A man called Gabriel

For Gabriel Pataky, whose road to living as a Jew in Jerusalem was fraught with hurdles, just living in the city, working and studying Torah is ample reward.

Gabriel Pataky. ‘In the orphanage, we were taught not to say anything unless we were specifically asked. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Gabriel Pataky. ‘In the orphanage, we were taught not to say anything unless we were specifically asked.
Among the many pearls of Jewish wisdom is one that says that people are named in accordance with their characters. All of us can point to exceptions to this belief, but there also many instances where it happens to be true.
A case in point is that of Dr. Gabriel Pataky, 49, who has a doctorate in humanities and philosophy, but works as a nurse, bringing comfort and joy to the lives of his patients.
The biblical Gabriel was God’s special messenger, standing at his left hand – which is also the side of the heart.
Pataky’s story is a grim reminder that we can never take who we are for granted, but also carries the message that with determination and perseverance, most of us can overcome the hardships in our lives and give of ourselves to others.
Born in Budapest, Pataky – who lives in downtown Jerusalem – was orphaned at the very tender age of two, and placed in an orphanage in Sopron. While still a little boy, he discovered he was Jewish.
His teachers told him he was a member of the faith and that this was why, unlike the other little boys in the orphanage, he had been circumcised.
This did not really pose a problem for him. There was no anti-Semitism in the orphanage, and all the children were instilled with Communist ideology.
Pataky remembers his 16 years in the orphanage quite fondly.
After he had completed eighth grade, his teachers did not know along what track he should continue his education.
He was then given an address and sent to another city, to get in touch with someone completely unknown to him.
Pataky was only 14, and had never left the orphanage alone before. “This was the first time I had ever left the city,” he recalled in an interview with In Jerusalem.
The person whose address he had been given was not at home, so he left a note and returned to the orphanage.
A surprise awaited him on visiting day.
His maternal grandmother, of whose existence he had been totally unaware, came to see him. It was her address that he had been given, but no one had informed him who she was. She told him his parents had been killed in a traffic accident, and that she had been under the impression he had been killed with them.
His father, she said, was named Alexander Hatala, and his mother was Hermina, with the maiden name Pataky.
Just as Diaspora Jewish names are translated into Hebrew, so that Rosenberg may become Shoshani; Goldberg, Har-Zahav; and Glickman, Simha; so German- or Yiddish-sounding names were translated into Hungarian.
His father’s original surname was Hochberger and his mother’s was Bach, and the family’s roots were in Germany.
In the orphanage they called him Gabriel Pataky, because it was a more Hungarian-sounding name. He is unable to say exactly how they knew the name of the two-year-old Jewish orphan who was brought to the orphanage, other than to suppose that he had been with his parents when they were killed, and the orphanage had secured his birth certificate. “In Communist Hungary, the teachers knew everything about every one of us,” he said putting heavy emphasis on “everything.”
His grandmother assured him that the family, though not traditional in its religious observance, was Jewish on both sides.
Although he had some 10 meetings with his grandmother before she died, Pataky did not go to live with her, but remained in the orphanage until he was 18.
He kept his mother’s maiden name since that was the name on the ID card issued to him when he turned 14. In Communist Hungary, everyone received an ID card at this age.
When he was 19, Pataky did six months of compulsory military service in the Hungarian army, and was discharged after suffering a myocardial infarction. Following his recovery, he wrote to the chief rabbi of the Neolog congregation, explaining his position and his need to work in order to sustain himself. The rabbi got him a job as a security guard at the Israelite Hospital, a small Jewish hospital in Budapest.
This was his first real contact with the Jewish community, and because he had such an urgent desire to belong, he started attending Shabbat services at the Neolog synagogue.
A little less than a year later, Pataky left Hungary and settled in Vienna. The best way to meet other Jews, he thought, was to go to synagogue.
This time he opted for the Orthodox synagogue, which as it turned out happened to be a most fortuitous choice. There, he met two Orthodox men who had known his mother and her family and could vouch for the fact that he was halachically Jewish.
With this information at his disposal, plus a certificate from Hungary testifying he had been circumcised by a qualified mohel, he approached the Orthodox rabbinate to get further documentation that would serve his interests, should he have to prove at any time in the future that he was indeed Jewish.
Sensing how desperately Pataky wanted to learn, Rabbi Hoffmann, then-chief rabbi of Hungary, gave him a letter to the Satmar synagogue in Vienna where a hassid there sent Pataky and two other young men to London, paying for their tickets.
Once in London, the other two piled him into a taxi which drove to Stamford Hill, where many of London’s most Orthodox Jews still live. Once out of the cab, they pointed him in the direction of a synagogue, where he repeated his story to yet another rabbi – who told him to drop his pants, so he could ascertain that Pataky was indeed circumcised in accordance with Jewish ritual. The rabbi sent him to live with an elderly couple that was very kind to him, and Pataky spent the next three months studying at a Sephardi yeshiva in Hendon.
