Samuel Iwry, 93; Was Hebrew Language and Dead Sea Scrolls Expert
Samuel Iwry, a scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls whose life story could rival the plot of an international adventure novel, died of a stroke Saturday at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. He was 93.
Iwry, a professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University, was one of the world’s leading Hebrew scholars. An endowed chair in Near Eastern studies, an honorary doctorate of Hebrew letters at Baltimore Hebrew University, an annual lecture at Johns Hopkins, and a University of Maryland faculty fellowship fund all bear his name.
Iwry made his mark as a scholar when he was a graduate student studying under the renowned archeologist William Foxwell Albright at Johns Hopkins. His Hebrew language skills helped identify and verify the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
He was born in Bialystok, Poland, and graduated from Warsaw University’s Higher Institute for Judaic Studies in 1937, with accolades for his facility with Hebrew. His surname means “Hebrew” in the language, and family history says Iwry was a direct descendant of the founder of the Hasidic movement, Rebbe Israel Baal Shem Tov, who died in 1760.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Iwry became a leader in the underground resistance and escaped to Lithuania. He narrowly survived the crossing of Russia to reach Kobe, Japan, in 1941. He then made his way to Shanghai.
David Ben-Gurion, who later became Israel’s first prime minister, appointed Iwry to serve as Far East representative for the Jewish Agency for Palestine. His job was to negotiate with the British authorities for the escape of thousands of Jewish families who lived in the Far East.
After enabling thousands to immigrate to Palestine, Iwry was captured by the Japanese occupying forces, imprisoned in Shanghai and tortured. His life was saved, he told others, by a hospital administrator who arranged for him to be sent to the hospital and nursed back to health. He married her in 1946.
In 1947, the couple immigrated to the United States through San Francisco and moved to Baltimore, where Iwry resumed his studies. Albright assigned him to work on the Damascus document, a medieval Hebrew text that required someone who had a familiarity and ease with classical Hebrew.
When the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, beginning in 1948, the language in the Damascus document turned out to be so crucial to verifying the scrolls’ authenticity that scholars consider its study to be the beginning of scroll scholarship.
“He was literally working on one of the most important Dead Sea Scrolls before they were discovered,” said Kyle McCarter, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins. “It was Albright’s knowledge and recognition that something was going on and [Iwry’s] skills and education” that enabled the pair to authenticate the scrolls’ antiquity and significance.
As more scrolls were discovered into the early 1950s, scholars kept a special phone line between Jerusalem and Baltimore, through London. As Israeli scholars reported what was on the scrolls, Iwry was on the phone with Albright, giving him “a kind of intimate involvement with the scrolls that people don’t know about,” McCarter said. Iwry wrote the first doctoral dissertation on the scrolls and was regarded throughout his life as the expert on them. He completed his doctorate in 1951 at Johns Hopkins.
Iwry was a popular teacher and lecturer, especially in Israel, where he drew large crowds who wanted to hear him speak Hebrew “because he spoke it as it was intended to be spoken,” McCarter said. “It was not only for what Sam said, but how he said it that was so beautiful.”
Iwry was a professor of literature and dean at Baltimore Hebrew College from 1947 to 1985; joined the Hopkins faculty in 1951 as a professor of Near Eastern studies; and was a professor at the University of Maryland in the 1970s. He retired in 1991, well past retirement age, because he felt that he had lost a decade’s work during World War II, McCarter said.
Iwry was a vice president and member of the executive committee of the World Zionist Organization. His autobiography, “To Wear the Dust of War: From Warsaw to Shanghai to the Promised Land,” will be published in August.
Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Nina Rochman Iwry; a son; and a grandson.
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