The author of dozens of translations of Hebrew and Yiddish literature into English, one novel, eight works of nonfiction, and numerous essay and columns, Hillel Halkin has behind him a distinguished career. Adam Rubenstein recounts a recent visit with Halkin at his home in the Israeli town of Zichron Ya’akov and reflects on that career:
In a review of one of his books, . . . Halkin was called “one of the great snoops of the age.” In English, the word carries a negative connotation: a snoop is one who sticks his nose in others’ affairs, who pries. In Hebrew, the noun can be rendered as balash, a word that suggests a gumshoe, a detective. That somewhat more dignified Hebrew concept applies to Halkin. He has the snoop’s attitude and gimlet eye, a critic sizing up everything and everyone before him, including his readers. . . .
As [Halkin and I] sat for a few hours in [a local] café, several patrons approached our table and introduced themselves to him. . . . The fact that Halkin is still greeted in public and thanked by strangers surely has something to do with his first book. A few years after he and [his wife] Marcia moved to Israel he began work on Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic (1977). The book is written as if it were Halkin’s side of an exchange of letters over several months with a fictitious American friend, a composite of some of Halkin’s real friends. It is a deep yet lively exploration of Jewish continuity. The classical Zionists, Halkin writes, believed that Jews were “hopelessly trapped between the Scylla of assimilation and the Charybdis of anti-Semitism.” The existence of Israel offers another option.
Halkin draws on history, philosophy, sociopolitical commentary, and descriptions of his young family’s life in the young country to make the case that for a Jew, Israel is the most logical place to live. “I have tried to reason with you,” he writes his pen pal in the book’s concluding letter, “to implant in you no more than a feeling of unease for being where you are, or if you prefer, since I don’t mind speaking bluntly, of guilt.” And even if the reader does not leave America to make aliyah—that is, does not move to Israel—“I should hope that these letters will have helped you to think more clearly about the alternatives before us.”
The best dialogic literature forces a confrontation with one’s basic assumptions; it riles the reader. But what makes Halkin’s case so compelling is that he and his wife had themselves recently made the move to Israel—that is, he is a case study in the security of his own argument. Letters combines the thumotic and the erotic—the spirited, preservatory case for aliyah with a yearning for completeness.