Photo: Koren Publishers Jerusalem

One on One with Hillel Halkin

Hillel Halkin is an American-born Israeli translator, biographer, literary critic, and novelist who has lived in Israel since 1970. The author of celebrated biographies of Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi and Vladimir Jabotinsky, Halkin has translated Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman, and prominent Hebrew and Israeli novelists, among them Yosef Haim Brenner, S. Y. Agnon, Shulamith Hareven, A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, and Meir Shalev. Most recently, Halkin is the author of The Lady of Hebrew and Her Lovers of Zion (Toby Press, 2020), in which Halkin introduces English readers to many of the greatest Hebrew authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Last month, HaMizrachi Editor Rabbi Elie Mischel spoke with Halkin about his love of writing, why he is drawn to Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, and the uniqueness of Vladimir Jabotinsky.

 

There’s been nothing like it in human history. A small and ancient people loses its land and forgets how to speak its language; wanders defenselessly for hundreds, thousands of years throughout the world with its G-d and sacred books; meets with contumely, persecution, violence, dispossession, banishment, mass murder; refuses to give up; refuses to surrender its faith; continues to believe that it will one day be restored to the land it lost; manages in the end, by dint of its own efforts, against all odds, to gather itself from the four corners of the earth and return there; learns again to speak the language of its old books; learns again to bear arms and defend itself; wrests its new-old home from the people that had replaced it; entrenches itself there; builds; fructifies; fortifies; repulses the enemies surrounding it; grows and prospers in the face of all threats. Had it not happened, could it have been imagined? Would anyone have believed it possible?

Hillel Halkin, Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic

 

It’s an honor to speak with you today! Let’s begin with your family history. You are a grandson of Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan, one of the most critical figures in Mizrachi’s history, and a great-grandson of the Netziv, Rosh Yeshivah of the famous Volozhin Yeshivah. How did your family background influence your own life path?

It’s something I hardly ever talk about to anyone, for a simple reason: If I tell an observant Jew I descend from Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan, they think, “what happened to you?” So it’s a yichus I generally keep “undeclared.”

But the second thing, and this goes deeper, is that I have a different kind of yichus on my father’s side. My father’s brother was a well-known poet, Shimon Halkin, and my father’s cousin, Shmuel Halkin, was a renowned Yiddish poet. The fact is, I identify more closely with my father’s family than I do with my mother’s family. This is partly because it is a family of creative writers and partly because I knew them better; they all lived near us in New York. I unfortunately only met my mother’s father, Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan, one time in my life, when I was a small boy. Also, my father’s family came from White Russia, which was Chabad territory, while my mother’s family, the Netziv and Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan, came from Lithuania, which was arch Mitnagdic territory. Although there is a bit of both the Mitnagid and the Chassid in me, I feel closer to the spirit of Chabad than to Mitnagdic Talmudism.

What led you to make Aliyah in 1970?

Both sides of my family were strongly Zionist. All the years we were living in New York, my father suffered great guilt for not living in Israel. It really weighed on him. My first book, Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist Polemic, is dedicated to my father, for my Zionism comes from him. Ultimately, my parents made their long planned Aliyah when my father retired. Their Aliyah was well thought out in advance, unlike mine; my wife and I made a spontaneous decision, very quickly and impulsively, to move to Israel.

Although I grew up in a very Zionist home, as I grew older in my high school and college years, I developed a very strong American identity as well. I experienced great conflict between these two sides of myself. Like many American Jews who settle in Israel, but unlike most American Jews who haven’t yet made Aliyah, I really felt I had to choose one or the other.

It was always clear to me that if I stayed in America, I would not partake at all in Jewish life. Jewish life in America made no sense to me, really, and it doesn’t to this day. I was going to move to Israel to live as a Jew, or I would stay in America and live as an American – it was an existential choice. And when it dawned on me that I was too much of a Jew not to live a Jewish life, I really had no choice but to move to Israel.

Most religious Jews living in America and elsewhere in the Diaspora, who spend so much of their lives studying Torah and doing mitzvot, would probably disagree with your assessment of Diaspora Jewish life. When you say that you couldn’t live in America as a Jew, what do you mean?

