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Interview with Hillel Halkin

There are no longer any centrist parties, muses biographer, critic and novelist Hillel Halkin

Lucille Cohen talks with polemicist Hillel Halkin at his home near Zichron Yaakov

As the sun set rapidly and the deepening shadows of trees and bushes loomed, it was a relief to spot, in the distance, the spare frame of a figure gallantly waiting at his gate down an isolated country lane, prudently fenced off with wire netting to prevent the infiltration of marauding wild boar.

Secreted away on the fringes of Zichron Yaakov with an open view to the hills, Hillel Halkin looked precisely how I had imagined him from photographs: a youthfully alert 75-year-old, weather-beaten face topping the typical kibbutznik–style attire of jeans, T-shirt, open, checked shirt and, of course, sandals.

In fact, Halkin appears the very embodiment of old-style Labour Zionism, but he is wistful as he declares that, while he has stayed the same, the left has moved further left and the right further right. One gets the sense that he speaks for many who feel stranded as if amid the waters of an ever turbulent river on the shrinking island of a type of Zionism that no longer exists.

Even as a teenager, he dreamt of living in Israel. His first book, Letters to an American Friend: a Zionist’s Polemic (1977), which has recently been republished, sets out his stall as an oleh. It makes an ardent case for aliyah against the doomed hollowness of American Jewish life, and takes the form of a platonic dialogue through an exchange of letters with a fictional, or perhaps composite, American friend. “I still believe that 95% of what I said in Letters is correct,” he insists. “I was young and thought it would have an effect, and I still don’t think that there is going to be a big aliyah from the United States.” He even goes so far as to claim that American Jews are beginning to become uncomfortable and are trying to dissociate themselves from Israel.

All of which makes one wonder how he came to write his seventh and most recent book, a biography of revisionist Zionist, Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Halkin’s friends on the left think he is on the right and his friends on the right think he is on the left. “There are no longer any centrist parties,” he muses. “For example, on the Palestinian issue, the old Labour position was much tougher than today’s. They were more insistent that Jews had rights in this country. Labour was a very nationalistic party.”

He goes on to explain: “When I arrived (in Zichron), I spent a lot of time with the old timers who were the product of the First Aliyah. To this day, they look upon the Labour Zionists of the Second Aliyah as interlopers.” It was amid those discussions, he reveals, that he realized there were other versions of Zionist history than that of the Labour Zionist movement. It was for all these reasons that he seems almost to have surprised himself when he reveals that he found himself voting for Menachem Begin’s Likud a number of years after his arrival in 1970 in Zichron Yaakov, which he considers to have been a right wing, mainly farming town.

This information lessens the surprise that his most recent book is on Jabotinsky. It was written at the behest of the Yale University Press and represents a new review of Jabotinsky’s life for a series entitled The New Republic. Halkin’s research led him to a new perspective and he confesses, “I would never have dreamed that, one day, I would think that Jabotinsky was a wonderful and heroic figure.”

Throughout his life, he says, his ideas have changed organically and gradually. However, his openness to different ideas seems to be a product of a literary and philosophical overlay to a childhood and adolescence growing up in New York City in what he categorises as a very Zionist home, whose influence was compounded by spending vacations at American Labour Zionist summer camps

Although not observant since his youth, he is from an orthodox background and an escalation of religious sentiment meant that Halkin, who attended a Jewish school, would lay tefilin every day and fervently offer his prayers. However, as a teenager, he started questioning traditional Jewish teachings and gradually dropped much of his religious practice. It is evident that he is solidly based in Jewish religious texts, culture and history. There seems to have been a fork in his life when he had to choose between entering a religious Jewish high school or the highly esteemed Bronx High School of Science. Halkin believes that it was to his parents’ credit that they chose not to intervene in his decision-making process.

After a period of what he calls “inner struggle”, the Bronx public high school won out and this decision led to the “real opening up of the world”. Although lonely and unhappy at first, he was influenced by a teacher, Dorothy Appelbaum, and became a strong fixture of the literary set in the creative writing class, beginning voluminous reading. For a high school, these pupils seem to have inhabited a rarefied universe, devouring literary and philosophical works that many university students would do well to contemplate. It was this milieu that led to his studying English Literature at the New York Ivy League University, Columbia.

Out of the inspiration of his memories of this literary crowd emerged his sixth book, the novel Melisande! What Are Dreams? Written in a first person narrative, it is suffused with a sense of nostalgia reminiscent of Proust’s multi-volume A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). The title bears the name of the star-crossed love of the protagonist Hoo’s life, Melisande, and together they are enmeshed in a painful love triangle with their friend Rick.

