Hillel Halkin was born in New York City two months before the outbreak of World War II. He was the son of Abraham S. Halkin, then a professor of Jewish literature, history and culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and his wife Shulamit, a daughter of Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan. In 1970 he made aliyah to Israel, settling in Zikhron Yaakov. He studied English Literature at Columbia University. 
Halkin is married to Marcia and is the father of two daughters.
Halkin translates Hebrew and Yiddish literature into English. He has translated Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman, and major Hebrew and Israeli novelists, among them Yosef Haim Brenner, S. Y. Agnon, Shulamith Hareven, A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, and Meir Shalev.
Halkin’s second book, Across the Sabbath River (2002), is a work of travel literature in which he goes in search of the truth behind the mystery of the Ten Lost Tribes. He became increasingly interested in the Bnei Menashe, who began to immigrate to Israel from India in the late 20th century, and helped to arrange DNA testing in 2003 in Haifa. Since then he has written A Strange Death, a novel based on the local history of Zikhron Ya'akov, where he resides. His intellectual biography of Yehuda Halevi won a 2010 National Jewish Book Award.
In 2014, he published a new biography of Vladimir Jabotinsky.
Halkin writes frequently on Israel and Jewish culture and politics. His articles have been published in Commentary, The New Republic, The Jerusalem Post and other publications. He is a member of the editorial board of the Jewish Review of Books.
- Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist's Polemic. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. 1977. ISBN 978-0-8276-0207-6.
- Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2002. ISBN 978-0-618-02998-3.
- A Strange Death. New Milford, Connecticut: Toby Press. 2010. ISBN 978-1-59264-280-9.
- Yehuda Halevi. New York: Nextbook/Schocken Books. 2010. ISBN 978-0-8052-4206-5.
- Melisande! What Are Dreams?. London: Granta. 2012. ISBN 978-1-84708-499-6.
- Jabotinsky (Jewish Lives). New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. 2014. ISBN 0-30013-662-5.
- Geulah Cohen (1966). Woman of Violence: Memoirs of a Young Terrorist, 1943–1948. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Yosef Haim Brenner (1971). Breakdown and Bereavement. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
- Mordecai Ze'ev Feuerberg (1973). Whither? and Other Stories. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
- Leah Goldberg (1973). Russian Literature in the Nineteenth Century. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University.
- Shulamith Hareven (1977). City of Many Days. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
- Hanokh Bartov (1978). Whose Little Boy Are You? Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
- Amos Oz (1985). A Perfect Peace. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
- Sholem Aleichem (1987). Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories. New York: Schocken Books.
- Tamar Bergman (1988). The Boy from Over There. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Shulamith Hareven (1988). The Miracle Hater. San Francisco: North Point Press.
- Meir Shalev (1991). The Blue Mountain. New York: Harper Collins.
- A. B. Yehoshua (1992). Mr. Mani. New York: Doubleday.
- Uri Orlev (1993). Lydia, Queen of Palestine. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Uri Orlev (1995). The Lady with the Hat. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Uri Orlev (1995). The Man from the Other Side. New York: Puffin Books.
- Nava Semel (1995). Flying Lessons. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
- Shulamith Hareven (1996). Thirst: The Desert Trilogy. San Francisco: Mercury House.
- Roman Frister (1999). The Cap: The Price of a Life. New York: Grove Press.
- S. Y. Agnon (2000). A Simple Story. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press.
- Samuel HaNagid (2000). Grand Things to Write a Poem On: A Verse Autobiography. Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House.
- Haim Sabato (2003). Adjusting Sights. New Milford, Connecticut: Toby Press.
- Uri Orlev (2003). Run, Boy, Run. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- A. B. Yehoshua (2003). The Liberated Bride. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt.
- Haim Be'er (2004). Feathers. Waltham, Massachusetts: Brandeis University Press.
- A. B. Yehoshua (2004). Five Seasons. Orlando: Harcourt.
- A. B. Yehoshua (2006). A Woman in Jerusalem. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt.
- S. Y. Agnon (2009). To This Day. New Milford, Connecticut: Toby Press.
- Uri Orlev (2010). The Song of the Whales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.
- Hillel Halkin, "Either/Or: A Memoir," Commentary 122 (September 2006): 48–55.
- "Anglo translators first in a series like being the dance partner of the greatest dancer", Haaretz
- "'A Strange Death' by Hillel Halkin", Commentary
- Caryl Phillips, "The Disappeared," The New Republic (September 26, 2002).
- Marc Tracy, "Halkin Wins National Jewish Book Award," Tablet, January 11, 2011.
- D. G. Myers, "Let My People Go," Commentary 113 (April 2012): 69.
- Edward Alexander (9 February 2017). "Reflections on Death, Mourning and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition". Algemeiner Journal. Retrieved 13 February 2017.
- Sucharov, Mira (24 May 2016). "Making Hatikvah an anthem for all of Israel’s citizens". Canadian Jwewish News. Retrieved 13 February 2017.