or typed), folded and placed in a hand-addressed envelope with a return address and postage stamp, and then deposited in a mailbox for delivery by the U.S. Postal Service in a day or, perhaps, two or three.
Letters were special. My mother had a cousin Chavi, a Shoah survivor, who immigrated to Palestine illegally after the war, served in the Palmach, married, and raised her family in Givatayim. My mother and Chavi rarely spoke in the first decades after the war (international telephone calls and travel were both difficult and prohibitively expensive), but they remained connected through a regular exchange of aerogrammes in Hungarian. When one of these blue envelopes arrived at our house, it was a big deal, as it was years later when my two older daughters wrote us regularly during their gap year in Israel, in pre-email/cell phone days. (Not true for my younger daughters.)
Aerogrammes were more than flimsy pieces of paper; they were a sign of deep familial relationship.
Letters also told stories beyond what was written in them. After eight years in a coed elementary school, I was enrolled in a relatively right-wing all-boys high school. And to prepare me for this change, just before I started school I went to an all-boys summer camp. I was miserable in camp and obviously conveyed that feeling to my parents. One day at mail call I received an unusual letter from my father. Unlike my parents’ regular correspondence, which came from my home and were handwritten, this was in an envelope from his office, with my name and address typewritten, as was the enclosed letter.
It contained a serious discussion about growing up, the need to understand that events don’t always turn out the way one expects, and the important need in such situations to make the best of things, finding those parts (and there are undoubtedly such parts) that are good and useful while enduring with grace, and even trying to learn from, the parts that aren’t. But beyond the text of the letter, the fact that it came on my father’s office letterhead and was typewritten told me that it was an important letter; that he was treating me in an adult way and had a serious adult message for me — one I haven’t forgotten.
(Parenthetical note. The school didn’t work out and after my freshman year I transferred to a more modern all-boys high school. And thereafter went to coed summer camps. Much better.)
I’m not sure where my father’s letter is. I saw it a number of years ago, but after moving files from one office to another and finally, after retirement, to my house, it was either discarded, lost, or buried somewhere under piles of other papers. But I still have another typewritten letter, dated May 13, 1968, from my then girlfriend, discussing not much — but everything. We had both recently just turned 21 — me a month before, she two days — and, equally significant, were both finally on the same page that we were serious about each other. Really serious. (I had been on that page since I first met her almost three years before, but it took her a bit longer to get with the program.)
And so, she, having graduated in January (I was still finishing my senior year at YU), was writing me from her desk at her new job, telling me about her lack of efficiency at her first day of work, and blaming it on me because of the lengthy telephone conversation we had the night before and “all the things we talked about.” Who now knows what they were, but we certainly knew then, and certainly thought them important. Important enough to be typed and mailed and received and read. Letters were important.
It’s not the same anymore. Snail mail today consists mainly of bills (though many come only by email or text), advertising flyers and booklets, charity and credit card solicitations, political materials, perhaps a monthly magazine or two (as compared to the issues of Time, Tradition, the Saturday Evening Post, McCalls, Ladies Home Journal, Readers Digest, the Jewish Observer, Consumer Reports, Jewish Life, and Commentary that poured through the mail slot of my childhood home), simcha invitations (for those still too traditional to use Evites), and thank-you notes (for those still too traditional to either use email or send nothing at all).
So I was pleasantly surprised recently to receive an envelope seemingly addressed to me personally and not from an organization or purchased mailing list, and with an actual first-class stamp rather than a postage meter or permit or other bulk mailing indicia. Must be something important, I thought. But then I noticed there was no return address, and that it looked somewhat similar to an envelope I received a few weeks ago, which contained articles from the New York Post and Wall Street Journal praising President Trump for his support of Israel.
Apparently this envelope was from the same sender. It contained an Associated Press release about the change in U.S. policy concerning the legality of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank. OK. Nothing in either letter I didn’t know, but so what? Well, there are two whats. First, a yellow stickie added to the AP release said “The USA and President loves Israel.”
Second, neither letter was signed. They were anonymous.
Why send them to me, though? Since I rarely express my opinion about Israeli policy or politics in public and have never done so in these columns, I can only surmise that they were sent in response to a column I wrote about President Trump (“Being Judged by the Content of our Character,” August 1, 2019), discussing his lack of character and the fact that I wouldn’t want to join him for a meal in either his house or mine.
Disagreement is fine, of course; indeed, good friends, some dating back decades, often disagree with some of my more controversial columns. But they do so face to face or from their personal emails, allowing us to discuss our disagreements while retaining our friendship.
Anonymous letters are different, though. First, they’re cowardly, as I’ve previously explained (“The Coward Dies a Thousand Deaths,” March 15, 2018). Equally important, though, is that they end rather than open or continue discussion. You think Trump is a true friend of Israel? Maybe I have something to say about that, but you clearly don’t want to hear it, because you don’t tell me who you are. You think the new U.S. policies on settlements or moving the embassy or recognizing the Gaza annexation are good or meaningful ones? Maybe I agree or maybe I don’t, but you’re really not interested, because you leave no return address to which I can send my opinion. You think we owe the president a sense of hakarat hatov (gratitude) for his actions regarding Israel and therefore shouldn’t criticize him harshly? Well, there we clearly disagree, but we’re at an impasse, because there’s nowhere for me to connect with you to explain my position further.
Civic — and civil — discourse is conducted among people who listen to each other respectfully and respond and explain and argue and bring proofs supporting their arguments and even — rarely, but sometimes — reconsider positions or change minds. But that’s possible only if there’s a name and address on the other side; not if all you’ve been given is an anonymous void.
Chavi and my mother had important things to say to each other in order to keep family ties strong. My father had something important to say to me, as did my girlfriend (okay, okay, my wife of almost 50 years), and my daughters. But they did so with a signature and return address so we could continue our conversations and learn from each other. And we did.
Anonymous letters don’t allow for those possibilities. And so, rather than being lovingly preserved, in reality or in memory, they’re consigned to the trash bin where they belong. As I’m now doing with this one.