Podcast: Hillel Halkin and Ruth Wisse on His Life in Hebrew

The two giants of Jewish literature come together for a wide-ranging discussion centered around his new book on the seminal Hebrew writers of modernity.


Observation
Sept. 10 2020
About the authors

A weekly podcast, produced in partnership with the Tikvah Fund, offering up the best thinking on Jewish thought and culture.

Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), Jabotinsky: A Life (2014), and, most recently, After One-Hundred-and-Twenty (Princeton). 

Ruth R. Wisse is a research professor at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her most recent book is No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013, paperback 2015).


This Week’s Guests: Hillel Halkin and Ruth Wisse

 

From 2015 to 2018, the Israeli writer and translator Hillel Halkin published a series of ten essays in Mosaic on the seminal Hebrew writers of the 19th and early-20th centuries. They dealt with everyone from Ḥayyim Bialik to S.Y. Agnon, Raḥel to Ahad Ha’am. Those essays have now been brought together in Halkin’s newly published book The Lady of Hebrew and Her Lovers of Zion. Writing such a book is an act of cultural preservation, safeguarding the literature, poetry, and essays through which the Jewish people sought to understand themselves as a modern nation in the modern world.

In this podcast, Halkin joins one of his longtime interlocutors, Ruth Wisse, for a wide-ranging discussion about his life, his move to Israel, cultural fidelity, and, of course, his new book. This conversation is a snapshot of a long-running conversation between these two giants of modern Jewish letters. A rough but complete transcript is below.

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.

This podcast was recorded over Zoom at an event co-sponsored by Beit Avi Chai and Mosaic.

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Transcript

 

Ruth Wisse: 

Hillel and I are used to getting together at least once a year for this kind of conversation, so I hope this will be, Hillel, as pleasurable as it usually is. At least we’ll try to make it so. In any case, we are here, as Tamar [Stampfer] said, to celebrate The Lady of Hebrew and Her Lovers of Zion, Hillel’s new book. I’d like to start, Hillel, on both our behalves, I think, thanking David Rozenson and the terrific staff of Beit Avi Chai for hosting this, and to Mosaic, to Neal Kozodoy for running the series of essays that make up this book, and to Jon Silver for co-hosting this webinar, and to everybody out there, including all our friends who are joining us.

It’s a pleasure to introduce Hillel. I’ve done it before, and I usually do it very briefly. And Hillel, if you’ll indulge me, this is a time when I’d like to say just a little bit more. Firstly, to say something about you as a translator. Hillel has made the entire library of modern Hebrew classics and some of the old classics available to the English reader. Some of the best contemporary Israeli works as they appeared, including Mr. Mani and Woman in Jerusalem by A. B. Yehoshua, books by Amos Oz, by Meir Shalev, by Shulamith Hareven, by Haim Be’er, by Haim Sabato, and recently by Ruby Namdar, his novel, A Ruined House. This is just a small fraction of the modern Hebrew canon that Hillel has translated. And then as well as the contemporary Hebrew writers, he translated works of modern Hebrew renaissance, of Yosef Haim Brenner, of Agnon. And his introductions to these works are always, even before these essays, superb monographs. Over a period of 10 years, he has translated a large selection of the poems of the 11th century Hebrew poet Samuel Ha-Nagid, and brought them together in the book Grand Things to Write a Poem on. And more recently, he wrote a wonderful story of a study of Yehuda Halevi with generous translations of his poetry. It’s a toss-up between what is greater in that book, Hillel’s translations of Yehuda Halevi or the way he makes them accessible to us. And also, may I say that he has also translated in the best way that it could have been done the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem, Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories, and The Letters of Menachem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl, and Motl the Cantor’s Son, and also other works of Yiddish literature. So all of this already, are his works as a translator.

Why is he so good as a translator? I think partly you see from this book that he’s a great writer. He’s a terrific writer, and in many genres. One of the most influential books that he wrote, influential to the present day, is Letters to an American Jewish Friend that followed from his decision to settle as an American Jew in Israel, and maybe you would say more about that later. Then he wrote, could you call them two national detective stories? In one, Across the Sabbath River, Hillel traveled to China and to Burma to check out the legend of the 10 lost tribes, and he in fact found an ethnic group claiming to be one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, and that has actually followed up with a huge migration to Israel. And then in A Strange Death, he set out to solve the mystery of Zikhron Ya’akov, where Hillel is so beautifully situated, and where he and Marsha, his wife, live, and where the pro-British Jewish espionage cell nearly operated during the first World War. Fabulous books, all. And then just to make it short, in 2014 he published a terrific biography of Jabotinsky. In 2016, he wrote a book reflecting on death and mourning and the afterlife in Jewish tradition, called After One-Hundred-and-Twenty. And in 2012, Hillel published his first novel, Melisande! What Are Dreams? which is situated mostly in New York in the years that would have coincided with your teens, Hillel.

So moving from that—and of course you know that I had to restrain myself in this—in all of these books I would say that there is something of you, and never as much of you as I would like to have had, so I hope this is a chance to learn a little more. So could you begin with telling us something about your upbringing that may have prepared you for this professional life, and maybe how much were you influenced by your home, your family, and to what extent by other forces that drew you or could have drawn you away in other directions?

Hillel Halkin:

Well, first let me say, Ruth, that it was worth participating in this podcast just to hear myself introduced by you so nicely. Thank you. We’re all, of course, influenced very much by our homes and by the families we grew up in. I grew up in New York. I was born in 1939. I grew up in a home that was both very, very Jewish, very, very Zionist and, in its own way, American. My parents both came to America and to New York at young ages, when they were still malleable enough to become Americanized. And I think throughout my childhood, and my adolescence, and my early adulthood, those two parts of me, the American part and the Jewish part, were constantly interplaying and never really got along that well.