So was it autobiographical? Although Rick, admits Halkin, was based on his closest friend Nicky Goldman who passed away at a relatively young age, the triangle was not autobiographical, he asserts. However, for some reason, this interviewer was uncomfortable about venturing a query as to whether Melisande represented his wife, Marcia, whom I had spied fleetingly on her way out. Subsequently, when I did pick up the courage, Halkin voiced surprise that I should ask, acknowledging that most interviewers refrain from asking that type of question. However, the response was almost a fudge with the stock author’s reply, resorting to the familiar refrain of the author’s craft, always inserting friends and relatives but with changes.

At high school Halkin found he had both “a very Jewish side and a very American side” and muses, “I was never able to reconcile the Jewish and the American sides - to integrate them - and certainly not by living in America.” So who is Halkin? The character Hoo (or should it be “Who?”) is, he reveals, perhaps a projection of that side of the author, further explaining a tension that appears to be the source of his personal dynamic: “I had my Jewishly Jewish friends, my non-Jewish friends and my assimilated Jewish friends.”

In one section of the novel, Halkin portrays Melisande as ruminating on the nature of man’s immortal soul, claiming that we make our own. Halkin adds that in some mystical way she believes she can, and one senses that he agrees with this proposition too. “We live in two worlds,” he elucidates, “the ‘what is’ and the ‘what if’?”

The ‘what if’, he says, is the mystical side and has evolved beyond the standard Jewish, religious sense of the world’s mysteriousness, but then his alter ego argues for the other side, saying, “Come on, Hillel” and exhorts him to think rationally in the framework of the “what is.” However, he leans to the mystical when he concludes this train of thought, stating: “Each one of us is here for a purpose and we need to find that out and fulfil it.”

In fact he is working on matters related to this topic as he has been commissioned to write a book entitled Judaism and Death as part of a series, but as it is short, it is hard for him to include everything in it that he would wish.

So, I put it to him, what does he think of the Rambam’s (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon) assertion that there is no such thing as an individual soul but that we are all connected after death, as if set out on the branches of a tree, to the source of life, the Creator, and the additional concept that the philosopher can raise himself up to the level of the prophet, communing with God in a mystical sense, rather than just by God’s choice? Referring to the Rambam’s religio-philosophical work, Guide to the Perplexed, Halkin contemplates and says it has to be pieced together as it is an esoteric work, but he understands that the Rambam is saying that philosophers are people of science and as such it is appropriate for them to learn the laws of the universe to the extent that their minds become more at one with these laws.

This is very different from the level considered by mediaeval Spanish philosopher, poet and rabbi, Yehudah HaLevi, in the Kuzari, whereby a rabbi in a fictional platonic dialogue with the King of the Khazars says that a prophet is a man who has perfected himself by keeping the commandments, and thus obtains a foretaste of heaven and then G-d may choose him to be a prophet and mystically commune with him. Halkin visibly enjoys this type of discussion and has, in fact, written a study on Yehuda Halevi too.

What does he make of life now that he is advancing in years? “It is harder both mystically and culturally,” he reveals. “One of the hardest things intellectually about growing old is nostalgia for the past and the cantankerousness of old age and the very perception that the world has taken a bad turn.” What he means by that, he clarifies when prompted, is our high tech, computerized age, but then he is aware that people make much use of aids such as their smart phones. Evaluating Israel, he declares, “Israel is a very haphazard culture – spontaneous, individual and natural. It has its good and bad sides.”

Halkin amuses himself by wondering about an imaginary epilogue which could equally be with Herzl or Jabotinsky. He sets the scene at a 1940 meeting in a Paris cafe where he asks, “What do we do now?” But Herzl refuses to answer, instead giving a quintessentially Jewish reply, “I don’t know. You have to figure it out for yourself.”

Returning to his formative years, Halkin says he lived in the days of radio culture, there being no TV in the house, with a “high school sub-culture of leftist American politics and a dream that they would radically change the world”– in fact “all the dreams of leftist American youth. It was,” he says, “an America that still dreamed a lot, still an intellectual and political frontier that felt open.”

