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Learning more than Hebrew through storytelling

In the week and a half of my Hebrew class, known as Ulpan, I’ve learned nearly as much about my teachers as I have about the language itself. In Ulpan, each class has two different instructors that switch off so that each group of students is exposed to more than one teaching style. Both of my teachers are phenomenal, with incredibly impressive resumes and teaching histories. One of my two teachers, a woman named Ruti, likes to tell the class stories about her life and about Israel — while also incorporating plenty of new Hebrew words into them.

Ruti’s past is particularly impressive to me. Nearly every day she teaches our class, she comes with stories that prove her life has been anything but boring. Though Ruti was born and raised in Israel, she has spent a lot of time in the U.S. for various reasons. She studied both at Boston University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and lived in the MIT dorms for five years with her husband as they studied there together. She has taught at Columbia University, New York University, Boston University and Harvard University, and years ago, the Israeli Minister of Education sent her back to the United States to oversee the teaching of Hebrew throughout the entire country for a few years. Her background in linguistics is so comprehensive that she traveled around the country to instruct Hebrew teachers on how to teach Hebrew.

Recently in class, she went off on a tangent that had our entire class captivated and close to tears by the end. She told us the story of when she was studying at MIT and living in the dorms with her husband and their good Israeli friend, Bibi. Her husband and Bibi had served together in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) prior to coming to the U.S. to study (as did Ruti, as all Israelis serve their time, but some longer than others). Her husband and Bibi had been in a top-secret special forces unit called Sayeret Matkal. Sayeret Matkal had a handful of crucial roles, but the story she told us was about a hostage rescue beyond Israel’s borders. It is difficult to do a story like this justice, but here is my attempt.

On July 4, 1976, while Ruti, her husband, and Bibi were all at MIT watching the fireworks out of their dorm window, they received word of a rescue mission that Sayeret Matkal had embarked on across the world. A week before the 4th of July, a group of Palestinians and Germans had hijacked an Air France flight and were holding over 100 Israeli hostages from the flight at a terminal in Uganda. They did this in an attempt to free 40 Palestinians that were in prison in Israel. Sayeret Matkal, which consisted of many of Ruti’s close friends, was tasked with retrieving the hostages. The rescue mission took a week to plan, and during that week the group had gathered information that on the 4th of July the president of Uganda would be traveling in a black Mercedes to the terminal where the hostages were being held. In an attempt to fool the air surveillance and guards, the unit built a replica of the Mercedes and traveled to the terminal in Uganda. They successfully freed 102 of the 106 hostages. In the process, only one Israeli commando from Sayeret Matkal was killed: the commander, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu — who was one of Ruti’s closest friends. They called him Yoni.

Ruti and her husband got the call with the news in the middle of the night. Yoni’s parents were living in Ithaca, New York at the time, teaching at Cornell. Ruti, her husband, and Bibi got in the car in the middle of the night and drove all the way to Ithaca to tell Yoni’s parents the news before they heard it elsewhere.

The story is much more complicated than that, and a quick google search of “Operation Thunderbird” will give more of the intricate details about the rescue mission, but Ruti told us all of this at the beginning of class this week in an incredibly casual manner as we all sat there absolutely captivated.

One of the most interesting things about Israel is that so many people have some sort of story like this to tell stories that involve extreme danger, risk and loss that most of us in the U.S. can’t even begin to imagine. Because the IDF is mandatory for Israelis, these experiences seem to be expected to a certain extent. While the Operation Thunderbird story is an extreme case, nearly everybody who’s been in the IDF has likely seen or experienced something that would make my jaw drop, but for them it’s just a way of life.

It certainly puts a lot into perspective.

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