YU Chronicles: Louis Feldman – Classics Professor Seeks Beauty in Ancient History

Nov 11, 2003 — Louis Feldman carefully straightens piles of tattered books and files that smother his tiny formica desk as if each formed a time capsule. On the desktop piles of syllabi, nearly 2 feet high, abut stapled lexicons of ancient Greek and Latin—handouts he prepares for classes that often number one or two students. Nearby, a refrigerator, rusty from disuse, seems just another artifact in Feldman’s universe.

“I love history and classical literature,” he said, “because it’s sort of human in scale—infinitely complex, but always tangible, always real.”

Arms crossed on his chest, resplendent in a brilliant necktie, pale blue eyes keen beneath short-cropped gray hair, the 76-year-old scholar is truly a man in sync with his times, whether braving 90-minute subway commutes to Washington Heights from his Forest Hills home or analyzing the budget difficulties that plagued Roman emperors.

Interviewed in his shoebox office in Furst Hall, he offers a favorite maxim from Hesiod: “For the achievement of excellence, the gods have ordained sweat.”

On that score, Feldman has more than kept his end of the bargain.

Although his scholarly deeds have included developing new theories in biblical archeology, Feldman’s students know that his conception of beauty in classical literature refers particularly to discoveries that bring history to life.

His passion is to share that beauty with others, in the language of literature. And so he is the author of more than 160 articles and 15 books, including Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World.

Feldman takes particular pride in pursuits that connect antiquity to a modern world. Two summers ago, he theorized in an issue of Biblical Archaeology Review that the Roman Colosseum—the Roman Empire’s most magnificent building and most impressive engineering feat—may have been financed by plundering the biblical Temple in Jerusalem.

According to second-century historian Suetonius, the Emperor Vespasian (AD 69-79), who started the building, faced a deficit of 40 billion sesterces, which Feldman says is the modern equivalent of billions of dollars.

Uncovering Vespasian’s method of financing, Feldman turned to an inscribed stone at the main entrance. It was first described in 1813, reanalyzed in 1986, and newly deciphered in 1995 by professor Ge

“Why should I see a movie, watch television, even read The New York Times and take time away from something I love. In that sense, I’m a hedonist.”

za Alfoldy of the University of Heidelberg. The inscription is from the fifth-century and it tells of restoration of the Colosseum by later emperors.

Feldman, considered among the nation’s foremost authorities on Hellenistic Judaism, joined Yeshiva University’s history and humanities faculty in 1955. He was appointed professor of classics in 1966, and has chaired the foreign language faculty since 1981.

He graduated from Trinity College in 1946, was a Ford Foundation Teaching Fellow there from 1951 to 1952, and received an honorary LHD in 1988. In 1994, he was named to YU’s Abraham Wouk Family Chair in Classics.

He holds a PhD in classical philosophy from Harvard University and received a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as a similar honor at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study.

Teaching, researching, and writing are labors of love savored by Feldman. While others of his age may contemplate retirement or a less demanding schedule, Feldman shows no signs of slowing down. And that pleases him—and his students.

Quality begets quality

“Quite a few of my students have become professors at major universities in the US and Israel. Some, such as Moshe Bernstein of Yeshiva College, David Berger of City University, Shaye Cohen of Harvard, and Seth Schwartz of the Jewish Theological Seminary, have earned doctorates in the classics and allied fields. Others, such as Rabbis Saul Berman of Stern College for Women and Shlomo Riskin of Efrat [Israel] and Professors Benjamin Weiss of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and Gerald Blidstein of Beersheva [Israel], also took classes with me and pursued other fields with great distinction.”

An intellectual journey continues

“My books, articles, and other writings are, in a sense, autobiographical. Like Yeshiva University’s defining principle, Torah Umadda, my interest has always been in reconciling the religious world to which I was born and the secular world in which I was trained. I do this through my writing and by training students in critical scholarship.”

History unlocks answers

“What’s great about the classics is that you find yourself wrestling with the very same problems that confronted Philo and Josephus. I have a laboratory of 2,000 years that I can explore. And it talks to me. People haven’t changed much. Fortunately these people wrote about themselves and I can read what they said. One reason we have survived as a people is because we study and learn about history.”

Making the grade

“Someone once said a professor reading examination papers is like a dog eating a frankfurter—getting back his substance in a mutilated form. I want to plant a seed in each of my students so they can critique my lessons. I’ve had students who challenged and refuted me. It makes life exciting and worth living. Also, I don’t believe in original sin, so when students turn in term papers, I return them with typed critiques. They can then revise them and improve their grade. Only the final grade counts, and the grade I give a student is the grade I give myself.”

Intimate learning

“Yeshiva College places a premium on the individual that allows me to teach courses for one or two students. Dr. [Samuel] Belkin, when he was president, once told me how that degree of personal attention helped him raise money. People saw that when it came to giving students a first-rate education, we were true to our word. Every single student is of infinite importance.”

History provides great theater

“I consider my research fun and exciting. Why should I see a movie, watch television, even read The New York Times and take time away from something I love. In that sense, I’m a hedonist. I also get hundreds of letters and e-mails from people critiquing my books or articles on Josephus, and I learn from these critiques.”

Mentors

“One person who influenced me greatly was James Notopoulos, a professor of classics at Trinity College. He was so alive with what he was teaching, and his excitement was contagious. He was an excellent scholar who really got me started. Arthur Stanley Peae, who taught at Harvard, was another great influence. He didn’t write much, but what he did write—detailed commentaries on Cicero and Virgil, in particular—stayed with you.”

48 years and counting

“I am—always have been—a one-man department. One sea change of which I’m very proud is our honors programs at both Stern and Yeshiva Colleges. Here we attract some of the country’s top students, challenging them to fulfill the best of their potential.”

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