I think that’s always something that distinguished me as opposed to most other American Jews I knew, even my friends. The American and the Jew in me were always in a kind of a conflict, and they didn’t integrate well. They were both very strong and they were both very pronounced. Sometimes one got the upper hand, sometimes the other. I had my very Jewish periods. I had my very American periods. But there was always this sense that in the end I would have to choose, that I couldn’t harmoniously and equally live these two sides of me together.

Ruth Wisse:

That’s very interesting. I had heard somewhere that Bob Alter, who, growing up in Albany, had once said that he wanted to be the best baseball player in America and the best Hebrew scholar in America. And the way in which he said it seemed to suggest that there could be a creative amalgam of the two. I gather that you feel that there was a much greater tension between these two.

Hillel Halkin:

I think there was a great tension. At least so it seems to me when I look back on it today. Perhaps today I exaggerate somewhat the tensions that existed in the child or the adolescent that I was. But yes, I think I also wanted to be in the major leagues, at second base. I don’t ever remember wanting to be a Hebrew translator when I was a child, but I was the child who wanted to be a second baseman, and the child who wanted to go and fight with the Palmach in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. I really saw no way of doing those two things together.

Ruth Wisse:

I get it. But you know what? This last essay most recently that you wrote in Mosaic, if one may say so, as Philologos, you write very interestingly about summer camping. And there, one wouldn’t sense what you’re describing. There you described two kinds of summer camping—and if you want to talk about that distinction I found it really interesting—but there it seemed to be that you could go to an American summer camp and, to some extent, be immersed in Hebrew in one sense, and also be an American Hebrew Jewish boy, and that seemed to be effortless.

Hillel Halkin:

Yeah, but the summer camp in question, which was called Massad, was ultimately a very militantly Zionist summer camp. And the message it was giving us was: well, we’re recreating a little Hebrew speaking mini-Israel here in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. This is how we’re preparing you to live, and in the end, you’re going to leave this mini-Israel and this imaginary Israel in the Poconos and you’re going to live in the real Israel. That was its message, and the logo was, of course, lots of Americana, and we played baseball in Hebrew and many other activities. It wasn’t a real integration of America and Zionism, or America and Israel, it was using the American side of ourselves to, in a sense, pull us over in the other direction.

Ruth Wisse:

And so would you say that Hebrew necessarily plays that role in the life of American Jewry? Because one of the problems that we face in America, those of us who really want there to be a second language available, and not just Spanish but maybe Hebrew as well, and try to make the children bilingual, do you think that the underlying impulse is necessarily that it would have to be a road to settling in Israel?

Hillel Halkin:

I don’t know that it has to be a road towards settling in Israel, but I think that Hebrew really no longer plays the role in Jewish life outside of Israel that it once played for a very long time. It’s no longer the literary language of Jews throughout the world. It’s no longer the second language of Jews throughout the world for purposes of communicating with each other, for purposes of writing, of self-expression. It’s no longer a language that any educated Jew feels he must be able to know well enough to read the classics and to be familiar with them. It’s become a language of prayer and study, and it’s not really, in the diaspora today, even a living written language, let alone a spoken language, and I don’t see really any prospect that it’s going to become so.

There’s a certain paradox here, which is that as long as Hebrew was only a written language until the 20th century, it was really the international language of the Jewish people everywhere. Even when Jews met often from different parts of the world before modern times, they would speak to each other in a very stilted Hebrew, but that was the language they tried to communicate in. Now that Hebrew has become a spoken language in Israel and is spoken by more people probably than ever in history—there are more Jews speaking Hebrew in Israel today then there probably were in antiquity—Hebrew is no longer the international language of the Jewish people. When an Israeli and an American Jew meet today, they don’t speak in Hebrew, they speak in English. And when Jewish scholars all over the world assemble anywhere today to talk about any Jewish subject, even Hebrew literature, what is the language of the conference they hold? The language is English, not Hebrew. So in that sense, Hebrew has both triumphed as never before and has become more marginal as never before.

Ruth Wisse:

Well, that’s an interesting way of looking at it, but the story is not quite over yet because we now have— this would lead us into a whole different side of the discussion—the idea of aliyah  and yerida, it seems to me has changed pretty drastically because moving to Israel is now—for many American Jews who feel themselves very committed—extraordinarily attractive. It’s no longer just “I have to go because Zion needs me, and so I’m going to build the land like a halutz.” I think many people find it very attractive. And conversely, there are many Israelis who come to the United States who live here, and who really feel themselves always to be Israelis. They keep their homes there and so forth.

Now, those people are a key to Hebrew in a very different way. A lot depends on them. If they keep speaking Hebrew to their children and if they build the institutions that they need while they’re here—and I think some of that is happening—then Hebrew gets a grounding here, a natural grounding here, that it never really had before. It’s just a natural grounding of Israelis whose language is Hebrew and of Jews who want to join them and speak Hebrew. I mean there’s a new opportunity. Or do you think that this is the case?  But you’ve written a book of improbabilities.

Hillel Halkin:

If you look, Ruth, at Italian Americans, or Polish Americans, or Greek Americans, the first generation of immigrants speaks Italian at home, the second generation understands Italian and speaks it to a certain extent, the third generation doesn’t speak it at all and perhaps understands a bit, and the fourth generation understands and speaks not a word of Italian. Why it will be any different with Israelis who have settled in the United States and become permanently Americans? I don’t know.

Ruth Wisse:

Okay. Well look, let me just get back to you and Hebrew. Do you remember the first time you began reading Hebrew for pleasure? And do you remember what was the book that you read or the books that you read that gave you pleasure?

