Halkin, Hillel 1939-
HALKIN, Hillel 1939-
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Houghton Mifflin, 222 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA 02116.
CAREER: Writer, translator, and journalist.
Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist's Polemic, Jewish Publication Society of America (Philadelphia, PA), 1977.
(With Hans G. Kahn) Luck and Chutzpah: Against All Odds, Gefen Publishing House (Jerusalem, Israel), 1997.
Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.
Uri Orlev, The Lead Soldiers, Taplinger Publishing Co. (New York, NY), 1980.
A. B. Yehoshua, A Late Divorce, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1984.
Uri Orlev, The Island on Bird Street, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1984.
Yehuda Amichai, The World Is a Room, Jewish Publication Society of America (Philadelphia, PA), 1984.
Amos Oz, A Perfect Peace, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (New York, NY), 1985.
(And author of afterword) Shmuel Yosef Agnon, A Simple Story, Schocken Books (New York, NY), 1985, reprinted ("Library of Modern Jewish Literature" series), Syracuse University Press (Syracuse, NY), 2000.
(And author of introduction) Sholem Aleichem, Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories ("Library of Yiddish Classics" series), Schocken Books (New York, NY), 1987.
Shulamith Hareven, The Miracle Hater, North Point Press (San Francisco, CA), 1988.
Tamar Bergman, The Boy from over There (juvenile), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1988.
A. B. Yehoshua, Five Seasons, Collins (London, England), 1989.
Jewish Folktales, edited by Pinhas Sadeh, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1989.
Shulamith Hareven, Prophet, North Point Press (San Francisco, CA), 1990.
Meir Shalev, The Blue Mountain, Aaron Asher/HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1991.
Uri Orlev, The Man from the Other Side, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1991.
Matti Golan, With Friends like You: What Israelis Really Think about American Jews, Free Press (New York, NY), 1992.
A. B. Yehoshua, Mr. Mani, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1992.
Uri Orlev, Lydia, Queen of Palestine, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1993.
Nava Semel, Flying Lessons, Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 1995.
Uri Orlev, The Lady with the Hat, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.
S. Y. Abramovitsch, Tale of Mendele the Book Peddler: Fishke the Lame and Benjamin the Third, edited by Dan Miron and Ken Frieden, Schocken Books (New York, NY), c. 1996.
Shulamith Hareven, Thirst: The Desert Trilogy, Mercury House (San Francisco, CA), 1996.
Roman Frister, The Cap: The Price of a Life, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Samuel ha-Nagid, Grand Things to Write a Poem on: A Verse Autobiography, Gefen Publishing House (Jerusalem, Israel), 2000.
SIDELIGHTS: Hillel Halkin, a journalist and a writer, was born in New York City on the Upper West Side. He attended Columbia University, moved to Israel as a young man, and established himself by way of his seamless translations, from Hebrew and Yiddish to English, of a great many important writers, including Amos Oz, Uri Orlev, and A. B. Yehoshua. Halkin is also the author of several books, including Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist's Polemic. He wrote the 1977 volume several years after relocating to Zichron Ya'akov, a small town on Mount Carmel, far from the bustle of Tel Aviv and historic Jerusalem.
The American-Jewish friend of the title is a fabrication. The book consists of letters Halkin wrote, as well as brief responses from the fictional friend who has returned to the United States, critical of what he found in Israel. Amos Elon wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Halkin "in effect argues with himself—harangues might be a better word—and sorts out his feelings about Israel, its politics and culture and above all about what he sees as the ultimate question of Jewish life today: Is it possible for a Jew today to live as a Jew anywhere but in Israel?"
Halkin sees Jewish life vanishing everywhere in the diaspora, including in America. He writes that in order for an Israeli Jew to talk to a diaspora Jew, the conversation must begin with the question of why the latter doesn't come home. Halkin not only criticizes Jewish life away from Israel, but says that Israel itself is in need of more of a "Jewish soul." Elon called Letters to an American Friend "a polemic, blazing with passion and inventiveness and good humor, a cri de coeur impelled by a fury of conviction, the existential statement of a solitary man. Therein lies its power and peculiar charm, even for those who may disagree with it."
A Publishers Weekly reviewer called another Halkin book, Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel, "a captivating tale that is part travelogue, part ethnography, part cultural treasure hunt." The book is Halkin's account of his journey with Rabbi Eliahu Avichail, head of an organization called Amishav: My People Returneth. On their expedition to China and Tibet, Halkin and Avichail encounter a group of people, the B'nai Menashe, who lived in northeast India, along the borders of Burma and Bangladesh.
These people claim to be the descendants of the Manasseh, one of the ten tribes exiled from Israel by Assyrian king Shalmaneser in the eighth century B.C. The group is made up of the Kuki, a Tibetan-Burmese group living in northeast India, and several others nearby, particularly the Mizo and the Chin. As of the book's publication, approximately ten percent of the 5,000 people living in the Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram had moved to Israel, where they continued their fight for recognition and immigration rights. Those still in India pray in newly built synagogues, recite Hebrew prayers, and formerly petitioned the United Nations to recognize their status as a lost tribe.
On Halkin's first trip, he was under contract with the New Yorker for an article that was never published. But his interest took him back to the region, and using local translators, he collected clues that might legitimize the Manasseh's claims. He discovered a song about the Red Sea and compared their tribal practices with rituals in Judaism. The Mizo's god was called Za or Ya, possibly a version of Yahweh, and baby boys were ceremoniously circumcised when they were eight days old.
Richard Bernstein wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Halkin "finds some of the most active purveyors of the lost-tribe idea to be little more than charlatans, and for many of its pages, Across the Sabbath River is more a tale of desperate identity search than it is about real lost tribes."
Just as Halkin was about to pack up and leave the region, he met Khuplam Lenthang, a doctor who had spent most of his life conducting ethnographic research and documenting folk tales, which he had collected into a book titled The Wonderful Genealogical Tales of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo. Bernstein noted that this provided Halkin with "strong evidence of old religious practices and terms that seemed unexplainable except by recourse to a lost-tribes theory. But let Mr. Halkin himself provide the persuasive and closely examined details, which come at the end of a book that has many delights, a variegated cast of characters and a conclusion stimulating many thoughts about the persistence of ancient behavior and belief."
Sandee Brawarsky wrote in Jewish Week that "Halkin writes beautifully, whether describing the misty landscapes, the passions of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo peoples or the humorous moments of cultural displacement. Readers will find an appealing guide in him. Even those who remain skeptical can't help being struck by his conclusions."
Halkin planned to return to the region with a team from the University of Arizona and the Haifa Technion to conduct genetic testing. He told Brawarsky, "In my opinion, the empirical evidence in my book is so strong that I would continue to believe, even if the DNA evidence were negative."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Forward, August 16, 2002, Alana Newhouse, review of Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel.
Jewish Week, August 9, 2002, Sandee Brawarsky, review of Across the Sabbath River.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2002, review of Across the Sabbath River, p. 855.
New York Times Book Review, August 28, 1977, Amos Elon, review of Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist's Polemic, p. 9; September 18, 2002, Richard Bernstein, review of Across the Sabbath River.
Publishers Weekly, July 22, 2002, review of Across the Sabbath River, p. 175.*