One of his standout memories is set in 1955, aged 16, at a Jewish spring work camp for youngsters in the hillbilly country of southern Tennessee. The group was based in tents and connected to the Highlander Folk School, which operated illegally as the only integrated school. Halkin recollects, “They didn’t like Negroes, but hated urban Whites even more.” This is illustrated by a tale he tells of an event a few years prior to their arrival, when the infamously racist Ku Klux Klan drove up from Chattanooga with guns, but the hillbillies with their rifles succeeded in driving them back.

Halkin proceeds to paint a sharp pen portrait of hillbilly life at that time: “The hillbillies of the area would be the right-wing Tea Party people of today. They led an independent life and brewed their own illegal liquor; if they were hungry they went out and shot a squirrel; they worked a couple of months if they needed some money, and grew a few crops - maybe tobacco - but white society didn’t accept them.”

He recalls the story of the young African-American civil rights activist, Rosa Parks, who is remembered as having changed the history of segregation in the United States by sitting in the white section of a public bus. Halkin had witnessed her participating in workshops at the school and claims that she was trained specifically for her role. In fact the anthem of the movement, “We Shall Overcome” was written and came out of that college, he explains.

In the 1950s and 60s he taught in many places including a black college in Alabama – Tuskegee College. There he taught English literature to a “90% remedial contingent and a few brilliant kids.” He recalls spending one night in a cell in Selma, Alabama next to a certain Martin Luther King.

Halkin spent a year in the UK in 1991 on a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge. In Britain he was struck by the enormous difference between American and British Jews, the former being “rambunctious” and the latter preferring to keep a low profile.

On his return to the States he took on two jobs for the American publication, the Forward, writing about the Gulf War and becoming its Israel correspondent from 1993-6. He continues as the anonymous author of the column “Philologist” in which he examines words in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino and English, and pens occasional columns for the newspaper.

His “Israel Diary” column during the years 1993-96 led him to a variety of experiences. One such experience was a visit to a suicide tent in Gaza after the murder of hitchhikers near Bet Lid, a major junction near Netanya. He drove into Gaza with an Arab friend to meet the family, “something that you could do then.”

Halkin reveals that he has always had the ability to empathize with people. “I can understand why someone would want to be a suicide bomber and why other people would want to go after them,” he declares. When I advise him that empathy with a suicide bomber resulted in the ousting of a certain Lib-Dem politician from a spokesman's role on the front bench by the party leadership in the UK, he quickly adds, “I think that the Palestinians have been treated badly by us but a lot of that treatment has been brought on by their own behavior. Ultimately, my loyalties are as a Jew. If I had to shoot one of them to protect myself I would have no trouble.” Halkin fulfilled his national service duty with nine years in an infantry unit and repeated reserve stints serving with the UN in Sinai. He was wounded in the 1982 Lebanon War.

So who does he think is worth listening to debates about Israel’s future with the Palestinians? He believes that the only people worth talking to are those who can understand both sides. “Both have legitimate demands but they cannot be reconciled ... maybe in the long run ... if it is done in an unconventional manner.”

What is his solution? It echoes an article he wrote last year in the Forward and he claims that more and more people are beginning to say that we cannot go on ruling the Palestinians forever and that we cannot move Jews out of the territories. “We moved 8,000 settlers out of Gaza,” he notes. “This must never happen again and it won’t happen again.” He claims that no one in the world has ever suggested his idea that follows his reminder that a lot of that land was more or less fairly acquired, and which he summarises by declaring: “The only possible real solution is two states in one country – two really independent states. We cannot be separated, but need relations of equality - no masters and slaves.”

“I, as a Jew, think that this entire country should be mine - just as the Palestinians think (regarding their claim). I have no problem with a one state solution if Jews are the majority - but we will always end up doing nasty things to each other.

“The Palestinians are Arabs and I see a lot of nasty things going on in the Arab world. I would not take any chances. I agree that we need the Israeli army on the River Jordan. The Alon plan seemed a good idea. My vision is more in line with his nowadays.”


The man and his writings

Hillel Halkin (b.1939) is an American-born Israeli translator, biographer, literary critic and novelist, who has lived in Israel since 1970 and has written widely on Israeli politics and culture. The son of a professor of Jewish literature, history and culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, he studied English Literature at Columbia University. He made aliyah in 1970 and settled in Zichron Yaakov. He is married to Marcia and is the father of two daughters. His books include:

■Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist's Polemic. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1977, and Gefen Publishing House, 2013.

■Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002.

■A Strange Death. New Milford, Conn: The Toby Press, 2010.

■Yehuda Halevi. New York: Nextbook/Schocken, 2010.

This article was originally published in ESRA Magazine #178.

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