Hillel Halkin:

Well, it was a book that, to my great delight, I discovered about 20 years ago in a bookstore in Israel and was able actually to buy. It turns out that it was a translation from Serbian into Hebrew, and it was about a family of 12—a father and 11 children, who formed a soccer team. And the father was the coach and the 11 children were all players on the team, and at the end, of course, they won the Olympics, or the international soccer championships, whatever it was. It was a book that I loved very much. My father, I think, gave it to me as a present, and it was definitely the first Hebrew book that I read for pleasure. I think at the time I thought it was originally a Hebrew work. It was only when I purchased it in a bookstore in Israel that I discovered it was a translation from Yugoslavian, or some Slavic language.

Ruth Wisse:

That is absolutely wonderful. And your immersion in Hebrew, I think it’s obvious, had a great deal to do with, as you describe in the book, the connection between the Hebrew and the moving to Israel. So what about that decision? Was it easy to make when you made it, the decision to actually pick up? Had your parents gone beforehand? Does the fact that part of the family was there, was that a help or a hindrance? And how did you see that? Was it the most fateful decision that you ever made in your life?

Hillel Halkin:

I think the most fateful was getting married to the woman I married, but this was probably the second most fateful. By the way, they were both very, very wise decisions. I’ve written about this, but I’ll say it again because what I’ve written is not before us at the moment. To me, in a way, the question went beyond living in America and living in Israel. And I’m going to say something that some people may find disturbing at the moment. The question really was whether to live as a Jew or not, because living as a Jew in America never made much sense to me. And the older I grew in America, the less sense it made. And in my college years, and in my graduate school years when I was in my 20s—early 20s, later 20s, we’re talking now about the 1960s basically—I lived a very American life in many ways. And it was clear to me that if I stayed in America, I wasn’t really going to live a life that was affiliated in any way with Jewish communities. That’s the least it would seem to me at the age of 20, of course. One grows up and has children. One changes, but that’s how it seemed to me then.

And Jewish life in America never made sense to me really as a child very much, and never made much sense to me as I grew older. So it was clear to me as they say that if I stayed in America, I was going to be an American. I wasn’t going to be a half American, half Jew. It wasn’t an existence I wanted for myself. And then the question really became for me, I think, which part of you is stronger? Which part of you do you have to honor more? Which part of you is going to be easier to give up in some sense? And when I realized that the answer was that the Jewish part of me was ultimately the deeper, the more important part, the part that I needed to hang on to the most and cultivate the most, I think that moving to Israel became a corollary of that at that point, because just as I didn’t see any sense in trying to live a Jewish life in America, it seemed to me that Israel is the only place to really live a Jewish life for me.

And I know that today these words may sound almost archaic, because as you yourself said earlier in our conversation, we live in a world today where there’s such an emphasis on multiple identities and on belonging to many worlds at once and on people’s ability to move from one world, mental or emotional or even physical, to another all the time. That the boundaries of the world are porous. We constantly cross them in one direction or another. And here am I speaking, in a way, a very archaic language. It’s the language of either-or. It’s a language of having to choose one identity over another, where today we’re supposed to easily accommodate multiple identities in us, but that’s very much the way I felt. And to a certain extent, still feel.

Ruth Wisse:

Well, it’s curious that in speaking about this, it reinforces something that I felt all the way back when I read Letters to an American Jewish Friend, which Stuart Schoffman in reviewing this book says how much that book influenced his own aliyah. I’d be surprised if many people did not read your book and take it as a kind of guide to the perplexed. Not that you wrote it that way necessarily, but I think you did. It’s the most obviously polemical book that you wrote. It’s written in the form of a polemic. But what struck me when I read it, and it became ever more clear to me since I reread it at times, is that what you follow is the logic of Zionism. And the way you’ve put it now too is so interesting because you talk about it in the way that you figured it out, that it made no sense to you, is the way you put it. Made no sense to you to do that. And that’s really interesting because part of you has written more recently about love, and this is a book called The Lady of Hebrew and Her Lovers of Zion, and there’s a lot of illogic in what you’re describing. In fact, sometimes you become impatient with some of these people like Berdichevsky. Listen, didn’t the logic of Zionism lead you to become a Zionist? Didn’t the logic of Hebrew lead you to this? So I’m just wondering whether it ever occurred to you that the way in which you worked it out—or that you think you worked it out—was logical? And does it still seem that way to you?

Hillel Halkin:

Of course, there are other emotional factors here that go well beyond logic. Although, I might mention that since you bring up Berdichevsky, who one of the chapters of my book is about. Berdichevsky, who was one of the great modern Hebrew authors, at the very end of his life as I at least construe of it and write about it in my book, basically resigned from the Jewish people because being Jewish made no sense to him at the age of 60 or so when he finally died. He struggled with it all his life. And ultimately, it made no sense to him at the highest level of not making sense.

So I wouldn’t necessarily point to Berdichevsky here as an example of an emotional attachment to Jewish life and to Jewish life in the diaspora overriding logical considerations. But sure, I agree with you, there are emotional pulls there. All I’m saying is that the emotional pulls that pulled me to America and the emotional pulls that pulled me to Israel were both very, very strong. In some sense, I felt I was being pulled apart by them. That if I didn’t choose, if I didn’t go one way or another, I really would be torn apart because these two parts of me were simply too strong and too vigorous to coexist amicably. Each wanted all of me and I had to give all of me only to one of them.

