Múlt és Jövő, September 1916. (YIVO)

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Patai, József

(1882–1953), poet, scholar, and Zionist leader. In his life and work, József Patai is representative of the first generation of Hungarian Zionist intellectuals. He changed his name from Klein to Patai after his birthplace, Gyöngyöspata, a small village in northern Hungary. Patai’s father was a grocer and Talmudic scholar, a follower first of the rebbe of Belz and then of the rebbe of Satmar. It was this world that Patai depicted in his lyrical social study, his most enduring prose work, A középső kapu (1927; new ed., 1998 [published in English as The Middle Gate; 1994]).

After attending heder and various yeshivas (Kisvárda, Sátoraljaújhely, Huszt, and Nyitra), Patai broke with the traditional world. He enrolled in his town’s high school, and then spent two semesters at the Neolog rabbinical seminary. He then left the seminary and completed his studies at the Péter Pázmány University, receiving his doctorate in 1907 with a thesis on József Bajza and Gotthold Lessing. For a while thereafter, he taught at the Trefort Street High School, where Theodore Herzl had studied.

From 1911 until his immigration to Palestine in 1939, however, Patai dedicated himself entirely to editing the Jewish cultural journal Múlt és Jövő (Past and Future), which he had established in 1911, first as an almanac, and then, a year later, as a monthly. Maintaining and publishing this periodical until March 1944 (he continued to be involved even after migrating to Palestine) is without question Patai’s most significant contribution to Hungarian Jewish culture.

Patai’s Zionism dated to 1903, when he was a founder of Makabea, the organization of Zionist university students. Later he headed the cultural department of the Magyar Zsidók Pro Palesztina Szövetsége (Hungarian Jews’ Pro-Palestine Organization), established in 1926. In his later years he settled in Givatayim, Israel (the street where he lived has been named after him). He spent this period translating his own works into Hebrew.

Patai’s first volume of poetry, Sha‘ashu‘e ‘alumim (Youthful Amusements; 1902), was written in Hebrew. He wrote his second volume, Babylon vizein (By the Waters of Babylon; 1906) in Hungarian; following the example of Emil Makai, he negotiated the transition from one language and culture to another by translating and adapting Hebrew poems. His later collections volumes of poetry—Templomi énekek (Synagogue Songs; 1910) and Szulamit látod a lángot? (Shulamit, Do You See the Flame?; 1919)—were also characterized by Jewish religious themes. At the request of the Budapest Neolog community, he wrote a Hungarian version of the liturgy.

Patai’s translations proved more important than his poetry. From the beginning of his career, his translations of medieval Jewish poets appeared regularly in the Magyar Zsidó Szemle (Hungarian Jewish Review) and the yearbooks of IMIT (the Israelite Hungarian Literary Society). In 1909, with the support of the Ministry of Culture, he translated from original manuscripts in Oxford. A diligent interpreter of the new Hebrew poetry, he corresponded and maintained personal contact with Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Shemu’el Yosef Agnon, Sha’ul Tchernichowsky, Uri Tsevi Grinberg, and a close friend, the Hungarian Hebrew writer Avigdor Hame’iri. Patai’s collection Héber költők antológiája (Anthology of Hebrew Poets; 1911–1912), was expanded into five volumes as Heber költők in 1921, and is his most important literary work.

Patai was an active journalist and editor. From 1904 to 1911, he was a literary editor of the weekly Egyenlőség (Equality), where he worked under the guidance of the editor Miksa Szabolcsi. Patai founded the Magyar Zsidó Könyvtár (Hungarian Jewish Library) in 1906 and edited it until 1908.

First in Egyenlőség and then in his own periodical, Patai did a considerable amount of political writing that was collected in Zsidó irások (Jewish Writings; 1919), Politika nélkül (Without Politics; 1923), and Harc a zsidó kultúráért (The Battle for Jewish Culture; 1937). His reports, inspired by his journeys to Palestine, first appeared in Múlt és Jövő and were later collected into Feltámadó szentföld (Awakening Holy Land; 1926) and Az új Palesztina útjain (On the Roads of New Palestine; 1938). Also notable is his biography Herzl (1932), which was translated into Hebrew, German, and English. His other prose works include a collection of Hasidic stories (Kabala; 1917), later published as Lelkek és titkok (Souls and Secrets; 1937), and eventually translated into English (1995). A few of Patai’s many articles about the fine arts were collected in A Biblia képekben (The Bible in Pictures; 1924).

Suggested Reading

Avigdor Hameiri, “Tekufato shel Patai,” Ha-Arets 4 (1953): 24; Raphael Patai, Apprentice in Budapest; Memories of a World That Is No More (Salt Lake City, 1988), see esp. the chapter “My Parents,” pp. 78–130; Raphael Patai, Between Budapest and Jerusalem: The Patai Letters, 1933–1938 (Salt Lake City, 1992); Raphael Patai, “Joseph Patai: Early Years,” in The Middle Gate: A Hungarian Jewish Boyhood, by József Patai, pp. ix–xxix (Philadelphia, 1994); Raphael Patai, “Joseph Patai and His Hasidic Stories,” in Souls and Secrets: Hasidic Stories, by József Patai, pp. vii–xxxii (Northvale, N.J., 1995).



Translated from Hungarian by Imre Goldstein