Posted by: jbwuk | December 24, 2011

JBW interviews: Hillel Halkin

Last year, Hillel Halkin had to cancel his trip to JBW 2011 where he would have launched his highly acclaimed biography of Yehuda Halevi. This year we invited him back and I’m delighted to say he will be doing three sessions: discussing the “Poet laureate of the Jewish People” with Anthony Julius, interviewing Eli Amir whose book Yasmine he has translated and last but not least launching his first novel,  Melisande! What Are Dreams?

This is because Hillel Halkin is a scholar, a translator and now also a novelist. You can read him in the Jerusalem Post, Commentary and The New Republic on literature and Middle East politics. He is the author of several books, including the The New York Times bestselling Letters to an American-Jewish Friend: A Zionist Polemic and Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel.

Halkin translates from Hebrew and Yiddish. His version of  Sholem Aleichem’s

Yiddish masterpiece Tevye the Dairyman was the basis for the hit Broadway musical. In a recent article in Ha’aretz, he compared translating to “being the dance partner of the greatest dancer”, one of the most beautiful comparisons I’ve ever heard.

As to his novel, it seems to be quite a departure from his present scholarly life and more of a nod to his American youth. I haven’t read it yet but from our correspondance, I’m sure I will enjoy it.


–       If you could escape to another world, what would there be that is missing here?

Escaping to another world would be impractical. My wife could never decide what clothes to take.

–          What is the book you “inherited” from a parent or teacher that made a profound impression on you?

My father was a Judaics scholar with over 5,000 books in his library, some 500 of which I kept when he died and the rest of which I sold, but the inherited book that means the most to me came from my mother. Her grandfather, Naftali Tsvi Yehuda Berlin, a well-known 19th-century rabbi and head of the renowned Volozhin Yeshiva inLithuania, wrote a commentary on the Pentateuch that is widely read and  admired in Orthodox circles to this day. My mother inherited the five volumes of its first edition from my grandfather and passed them on to me. They were printed in Vilna in 1879-80, and I still shiver slightly when I open them.  Since they were meant to be used in synagogue on Sabbaths, when the weekly portion of the Torah is read, they also contain the text of the Sabbath morning service. In it is a prayer for the welfare of the Tsar, Alexander Nikolayevitch; his wife, Maria Alexandrovna; their son, Alexander Alexandrovitch, and Alexander Alexandrovitch’s wife, Maria Theodorovna. The prayer wasn’t very effective. Tsar Alexander was assassinated in 1881.

–          What is the book you would like to pass on to the future generation?

Melisande! What Are Dreams? There are worthier books, but they’ll all be spoken for by others. Who will speak for Melisande if not me?

–          What is the most Jewish thing you have ever done?

Settling in Israel in 1970 – not because it was more “Jewish” than many other things I did, but because it forever changed the nature of what all those other things were.

–          What is the most important Jewish book of the last 60 years?

“Important” is a subjective word that pretends to be objective. If I myself had to walk away with one Jewish book from the last 60 years and never again see any of the others, it would be the collected poems of Yehuda Amichai.

–          When did you know you would become a writer?

At the age of fifteen, although it took me a long time to become what I knew then that I wanted to be.

–          If you were not a writer, what would you be?

Probably, a linguist. After dropping out of graduate school with an M.A. in English literature, I seriously considered going back for a Ph.D. in linguistics. In the end, I didn’t.

–          What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

“Get your Ph.D. and teach in a university. You’ll have economic security and there’ll always be time to write.” That was from my mother. It was very sound advice. I’m glad I didn’t take it, but she was right. I’ve never had a moment of economic security since then.

–          What would your superpower be?

Italy. The world couldn’t be any more of a mess than it is now even if the Italians were running it, and it would certainly be a more charming one.

–          Who (living or dead) would you invite to your ideal Friday night dinner?

My parents, my two daughters, and my grandchild. I’d love to see them all together. I’d love them to get to know each other. My mother died when my daughters were small. Soon afterwards my father developed Alzheimer’s, so that the grandfather they grew up to know wasn’t my father, either.

–          On the very distant day when you will make it to the other side, what would you like God (assuming there is one) to say to you?

“Here’s the key to your room. I’ll see you in the morning. The executive planning committee meets at nine.”



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