Ruth Wisse:

That’s really interesting. Okay. Well, look, before getting to the book itself, just one other question about this transition. It’s so interesting that you strike me and always did strike me, as one of the few people who’s made aliyah of my generation, whom I would still call a pioneer. The others made aliyah and made it in their own way and so forth. But why does it strike me as that? Because you’re a new kind of pioneer. The other pioneers all thought in terms of collectively and gravitated towards the collective. And they thought that the only way that they could get settled in the country was through a hevra, through something that would keep them together. So they would go to Kibbutz Saad or they would go to a kibbutz. Now you have gone as, I would say, the most individualistic individual.

People I knew, like you, like myself, they all went into the academy. It was a very easy thing to do for people with your background and so on. You’d get a job at the university. It would be wonderful. And you’d have that for the rest of your life. Some of them became rabbis. Okay. Close enough, more difficult than being a professor, but still. And there you are. And somehow from the very start, it was like, I don’t know, Robinson Crusoe. You see what I mean? It’s as if Israel was able to let you be the individualist that you wanted to be.

Hillel Halkin:

No, I’ve always insisted on making my own mistakes and I’ve made a great deal of them in my life.

Ruth Wisse:

Doesn’t look that way.

Hillel Halkin:

I’ve never wanted to take advice from anyone. My mother told me over and over to go into academic life and how much better off I would be. And I would have a regular salary and I would have sabbaticals and I would have prestige and I would have honor and I would have academic perks. And to tell you the truth, many times in the years, when I was struggling very hard to make a living as a freelance translator and author, I wondered if my mother wasn’t right, but I had to go and do things my own way. And I always have, and I think I’ve been very stubborn often. As I say, I often have disregarded advice that perhaps was very good advice because I just didn’t want to take it. I wanted to learn everything myself and do it my way. And sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Ruth Wisse:

But as a pathfinder in this way, what about as a way of being in Israel? I mean, it’s interesting that when there’s such a sense of having to be in the army and having to be part of the community. That’s always what one speaks of being part of a people. And yet I think that the freedom that you seem to embody suggests that this is a place where one can live freer than in many, many other places, in many other societies, somehow. Would you say that you could make a generalization of that?

Hillel Halkin:

I don’t know. I mean, one thing about my life in Israel is that I’ve really tried very much to live outside the frameworks in which many American Jews in Israel live. My wife and I lived our first two years in Israel in Jerusalem, and basically then left it for what was then a small farming town south of Haifa. And part of that was because I really didn’t want to belong to the American Jewish community, the community of American Jewish olim. And in Israel, it was a bubble that I didn’t want to be in. I wanted to get out and be somewhere else and be on my own and not be part of that world. And we moved to a small town in the early 1970s, in which for many, many years, we were practically the only English speaking people in the whole town. Today, it’s full of Americans because other people discovered it after we did. What a nice place to live it was.

Or to take the reverse in a way it’s a thing which actually has not been to me in a way, a source of entirely of happiness. But here I am living in Israel with this really deep love of Hebrew and knowledge of Hebrew. And I’ve spent all my life writing in English, which has on the one hand enabled me to make a living because writing in Hebrew, I never could have done that and that was one reason I did write in English instead of in Hebrew. And I’m not sure it was the only reason. On the other hand, it’s made me practically unknown in Israel. I mean, I’m a person whose known—not that I’m famous anyway—but I’m known better among American Jews certainly than I am among Israelis because I don’t write in Hebrew. And why should I be known here? So I’ve cut myself off in ways. I cut myself off from the American Jewish community in Jerusalem, then I cut myself off from Israel by writing in English. It’s been a price for going my own way.

Ruth Wisse:

Yes. Well, not for the rest of us though. I mean, I think that it’s curious that in doing what you’ve done, you’ve managed to do what I think was probably most important for this generation. And that is to provide that bridge that was not there. I mean, this was a time when there were two communities and nobody knew how to negotiate them. And you’ve been the chief negotiator, I would think, between the two of them. So what you call your independence has proven to be really what we needed most.

Hillel Halkin:

Perhaps. So there is a certain paradox, don’t you think, in the fact that here I am starting with Letters to an American Jewish Friend, turning my back in a way so ideologically on America. I made it so clear that I’ve put America behind, and that I think other Jews should put America behind them, and yet here I have all my life been making a living basically by addressing American Jews, by writing for American Jews, by translating for American Jews. Sometimes I say to myself, “Hey, are you hypocrite?” Here you are having earned your livelihood from a community that over and over you’ve in some ways denigrated, or at least made clear that you have no desire to belong to.

Ruth Wisse:

Well, I would turn it on its head, Hillel, and say that it seems to me that what you managed to do is to resolve what you said was the dichotomy in you, the split in you, the tension in you, that you brought it together in the way that you have and combined these two things in the most creative way possible, through a creative effort and through your life. But anyway, let’s move to the book, which I’m sure that many people want to talk about. Although, I find this a most fascinating conversation.

So in the book, when you introduce it, you say it does two things. You say one is to introduce English readers, having little or no familiarity with them, to a number of major Hebrew writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, whose work forms an important part of the literary response to the modern Jewish experience. The other is to explore the reciprocal relationship in this period between Hebrew literature, the evolution of the modern Hebrew language, and the emergence of Zionism as a historic force in Jewish life. And then the last chapter reflects on what you think are the contemporary implications of what you’ve laid out.

I think this is a modest way of describing the book actually, because it really is a terrific introduction to history, cultural history, and a fascinating study of personalities and so forth. But there’s one other thing it seems to me. It’s as if you’re like a virtuoso who has practiced this instrument of translation over a lifetime and wants to really draw it together in a concert that brings in everything. Absolutely everything, all the poetry, the prose, all the writers that you write. It’s a virtuoso performance. And I think that the interesting thing when I was reading this, I wrote in the margins, I said I’ve never read a translation of yours wondering, “Oh, let me get to the original.” You know that very often when reading a translation, you read something and you think, gee, I wonder what the original was really like? Or you really are drawn to it. I must say that reading you, it seems to be self-sufficient. So one of the impulses must have been artistic.

