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Makai, Emil

(1870–1901), poet, journalist, dramatist, and translator. In his life as well as in his work, Emil Makai was a paradigmatic figure for the first generation of Hungarian Jewish writers. His career exemplifies the path of Jewish intellectuals as they moved from the framework of Jewish life and literature into national Hungarian culture (writer József Kiss followed a similar pattern).

Makai’s father, Enoch Fischer, was a rabbi in Makó. From 1844 to 1889, Makai studied at the lower level of the Országos Rabbiképző Intézet (National Rabbinical Seminary); he went on to the upper level, which was already training Reform rabbis, but left in 1893. He was still a rabbinical student when he published his first volume of poetry, Vallásos énekek (Religious Songs; 1888), a collection that included psalms, translations of prayers, and poems that freely recast religious texts. His second volume, Zsidó költők (Jewish Poets; 1892), presented the poets of the Spanish Golden Age in translations that used the tools and mastery of modern writers. To this day no one has translated with such ease and intimate identification the poems of Shelomoh ibn Gabirol, Yehudah ha-Levi, Shemu’el ha-Nagid, Mosheh and Avraham ibn Ezra, and Yehudah al-Ḥarizi, as well as Imanu’el ha-Romi.

Jewish intellectuals entering the realm of Hungarian literature followed Makai’s footsteps: the evolving Jewish intellectual elite tested their talents on the great Jewish poetry of the Middle Ages; by transplanting these works, they conquered the Hungarian language and found their own voices. The combination of modern sensibility and Jewish self-justification was clearly spelled out in Makai’s preface to the first edition of his volume: “[The medieval Jewish poets] wrote poems whose voice and contents are akin to the ideas and thoughts of the nineteenth century, many of them expressing feelings so directly as to be the envy of any modern poet. General human traits are as brilliantly validated in the intellectual output of the Jewish race as they are in other creations of world literature.”

In his poem “Kelet” (East; first published in 1895, in the initial yearbook of the Izraelita Magyar Irodalmi Társulat [Israelite Hungarian Literary Society, or IMIT]), Makai shared Yehudah ha-Levi’s longing:

Like he, in years of yore

From the shore of the Tajo

Where his singing heart found no rest,

Led by divine love

He set out for the rising sun.

A heart in love cannot love

The way he loved his beloved:

The East; oh, that is how I love thee,

That is how I yearn for thee!

And if I must die, let me die there,

There should spring awaken me.

Nowhere could I sleep more blissfully

As in your land, oh gentle Orient!

In the 1890s, however, Makai began to turn away from Jewish subjects. While the theme of his one-act light drama Énekek éneke (Song of Songs; 1893) is still biblical, the means and framework of his adaptation follow the style of the dominant genre of his time, the operetta. Moving into journalism, he became the assistant editor of Pesti napló (Pest Diary), and worked there from 1892 to 1894. From 1894 to 1897, he worked at Fővárosi lapok (Capital Pages) and from 1897 to 1900 at A Hét (This Week), Hungary’s first modern periodical. His poetry included love songs as well as reflections on the metropolis that earned him a reputation as Hungarian literature’s first big-city poet. Among his pieces of this period is “Roráté,” which embodies a nostalgic longing for an abandoned Jewish way of life. Poems such as “Öregúr” (Old Gentleman) and “Hiszek” (I Believe) also belong in this period, as do many works that he published in Egyenlőség (Equality) but did not include in any collections.

In addition to writing four plays, Makai translated at least 100 dramas and operettas and wrote countless newspaper articles. A professional who earned his living solely from writing, Makai was an early embodiment of the self-destructive artist. As his colleague Tamás Kobor wrote in an obituary, Makai felt that the way he lived was the outcome of a modern life emancipated from Judaism. While his dissolute lifestyle caused his early death, his career was in many senses successful. He was admitted to the Petőfi Society, a conservative populist-national literary circle, and his collected works were published immediately after his death. He was also untouched by the wave of antisemitism that would beset the first generation of Hungarian Jewish writers.

Suggested Reading

(Lajos Blau), “Makai Emil,” Magyar Zsidó Szemle (1901): 312–316; Aladár Komlós, “A hatvanéves magyar-zsidó költészet” and “Költőink és a zsidoság,” in Magyar zsidó szellemtörténet a reformkorszaktól a Holocaustig, pp. 126–134, 134–155 (Budapest, 1997); Dezső Kosztolányi, Írók, festők, tudósok, ed. Pal Rez (Budapest, 1958); Géza Molnár, ed., Makai Emil munkái (Budapest, 1904); “Zsidó költők a magyar irodalomban,” Ararát (1942).



Translated from Hungarian by Imre Goldstein