One who learns from his colleague one chapter, or one halakha, or one verse, or one expression, or even one letter, is obliged to pay him honor. This we learn from David, King of Israel, who learned but two things from Akhitofel, yet called him his master, his guide, his dear friend, as it is wrtten, "But it is you, my equal, my guide, my dear friend" (Psalm 55:14). It follows, then, that if King David, who learned only two things from Akhitofel, called him his master, his guide, his dear friend, one who learns from his coleagues one chapter, one halakhah, one verse, one espression, or even one letter surely is obliged to pay him honor. (Pirkei Avot, 6:3)
When I was doing my masters in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, back in 1993, I had to pass off on a language requirement. (This is also where I met Jonathan David Jackson, mentioned in this recent post). I'd decided that I had a better chance at breezing through a Hebrew exam than I did at doing well in French, so I was referred to Samuel Iwry as the professor who would examine me.
At the time, I knew nothing about him. I did not realize he'd been such an important scholar or that he'd led such an interesting life.
Samuel Iwry Dies at 93; Scholar Helped Decode Dead Sea ScrollsBetween college and graduate school, I lived in Eugene, Oregon from 1991-1993. I went back to Delmar, NY to live with my parents for the summer of 1993, before I went on to Baltimore for my year at Hopkins. Though I felt more confident in my Hebrew than in my French, I was still sure that I needed to brush up on Hebrew grammar basics. My mom set me up with tutoring from a professor at SUNY Albany, an Israeli linguist who also has a background in Biblical studies. Throughout the summer, I met with her once or twice a week. We'd decided I would take my exam in modern Hebrew, rather than Biblical Hebrew, so she put me through intense drills of basic Hebrew vocabulary, usage and construction rules for all of the Hebrew prepositions and pronouns, conjunctions, the definite article—and, of course, Hebrew verb paradigms (binyanim).
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2004; Page B06
Samuel Iwry, 93, a scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls whose life story could rival the plot of an international adventure novel, died of a stroke May 8 at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.
Mr. Iwry made his mark as a scholar when he was a graduate student studying under the renowned archaeologist William Foxwell Albright at Johns Hopkins. His Hebrew language skills helped identify and verify the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
His traditional Jewish education trained him well for the task. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 emigrate to Palestine, Mr. Iwry was captured by the Japanese occupying forces, imprisoned in Shanghai and tortured.
As more [Dead Sea] 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, Mr. 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. Mr. Iwry wrote the first doctoral dissertation on the scrolls and was regarded throughout his life as the expert on them. He completed his doctorate degree in 1951 at Johns Hopkins.
Mr. 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. . . .
My tutor wanted me to pass the exam, but it also sort of seemed she was concerned that my performance on the exam would reflect on her professionally. My parents were paying for one hour sessions, but my tutor would generally keep me for as long as she felt she could successfully hammer more Hebrew language into my brain. We would work through section after section of her own, unpublished Hebrew textbook. Every so often, unexpectedly, she would shout in Hebrew across the house to her son, S., a few years younger than I, would he take out the trash, did he remember to go to the bank, had he called his father, etc, etc.
Frequently it wasn't until an hour and a half or even two hours later, that my eyes would finally glaze over and my tutor would be satisfied that my mind had reached it's point of maximum Hebrew saturation for that day. She then would give me a pile of blank verb paradigm charts for me to fill in for multiple examples of each kind of verb we'd worked on, along with pages of English sentences for me translate into Hebrew. All my Hebrew sentences were to include vocalization marks (vowels); though fluent speakers and readers don't usually need the marks and don't use them, they carry grammatical information, which my tutor wanted me to master. At the end of the summer, my tutor made a list of the areas we hadn't yet covered and gave me a pile of assignment sheets to take with me to Baltimore, which I was then to send back to her for her to correct and return to me. Anytime I ever had any question about Hebrew grammar, I could and should call her, she said.
Things started up at Hopkins. We had our orientation. I was assigned my advisor, and we worked out my courses and filled out the registration forms. Then there was the wine and cheese welcoming of the new masters students—scheduled on Rosh Hashanah until I complained ("but we asked the Jewish faculty and they said it would be fine . . ."). Then it was time to go see Dr. Iwry. (At Johns Hopkins it is considered decorous to address the professors as Dr.—this after my undergrad years at Brandies where it was typical for undergraduates to address their professors by first name.) When I arrived at Dr. Iwry's office and asked him when we could schedule my Hebrew exam, he would not discuss a date with me. Instead he insisted I begin sitting in on one of the intermediate level undergraduate Hebrew courses. He also sent me off with a reader* of classic Hebrew stories and essays from the first half of the 20th century and said that when I felt I could handle the readings and answer the Hebrew study questions he would give me the exam.