Hillel Halkin:

Yeah, I think definitely. And I think you put your finger on something that’s very true.  I write about 11 authors. Basically, there were 11 chapters, whom I would have gladly spent years translating whole works, or even several works of each one of them. Because many of them, I love deeply. And a few of those, even whom I love less, I feel that justice has never been done them by translators. And that the only person who really could rectify that injustice was myself. But on the other hand, I cannot and I wouldn’t have been prepared to, and in any case, there are no publishers who would have been ready to commission me to sit down and publish the collected works of Smolenskin or the collected poetry of A.D. Gordon or even selections of these people.

So what I did in this book was really take small passages from many different authors, from Smolenskin, from Gordon, and from Yosef Perl, and from Brenner, and from Berdichevsky, and say, all right, this is all I can do. This is all I have time for. This is all there is space for. This is all I can be paid to do, but I’m going to try to show myself, first of all. And second of all, show the reader how it can be done. I’m going to try to show that it is possible to translate each one of these people well, each one with his own problematics. And each one has to be dealt with in his or her own way. I say her. There’s a chapter on the poet Raḥel, whom I had a wonderful time translating. So yes, I think there was a certain desire to be a virtuoso, as you say, in this book. And to take a little portion from each one of these writers and show what I can do with it.

Ruth Wisse:

One of the real reasons to get this book, to own it, is also the degree to which it’s going to push people to try to read all of these authors. Hopefully many of them in your translation, because some of them actually you have translated whole books of, but then really try to get to the Hebrew perhaps and see them because you’ve made them extremely interesting and accessible, so that’s really a great achievement here. These are all individuals who’ve tried to define themselves, many of them between tradition and modernity, as one would put it. And we haven’t brought up the idea yet specifically of religious practice, of one’s relationship to the Jewish tradition through the Bible and so forth. Did you identify with this when you were reading them and working on them? Which of them did you really most identify with, or with all of them in that struggle in this tension?

Hillel Halkin:

With many of them. In many ways, I felt that I myself have been more of a 19th, early 20th century Jew than a late 20th century Jew because my own life, I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home. But at a certain point, which is not an atypical point, it’s the time of puberty and early adolescence, I went through an extremely religious phase in my own life, to the point that I began to browbeat my own observant parents for not being observant enough. And then as adolescence proceeded, and once I got to be 14, 15, 16, I went through terrible, really tormenting intellectual struggles and battles with myself because I felt little by little, that I was losing faith in religion and losing faith in the God of Judaism. And at the same time, it was very, very difficult for me to give these things up.

And this battle between religion and religious practice, and secularity, and between tradition and modernity, is a light motif that runs throughout 19th century Hebrew literature, early 20th century Hebrew. Again, it’s not something from my experience that most Jews or young Jews experience today. Today, Jews seem to have the ability to live in several worlds at once. They can live in the world of the Talmud, and of the Bible, and of belief in the God of Judaism, and they can live in the world of quantum physics, equally, at one in the same time. I was never able to do that, just as I was never able to live harmoniously as an American and as a Jew at the same time. I was never able to live harmoniously within myself as a religious believer and as somebody open to the entire modern experience at the same time.

Here too, in a way, a time came into my life when I had to choose. And in adolescence, I really gave up my religious practice, as did most of the authors whom I write about in this book. I mean, they went through the same terrible, terrible conflict between a deep loyalty and love for the religious tradition they were brought up in, and the feeling at a certain point in their lives that that tradition and that religion had become intellectually untenable for them. And they couldn’t intellectually and honestly go on living anymore, even though their attachment to it remained very deep and very strong. That’s precisely the way I felt, so my identification with these authors is really very strong.

Ruth Wisse:

Well, I think that, maybe you’re not seeing this in Israel, but in fact, around us in the Modern Orthodox world, and certainly in the Haredi world today, I keep saying this is the best 19th century book ever written because all these accounts that we have of Unorthodox, of people really leaving the Orthodox world, I mean, we’ve read this story a thousand times. You sort of think, “What? Are they reliving it yet again?” And yet there’s a wave of a huge number of American youth and some in Israel as well, who are undergoing the very same experience. One would think that Israel in some way has made possible the answer to that problem. In other words, that there’s a way of entering into Jewish life to the degree that you wish to be observant because you’re living within a Jewish framework, within the Jewish country, so you can choose the whole gamut, the whole degree of combination that you want. This is something that they didn’t have.

Hillel Halkin:

I think that’s true. And this was a great part of the logic of secular Zionism from the very beginning. I mean, secular Zionism comes from the perception that on the one hand, for a large number of modern Jews living within a religious tradition is no longer really tenable, and on the other hand they don’t want to give up their Jewishness. And the realization that the only way to be able to live a full Jewish existence, apart from the confines of tradition, is to live it in a secular Jewish society, which means necessarily a Jewish state and a Jewish culture and a Hebrew culture, that exists parallel to those of France or England or the United States or Italy or any other modern country. I mean, this is a great deal of what drives Zionism: the need to create an environment in which individuals—which means also many of the authors in this book—feel they can exist, honestly, being true to themselves, being true to their Jewish selves, without having to do this through a religious tradition that they no longer really can totally identify with.

