To you, with love

Related story: J. staff writer crafts love letter to grandmother

Pregnant. At 25. Without a husband. In 1965.

Such a shanda, Barbara Patinkin imagined her parents saying if she told them she was going to have a baby.

She couldn’t bear it, couldn’t stomach the idea of bringing shame to her family. They weren’t Orthodox, but they were traditional in their Jewish observance and opinions.

So Patinkin left home.

When she arrived in New York from Chicago, her cousin gave her shelter and connected her with a Jewish social service agency. She had the baby, a boy. She gave him up for adoption.

Her parents died years later, never knowing their daughter had given them a grandson.

One afternoon last fall she wrote them a letter, one they would never read but that you can listen to — on the radio.

How? Well, Patinkin’s friend, Janet Gallin, created a radio show almost a year ago called “Love Letters Live." It airs at 8 p.m. on KUSF-90.3 FM, the University of San Francisco’s station. Listeners also can hear past shows at

Gallin, who has lived in San Francisco for 40 years, invites members of the community (Jewish and non-Jewish) to talk during the show’s 30-minute running time about someone (and occasionally something) they love or loved. The host asks questions; the guests tell stories. All the while, Gallin takes notes, which she gives to her guests when the tapes wrap. They’re meant to help them craft love letters at a later date.

The show feels like an on-the-couch version of National Public Radio’s popular “This American Life.”

“‘Love Letters Live’ is about gratitude felt and gratitude expressed, stamped and mailed to someone,” says Gallin. “A letter is a gift. You touched it. You ran your tongue along the envelope’s edge. I could clone you from what you sent.

“In a dismal pile of mail, one letter sparkles like a piece of jewelry.”

After sitting in KUSF’s small radio studio with Gallin, Barbara Patinkin wrote a love letter even though her intended audience could never read it.

But she had someone else to send it to.

Her son. David.

He called her 42 years after she had given him away. One day in October 2005, at 8 p.m., the phone rang.

“Truth be told, I never expected it. Ever. To hear from him. I just never did,” she said, her voice choked with tears.

A year later, she flew to Miami to meet him, his wife, Linda, and their daughter, Emma. Patinkin suddenly had a son and a granddaughter. A family.

David was adopted by a Jewish family, and today, Patinkin says proudly, he is “quite committed to Israel” and “a thoughtful, generous, intelligent, kind person.”

Two years into their relationship, they talk every week.

Gallin’s definition of a love letter is about as varied as her professional life. Being a radio host is, in fact, something new for her; she previously worked as a probation officer, a publicist, a fundraiser, a speechwriter and, currently, a poet and writing coach.

She has also been deeply involved in the Jewish community, having served on the board of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and having volunteered with the Women’s Alliance, Hebrew Academy and Jewish Vocational Services.

The guests on her show represent a wide range of stories: The grandmother who writes to her granddaughter so she will know that her great-grandparents escaped the Nazis during World War II; the shopkeeper who laments the closing of her home-furnishings store; the woman who mourns the premature death of her mother; the new bride who expresses affection for the husband she met on; the college student who thanks her siblings for believing in her after their parents were killed.

And since the weekly Sunday morning show began last October, many, many more stories — and love letters — have gone on the air.

“A love letter goes way beyond romance,” Gallin says. “It is your chance to put your best self on paper; it is your truth put to paper in a loving and compassionate way.”

She began to think seriously about love letters two years ago when her best friend called from Los Angeles and asked her to write the friend’s obituary. Toni Sherman wanted it written in advance, just in case, to ensure that the obituary would be in Gallin’s unique prose.

Gallin initially was appalled. Her friend was healthy. She refused to write anything about Sherman that presumed an early death.

The future radio host continued to think about it, though, and soon had a change of heart.

“I realized that obituaries and eulogies are not about death — they’re about love,” she says. “We should say what we feel when we still have a chance. Next week may be too late.”

Inspired by her friend’s request, Gallin put her speechwriting skills to use, and began offering to help people in crafting eulogies. It then seemed a natural progression to create a writing workshop to help people craft love letters.

She got great feedback. Through the grapevine, a woman named Tresa Ayres heard about Gallin’s writing workshops. She proposed they start a radio show. KUSF accepted their proposal, and their first show aired Oct. 7, 2006.

On Sept. 30, they’ll celebrate the show’s first anniversary by bringing together all 50 guests for a picnic in Golden Gate Park.