This was nearly eleven years ago, so I don't remember all the details so clearly now. But my visits to Dr. Iwry's office went on for a good portion of the semester. I'd show up and report on how I did with the readings he'd specified and then he'd give me something else to do. In between visits with Dr. Iwry, I'd occasionally call up my summer tutor with questions about my work from Dr. Iwry. Each time I called, her exasperation would intensify. How could this Iwry be questioning what she taught me?! But she would also discuss in detail with me any of my questions. And she had me send her some of my work in the mail so she could look it over. Finally after about two months of this, Dr. Iwry agreed to examine me. The exam consisted of reading passages and answering questions from the the same reader he had given me the first time we met. I asked Dr. Iwry if he wanted me to include the vocalization marks. He said that wasn't necessary. My tutor had been a stickler about the vocalization marks, so I decided to put them in anyway, just to show Dr. Iwry what I knew.
After about a week, I went back in Dr. Iwry's office to find out the results of my exam. When I walked in, Dr. Iwry sternly told me to sit down. "Mr. Greenberg," he said, "you've passed the exam." After a weighty pause, he continued, "most students don't have Hebrew like yours. If you don't keep studying, you're in big trouble." I don't remember what was said next, but after another minute or two I was on my way and did not see Dr. Iwry again.
To date, I have somewhat failed Dr. Iwry. I crammed hard for all those months before the exam but didn't have much cause to use my new skills during the intense year of graduate courses, writing workshops, and thesis writing (a manuscript of poems). Though I've made periodic attempts to brush up on what I learned for Dr. Iwry's exam, I've forgotten a lot of the fine points of Hebrew vocalization marks. Nowadays, when it comes to the Hebrew verb paradigms, I only remember the most basic forms—though I had been able to construct most of the exceptional forms.
I tell this story about Dr. Iwry every so often, but it's only at this writing that I think I understand his behavior. As far as he was concerned Hebrew was not a subject that one treats expediently, as a means to satisfy a program requirement. He didn't want to give the exam until he had some confidence that I might approach the study of Hebrew for its own sake.
If I am correct about Dr. Iwry's intentions, then I feel even worse than I used to about my lapses in Hebrew study. But I console myself with two thoughts. First, I assume I will return to more serious study of Hebrew. I still aspire to read serious Hebrew literature for pleasure. Second, I like to think there is at least one thing I am dong right now that would please Dr. Iwry. When I tutor boys and girls for their bar/bat-mitzvahs (my part-time job in the evenings), I very frequently teach them something arcane about Hebrew vocalization marks—the rules for distinguishing between a sheva nach and a sheva na. The sheva is a vocalization mark (it looks like a colon (:) underneath a letter) that sometimes gets pronounced as a semi-syllable, a quick "eh," and sometimes is silent (it's the difference between saying "yoshvei" and "yo'she'vei"). Most Hebrew readers and speakers, even fluent ones, simply do whatever sounds "right" to them, based on whatever conglomeration of regional pronunciation habits they have imbibed from others in their communities. For non-fluent readers, the sheva can be the key to understanding how to parse the syllables of a Hebrew word. I also figure that the kids I teach are too removed from the processes of acculturation that taught their parents and grandparents their habits of Hebrew pronunciation. For these reasons, I prefer to teach my students a rational system. The message is that they themselves can figure out the correct pronunciation, without having to guess and without having to wait for someone else to tell them how it's done. The result is pronunciation that is not entirely the practice of any community of speakers. But my approach satisfies my need and my students' that I be consistent in my instruction.
When my next students celebrate their bar-mitzvahs and bat-mtizvahs, I hope Dr. Iwry will be listening and that these young people make him smile.
*I've been racking my brains to remember the name of the book Dr. Iwry gave me to study. It was a hard cover reader, the readings, questions and front-matter all in Hebrew. My impression is that it was published several decades ago and is considered a classic book of its kind. Anyone out there have any idea what book I'm talking about?