Ruth Wisse:

Yeah, now it’s true, but there’s a part of this that is separate from that, maybe connected, but separate. And that is also very interesting in terms of the book. When we were in college, we all got fascinated with this poem by Ezra Pound, “I join these words for four people. Some others may overhear them. Oh world, I am sorry for you, you do not know these four people.” That seems so precious, the images, “I join these words for four people” and to hell with you world, this is what counts. This is a very un-Jewish approach to culture and to life. But the truth is, that one of the most extraordinary things here is that these people were writing for a very small group. They were not looking for royalties. Some of them were, I guess. But they knew that they were joining these words for a few people, but those people paid such attention. They knew that everything that they wrote was being scrutinized. And even when people submitted to Ahad Ha’am, for example, and he edited, the fact that they were taken so seriously that people quarreled over words, that people argued over these ideas, it hardly mattered how large the group was. What mattered was the intensity of involvement with the culture. What’s the takeaway? First of all, what is that phenomenon? And what do you think can be extrapolated from that?

Hillel Halkin:

I’m not entirely sure I understand the question Ruth but I’ll try to assume that I do. Yes, the world of Hebrew readers and especially readers of Hebrew literature, as opposed to traditional Hebrew religious texts, was always a small one in the 19th century. Although it wasn’t quite as small as we might think, because Hebrew really was for the 19th century, early 20th century European Jew, but particularly for the 19th century Jew—I’m talking about Eastern Europe and modern Hebrew literature—it really develops and grows out of Eastern Europe, just as Yiddish literature did. Hebrew was their window on the world to a great extent. It was even—though it was not the language they spoke (this was on the whole Yiddish in Eastern Europe, of course)—but it was the language in which they read, in which they communicated with Jewish tradition, and not only religious Jewish tradition, because there was a certain semicircular element in Jewish tradition all along too, in medieval Hebrew poetry and in other forms.

But it was also their window on the non-Jewish world. Hebrew was the language in the 19th century, in which many, many Jews first read European novels. It was the language in which they read the newspapers. I mean, for a Jew who joined Russia in 1870, 1880, many more Jews were able to read Hebrew newspapers than Russian newspapers. And Hebrew really functioned as the language of creativity and communication for, I wouldn’t say for all the Jewish Jews of Eastern Europe, because Hebrew was confined in some ways to an elite. The only people who really could speak and write and communicate in the Hebrew in Eastern Europe were people with rabbinical training, even though then many of them rebelled against that rabbinical training in trying to create a secular Hebrew religion. But Hebrew was not a second language for them, even if it’s not the language they spoke at home, it was in many ways their first language. It was the language of their creative selves, their deepest Jewish selves. And in that sense, people like Smolenskin or Ahad Ha’am or Brenner felt they were speaking for people, even if many of those people couldn’t read them in the language that were writing them, because they felt they were speaking for their people’s deepest soul, for its deepest psyche, and writing in the languages that most expressed that soul.

Ruth Wisse:

Well, I would have thought that when you read some of Brenner and Berdichevsky’s correspondence and so forth, you see their frustration with joining their words just for four people. I mean, they were a little bitter about the fact that they seem to be writing for no one, and yet it didn’t in any way stop their cultural creativity. It just sort of seems to me that sometimes it doesn’t matter. I mean, the reason I bring it up also in comparison with ourselves is that we tend to think of how many books are being sold, and we don’t understand that the intensity of relationship with these books is zero. So that there can’t be a really a cultural efflorescence because it’s the relationship, not the numbers that—

Hillel Halkin:

It often is pointed out Shakespeare’s London had a population roughly of that of Little Rock, Arkansas, and Shakespeare in contemporary terms was creating his plays for a very small audience. They weren’t being translated. No one was performing Shakespeare in Germany or France in his lifetime. The number of viewers he had in London, the people who came to see his plays, was probably a few thousand. He wouldn’t have been published today because he would’ve been considered a failure. You’re quite right. What determines these things is not the size of an audience, it’s the intensity with which an audience responds to the writer, or the intensity of emotion which the writer reaches out to the audience, and the feeling of both the audience and the writer that they’re necessary for each other, that neither can live without the other.

Ruth Wisse:

Yeah, okay. Well, look, I know that there are a lot of people who have questions and we’ll open up. There are just two chapters, if you will, that I would like to ask you about. One is about Ahad Ha’am and Herzl really, it’s basically about Ahad Ha’am, but you frame it so wonderfully about the relationship between the two of them. And I was struck by how you were able to talk about this rift with such balance between the two sides, and basically it’s kind of the most wholesome discussion of their discussion that I have seen. And it just seemed to come naturally to you to present them and to see, yes, we needed both of them. How did you go about that?

Hillel Halkin:

No, the fact is, as I think I told you in an email, neither Ahad Ha’am nor Herzl were life figures that I particularly admired. I never identified much with Ahad Ha’am or his way of thinking. Excuse me for saying so, but he seemed to me in some ways an extraordinarily talented mediocre thinker. A person who, when faced with intellectual problems or dilemmas always chose to muddle through with some kind of unclear, compromised version. In Ahad Ha’am’s great polemical exchange with Berdichevsky, Berdichevsky always had the honesty, or perhaps the exaggerated honesty of needing to go to the extremes in order to sharpen points of avoiding compromise positions. Ahad Ha’am was a master at compromise in all his intellectual thinking, he’s always looking for the middle point and in some way, I think that’s the secret for his success with Jews, because he spoke to an audience that was also somehow looking for the middle, for not having to seize extremes. Ahad Ha’am was presenting solutions that were always compromised solutions intellectually, culturally, socially. But for that very reason, were so attractive in a way. They were never attractive to me because as I made clear in this conversation with you, I too am in many ways a person of extremes. I’m a person who wants to follow a line of argument or a truth to the very end and doesn’t want to relinquish it until I’ve lived it or thought it fully all the way through.

