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Asserting Identity and Reconciling Difference

Feldman Wants to Move Dialogue Beyond the Defensive

By Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Crimson Staff Writer

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.

Never.

"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.

He grew up in Cambridge, where his parents met when they attended Harvard in the mid-1960s. For grade school, he attended the Maimonides School in Brookline, which is Orthodox Jewish but coeducational. In high school, Feldman says, "I was the lefty." At Harvard, he says, he feels "middle of the road."

Although Feldman lives in Eliot House, he say his other choice was Adams. "I wanted to live someplace which had an identity--it didn't matter much what identity," he explains.

FELDMAN TAKES great pleasure in defying the investments that others make in his Jewish identity. And it is his awareness of these investments that makes him acutely sensitive to the dangers of group stereotypes, and of the nuances of inter-group conflict.

He does not trust others to define him, and he does not trust group identities as a rule.

"In my gut, I have a real sense of insecurity about group manifestations in general." Feldman says. In other words, he does not like to rely on others to argue his position.

Looking at a number of this year's campus controversies involving Jewish groups, Feldman stakes out a distinctly individual space.

For instance, Feldman finds the concerns raised by many Jews at Harvard over the Leonard Jeffries speech, the Harvard Foundation exchange in The Crimson and the Dunster House "kosher toaster" debacle certainly valid. But he questions the extent to which the debates that emerged were "functional."

"Functional" is one of Feldman's favorite words. He uses it when he wants to make a leap from moral and emotional positions to what he considers practical and defensible ones.

Feldman is not without personal conviction, but rather possesses the very strong sense that dialogue should work, that it should produce results. And if it does not, the content of the conversation needs to change.

Feldman respects moral stands, but chooses, his own strategies very carefully intent on a means that will satisfy long-term ends. "I don't leap up and raise my arms and scream and yell a lot," he explains.

His diplomacy resides in a position of strength, and of visible confidence; he is not easily threatened, and he is very aware of how language structures political issues. When he speaks of controversies, he describes less his own position than that of his interlocutor. He is careful not to characterize dialogues as "debates," or other groups as "opponents."

Feldman worries that too often this year a focus on anti-Semitism, that "Judaism becomes something that exists in response to something else."

"Judaism will become nothing but an annoyance if the only way we interact with it is through anti-Semitism," he says.

THIS SPRING, when Dunster House tutor Noel Ignatiev complained about a toaster over reserved for kosher use in the dining hall, a number of Jewish students suggested that his motivations were anti-Semitic. This argument, however, fits under Feldman's definition of what is not "functional."

"I could have been offended by the toaster oven controversy, but was not," Feldman says. Rather than argue for the kosher toaster oven, Feldman takes on the foundations of Ignatiev's argument.

"It's clear that this University absolutely does not a have a policy of secularism," he says. Although Memorial Church may be a multi-use space, Feldman says, it's primarily oriented for Christian service.

The toaster issue was indicative of a larger debate about Judaism: whether it is an ethnicity or religion, Feldman says, When he fills out "ethnicity" on questionaires, he says he often looks for the little bubble that says" Jewish." It is ironic, he adds, that Jews spent so long getting that little bubble, once dangerously called "race," removed.

If Judaism is an ethnicity, and the University wants to help encourage expressions of ethnic difference on campus, Feldman says, "from the perspective of kosher-eating people, a toaster oven costs a lot less than Cultural Rhythms," the annual Harvard festival celebrating cultural diversity.

Feldman says Ignatiev's attacks on the kosher toaster oven suggest a subtext that "these people have an unreasonable request."

It is a suggestion that Feldman finds fundamentally problematic because it distances one side from the other, and refuses to understand their position.

This approach to "the other side" is particularly evident in Feldman's response to Harvard Foundation Director S. Allen Counter's recent letter to The Crimson about news coverage of race and ethnicity on campus.

"The letter read to me like it was written by someone who had a real concern that bias existed and that part of that bias was that many Crimson. writers were Jewish," Feldman says. this is a reading that Feldman says is "not by nature anti-Semitic."

Many Jews too quickly respond to such statement with accusations of anti-Semitism, Feldman says. Feldman will not take a position himself on whether the Counter letter was anti-Semitic. It is, he says, a distinction he does not find useful.

"It's very rarely functional to attack the person who wrote the letter," he explains, adding, "calling for somebody's resignation is always a mistake," referring to the few calls for Counter's resignation which followed the publication of his letter in The Crimson.

Feldman terms this kind of action typical of the Jewish response to the African-American community. "It's a public expression of power," he says. "It says we're going to assert our authority over you."

When Leonard Jeffries was invited to campus by the Black Students Association (BSA), Hillel as a whole protested his speech, calling him anti-Semitic. Feldman has been an active member of Hillel for a long time, even before he came to Harvard, and he has chaired the Orthodox Congregation, and several committee over the years.

Despite his loyalties to Hillel, however, Feldman says he thinks the protest sent the wrong message to the Black community.

To tell the BSA that it should not have invited Jeffries established a power dynamic that "takes on the terms of a lecture, and that's wrong," Feldman says.

In the Jeffries conflict, Feldman says he heard many in the Black community saying, "don't tell me who to invite," which he found an understandable reaction.

Daniel J. Libenson '92, former chair of the Hillel coordinating committee, says Feldman has often tended to assert an individual rather than group position.

"He has the feeling that simple group identifications aren't particularly constructive," Libenson says.

Feldman says he thinks that each side must recognize that it may experience the very foundations of a debate on totally different terms. For instance, Feldman says, he fundamentally trusts The New York Times and, thus, also its accounts of the Jeffries incidents in New York. However, he spoke with one Black woman at a meeting on campus who said she sees the Times as the epitome of false reporting.

Given these differences, Feldman says, "I don't feel I can sit where she is sitting and tell her what to think."

And moreover, Feldman might explain, it's just not functional.

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