Obituary: Raphael Patai

Eva Hentschel
Tuesday 06 August 1996 23:02

A wandering scholar, Raphael Patai developed his long career as an anthropologist specialising in the field of Hebrew myth and history, at first in his native Hungary, and subsequently in Palestine and America. Though his professional links with Britain were less extensive, his reputation was much enhanced by his friendship and collaboration with Robert Graves.

Robert Graves and the Hebrew Myths (1991) fully documents their relationship, which lasted almost 30 years. Of all Patai's books, this chronicle perhaps holds most appeal for the general reader. It includes the text of the 200 letters the men exchanged, together with the opinions they recorded in joint lectures and interviews. In following their correspondence, we see how respect burgeons into affection and can only marvel at the depth and diversity of their interests. Entertaining and informative, the letters were useful to both recipients as they engaged in strenuous dialogue over their several literary projects.

Patai lovingly recorded his own early life, his ancestry and education, in Apprentice in Budapest (1988), significantly subtitled "Memories of a world that is no more". His father, Joseph Patai, was the editor of Mult es Jovo ("Past and Future"), the Hungarian equivalent of the Jewish Chronicle. A translator of Hebrew poetry and a keen Zionist who organised tours of the Holy Land, Joseph quaintly chose to spend his honeymoon reading in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. On his mother's side Raphael could claim to be descended from the greatest Talmudic luminaries of their age. Given such a home environment he was predestined for academic achievement - so much so, indeed, that in boyhood he was hardly aware of the successive Red and White terrors which harried Budapest after the First World War.

While continuing his education at the Jewish High School, Patai, at the age of 14, came across a German copy of Freud's Totem and Taboo, which first brought to his attention some of the great names in anthropological research: Edward Westermarck, Herbert Spencer, Edward Tylor and, above all, James George Frazer. Frazer's views, as expressed in The Golden Bough (1890-1915), were later to underpin Patai's own two-volume work in Hebrew Man and Earth in Hebrew Custom, Belief and Legend (1942-43). As a tribute to his Scottish mentor, he insisted that his treatise should be bound in the same shade of "Macmillan" green.

On leaving school Patai combined courses at Budapest University with Semitic studies at the Jewish Seminary and also spent one year (1930-31) at the affiliated Seminary at Breslau in German Silesia (now Polish Wroclaw). By now he was adding such subjects as Arabic, Persian and Syriac to his formidable linguistic equipment. A month on the shores of Lake Balaton was devoted to an intensive study of Greek.

Before leaving Budapest in 1933, where growing anti- Semitic outrages had dimmed his career prospects, Patai was able to complete his doctoral dissertation, on the 18th-century Hebrew poet Israel Berekhya Fontanella, writing the introduction both in Hungarian and Hebrew. Living in the city of Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau, and given the Zionist fervour felt in his father's household, it was inevitable that the next phase in his development should lie in Palestine, where he became legally resident as a graduate student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 1936 he even acquired a Palestinian British passport. A more remarkable distinction was that he was also awarded the Hebrew University's first doctorate.

During the Second World War and in the troubles that were to culminate in the foundation of the state of Israel, Patai was handicapped by a lack of sponsors for his pioneering investigations. Accordingly in 1947 he left Palestine for the United States after obtaining a grant from the Wenner-Gren Anthropological Foundation, a source of funding he must have considered with some irony, given Axel Wenner-Gren's earlier trading with the Nazi foe. After teaching at Dropsie College in Philadelphia he was further appointed Director of Research at the Herzl Institute in New York. A chair at the Fairleigh Dickinson University in Rutherford, New Jersey, followed.

At the outset of his career in America, Patai was approaching 40 and at the height of his powers. For close on five ensuing decades he issued a spate of publications, over 30 volumes in all, including a number of important editorial commissions: Herzl's diaries, an Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel (1971), and even a series of handbooks on modern Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

It was only two months after his arrival in New York that Patai received an unexpected letter from Robert Graves. This took the form of an appreciative commentary on Man and Temple in Ancient Jewish Myth and Ritual (1947), a revised version of the earlier Man and Earth in Hebrew Custom, Belief and Legend and, incidentally, the first of Patai's books to be published in English. The enthusiastic tone of Graves's letter was most gratifying for a scholar still struggling to make his name in a new country. The letter had, after all, come unbidden from a writer of world renown - and one, moreover, who was 15 years his senior.

From the beginning of their acquaintance Patai recognised that if Graves had only a scanty knowledge of Ancient Hebrew, this deficiency was more than compensated by his vivid familiarity with the Graeco- Roman world and by his extraordinary gifts of poetic intuition. Hence Patai was often prepared to defer to Graves's judgement, even on occasions when he was secretly troubled by scholarly misgivings. Perhaps in acknowledging such superior powers Patai was being over-modest. There is ample evidence, scattered throughout his works, that he was himself a man of discriminating intelligence and rare sensibility.

