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  • Writer's pictureRyan M Armstrong

How Sara Japhet taught me that every voice needs to be heard

Sara Japhet recently passed away. She was an incredible person, and she left a personal impact on my life, my pedagogy, and my scholarship.

It was Fall 2008 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. My advisor, Nili Wazana, pulled some strings to get me into Prof. Japhet's course on Medieval Jewish Exegesis of the Bible. Prof. Japhet had come out of retirement to teach an extra course as a favor to Nili. I had only been in Israel for a year, and most of my courses had been taught in English. My Modern Hebrew was getting pretty good, but an academic seminar would be intimidating. This was compounded by the fact that (I am ashamed to admit) I knew nearly nothing about Medieval Judaism at the time.

The first day of class was standing-room only, as over 40 of us packed into a 20-person room. Prof. Japhet announced that she wanted a small class, and that she will be cutting half of us. Anyone who was not in a graduate program in Miqra (Biblical Studies) was asked to leave. Ten students walked out. Then she turned to her right and looked straight at me.

"What do you study?" she asked in Hebrew. Then we had a brief exchange in Hebrew.

"Miqra," I responded.

"You the International School? You are not a native Hebrew speaker, are you?"

"Yes, and no, it's not my mother tongue."

"Is your Hebrew good enough for this class?"

"I believe it is."

She squinted a bit. "I'll come back to you."

She moved to the next person and asked a series of questions before saying, "I'm sorry, but you can't stay in this class." She interrogated each person in the room one-by-one, sending half of us away. I sat there, nervous, waiting for her to come back to me. At the end, 18 of us were still in the room, and she said, "I'll see the rest of you on Tuesday." I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

My notes from the first day of Prof. Japhet's class. You can see that I'm constantly making decisions about how and whether to translate as I listen.

The first day of class was difficult, but I thought my comprehension level was pretty good. I took messy notes, but they were full of gems that I had learned. I sat silently, although it was a discussion-heavy seminar. She gave us an assignment to read something from Rabbi Ishmael about the Song of Songs, and I wrote it down.

Over the next week, I spent a lot of time in the library trying to figure out the assignment. It seemed easy when she announced it, but I couldn't quite find something that matched what I heard her say. I finally found some quotes from Rabbi Ishmael in the Mishnah, copied them, and translated them for my own notes. I figured I was ready for class.

The next week, she started calling on us to talk about the assignment. I couldn't make sense of anything anyone was talking about. I realized that I did something completely different. Of course, she called on me to discuss the verses I had chosen. I sheepishly told her what I had found. She had a stern look of disappointment on her face. She told me it was the Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael she wanted. An entire section of it was dedicated to the Song. At no point did she ever speak to me in English, which I took as a sign of respect. It would have only compounded my embarrassment.

I was scared that I would be sent out of the class for good. She saw my visible shame, and she warned me not to let it happen again. It didn't! I worked twice as hard in that class after her gracious response.

Looking out at Jerusalem from Mt. Scopus in between classes.

A month went by. I worked hard on my Hebrew and on material for the course. I participated in discussion when called on, but tried to fly under the radar when possible. Then one day she happened to ask a question that I wanted to answer. After a minute, my hand went up quite naturally, without thinking about it. She called on me. Several students interrupted, and pointed out that there were a few hands up before mine. She had always maintained an ordered discussion. She said, "I know. But this is the first time Ryan put his hand in the air this entire semester, and I really want to hear what he has to say." Everyone else smiled and listened.

The great Prof. Japhet carved out a place for my ineloquent contribution. She never lowered her standards for me, which made this even more impactful.

I spent over two years at HUJ as an international student. I know the difficulties of studying in a second language, fighting strict immigration policies, worrying about documentation status, and finding legal ways to piece together funding because international students are forbidden from working. But it was all worth it when Prof. Japhet wanted to hear my voice.

Years later, I was presenting a paper on Saadiah's Arabic translation of the book of Job in Princeton. Sara Japhet happened to be in Philadelphia, and she traveled to join the colloquium. Before discussing my paper, I took a moment to tell this story before thanking her for her training. After the presentation, she spoke with me privately. With warmth in her voice, she said, "Do you know why I let you stay in my class? Nili Wazana told me to let you stay!"

A group of us HUJ students with James B. Cunningham, the American Ambassador to Israel. Nili Wazana used to find incredible opportunities for me. I went to Bible Study at the President's house two years in a row.

We all have people who fight for us and give us second chances, and we all have people who allow us to be heard. Prof. Japhet set a model for how I interact with my students. I expect them to rise to my standards, but I carve out a space for their contributions, no matter how articulate they are.

Sara Japhet z"l has left an impact on so many people like me, and her impact continues to ripple into others' lives. She will be truly missed.

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1 Comment

Dustin Burlet
Dustin Burlet
Apr 25

Thank you so much for sharing some of your story - the grit, determination, and stamina that you have demonstrated here are a shining example - may your tribe continue to increase!

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