Sitting at the foot of a rabbi among a group of students, wearing his large, Knitted yarmulke on his head and looking at a Hebrew text of Talmud in his lap, Michal J. Geller '95 participates in the age-old Jewish custom of arguing.
He disagrees about the role of rabbis in 18th century Eastern Europe, contending that they were mere political appointees, not true spiritual leaders.
Having stated his case congently, Geller sits back and the studying continues. a student reads: "When Rabbi Hanina the son of Dosa died, men of action ceased," Geller leans over and whispers, "That's an "Action Man' reference."
Reading jokes bout the famous Harvard crank caller into the same text he cares so much about, Geller switches easily in and out of the worlds he straddles. One minute he's the diligent Jew who wakes up at 7 a.m. for morning services, who organizes the prayer leaders, who worries whether Hillel's dining hall is kosher enough. The next, he's flying a single-engine airplane across the Seattle sky, or dressing in costume, or programming at Microsoft.
Geller isn't someone you would expect to have such diverse interests. he comes from a line of rabbis stretching back eight generations. His great-grandfather was brought from Galicia to become the spiritual leader of Corpus Christi, Tex., according to Rabbi yaakov Geller: From Galicia to Texas, a book about the Geller family authored by Mike's cousin.
Born in Los Angeles, Geller moved with his family (his dad is a rabbi and a doctor, and his mom is a psychiatrist) to Denver, Colo., where he was raised as an Orthodox Jew.
He was surrounded by religious Jews in Denver, attending private religious day schools through high school (Geller was the top student among a graduating class of six at the rocky Mountain Hebrew Academy). He travelled to the East Coast for conferences of the Torah High School Network, but remained somewhat isolated from the secular world.
"I took a class [at a public school] once," says Geller. "It was an eye-opening experience."
After graduating from high school, Geller spent a year in an all-boys religious school--or "yeshiva"--in Israel where he studied Talmud from 6:30 a.m. to midnight.
"It was kind of intense, but you screw around plenty," he says, admitting that he didn't actually study for 17-and-a-half hours a day.
Even though there was "pressure for [Geller] to go to a Jewish college or stay for another year," he was never tempted to remain isolated in the religious world. Contrary to the wishes of his rabbis in Israel, he decided to go to Harvard rather than continue his studies at the yeshiva.
"The Jewish community [at Harvard] was strong and diverse," he says. "I didn't want like a whole slew of fanatic Orthodox Jews. the diversity really appealed to me."
Although he remains faithful to his tradition at Harvard, Geller hasn't let the demanding life of a religious Jew prevent his from experiencing other things.
"I definitely have my main source of activity through the Jewish venue," he says. "But once you have that world that you feel comfortable in, you can dabble in something else."