70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

József Patai

(Gyöngyöspata, 1882 – 1953, Givatayim)

By János Kőbányai - 2018-04-06

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

It is almost commonplace that the preparatory mental workshops that have been working on the realization of the dreams of millennia – the now celebrated 70th birthday of Israel - stem from Europe (or more precisely from its Eastern – or more loosely, its Central areas).


A journal is such a "celebratory" workshop/forum, moving from number to number that combines the spiritual forces with the content crystallized around a shared purpose to involve them in the fight for a sacred goal. In Hungary, the most important nation-founding Zionist organizing center and forum was initiated and edited until his 1939 aliyah by József Patai. His Múlt és Jövő [Past and future] journal began in 1911 with an almanac, and from 1912 to 1944 it promoted the idea of establishing a new homeland in Palestine. In Israel, I have met several people who, when they had learned that I was involved with the (new) Múlt és Jövő, told me that their survival was possible thanks to this journal. “How come?” The answer every time was “as a regular reader of the paper, I became convinced that my place was in Palestine,” or “I received a Múlt és Jövő trip for my Bar Mitzvah from my parents (the journal used to organize Holy Land pilgrimages twice a year, with lectures and diverse cultural tours under Patai’s leadership), and then I decided that this would be my country - and so I managed to escape the Shoa in time.”


Nation founding requires, not only labor force, or even an armed force, but also human intelligence to produce and disseminate an ideology. It was Patai’s goal to raise such people. The “Feltámadó Szentföld” [Resurrecting Holy Land] isthe title of one of his books. He supported the discovery, modernization and popularization of the Hebrew culture. After 1939, the journal was edited under Patai's name by his brother-in-law, Ernő Molnár, who himself was killed in 1944 by the Arrow Cross in Budapest. The journal that existed until March 1944 pointed the compass of entire generations to Jerusalem. The 32 years of that journal (currently produced by myself with its own 29th year) have provided one of the most colorful and richest (untapped) historical and cultural archives of the Yishuv [Jews living in the area of Palestine before the founding of Israel] era.


Patai was born in Gyöngyöspata, a place well-known for its intolerance at that time, and he even got his name from there. His best work about his childhood spent here is his book Középső kapu [Middle Door]. He came from an Orthodox family - his father was a follower of the Rebbe of Belz, and some of the family had made aliyah before him and their descendants still live in Mea Shearim. This is worth mentioning because this was the background of most of the Hungarian Zionists - no matter how much one thinks of the Zionist conceptual system as “worldly,” modern and atheistic. To be truly captivated by the Hebrew culture, in particular the medieval Hebrew poetry, you had to master the Hebrew language at a native level, and this skill could only be attained through yeshiva studies that began at the age of three. And, in the same way, experiencing Jewishness can also only take place through the native language spoken within a Jewish life. Of course, he had to break out of this closed world of the Torah and enter the great modernity and become imbued with it - Patai left the Nyitra yeshiva, completed the secular high school, enrolled at the National Rabbi Training Institute (his parents dragged him back from the “ungodly place”). He then completed his German-Hungarian studies at Pázmány Péter University, wrote poems about the class struggle in the Népszava for a short while and then he began teaching in the high school formerly attended by Theodor Herzl. From his wife’s dowry, he founded the Múlt és Jövő Almanac in 1911. This proved to be a successful investment, because the whole magazine grew out of it (we started with an anthology in 1988, but for another reason: this format was the only one permitted by the then already dying socialist system), and then he did it all his life - all members of the family wrote and edited it. Edith Patai, his wife, was an excellent art writer. The already mentioned Ernő Molnár edited the section for the youth called Hope (his pupil, Miklós Radnóti's first printed publication appeared here).  And then all Patai’s children: György, who became a world-famous Judaist under the name Raphael Patai, and was the person to obtain the first Ph.D. degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Eva, the poet - she became part of the Israeli high culture through her daughter, Mira Zakai, still active today, who has been a classical singer and professor of the Music Academy (to date, she still lives in Rehov Patai Givatayim). The youngest son Gusztáv is one of the most serious Jewish scholars known as Saul Patai, Professor of Organic Chemistry at the Hebrew University. The young Patai's honeymoon led to Oxford in 1909, where he translated "genizot" manuscripts [worn-out religious books that need to be properly buried – cannot be discarded wearing god’s name] into Hungarian, where he was the first one to see these. My beloved professor, my friend and mentor, Ezra Fleischer, who ought to get his own chapter in this series of remembrances, is a world renowned professor of medieval Hebrew poetry at the Hebrew University. According to him, medieval Hebrew poetry - in the original - is best translated into Hungarian resulting in the most beautiful and richest language, thanks to József Patai ,Emil Makai, József Kiss and some other rabbinical students who entered the Hungarian cultura with this heritage. Perhaps the constant mention of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – also my alma mater is also boring - but did not the founders of the university's faculty come from Hungary? Patai's journal constantly encouraged and organized the Hungarian Jewish youth to start their studies at the university then being built on Mount Scopus.