It was not until February 1957 that Graves and Patai met face to face, when the poet had journeyed to New York to lecture. It turned out to be a flurried meeting since Graves, as always before a lecture, was ill at ease; yet Patai was clearly awed by the visitor's rugged good looks and sheer physical presence. Three years later Graves, who had once before collaborated with a Jewish scholar, Joshua Podro, when writing The Nazarene Gospel Restored (1953), and had incorporated some of Patai's own findings, was delighted to fall in with the suggestion that they should jointly tackle the Hebrew myths. He hoped the work would prove "truly significant". In approach and format it was to be similar to Graves's Greek Myths, which had been published in 1955.

In the 450 pages of his Robert Graves and the Hebrew Myths, Patai discusses the genesis and intricate progress of their collaboration in detail. The book itself, Hebrew Myths, was finally published in 1963 and by 1969 had also appeared in Italian, Croatian, Hungarian and Spanish versions, to be followed by French and German editions. Initial reviews were mixed, but Graves was well pleased with his co-author and wrote a laudatory piece on Patai's The Hebrew Goddess (1968) for the Jewish Chronicle.

In telling the story of a notable intellectual partnership, Patai reveals much about other aspects of his life during these same years. He declares that Robert Graves and the Hebrew Myths should be regarded as the third volume of the autobiography which he had begun with Apprentice in Budapest and continued with Journeyman in Jerusalem. In may even be that, aware of Graves's tempestuous affaires or stimulated by his friend's love poetry, Patai felt moved to convey at least a little about his own marital ventures and misadventures. Thus his scholarly discourse is punctuated by references to Naomi, his first wife, an Israeli who found it impossible to adjust to New York; to Irene, his second wife, whom he had met in Mexico while studying the life of Jewish Indians, and whose historical novel Graves was prevailed upon to vet; and to Ann, his third wife.

The Arab Mind was published in 1973. It marked an unusual collaboration between Patai and his stepdaughter, a biologist, whereby the accustomed historical and anthropological approach was supplemented by what was termed Jennifer's "genetic chapters". In a letter to Graves in April 1972 Patai says of The Arab Mind that he fears that just as his "Jewish" books had sometimes evoked Jewish wrath, so this new venture "will arouse the ire of the Arabs". Ever since his youth, he insists, he has felt a romantic sympathy with the Arabs; indeed, he wonders whether he ought to apologise for "this incurable Arabophilism".

In his last years, amid much work for good causes - as President, for instance, of the Friends of Tel Aviv University - Patai returned to his origins. Only weeks before his death from cancer, he corrected the final proofs of his monumental study The Jews of Hungary: history, culture and psychology. One further work, yet to be published, gives an account of Jewish seafaring in ancient times.

Patai's output is of bewildering diversity. He himself categorised it as ranging from biblical Hebrew religious developments and rituals to anthropological problems of the modern Muslim Middle East, from Talmudic folklore to the royal rites of 20th-century black Africa, from ancient Jewish seafaring to modern Arab attitudes, from the Hebrew goddess to the position of women in the modern world. Yet he also claimed that all these investigations were organically inter-related and indeed "constituted one indivisible whole". Intriguingly, he detected a parallel in the vast oeuvre of Robert Graves, which he chose to interpret as a single quest, rather than as a series of disparate enterprises. Graves thus remained a model for his own achievement, and he lived long enough to applaud the centennial celebrations of 1995, happy in the knowledge that Hebrew Myths, the fruit of their symbiotic relationship, would be reprinted in a new collected edition.

Despite his immense erudition and impressive stature Raphael Patai was the most approachable of men. His sagacious air and grave eloquence did not preclude charm and affability. Successive generations of his students and colleagues in America, Europe and Israel will miss his enlightened guidance. The fundamental aim he never lost sight of was to build bridges between cultures, not least between Judaism and Islam. His capacity to combine the exclusive with the ecumenical exemplifies the finest traditions of the Liberal Jewish conscience.

Raphael Patai, anthropologist and historian; born Budapest 22 November 1910; Instructor of Hebrew Language, Hebrew University, Jerusalem 1938- 42, Research Fellow in Ethnology 1943-47; Professor of Anthropology, Dropsie College, Philadelphia 1948-57; Lecturer in Anthropology, New York University 1951-53; Director of Research, Herzl Institute 1956-71; Professor of Anthropology, Fairleigh Dickinson University 1966-76; married four times (two daughters); died Tucson, Arizona 20 July 1996.

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