Janet Gallin gets just as much joy telling her guests’ stories as they do. She bubbles over with enthusiasm as she explains stories about her guests’ parents, siblings, daughters, grandchildren, husbands, girlfriends.

“One woman said it was like 30 years of therapy,” says the radio host.

That may not be such an exaggeration.

For the past decade, Kory Floyd, an Arizona State University professor of interpersonal communications, has studied how we communicate affection. Floyd discovered that writing to someone you love — not about someone you love, as in a journal, but directly to that person — is good for your health.

His first study put people in situations intended to raise their stress levels. The people were divided into three groups. One group wrote letters to someone they cared about, to express their love or appreciation; one group was told simply to think about a person they loved; and the last group did nothing.

Floyd and his colleagues then measured each person’s level of cortisol (a hormone elevated by stress).

“We found that people who wrote love letters had the quickest recovery, and simply thinking about a person didn’t do it — they were no better off than the group that did nothing,” he said.

Then he wondered: If communicating affection can reduce stress, can it also reduce or improve the physical conditions exacerbated by stress?

In the second study, Floyd began by measuring people’s cholesterol levels. One group of people wrote weekly about something mundane, such as their job or house. The other group wrote weekly letters of affection to a romantic partner, friend or relative.

Floyd measured everyone’s cholesterol five weeks later.

The people who wrote love letters had lower cholesterol levels than those in the group that did not.

Floyd’s next hope is that he can use his research to design therapy, like expressive writing exercises for patients with high blood sugar and cholesterol. He sees it as a complement to traditional medicine.

“I’d never suggest, for instance, that someone with high cholesterol write love letters instead of taking Lipitor, but that they write in addition to taking medications,” he said. “It’s easy to do, it’s inexpensive, and it makes them feel good in the process.”

Gallin’s guests report feeling great after sharing their story during the show’s taping.

Myrna Aronoff of San Francisco went on “Love Letters Live” just before the High Holy Days last year. She talked about her mother, who died 30 years ago. Aronoff was in her early 30s, and her sons were 7 and 8 years old, too young to have any lasting memories of their grandmother. For decades she’s lived with a dull, constant ache, a longing for the woman who died much too young.

“The show was like a catharsis — it was like I could breathe,” said Aronoff.

“I was completely unguarded” on the air, she added. “Talking about her — what she meant to me, what she had given me — made me a whole person. And it was right around Rosh Hashanah, and when later, I sat in the temple, it was like I was at peace.”

She wrote a letter to her mother, but sent it to her two sons.

“My children will understand who I am and what I’m missing by me being able to write this letter,” she said. “To have documentation is very different than just speaking about it.”

Anna Berger felt the same way, which is one reason she went on “Love Letters Live” to craft a letter to her 7-month-old granddaughter, Cleo Esther. (The other reason is that she and Gallin have been friends since the eighth grade.)

Berger’s granddaughter will grow into a woman who will never have the opportunity to know her great-grandparents, she said. She taped a tearful show in June, and is still crafting a trio of letters to Cleo to make sure their family’s heritage remains whole and intact.

Berger’s father was a Jewish trade union leader in Poland; her mother was a pediatric nurse, the first Jewish woman admitted to the Catholic nursing school in Vilna. When the Nazis gained power, Berger’s father went into hiding. He was high profile and could only visit his wife when his son was at school (so he wouldn’t endanger his dad, the boy, then 8, had been told his father had already left Poland for the United States).

In 1941, Berger’s mother heard that a Japanese consul general was giving out transit visas for Jews. She waited in line for 18 hours, and finally got three visas. Her husband went to Japan first, and two weeks later his wife and son followed.

They lived in Japan for three months until they could arrange for a boat to San Francisco, and then a train to New York.

Berger grew up in New York and Los Angeles, speaking Yiddish.

“These letters are important because history dies,” she said. “If something happens to me before Cleo is old enough to understand all of this — tradition and families get forgotten.”

Berger, who lives in Berkeley, is now a psychologist. While going on “Love Letters Live” was personally enriching, her professional self enjoyed it as well.

“We as a society are so busy that we forget to sit down and express ourselves in loving ways,” she said. “To organize yourself, to write a love letter, has so many benefits — for ourselves and for the people with whom we’re trying to communicate.”

Cover illustration by Cathleen Maclearie

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.