Asserting Identity and Reconciling Difference

Feldman Wants to Move Dialogue Beyond the Defensive

Until he was 14, Noah R. Feldman wore a baseball cap when he went out of the house. Since then , he has worn a yarmulke.

Feldman describes this transition as a story of convenience: as an orthodox Jew, he wanted to retain the head covering mandated by tradition; as a bicyclist riding through Harvard Square, he needed something that would fit under a protective helmet.

But for Feldman this is also a story of resistance, an assertion of identity, a refusal to be taken as anything but Jewish: "It's a statement that I could pass, but I don't want to pass."

NOAH FELDMAN--Rhodes Scholar, Eliot House senior, longtime member of Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel, intramural basketball player, junior PhiBeta Kappa, occasional poet--wants to be remembered at Harvard as "more than Jewish." But never less.



"He wants to be thought of definitely as Jewish, but he doesn't want to fit mold," says his roommate of two years, E. Parker Waller J. '92.

To be sure, Feldman want to be read in contradictory ways; he defies stereotypes, yet his yarmulke provokes them. Indeed, assumptions are made, although those assumptions--about his religious piety, politics and personality--are often wrong.

For instance, Feldman wears a yarmulke, he says, not so much as a religious obligation, but as a "praxis": its serves as a reminder to others of his ethnicity and his refusal to assimilate.

Beyond that, Feldman looks for contradictions and accepts them in himself, in his scholarship or, most importantly, in others.

His senior thesis, written on a thirteenth century Jewish poet who lived in Spain, explored competing interpretations of poetic oeuvre that was at once sexually "shocking" and religiously "pious."

Entitled "The (Im)Pious Poet: Reading Todros ben Yehuda ha-Levi Abu al-'Afiya," Feldman's essay won honorable mention in the Hoopes Prize competition.

In the work, Feldman warns against reading the poet's life in the surface of his poetry. He also warns against readings that depend on a broad analysis of poetry to determine the social mores of the period; Feldman argues that contradictions within Todros's work may well be more indicative of both the poet and his times than a neatly unified analysis would suggest.

In the fall, Feldman will take his degree in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations to Oxford, where he will concentrate more on Arabic studies to balance out his previous emphasis on Hebrew. Feldman speaks Hebrew and Arabic fairly well, but says he would like to perfect both during his time in England before he returns to the U.S. to attend Yale Law School.

This summer, Feldman will work for the U.S. State Department in Jerusalem, a job he found through his Truman Scholarship, which he won in 1990.

Although he is very committed to the Jewish community both at Harvard and more broadly, Feldman says he thinks of himself as an American first and foremost.