The existence of the State of Israel represents not only the greatest hope for the Jewish people, but also, short of the exodus in Egypt, the greatest adventure the Jewish people have ever been a part of. I don’t question the feelings of American Jews; they may feel more Jewish than I do. But you have here in Israel, an airplane flight away, the greatest adventure in history happening – right now! It’s the ultimate test of the Jewish people, of what we’re capable of and what we’re not. And so to say, “Oh, that’s wonderful, but I don’t want to be part of it, I’m happy here, let the adventure take place without me” – to me, it’s incomprehensible. If you really, really care with every fiber of your being about being Jewish, you would want to be in the place where Judaism and Jewishness are being developed in a way unlike anywhere else in the world.

Hillel Halkin’s grandfather, Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan, at the age of twenty. (Photo: Courtesy of Professor Meir Bar-Ilan, grandson of Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan)

Your grandfather founded Religious Zionist newspapers in Germany, the United States and ultimately in Israel, where his paper, HaTzofeh, became the voice of Mizrachi for 70 years. In your own career, you have also used the power of the written word in support of Zionism. What draws you to writing? What have you sought to accomplish through your writing?

Well, writing is something I do better than I do anything else. There are a lot of things I’m not good at, even though I wish I were. But I’ve always had a knack for writing. In high school we had a class called ‘shop,’ where they taught us mechanical things, like how to use saws and drills. I was terrible at that. But then I took a creative writing class in high school where suddenly I had tools that I really knew how to use – commas, periods, semicolons, sentences and paragraphs. I knew what to do with them! So that’s one thing that made me a writer. But I also read enormously as a young person; I was always reading as a boy. Much of my life has been lived in books – in books that I read and the books I’ve wanted to write, many of which I haven’t written yet.

In your biography of Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, you didn’t have much to work with; a few letters, his poetry and the Kuzari. It’s clear that you invested an extraordinary amount of time and effort to carefully read these materials and create a compelling picture of his life and personality. What is it that drew you to Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi? What can we learn from him today, a millennia after his death?

Jonathan Rosen, the editor of Nextbook Press’ Jewish Encounter Series, approached me about 10 years ago and asked me to write a book for the Jewish Biographies series they were publishing. He said I should pick my favorite Jew. I didn’t have to think for too long before I chose Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi. Although I had read the Kuzari, I didn’t know much about him at that point.

On the front cover of my first book, Letters to an American Jewish Friend, there is a motto, which is a quote from the Kuzari – a passage I’m sure you know. It’s a passage where the Rabbi and the King of the Kuzars are talking, and the Rabbi is carrying on about the Jewish people’s love for the Land of Israel and how important Israel is in Judaism. I wish I had been there to see the King’s expression, as the King says to the Rabbi, “Who are you kidding? All of you Jews talk about ‘Eretz Yisrael this, Eretz Yisrael that,’ but none of you go to live there! Almost none of you have ever been there and you don’t take the trouble to visit it. Who do you think you’re fooling with all this talk of the Land of Israel?” The Rabbi is taken aback; for the first time in the book, the King has really thrown him. His answer is, in Ibn Tibbon’s translation, וּבֹשְׁתַּנִי מֶלֶךְ כְּוֵזֶר, “you have shamed me, O’ King of Kuzar!” The Rabbi knows that the King is right. Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi understood that the Jewish people’s love for Israel was never strong enough to get them to actually go to Israel.

If you look at the pattern of Jewish migrations through history, after Israel ceases to be a sovereign Jewish nation, Jews go and settle everywhere in the world – everywhere! Everywhere, that is, except for one tiny country – Israel! Until the 19th century, the Jewish population of Israel was tiny. You can argue that Jews didn’t move to Israel for economic reasons, as Palestine never had the developed economy that other countries had. But you can’t help but come to the conclusion that for some deep, unconscious reason, Jews avoided living in this country. Perhaps it scared them, or was too much of a burden. Perhaps they were afraid that when they actually came to the Holy Land, they wouldn’t be able to see its holiness; that it was better to imagine it from afar than to try to experience it when you were there.

One of the things that drew me to Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, besides being a wonderful poet, is that he is the first Jew on record to come to Israel out of a deep existential need. And he does it most incredibly. He was a famous man, a great poet living when the Jewish community honored and adored its poets; he was the uncrowned king of Spanish Jewry! And then, at about the age of 70 or close to it, he gets up, all by himself – no one offers to come with him – and he goes to the port and sets sail for Palestine via Egypt. He is by himself, with no knowledge of where he is going, and no one he knows will greet him when he arrives. He knows that he is going to a tiny and impoverished Jewish community ravaged by the Crusades. What this man did is incredible, and he has deeply moved me.

