Q and A with Hillel Halkin

Yehuda Halevi

Yehuda Halevi

by Michael Orbach

Hillel Halkin is the author of several books including the New York Times bestselling Letters to an American-Jewish Friend: A Zionist Polemic. His most recent work is a biography of Rabi Yehuda Halevi published by Nextbook. Halkin, who lives in Israel in Zichron Yaakov, spoke with the Jewish Star about the legacy of Yehuda Halevi, both as a poet and the author of the Kuzari.

Michael Orbach: What drew you to writing a book about Yehuda Halevi?

Hillel Halkin: It’s a combination. The book is written as part of a series. The editor of the books, Jonathan Rosen, said, ‘Pick your Jew.’ I thought who were my favorite Jewish figures were and in the end it came down to two or three, and I picked Yehuda Halevi, who has always been my favorite figure from Jewish history and literature, and one of my favorite Jews.

MO: Who were your other favorite Jews?

HH: Within the framework of the series, some people I might have written about, though they might have been eliminated, was Rabbi Akiva. Another possibility, and in a very different vein, Francis Kafka.
But as I say, Halevi was a good choice for me because I’ve spent so much of my life being a translator, Halevi was one of the great all-time Hebrew poets and he has never been translated well. It was a translational challenge as well as a biographical one.

MO: Why Halevi then?

HH: Partly his greatness as a poet. I’m someone who’s involved in literature and Halevi is one of the very great Hebrew poets of all time. Partly his Zionism or proto-Zionism, he’s one of the first, or the first figure in the Diaspora to call for Jewish return to the land of Eretz Yisroel on a pre-messianic basis.

The rabbinical and traditional position has always been waiting for the Moshiach and it was the very dominant position in Halevi’s time. He took the position and was the first one to articulate it that Jews need not and should not wait for the messiah to return to [Israel].

It’s a Jewish obligation to return, it’s a Jewish initiative and not a Divine one. Writers whom one admires fall into two groups; one group, the more you know about them the less you like them as people, and you wish you didn’t know about them.

I once read a biography of Tolstoy, who turned out to be an awful human being. Yehuda Halevi is one of the perhaps few great writers who, the more you know about him as a person, the more you love him as a person.

Anachronistically, he was really a great mentsch, an 11th and 12th century mentsch. There is the very romantic story of his pilgrimage to Palestine and his disappearance, and whether he got there. It’s a haunting story and made me want to write about him.

MO: Did he make it to Israel in the end?

HH: He did. We know because of the material discovered in the 50’s and 60’s in the Cairo Geniza. He left Spain, where he lived all his life, and set out for Eretz Yisroel but had to pass through Egypt on the way. We know the exact day he sailed from Alexandria: May 14, 1141, the first day of Shavuot.

MO: What do you think Yehuda Halevi is most well known for?

HH: I think it depends what public. Orthodox observant Jews have always thought of Halevi as the author of the Kuzari; his poetry, his non-liturgical poetry was forgotten and was actually lost and quite miraculously rediscovered in the 19th century, when a manuscript turned up at a book dealer in Tunis.

Until the 19th century when his lost poetry was discovered, the only people who took an interest in it were Maskilim. Maskilim were Westernized and much more liberal in their attitude towards tradition and much more interested in creating a synthesis between Jewish culture and society.

Halevi was a great poet by any standard and wrote about many themes: love, friendship, travel. His art passed on to secular Zionism and he became a great hero so, whereas among religious Jews [he’s known] as the author of the Kuzari, among secular Israel he’s known as a great poet. If you want to have a real sense of Yehuda Halevi, he’s both the author of the Kuzari and the great poet.

MO: Who are the great Hebrew poets?

HH: After the Bible, I think from the early period of piyutim, Yossi Ben Yossi; he wrote piyutim that are in the tefillot to this day. In the Middle Ages it was Halevi and Shmuel Hanagid, there’s also Shlomo Ibn Gabirol. Personally, I like Halevi and Hanagid the best. To move on to modern, you have great figures, like [Chaim] Bialik and Yehuda Amichai in our own days.

MO: Did you learn anything specific over the course of writing the biography?

HH: As I was saying to you before, very often the risk in writing biographies of heroes is they lose their heroic stature, the less heroic they become; that did not happen.

After writing the book he seems to me even more heroic and an even greater figure than I thought when I began. It’s very gratifying.

from The Jewish Star

The original text of the article may be found here.

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