Ahad Ha’am is not like that. Herzl on the other hand, I always had the attitude towards Herzl that many of his Eastern European critics had: that he wasn’t really thoroughly Jewish enough, that he didn’t have enough Jewish culture, that he didn’t really himself understand Zionism from within, that Zionism for him was simply an answer to anti-Semitism. He didn’t understand the deeper cultural and religious and social imperatives of Zionism. But over the years, because as one grows older one does become less extreme, I’ve come to appreciate both men more, particularly Herzl. Today, I think he was really a political genius. A mad man in many ways, but without his form of madness there would have been no Zionism and no Jewish state. Herzl was extraordinary. I mean the burden of history that he took upon himself, singlehandedly almost on his own shoulders, when there was no reason to think he could succeed, was remarkable.

And he was generally in his own lifetime considered by sophisticated people, knowledgeable people, to be half mad and to be pursuing a total kimra, an unrealizable dream. And he knew it. He himself was a very sophisticated European Jew, and he knew he was doing something crazy in suddenly trying to push this mad notion of a Jewish state. But he does it, defying all odds and defying all opinion of himself. He doesn’t care anymore what people think of him, he goes and he does it. And today it’s clear to me that without Herzl, there would have been no Israel, there would have been no Jewish state. I’ve come to admire both people.  I’ve come to admire Ahad Ha’am because he does represent some kind of healthy instinct not to go overboard in one direction, the way Hillel Halkin might like to do. Ahad Ha’am doesn’t. Ahad Ha’am always keeps a certain center. And Herzl, on the contrary, Herzl does go overboard, but goes overboard in a way that saves the Jewish people.

Ruth Wisse:

Wonderful, wonderful. Well, you know what? The second I wanted to ask you about was A.D. Gordon, but why don’t we open it up to questions? There are so many people who have been wanting to ask you questions. I feel as if I am taking up too much of this. One could go on, and on, and on. Tamar, are you fielding the questions here?

Tamar:

Yeah. I’m following the questions. There are a lot of them, so I’ll have to choose . Quite a few questions refer to the impact of your book, Letters to an American Jewish Friend. Alan Kaplan asks, “What is the contemporary relevance of Letters in today’s Israel? From someone who first read the book in 1979 and still refers to it.”

Hillel Halkin:

Well, it was never addressed to an Israeli audience. Letters to an American Jewish Friend was addressed to an American Jewish audience. And it wasn’t even just all American Jews. As I have written about, that book, which was my first ,in the days before I came to Israel in the late 1960s my wife and I had many Jewish friends who were assimilated Jews, who were not particularly Jewish Jews, who didn’t care about Israel or about being Jewish. I didn’t write Letters to an American Jewish Friend for them. I wasn’t trying to convince anyone of a need to be Jewish or to feel strongly Jewish if they didn’t. I wrote that book to people who were Jewish Jews, to American Jews who felt very Jewish.

And what I was saying to them was, “Look, you have to choose.” I mean, this goes back to what I was saying to Ruth earlier. If you want to be honest about being Jewish in today’s world, the place to be it is in Israel because that’s the only place where you can be fully Jewish and where you can be honestly Jewish and where you can make a maximum contribution to Jewish life and where you can really be part of the Jewish future. I still feel that way. I wouldn’t bother today to say so because Letters to an American Jewish Friend was written on a certain knife edge of—I would say—both anger and hope. It was written out of great anger at American Jews, whom I felt had no real understanding of Israel, who had no real inner conflict over whether they should be living in Israel or not, who simply thought of the whole Israeli experience as something perhaps wonderful, but not really relevant to their own lives. But I also had a certain amount of hope. I had a real hope, an absurd hope and a very unrealistic hope, that a book like mine, if it were joined by other books, could really revive some kind of meaningful Zionist discussion or argument in the United States and could put the whole question of Zionism and aliyah, which is a concomitant of Zionism, on the American-Jewish agenda in the way that it never was before.

Today, I really feel neither that anger nor that hope anymore. I’m too old to be angry at American Jews and I’ve long since stopped preaching to them. I mean, they have their own lives to live and I’m not going to tell them anymore what Israel should or shouldn’t mean to them, but I also have lost the hope. I don’t think there’s any hope again of aliyah being put seriously on the agenda of American Jews or of Zionism being put seriously on the agenda of American Jews. I think American Jews simply have consigned all that to some kind of box of irrelevance.

So on the one hand, I very much believe in almost everything I wrote today in Letters to an American Jewish Friend. I still think, more or less, what I said there was true and valid, but I wouldn’t have the motivation to say it today anymore.

Tamar:

A different question, a sort of a switch, “How does a Mizrahi or Sephardi culture play or have influence in Israel? May it or should it influence American Jews whose perspective and knowledge is Western-European based?”

Hillel Halkin:

It’s a question which implies something about Sephardi and Ashkenazi culture, which I think is not necessarily true in the first place. I mean, first of all, Sephardi and Ashkenazi are not monolithic concepts in Jewish life. They’ve become so today, but Ashkenazi-Jewish life and communities consisted of many, many different worlds. Sephardi life and communities consisted of many, many different worlds. We’re not talking about one essence, which is Ashkenazi or Sephardi. We’re also not talking about something that traditionally was always hegemonically Ashkenazi. Until the 16th or 17th century, Sephardi Jewry was much stronger, both numerically in the Jewish world and culturally, than Ashkenazi Jewry. And the whole notion that, in some sense, modern Jewish life or Israel or Zionism has involved an Ashkenazi attempt to override or suppress or impose itself on Sephardi culture is not something that I really think is true.

