Writing an Ethical Will

As childless Jews, we can still share with others the values that have informed our lives.

Sharing values in writing is part of the age-old Jewish tradition of creating an Ethical Will. An Ethical Will is not a legal document, but a way to share hopes and dreams for the future with family and friends. Examples of Ethical Wills are found in the Bible, Talmud, and later writings.

The best examples in English of Jewish Ethical Wills are found in Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer's So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them (Jewish Lights).

The book provides suggestions for topics to write about, such as:

These are some of the important lessons that I've learned in my life...
These are the people who have influenced me the most...
This is my definition of true success...
Specific teachings from Jewish sources that move me the most...

As a writing workshop instructor, I can offer some practical tips on writing your Ethical Will:

Use the technique of "free writing" to get your thoughts down in a first draft:

Write nonstop (pushing through your conditioned impulse to edit). Write quickly (limiting the influence of the left side of your brain, which is the side that analyzes and criticizes). Forget about spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

If you write as quickly as your hand can move, or your fingers can type, you will create a strong first draft that you can go back and edit.

After you revise your Ethical Will and are ready to publish it, you have many options:

You can hand write your Ethical Will and photocopy it for others. You can work with your local printer and publish your Ethical Will as a booklet. You can use one of the online "Print on Demand" publishers or online e-book publishers, and then share your Ethical Will as a free or for-pay download. You can publish your Ethical Will on a web site.

I chose another way to publish my Ethical Will.

During my genealogy research, I discovered great grandparents I had never known. They left Lithuania in the early 1890s and came to the United States, a country where they hoped they could live as Jews without persecution. I wanted to share the values of my great-grandparents, values I wanted to embody, and wanted others to embody: a commitment to Jewish observance and loyalty to the Jewish people. I took the anecdotes and stories of my research and wrote the children's book Shlemiel Crooks. Even though I don't have my own children, because of the book, I can share this story of my great-grandparents (and their values) with other children.

If you have questions about how to write your Ethical Will, please feel free to contact me at anna [at] olswanger [dot] com.

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