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Magic Tricks

Michal Geller Straddles worlds of Judaism, Computers, Disguise

By Elie G. Kaunfer

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."

Computer Whiz

Although his ancestor was brought to lead a Jewish community in Texas, Geller is bucking the clerical trend in his family and helping to lead humanity into the next computer age.

"I was always interested in computers, since 6th grade or before," he says. "I had a computer I bought with money from my newspaper route. Well, I claim to have bought it, but my grandparents pitched in a little."

In high school, Geller ran a graphics program he had written on a Cray computer, the most powerful computer around.

"I called them one day and said, 'I was wondering if I could use your Cray computer," and they laughed at me," he says "Then they called me back and said, 'Hey, wait a minute."'

Nevertheless, Geller claims he didn't know much about computers before coming to Harvard and says he wanted to major in math.

"I took CS 50 and I liked the problem solving," he says. "It's nice to finish a problem set and have it do something, as opposed to just having numbers on a piece of paper."

He became the head teaching fellow for Computer Science 50, and last summer was offered a job at Microsoft, programming a version of Word. But this year he turned down a job offer from Microsoft to work at a small company in Israel instead.

Geller says he liked the idea of working at a small, non-bureaucratic firm, but also concedes that part of the reason for his decision was the lack of a strong Jewish community in Seattle.

Other People's Garbage

Mike, who at this point in the interview is getting somewhat bored with talking about computers, can't sit still, playing with his mad scientist eye glasses, stretching a hexagonal slinky, blowing into rubber tubing.

He starts to pack his room, and suddenly announces, "You want to see what I really have that's weird?" Out of a box, Geller pulls confetti, red cellophane circles and rubber stencils.

It's hard to imagine a human being who holds on to more odd items than Geller. Above his fireplace he has beanie caps with propellers on the top (required dress code for CS 50 teaching fellows, thanks to Geller); on his trunk lies an 8-inch plastic green locust and a roll of electric cable warning tape in Hebrew, English and Arabic. And we haven't even opened his drawers yet.

Geller is known among his friends for converting other people's trash into valued possessions. "People throw out a lot of stuff that's useful," he says. "There's a lot of good stuff that's just wasted. I just happen to notice it. I don't rummage, I just find it."

Geller shows off his printer stand, his bathroom trash can and his coffee table, all rescued from the garbage.

"Look at this lamp," he says, pointing to a while stand lamp, "it took me five minutes to fix it. I have a beautiful light here. It's just a matter of being resourceful. I needed a lamp, I found a lamp!"

Master of Disguise

Geller is also resourceful when trying to change his appearance. Students who don't know him may recognize him as Moses or a pregnant woman or a Chicago Pole or a mad scientist or a sax player--all characters Geller has assumed at one time or another while at Harvard.

His fetish with changing his appearance was born in high school, when he celebrated the holiday of Purim, during which Jews traditionally dress up in costume.

"One year we dressed up as hoboes, kind of like vagrants. We got really great false beard stuff," he says. "It was sorealistic that my best friend didn't know who wewere."

Geller says he likes to view the world indisguise.

"You put on a few articles of clothing and/ormakeup and people treat you completelydifferently," he says. "You see what your bestfriends are really like."

Geller also says he met people he never wouldhave met if he hadn't started wearing makeup andfake beards--something of which he is proud.

"I learned about a whole new culture that Inever knew existed," he says. "I didn't knowanything about makeup, so you learn a little."

Pilot

The cosmetically-enhanced community is not theonly new one Geller has discovered since coming toHarvard. Last summer, while working at Microsoftin Seattle, he decided he wanted to learn how tofly.

"It's something I wanted to do since I was akid," he says. "It was a completely newexperience."

Geller spent 40 hours in the air piloting asingle-engine plane, and after the summer, earnedhis license.

"It was something new to tackle," he says."It's just a good thing to have, and you neverknow when it will come in handy."

Yo-Yo Master

Some of Geller's skills may never come inhandy, but they keep him occupied. Take hisinfatuation with the yo-yo, for example. Visitingone of his relatives while he was in Israel,Geller inherited "a crappy yo-yo."

But in order to keep his mind off the recentlydeclared Gulf War, Geller perfected tricks withthe yo-yo, and became mildly famous.

"I started getting stopped in the street," hesays. "They wanted to see tricks."

Geller eventually worked out a deal with theDuncan yo-yo company to be the distributor of theyo-yo in Israel. He sold about 1,000 and started amini craze at his yeshiva.

"I had a little pushcart," Geller says. "And Ihad a hat with a little yo-yo in the front."

Geller says his time spent selling yo-yo raiseda few of his rabbis' eyebrows. But, he says, hemanaged to feed his need to experiment with othercultures without altering his strict religiousbeliefs.

"I wanted to do something and I did it, and Idid it in a way that was consistent with myinternal belief system," he says. "I didn'tcompromise my internal beliefs."

Religious with a Twist

Despite experiencing these different cultures,Geller has never considered abandoning his strictreligious beliefs. In fact, Geller spends much ofhis time teaching the tradition he loves to otherstudents, by leading a beginner's prayer group onFriday nights and by recording a tape of variousprayers.