Pataky had hoped to gain refugee status in London, but it didn’t work out. He then went to Antwerp, where he supported himself by taking care of an elderly Hungarian man. After six months, he returned to Austria and in the fall of 1989, enrolled at the University of Vienna on a course of Jewish studies, philosophy, jurisprudence and humanities.
In 1986, Rabbi Dr. Chaim Eisenberg, then chief rabbi of Austria, believed his story but told him that in order to receive a document attesting to his Jewishness, he needed two kosher witnesses who could confirm he was definitely Jewish. The men who had known his mother duly testified on his behalf, and Eisenberg accepted him as a new member of the Viennese Jewish community.
In 1996, he earned his doctorate in philosophy and humanities and decided to go to Italy, where he spent a year working in a library in Padua.
During his initial period in Vienna, Pataky had led an Orthodox lifestyle, but the more he became immersed in his academic studies, the more his religious observance lapsed and he distanced himself from Jewish practice.
But he had tasted the beauty of Judaism, and the memory of it did not leave him. “I progressively longed to return to Judaism, but I was afraid to satisfy this yearning,” he says with hindsight.
After Italy, Vienna no longer held its original charm for him. He detected certain intolerance towards Jews, and moved to Germany in 2001.
It was there, while working as a hospice volunteer, that he became a qualified nurse. In Germany, even volunteers are required to undergo professional training and take exams. For five years, Pataky taught academic courses in the mornings and gained theoretical and practical nursing experience in the afternoons. The training sessions were in hospitals with real patients.
When a close acquaintance died in 2008, Pataky somehow knew that the only way to be comforted in his loss would be to return to his heritage and become a Torah-committed Jew. Sorrow had given him the courage to take the step that for so long had eluded him.
Why specifically then? “I’m a philosopher. I was looking for some sense in life, and I found it in Judaism.”
After reaching his life-changing decision, Pataky became an active member of the Munich Jewish community. He began to study Hebrew, to recite his prayers and observe Shabbat and the Jewish holidays.
It was a joyous period for him, but he felt somehow inadequate. He needed more in-depth Jewish study, and felt that Israel was the best place for him.
IN 2009 he came to Israel, fully intent on making aliya. He began studying at the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Kiryat Moshe and the Shapell’s/Darchei Noam Yeshiva in Beit Hakerem – and finally, in this intensive Torah environment, began to feel fulfilled.
But outside the orphanage, few things ever came easily to Pataky, and despite producing documents furnished by three rabbis who attested to his Jewish identity, the Interior Ministry refused to recognize him as Jewish and would not issue him a blue identity card.
A process that should have ordinarily taken six months dragged on for two years. Pataky’s documents from Hungary, Austria and Germany, all signed by rabbis who verified he was born Jewish, were not accepted in Israel.
In 2009, Pataky was advised by friends to turn to the Jerusalem Rabbinate for help, and because the city rabbinate also accepted him as a Jew from birth, he was issued a student visa that expired in October 2010. Yet the Interior Ministry still balked at granting him a student visa.
In the interim, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer and needed to go to Berlin for surgery. All the arrangements had been made, but he could not leave because the ministry refused to extend his student visa; Pataky feared that if he went to Berlin, he would not be allowed back into Israel.
He took his story to Jonah Mandel, who was then the religious affairs reporter for The Jerusalem Post. Mandel called the ministry demanding to know the reason for the delay in granting Pataky citizenship, especially in view of his illness.
In July 2011, Pataky finally received notification from Mazal Cohen of the Interior Ministry, who sent a fax telling him that his status as a Jew had been approved and that he could now apply to become an immigrant. In the interim, Pataky lost a kidney. Instead of being treated in Berlin, where his kidney might have been saved, he was treated at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem and at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv.
Pataky finally became an Israeli in September 2011.
He wasn’t a convert who had been inducted into the faith by a rabbi unacceptable to the Chief Rabbinate. He was, and is, 100 percent Jewish.
Although Pataky can get along in Hebrew, he is not sufficiently fluent to be accepted in an academic institute, so he works as a nurse and caregiver, grateful for the training he received in Germany.
Fortunately, he is multilingual and picks up languages easily, with the exception of Hebrew.
This is a legacy of his childhood in Communist Hungary, where he had to learn Russian as a second language.
Pataky’s Hungarian is of course flawless, and he is totally fluent in German as well; he speaks English and Italian, and understands French. He is grateful for his facility for languages because it has enabled to communicate with all of his patients to date.
Though helped by the conventional medical treatment he received, he was not altogether happy with it, and turned to alternative medicine, which he says helped him regain his health. Happily, he now feels great.
Interviewing Pataky is like pulling teeth; he volunteers no information. When asked in exasperation why he didn’t say this or that, his answer is: “In the orphanage, we were taught not to say anything unless we were specifically asked.”
Pataky is not bitter about the indignities he had to endure, or the long waiting time. For him, just living in Jerusalem, working and studying Torah when time permits, is ample reward.
He is a man who is almost always smiling, a Gabriel who, though not a Raphael, was sent to heal. •