Joshua Z. Heller '94 is being serious for once.
Dressed in a dark suit, Heller is sitting in the library at Hillel and talking about the Mishnah. The future rabbi is discussing how this 1,800-year-old code of Jewish law bears upon modern issues such as liturgical change and homosexuality.
His friend Shai A. Held '94 walks in. Heller suddenly takes off his necktie and wraps it around his head claiming that "he has a love/hate relationship with formal wear." The two playfully trade insults and then Held leaves, jokingly comparing Heller to the Lubavitcher rebbe, the head of an Orthodox Jewish sect, as he backs out the door.
Heller smiles sheepishly and says, "I'm capable of being very serious, but not capable of being very solemn."
Heller has a disconcerting habit of saying something deeply profound and then instantly undercutting it with a wry smile and a self-effacing joke. People tend to smile when asked about him, and everyone has a favorite "the time that Josh..." story. But behind the exuberant antics is a brilliant scientist recommended for a summa degree by the Computer Science Department and a Torah scholar who recently finished reading the Mishnah in just over a year, an almost unheard-of project. And then there's the Hasty Pudding script he's working on.
Heller will be ninth in a line of rabbis that stretches back to the famous early 17th century Mishnah commentator Yom-Tov Lippman Heller. After first setting hands on a computer in second grade, however, Heller always assumed he'd be a mathematician or do something with computers. By fifth grade, he was proficient enough that an older student paid him to hack into a strip poker software program.
In high school, Heller worked at a neuroscience lab that researched circadian rhythms. Heller developed a software program that enabled researchers to screen out "noise" from their data, isolating particular signals and thus giving them better results. While there are now commercial programs that do this, Heller's work was then so extraordinary that he was asked to present it at a meeting of the International Society for Neuroscience during his senior year.
Heller came to Harvard from Bayonne, N.J., on a full scholarship from the Newark Star-Ledger. It didn't take long for Heller to develop a reputation for being a bit, well, flaky. Reading period of his first semester at Harvard, Heller and his roommates decided things were a bit boring in their Canaday C suite.
"We went out to Porter Square and bought this six-foot inflatable kiddy swimming pool," recounts Heller with enthusiasm. They took apart the communal Canaday shower and ran a hose to their common room. while their proctor ordered them to dismantle it, Heller has since filled up the pool at least once every year since.
Like most observant Jewish men, Heller wears a kipoh, the traditional head covering also known as a yarmulke. His are a little different.
Heller describes the one he is wearing as a "sort of a blue psychedelic swirl....Thrown into the air it has a sort of hypnotizing effect," he says, demonstrating by tossing it high above his head a few times. Heller says he also owns a pink kipoh with yellow ducks and a "leather one with white trim that I wear for formals."
"His kipot are like him," says Held. "Zany."
Although he expected to be active in Hillel, Heller was surprised by how all-consuming an activity it became. "It kind of ate my life," he says.
"I did a lot of behind-the-scenes sort of things which were very visible within Hillel but invisible in the outside world," says Heller. He cites as an example the protest over the campus speech by City University of New