I mean, I won’t go into the details here, but I think that people came to Israel from many, many backgrounds. There is no such thing as a Sephardi culture. An Iraqi Jew is not an Egyptian Jew. An Egyptian Jew is not a Moroccan Jew. A Moroccan Jew is not an Italian Jew or a Ladino-speaking Jew from the Balkans. We put these all under the rubric of Sephardi or Mizrahi. We’re talking about many different worlds. And I think in Israel, like in any melting pot society, all of these things have affected each other. There’s somewhat of a, what I think is today a myth that Israel is an Ashkenazi culture, but it isn’t in many ways. Israeli music, in many ways, is more Mizrahi than Ashkenazi today. Israeli food is more Mizrahi than Ashkenazi. And in any case, the two groups are no longer distinct. There’s been so much intermarriage between them. It’s almost impossible to speak anymore of Ashkenazi-Israeli population and Mizrahi or Sephardi-Israeli population. More and more, we’re talking about a single population. So I don’t really respond very much to that question to begin with. I’ve taken a long time to say so.

Tamar:

Okay. This is the last question. Let’s see how it goes. “How do you see the history and transformation of old secular inter-Jewish arguments between Communism, Bund, and Zionism? What are the trends, as you see them?”

Hillel Halkin:

Well, to put it bluntly, I think Zionism was right and Bundism and Communism were wrong. I think there was a great clash between the two and it was a very bitter clash. It was a hard-fought clash. It was a very intimate clash because it was not unusual in Eastern Europe to have single families where one child was a Zionist, one was a Zionist of Socialist Zionism, one was a revisionist Zionist, one was a Communist, one was a Bundist. The clash was very much a family clash and it was a bitter clash and it was a harsh clash. But Communism and Bundism turned out to be disasters not only for the world, but for the Jewish people. And Zionism has been, I think, the most spectacular success, with all its problematics, for the Jewish people.

 

My wife, who’s sitting here next to me, just said to me, “Not Israel today.” I think even Israel today, for all its problematics. And one thing, Ruth, I think we haven’t really touched on very much is that in my books, in Lady of Hebrew‘s final chapter and then in some of its musings about Israel, one thing I’ve tried do is to create a certain awareness of how so much of the problematics of Israel today come out of Jewish history and come out of Jewish and out of Hebrew literature. It was you who once said to me years ago—we were talking about Yiddish and you said to me, “You can’t understand the people without understanding its literature.” I think one can’t really understand the Israeli experience to the ultimate depths without understanding and knowing the literary sources of where this experience comes from.

Zionism is born from Hebrew literature. Without 19th-century Hebrew literature, there would’ve been no Zionism. And in the last chapter of my book, I really tried to grapple with these issues. I think, and perhaps I’ll try to close with this, 19th-century Hebrew literature is literature written out of great love for the Jewish people, out of great fear for the Jewish people, out of great anxiety for the Jewish people’s future, out of great hopes that the Jewish people will be able to create a viable future for itself, and out of great apprehension that it may not be able to. I feel all these things in Israel today more sharply than ever. I think today, on the one hand, I feel the absolute necessity of Israel and the rightness of Israel and the justice of Israel more than ever. I also feel more frightened for Israel’s future than I have ever felt before.

The last chapter of my book is an attempt, I think, to see how so much of what I feel about Israel today is already in these authors. I’ve said it to you. If you read a chapter on A.D. Gordon, who was not a great poet, he was a very talented poet, but he’s a man writing 150 years ago. And he’s writing about Israel today, as far as I’m concerned. And I think that reading these authors is seeing how they lived problems of Jewishness, or tradition versus modernity, of religion versus secularism, in ways that Israel has not yet solved for itself. Israel is still living out the issues and is struggling with the issues that Hebrew literature struggled with 150 years ago. We’re still working these things out in our history and we’re working out deep psychological and social problems of Jewish life that have hundreds or thousands of years of history behind them.

Part of what we don’t realize, I think, and we’re so impatient and we’re so absorbed with contemporary issues that we don’t understand that what Israel today needs more than anything is time. It can’t work these issues out in five years or 10 years or 20 years or 50 years. It doesn’t matter what. The West Bank, the Palestinians, Judea and Samaria, the Haredim, the settlements. These are all issues deeply, deeply, deeply embedded in the Jewish psyche. We can’t avoid dealing, grappling with them and we can’t hope successfully to grapple with them in a generation. They’re going to be with us for a very long time.

And all of the political and social agony that Israel is going through today really is agonizing. This country is going through an agonizing period. But it’s agonizing because it’s unavoidable, because we can’t escape it, because we can’t run away from it. We’re working out what is the Jewish people about, what are we about? This is what Hebrew literature of the 19th century tries to deal with. It’s what Israel is trying to deal with and it’s what I, in my own way, have tried to deal with in writing this book.

Ruth Wisse:

Hillel, really, this has been spectacular and I think that you’re quite right, that the book is necessary in that sense, that it puts all this in the perspective of timelessness, but also of time as it’s evolving. And I think it’s very important to have all the basis for which the modern situation responds basically. I mean, you’ve done us all a tremendous service, including in this conversation. I’ll just say that one of the things that we have done between us, it seems, is that there’s a division of labor. I leave you to grapple with all that you think is so difficult in Israel. From where I sit, it looks like child’s play because what I take as my task is to try to protect Israel so that it can make all the choices and mistakes that it can make in a world that allows it to live in peace and prosperity. So if one is living from outside, then one has to protect the totality of Israel and allow it to develop in all the ways that you are helping it to do. Thank you so much for this. And really, don’t we thank Beit Avi Chai  and Mosaic for hosting this? Thank you.

Hillel Halkin:

Thank you, Ruth. And thank you everyone who has made this possible.

More about: Arts & Culture, Hebrew, History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism, Modern Hebrew literature, Proto-Zionist Writers