American intellectual and philosopher Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, will be awarded the 2013 Dan David Prize during a ceremony at Tel Aviv University on Sunday.
The Dan David Prize, given out by the Dan David Foundation, is an international award divided into three prizes accompanied by $1 million each for scientific, technological, cultural or social achievements that have a strong impact on society.
Each year, fields are chosen within the categories of past, present and future.
Wieseltier, who has been chosen along with French philosopher Prof. Michel Serres in the “present” category, says he received a “fine Jewish Zionist education.” He attended the Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn.
“I was briefly a member of the Jewish Defense League,” he told The Jerusalem Post
, “but then I visited Israel, and that cured me of all that darkness.”
Wieseltier first visited Israel at the age of 17, in the summer of 1969, a trip he recalls vividly.
“It was the Yeshiva University summer tour and we got an extensive tour of Israel and an extraordinary guide; I have very fond memories of what he taught me along the way,” he recalled. “From then on, I became a Zionist and I visited as often as I could.”
From a very young age, Wieseltier was fluent in Hebrew, which he believes has strengthened his relationship with the Jewish state.
“I’ve always said that the Jewish people have two homelands: They have the Land of Israel and they have the Hebrew language,” he said. “If you live as a Jew in Hebrew, then you are already in some sense participating in Israeli life, even if you don’t live there.
“My Hebrew is as good as my English, and as a Jew, I live in Hebrew and that makes a huge difference,” he said. “There is incredible excitement in the story of the recreation of Hebrew as a living language. In some way, that was more miraculous even than the restoration of Jewish sovereignty.”
It was always clear to Wieseltier that he would study Jewish history and thought, which led him to pursue his studies at Columbia University, Oxford and later on, Harvard.
“I once told my parents that I’m addicted to all things Jewish,” he said. “I’ve been writing about Jews ever since I’ve been writing for two reasons: The first is that it’s the greatest human story ever told, and the second is that it’s our story.
“I don’t believe that people have only one identity, we have many identities and we choose from those identities the ones that we wish to be most known by,” Wieseltier explained. “My identity as a Jew is obviously salient.”
As a graduate student, Wieseltier, who was broke at the time, started writing for publications such as the Times Literary Supplement and The New York Review of Books to make some money.
In 1983, Wieseltier became literary editor of the New Republic.
“I took the job and never looked back,” he said. “This is the first job I ever held, my résumé is one line long.”
Wieseltier has written a number of books on various subjects, including Kaddish, a meditation on the Jewish prayers of mourning that won him the 1998 National Jewish Book Award.
Wieseltier told the Post he was deeply satisfied and humbled to find out he was chosen for the 2013 Dan David Prize.
“It’s not anything I expected,” he said. “I’m not a rich man, so this will help put my son through college eventually, but I am perfectly cognizant of the honor.”
Like the rest of the Dan Prize laureates, Wieseltier will donate 10 percent of his award money to graduate students in his field, to contribute to the community and foster a new generation of scholars, according to the Dan David Foundation.
The other recipients of the 2013 awards are British historian Prof.
Sir Geoffrey Lloyd (past); French economist Prof. Esther Duflo (future); and American epidemiologist Prof. Alfred Sommer (future).