Aviva Black founded Family Love Letters in 2018.
Aviva Black founded Family Love Letters in 2018.

Oakland woman helps connect generations of families through letter-writing

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In 2018, Aviva Black of Oakland found her father’s ethical will while cleaning out his desk shortly after he passed away. It was a wisdom-filled letter her father, a rabbi in New Jersey, wrote decades earlier for his children.

It reminded Black of the Jewish principle of l’dor v’dor — a passing of values and traditions from generation to generation — and inspired her to establish her business, Family Love Letters.

Together with a business partner, Black set out to help people document their life stories and condense them into a long letter, rich with detail, that can be passed on to their loved ones.

According to Black, 53, most of her clients are between 65 and 90 years old, and more than half are Jewish. Sometimes they are grown children who want to know their parent’s life story and ask Black to step in. And many clients have a desire to leave a written record of their lives for future generations but do not have the motivation or writing skills to do so.

“People are very much into family trees and 23andMe,” she said, referring to the genetic testing service that provides ancestry information. “If you look at a family tree, you see someone’s name. If you turn over that leaf, this [letter] is the story of that person. It goes deeper.”

Black starts by conducting interviews with the client, by phone or Zoom during the pandemic, and the finished letter is usually between eight and 16 pages. There’s no single template, she said, as the letters can include stories big and small, life lessons and advice.

One client talked about making matzah ball soup with her grandchildren. Another, who graduated from UC Berkeley in the mid-’50s, reflected on her career working for the CIA, traveling to South America and learning to fly a Piper Cub. “She implores her kids and grandchildren to take risks and not just follow the expected path,” Black said.

Often, clients use their letters to encourage their offspring to get along no matter what. “Without fail, every single client — even the ones with major family rifts — speaks about the importance of family as a value that’s been passed down and [is] of the utmost importance,” she said. “They implore their children to show up for each other in times of celebration and need, and to keep communication open to work through disagreements.”

Some clients have shared stories of survival in their letters. “I’ve worked with several children of Holocaust survivors,” Black said. “Some of their parents were pessimistic and guarded, while others lived with vast gratitude and hope. Yet all of the children of Holocaust survivors that I’ve spoken with have made a conscious decision to parent in a positive, open and loving way.”

Joann Tucker Philips, with three of her grandchildren, worked with Black to document her family story.
Joann Tucker Philips, with three of her grandchildren, worked with Black to document her family story.

Joann Tucker Philips of Oakland recently worked with Black to document her story. “I’m the last of my immediate family, and my parents were Holocaust survivors,” she told J. “How do we introduce joy into a narrative with such darkness?” She said Black “really helped me through it” by prompting her to reflect on her childhood in Brooklyn and other happy times.

Tucker Philips, who is in her early 70s, added that she’s waiting for the right time to share the letter with her three children.

A former eighth-grade history teacher and vice principal in Brooklyn, Black said she finds her work meaningful. “I enjoy getting to know people and hearing their stories,” she said. “I give my clients the space to share and to focus on the takeaways, the lessons learned and the impact made. This isn’t therapy, but it is therapeutic. I am very fortunate to hear these reflections and the wisdom that’s been gained.”

After Black finishes the interviews, it takes her five to seven weeks to shape the letter. She then writes a draft and has it professionally edited and proofread before it goes to the printer. All told, the letter costs $2,200 from start to finish.

In addition to running Family Love Letters, Black also offers public and private memoir-writing workshops. In the coming weeks, she plans to offer a four-week virtual workshop titled “Speaking Your Stories.” Those interested in participating should email her at [email protected].

As for the letter her father left for her and her siblings, Black said she rereads it when she needs encouragement or wants the feeling of hearing her father’s voice.

“While I knew my father’s values and many of his stories, his letter has been such a gift to his children and grandchildren,” she said. “He’s provided us with an enduring connection and, perhaps, an even better understanding of ourselves.”

Flora Tsapovsky

Flora Tsapovsky is a Bay Area freelance writer.