Before Zsuzsa Shiri - also a former (new) Múlt és Jövő writer - who requested this article, slaps my wrist to finish by shouting "Stop it!" - "But I did not even begin!" It must be mentioned that József Patai has launched the career of Avigdor Hameiri – one of Israel’s most important intellectual fathers.  There is a fantastic article about this in the Múlt és Jövő (but also in mine!) The aforementioned Ezra Fleischer left me his will: “John, do something for him to get to be known better and to get his name into the canon, not just in Hungary, but in Israel, too. I guess I can’t do it – I am writing this article in Budapest. They both started their career in the Hungarian capital with a collection of poetry in Hebrew. Hameiri was a prominent author of the Múlt és Jövő, from the first publication until 1917 when he became a prisoner of war. Then, from the 1920s, he spent a great deal of work on contributing to the multi-faceted creation of modern Israeli culture and tried to build a bridge between Budapest and Jerusalem. My dear friend, Andre Hajdu, who also recently died and is eminently worthy of  this jubilee series, said that Hameiri did not enter the Israeli canon because he did too much of everything: in addition to writing poetry he founded modern journals, wrote the first Hebrew film script, invented how to be a film critic in Hebrew, wrote the first Israeli bestseller book - Sigaon hagadol - and he founded the modern Israeli stand-up comedy’s ancestor, the Kum Kum Satirical Theater. All the satirical programs have grown from this, especially my favorite, the Eretz Nehederet. I think Hameiri has not been appreciated enough, because he was the only outstanding literary figure among the Hungarians, and therefore, next to the Russian pressure group - Bialik, Chernichovsky and others or the Galicians, Agnon, Uri Zvi Greenberg the Hungarians unfortunately could not become prominent in the Israeli culture – apart from the humor. Hameiri translated not only Ady, Petőfi, Madách to Hebrew but also Efraim Kishon's first two books.


Patai also recognized this vacuum, and in his last Palestinian and Israeli years - I began to glean this from the correspondence in Gnazim - he began to extend the Hungarian "cultural power" within the Israeli culture, but without the actors like Hameiri, the attempt remained unsuccessful. He also discovered another great Israeli Hungarian, Illés Tisbi, who appeared in his pages with poems, and became a world famous scholar of Jewish mysticism (where else but at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), as the successor of Gershom Scholem. The writer and poet Mordechai Avi Saul started also here, who, for instance, translated several Thomas Mann novels to Hebrew.

Okay, I'll stop. Just another word.


József Patai's path and influence - both in Hungary and in the Holy Land - embodies my idea that the function of Hungarians with respect to the Israeli culture and society is like cement. It keeps the material together invisibly, and without it everything would disintegrate.

Martin Buber after his lecture, with Chernichovsky and Patai

The Patai family

Mira Zakai, Rafael Patai's two daughters and the author

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