Writer Spent Half His Life Living in Jerusalem, but Will Never Shed His New York Roots

Our Public Eye columnist catches up with his former journalism grad school friend Yossi Klein Halevi, the non-fiction author and journalist. Klein Halevi, grew up Brooklyn, the son of Jewish Hungarian immigrants and in 1982 moved to Israel together with his non-Jewish girlfriend, then named Lynn Rintoul, who converted to Judaism and took the name Sarah. He served as a reservist solider during the First Intifada, patrolling the Gaza Strip. He’d go on to write “Memoirs of Jewish Extremist” (1985), and “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” (2018) among other notable works about his adopted homeland.

| 10 Jun 2023 | 05:20

Yossi Klein Halevi will always be a loyal New Yorker.

Yes, he left his native New York City four decades ago to live in Israel and chronicle its tumultuous political and social changes. But Klein Halevi has never shed his fondness for his hometown.

“I love it here! It’s great being back!” he declared as we sat at an outdoor café an hour before he spoke on June 5 at the 92nd Street Y. He was joined on stage by Michael Oren, author and former Israeli Ambassador to the United States and Jodi Rudoren, the editor in chief of The Forward.

When I asked him what he missed the most about New York, he answered “Indian food! I had two Indian meals in my first 24 hours back.”

Klein Halevi hasn’t lost the chutzpah that it takes to thrive in the city. When a server failed to appear to take our order at an outdoor café on upper Third Avenue, Klein Halevi shrugged and took matters into his own hands. He walked inside and promptly reappeared, holding our beverages in both hands.

“I just ordered these to go,” he grinned.

Problem solved!

Just like a native New Yorker, eh? In fact, I will suggest that Yossi’s upbringing helped sharpen two qualities that great journalists must possess–curiosity and courage–while laying the groundwork for his great success in Israel.

“I lived the first half of my life in NYC, the second in Jerusalem, the two greatest Jewish cities in the world,” he told me. “For a writer seeking to tell the Jewish story of our time, there were no better places to be.”

All over the world, Klein Halevi has established himself as a voice of authority.

“If you want to understand Israel in particular and the Middle East in general, a great way to go about it would be to read Yossi Klein Halevi’s books and articles,” says Hannah Brown, a novelist and film critic at The Jerusalem Post, who herself relocated many years ago from her native New York to Israel.

“With honesty, clarity and excellent writing, he takes an in-depth look at key aspects of Israeli life and uses them to illuminate political and religious conflicts,” Brown noted.

Training Ground

For his first of his many riveting books, Klein Halevi wrote “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist: An American Story.” He describes his evolution from a sixth grader in Brooklyn who learned how to handle a gun and ultimately supported the radical Jewish Defense League.

Eventually, he rejected these extreme solutions while continuing to hone his craft as a storyteller. The documentary Kaddish, a movie about his relationship with his father, a Holocaust survivor, was hailed by the Village Voice as one of the 10 best films of 1985.

Klein Halevi is the author of such books as “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” “Like Dreamers” and “Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor” and co-founded the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative. It takes North American Muslims to Israel, where they can study Judaism, Zionism and Israel.

Brooklyn Born and Raised

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Klein Halevi an alumnus of Brooklyn College, has never forgotten the city of his youth.

He grew up during the 1960s, chasing the glory of Bob Dylan’s Greenwich Village. He lived on East Third Street, between Avenues A and B, when downtown Manhattan was pulsating in the mid-1970s from the punk rock scene of Talking Heads, the Ramones, Blondie, Television and so many other bygone beloved New York bands.

He reserves a special fondness for the East Village of his youth. “I know there are nice places in the Bronx and Long Island City, too, but...” Klein Halevi said, smiling.

A Natural Leader

I have a special understanding of what makes Yossi Klein Halevi tick.

I learned that Klein Halevi is a born leader since we became friends 40-plus years ago in the Masters program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

When he and I and two other students were put on a team in a magazine-publishing course, we had the assignment of creating a weekly publication. Yossi persuaded us to launch a mythical magazine called Inner Paths, devoted to religious discourse.

As we caught up on June 5, we fondly recalled our formative Northwestern days. In a footnote to our time in Evanston, Illinois, let it be known that Yossi roomed with James Risen. Risen, who liked to throw his weight around under the basket during our pickup basketball games in those days, grew up to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times.

These are good times for Klein Halevi. He turned 70 on June 9. He and his wife, Sarah, the parents of three children, two months ago became grandparents for the first time.

But Klein Halevi can’t stop worrying about Israel. He has a jumble of feelings about his adopted homeland, covering the spectrum of gratitude to concern about the nation’s future.

“Obviously, there are tremendous strains on Israeli democracy, from the ongoing security threat to the occupation of the Palestinians,” he told me. “But Israel is a place of paradox, and a democracy that is also an occupier is part of the Israeli paradox. The Netanyahu government is threatening to upend the delicate balance that preserves our democratic institutions and that’s the great danger we’re facing.”

Whatever twists and turns Israel encounters, the world is fortunate that Yossi Klein Halevi is here to tell us the story.