But he doesn't always use traditional classroomtechnique. For instance, Geller and his roommate,Adam J. Szubin '95, hold a party each year wherethey dress up as Hasidic Jews, complete withearlocks and black hats, and teach Jews andnon-Jews alike traditional prayers and songs.Later in the evening, they assume a modern Israelilook by. Stripping down to open-collared shirts(with fake chest hair) and shorts. Then they teachZionist songs.

Geller also interprets the Hebrew prayerthanking God for food in a way somewhat differentfrom his rabbinical ancestors. As the prayer ischanted aloud in Hebrew, Geller illustrates themeaning of the words with his hands, elicitinglaughter when he cuts with an imaginary scissorswhen signing the concept of the holy covenant (acontract sealed by circumcision).

But Geller's hand motions go beyond pureentertainment value.

"It gave the whole thing meaning and it made itan enjoyable experience," says Jafi Lipson '95,who is a Crimson editor. "Even if you don't knowwhat's going on, you can watch him and feel OK."

Geller also organized a class to teachuncoordinated men traditional Jewish dancing("There was a lot of grunting. It was funny.") anda musical chairs-type game involving paper cupsand using basic Hebrew words.

"It was a fun game that was mildlyeducational," Geller says. "It was not threateningto people afraid of religious freaks. These arestupid activities that have a little bit of apoint."

Geller says he is unsure about his long-rangeplans, saying computers are fun "for now," andnothing that he hasn't ruled out becoming a rabbieventually. Geller also hasn't decided where tolive permanently (he's planning on buying aone-way ticket to Israel).

But whether he is in Denver or Jerusalem,dressed as a pious Jew or as a pregnant woman,Geller surely will never be satisfied with being apart of just one culture

Geller says he likes to view the world indisguise.

"You put on a few articles of clothing and/ormakeup and people treat you completelydifferently," he says. "You see what your bestfriends are really like."

Geller also says he met people he never wouldhave met if he hadn't started wearing makeup andfake beards--something of which he is proud.

"I learned about a whole new culture that Inever knew existed," he says. "I didn't knowanything about makeup, so you learn a little."

Pilot

The cosmetically-enhanced community is not theonly new one Geller has discovered since coming toHarvard. Last summer, while working at Microsoftin Seattle, he decided he wanted to learn how tofly.

"It's something I wanted to do since I was akid," he says. "It was a completely newexperience."

Geller spent 40 hours in the air piloting asingle-engine plane, and after the summer, earnedhis license.

"It was something new to tackle," he says."It's just a good thing to have, and you neverknow when it will come in handy."

Yo-Yo Master

Some of Geller's skills may never come inhandy, but they keep him occupied. Take hisinfatuation with the yo-yo, for example. Visitingone of his relatives while he was in Israel,Geller inherited "a crappy yo-yo."

But in order to keep his mind off the recentlydeclared Gulf War, Geller perfected tricks withthe yo-yo, and became mildly famous.

"I started getting stopped in the street," hesays. "They wanted to see tricks."

Geller eventually worked out a deal with theDuncan yo-yo company to be the distributor of theyo-yo in Israel. He sold about 1,000 and started amini craze at his yeshiva.

"I had a little pushcart," Geller says. "And Ihad a hat with a little yo-yo in the front."

Geller says his time spent selling yo-yo raiseda few of his rabbis' eyebrows. But, he says, hemanaged to feed his need to experiment with othercultures without altering his strict religiousbeliefs.

"I wanted to do something and I did it, and Idid it in a way that was consistent with myinternal belief system," he says. "I didn'tcompromise my internal beliefs."

Religious with a Twist

Despite experiencing these different cultures,Geller has never considered abandoning his strictreligious beliefs. In fact, Geller spends much ofhis time teaching the tradition he loves to otherstudents, by leading a beginner's prayer group onFriday nights and by recording a tape of variousprayers.

But he doesn't always use traditional classroomtechnique. For instance, Geller and his roommate,Adam J. Szubin '95, hold a party each year wherethey dress up as Hasidic Jews, complete withearlocks and black hats, and teach Jews andnon-Jews alike traditional prayers and songs.Later in the evening, they assume a modern Israelilook by. Stripping down to open-collared shirts(with fake chest hair) and shorts. Then they teachZionist songs.

Geller also interprets the Hebrew prayerthanking God for food in a way somewhat differentfrom his rabbinical ancestors. As the prayer ischanted aloud in Hebrew, Geller illustrates themeaning of the words with his hands, elicitinglaughter when he cuts with an imaginary scissorswhen signing the concept of the holy covenant (acontract sealed by circumcision).

But Geller's hand motions go beyond pureentertainment value.

"It gave the whole thing meaning and it made itan enjoyable experience," says Jafi Lipson '95,who is a Crimson editor. "Even if you don't knowwhat's going on, you can watch him and feel OK."

Geller also organized a class to teachuncoordinated men traditional Jewish dancing("There was a lot of grunting. It was funny.") anda musical chairs-type game involving paper cupsand using basic Hebrew words.

"It was a fun game that was mildlyeducational," Geller says. "It was not threateningto people afraid of religious freaks. These arestupid activities that have a little bit of apoint."

Geller says he is unsure about his long-rangeplans, saying computers are fun "for now," andnothing that he hasn't ruled out becoming a rabbieventually. Geller also hasn't decided where tolive permanently (he's planning on buying aone-way ticket to Israel).

But whether he is in Denver or Jerusalem,dressed as a pious Jew or as a pregnant woman,Geller surely will never be satisfied with being apart of just one culture

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