Suzanne Singer

Hershel Shanks served biblical archaeology with joy

The late founder of a popular archaeology magazine spread his lifelong passion for antiquities far beyond the elite halls of academic research
The late Hershel Shanks with Susan Laden, Suzanne F. Singer and Jordanian archaeologist Mohammad Najjar stand on a Herodian staircase at Machaerus in Jordan. (Gyozo Vörös, courtesy Hershel Shanks)
The late Hershel Shanks with Susan Laden, Suzanne F. Singer and Jordanian archaeologist Mohammad Najjar stand on a Herodian staircase at Machaerus in Jordan. (Gyozo Vörös, courtesy Hershel Shanks)

Hershel Shanks, known by a generation of archaeologists and Bible scholars in Israel, died in Washington DC on January 5, 2021, only weeks before his 91st birthday. He spoke the truth as he saw it and faced his dissenters with firmness but never anger. He argued against the slowness of publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls to which only a small, privileged group of scholars were given access, and became part of the eventual opening to the world of the Scrolls. He hated looters but believed that finds whose provenance is unknown should nonetheless be studied and published despite not knowing from where they came. He carefully investigated, with respected scholars, the charge of forged antiquities and, when convinced of their authenticity, published and explained what convinced him.

Hershel taught scholars not to fear popularization of their work in the non-academic Biblical Archaeology Review he founded known as BAR. By publishing in a magazine that reaches a broad general readership, researchers found enthusiasm and understanding for what they wrote and uncovered in the ground. Volunteering and financial support for digs increased.

From idea to accomplishment, Hershel hardly paused. I first encountered him via the “Dear Everyone” letters he wrote during his invented sabbatical from the law in Israel in 1972-73. He described adventures with his wife Judith and two young daughters Elizabeth, 5 and Julia, 3, exploring the land. What and where they chose to explore was driven by Hershel’s insatiable desire to see the ancient remains of Jewish history that for years he and a few close friends in Washington had been reading about together in their Bible study group.

I don’t recall how I ended up on Hershel’s mailing list, perhaps it was because he and my husband Max had studied at Harvard Law School together. However it was, those frequent letters describing the mishaps and joys of their days in Israel became inspirations for us and our four sons when we arrived for our planned year in Jerusalem, only weeks before the Shanks family departed for Washington.

But I must mention a foretaste of what would follow in Hershel’s life. By the time he boarded the plane to return to law practice, he had explored the earliest Jerusalem, David’s city in Siloam, and written the first guide to its only-partially-excavated remains, The City of David: A Guide to Biblical Jerusalem. This small booklet inspired South African Zionist leader Mendel Kaplan to support the next major excavation of the city of David.

The year in Jerusalem sparked in Hershel a lifetime passion. Upon his return to Washington, he fulfilled his aim to write about Biblical archaeology by starting the Biblical Archaeology Review as a small quarterly that quickly became a larger bi-monthly and that today has a quarter-million readers. He invited me to be its “Jerusalem Correspondent.” (Our family’s intention of staying one year in Israel extended to four years. Today, four generations of Singers live in Israel.) Hershel was undaunted that neither he nor I nor Susan Laden in DC (today BAR’s publisher and president) knew anything about producing a magazine. Determination and confidence propelled Hershel when others would have been dismayed.

So it was that Hershel plunged into 43 years of publishing BAR. During that time he also was BAR’s editor and frequent writer. For some of those years, he edited three other magazines, Bible Review and Archaeology Odyssey that he created, and Moment that he acquired. But that was not sufficient for this joyously idea-filled Hershel. Ten books by Hershel came forth during the years of BAR as well as 10 edited works.

As well as I knew Hershel, I still cannot imagine how his output continued so long and so richly. He probably would give credit to those who worked by his side to create fruition. But we all knew, Hershel Shanks drove us to succeed. May his life and works continue to inspire and teach following generations.

Yehi Zichro Baruch

About the Author
Suzanne Singer was for years an editor and writer for Moment magazine and Biblical Archaeology Review in Washington D.C. Since aliyah with her husband Max in 1998 her focus has moved to how young people build their Jewish Lives. She has helped guide the Alex Singer Project, spreading the life, writings and art of Alex Singer, killed in the IDF in battle with terrorists in Lebanon on Sept 15, 1987, Alex's 25th birthday.
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