I wanted to find out more about him, but our information is sparse. He wrote many poems, and a lot of them have an autobiographical basis; without these poems, I couldn’t possibly have written his biography. Much of what we know about him was unearthed in the Cairo Geniza, information that no one knew about previously. In that sense, we know more about Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi today than anyone did for the last thousand years.

I’ve had a lot of luck with biographies. I’ve written two biographies in my life, about Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi and Jabotinsky. Generally, from my experience, the more you know about a writer or any great figure, the less you like them. You begin to see their warts and faults and the unpleasant aspects of their personality. But with Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi and Jabotinsky, it was the exact opposite – the more I got to know them, the more I saw them up close and understood their surroundings, the more I came to love them! Both of those biographies turned out to be works of love about men I came to revere.

What is it that drew you to Jabotinsky?

I grew up in a Labor Zionist home; I went to Labor Zionist summer camp. And so Jabotinsky was both an unknown and a suspect figure to me because he was anathema to Labor Zionism – and for good reason! But then, in the 1990s, I was asked by the New Republic to write a review of one of Jabotinsky’s novels that was recently translated from the original Russian. I read the book and I was bowled over – it was an excellent, wonderful novel! I suddenly realized I was reading a great writer. This was a man who was also a leading Zionist politician, a pivotal figure in twentieth century history, and I realized I knew so little about him. When the editor of Yale University read my review of Jabotinsky’s novel and asked me to write a biography of him, I agreed – and completely fell in love with him.

Jewish Revisionist Zionist leader, author, poet, orator and soldier, Ze’ev Jabotinsky (Photo: Public Domain)

Jabotinsky is a fascinating personality. He was a secular Jew but also held many opinions similar to those of Religious Zionism.

Jabotinsky himself makes a journey towards religion, which he never entirely completed. He began his adult life as a staunch secularist and remained so for the rest of his life in certain ways. He was far too much of a free spirit to accept any discipline imposed on him by others, except when he chose to impose that discipline himself, by himself. I don’t think he would ever have accepted the discipline of Orthodox Judaism.

But towards the end of his life, and this is something that is relatively little known, he began to draw closer to religion and the religious parties. This happened for two reasons. In the 1930s, Jabotinsky was involved in a life and death battle with the Zionist left. Jabotinsky, of course, was the leader of the Zionist right, and on the whole, he was losing this battle. In the beginning, this battle was fought within the Zionist Organization, and Jabotinsky’s party was constantly losing all the Zionist Organization elections. Eventually, he pulled his party out of the Zionist Organization and started his own organization. At that point, he realized that his natural allies against the Zionist left were the religious parties – the Mizrachi and the Agudah – so he tried to develop an alliance with them and draw them into his new Zionist organization. This was a purely pragmatic decision.

But at the same time, there’s something beyond pragmatism involved here. When you read some of Jabotinsky’s writings and letters from the 1930s, you see a growing appreciation of religion and the discipline of religious life that wasn’t there before. The 1930s was a period when the world was in total turmoil. There were two great and monstrously evil powers, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, threatening to take over everywhere. Both were militant, godless, and anti-religious ideologies. Jabotinsky, of course, was horrified by both of them. He began to realize that, ultimately, religion is the only bulwark against this kind of madness; it is the only thing that can give a human being the spine to stand up to extremist ideologies. He began to see that a religious grounding is necessary to stand up for ultimate principles and transcendent truths. Only religion can give man the strength to act as he should in crucial moments. He began writing about man’s need for religion, even if he did not possess that religious faith. Intellectually, emotionally and politically, he began to understand the importance of religion.

Occasionally, Jabotinsky would say things that sounded astonishing coming from the mouth and pen of a liberal and freethinking Jew. In 1938, he wrote an essay in a Yiddish language Warsaw Jewish newspaper in which he suggested that when an independent Jewish state was eventually founded, smoking should be forbidden on Shabbat in public spaces. He believed that religious truths are so much a part of Jewish history and who we are as a people that we simply cannot abandon them; he couldn’t conceive of a Jewish state without them! Jabotinsky was a great believer in pageantry, ritual and public ceremony; Betar, the youth movement he founded, had a great deal of it. The Zionist left created all sorts of ersatz rituals, but Jabotinsky believed that only Judaism could provide the ritual that would bind the nation together in a Jewish state. He wanted the Jewish state to be Jewish, even if he struggled with those beliefs.

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