When she is not needed on the set of CBS’s hit show The Big Bang Theory, it is not unusual to find actor Mayim Bialik munching on veggie pot stickers and Cracker Jacks while studying Rabbi Ari Kahn’s Explorations: In-depth Analysis of the Weekly Parashah Through the Prism of Rabbinic Perspective (Targum). a Best known as the star of the 1990s sitcom Blossom, as the young Bette Midler in Beaches and now as the frumpy, opinionated neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler (Sheldon’s love interest) in the television show The Big Bang Theory, Bialik has a new off-screen role: as a model of the personal religious journey. “It’s scary being a symbol,” says Bialik, 35, who was raised Reform and describes herself today as an “observant-ish” Conservadox Jew. “I don’t see myself as a crusader. But no actor has ever spoken publicly about ‘Torah living.’”
So, on her parenting blog on Kveller.com, she writes about trying to get her money back for a flight she had unwittingly booked on the second day of Shavuot. She describes the beauty of the mikve on Jewishweddingnetwork.com, explains Purim on the television program Attack of the Show and shared her “Top Seven Amazing Cool Things in Judaism” at TribeFest’s 2011 gathering of young adults in Las Vegas.
“Being Jewish is such an integral part of my existence I don’t even think of it as a separate identity,” says Bialik during a visit to New York from Los Angeles, where she lives. She enumerates her other identities: mother (her priority), actor (a job), neuroscientist (like her onscreen persona, she is passionate about the study of the brain and nervous system), writer (her creative outlet), teacher (she has taught neuroscience, biology, chemistry and dissection for her homeschool community). She wears these identities layered—quirky and eccentric, rather like her offbeat yet proper outfit: knee-length jeans skirt, dusty rose ruffled blouse, kelly green sweater and dark green knotted scarf. Oh yes, she has 14 ear piercings (8 in one ear and 6 in the other), mostly remnants of teen rebellion.
She has not worn pants in public in three years, except for one episode of The Big Bang Theory on which she wore a sweatsuit. “When I formally started studying Jewishly,” she says, “I decided I wanted to study the things that didn’t make sense to me, the things I didn’t agree with or that sounded silly. One was the restriction on clothing.” The interpersonal issues of tzniut—modesty in decorum and presentation—fit with her “second-wave feminist sensibilities, the feminism of Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton. It’s not just about hemlines…. Tznius teaches us to treasure what’s inside. My industry treasures what’s outside.”
She gave birth to her first son, Miles Roosevelt (Meier Rosh), six years ago, and her second, Frederick Heschel (Ephraim Hersh), three years ago. Since their births, she and her husband, Michael Stone, have devoted themselves to attachment parenting—natural childbirth, bed-sharing, extended breastfeeding, gentle discipline, homeschooling and no outside child-care. Bialik is a certified lactation counselor, a spokesperson for the Holistic Moms Network and a dedicated vegan. She is anticipating the publication of her upcoming parenting book, Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way (Simon & Schuster). “It feels right to feel close to your child,” she says. “It makes sense evolutionarily, and as a neuroscientist I believe in the hormones of attachment and that they were put in our bodies for a reason. Breastfeeding keeps those strong. Sleeping next to your child keeps those strong.”
Bialik concedes that her strident opinions might be intimidating. “I’m a lot of woman,” she says, laughing. “I like things done a certain way and not everyone agrees with me. I expect a lot of myself and a lot of other people. I believe in sharing my personal experiences but that does not mean I am telling you what to do.”
“Mayim is energetic…principled and caring. She’s the most down-to-earth person you’ll ever meet,” says Shari Rosenman, one of the founders of LA Jewish Homeschoolers. “Her biggest contribution is being a role model for females. She shows that females can be smart, nerdy and serious, but also pretty and interesting. She shows that females can be successful in Hollywood without dressing and acting in a sexualized manner. She shows that it’s cool to be a Jewish female.” Rosenman’s teenage daughter has become inspired by learning with Bialik and has expressed interest in pursuing a career in science. Bialik has a good sense of humor, Rosenman adds: For an end-of-the-year neuroscience party, she brought kosher candy that looked like eyeballs and brain matter.
Bialik’s one-bedroom home is furnished with Ikea wood pieces with eclectic touches and buckets of toys integrated into corners. “It’s a very Jewish house,” Bialik says. “I kept everything from my grandparents that I could. All my grandmother’s platters that she brought from Poland. Her needlepoint of the kotel.” A wall of photos displays pictures of her ancestors from her great-grandfather down, but does not include her great-great-grandfather’s uncle, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Israel’s national poet.
Bialik talks with reverence about her family. Three of her grandparents fled the pogroms in Poland and Czechoslovakia/Hungary in the 1930s. Her maternal grandparents were tailors in the sweatshops of the Lower East Side; her paternal grandfather was an accountant and her grandmother, a homemaker. Her parents, Beverly and Barry, both English teachers, documentary filmmakers and antiwar activists, grew up in homes filled with joy and love but also a tremendous amount of anxiety and sadness. Because they associated that anxiety with Judaism, they left Jewish ritual behind when they married, moved from New York to California and raised Bialik and her brother, Isaac, in an earthy, hippie, Yiddish-infused environment.
Observance lingered in her parents’ home, often unexplained: Bialik thought their two sets of dishes were for breakfast and dinner. During her teen years, Jewish federation programs and camp retreats solidified her Jewish identity. Her aunt, uncle and four cousins made aliya in 1976 and live in the West Bank. Bialik has visited Israel at least a dozen times. “It’s the country I most identify with as mine,” she said in her TribeFest talk. “Learning to love Israel is like learning to love your bashert even if your bashert is really, really complicated, unavailable and even makes you angry or unsure of your relationship.”
Bialik always enjoyed making people laugh. She acted in elementary school plays and began auditioning professionally at 11. Beaches came out the week of her bat mitzva. “Life changed overnight,” she recalls. “I didn’t realize a year later I would have my own show.” Blossom, about a divorced dad and his family, ran from 1990 to 1995. The floppy-brimmed “Blossom hat” with its oversized flower became a fashion necessity for teens. She has also appeared in Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water and had a recurring part in Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Her far-ranging creativity has been instilled in her since her childhood. She plays and teaches piano, sews, bakes, cooks and hopes to “make every delicious Jewish food vegan.” Her specialties are Hungarian strudel and hamentaschen filled with chocolate, nuts and jams. She enjoys quilting, assemblage (she creates hamsas from found objects and photos), reads and rereads serious study material (currently Rabbi Akiva Tatz on Jewish thought and philosophy) as well as lighter fare (Faye Kellerman mysteries) and has even started composing her own music.
The arts and humanities came easily to her—much more easily than science—yet she fell in love with biology and genetics in high school. At the University of California, Los Angeles, the tiny neuron—“the smallest unit of the understanding of the brain”—captivated her. “I loved those moments of beauty when I truly understood something deeply,” she explains. “When my kids get sick, I love knowing what’s going on in their inner ears. I love seeing the world scientifically. I see God in all of that.”
At UCLA’s Hillel, she led a Rosh Hodesh group; became a lay hazzan; conducted, arranged music for and sang with the college’s a cappella group; battled anti-Zionism; redid the Friday night siddur; and began her path to more Jewish learning. She minored in Jewish and Hebrew studies, continued studying with her husband-to-be toward his conversion and, despite her skepticism, prepared for marriage with a kalla teacher. She became entranced with the mysterious process of the mikve and the transformative power of water, intrigued by her own name: Mayim Hoya (Chaya) means “living waters” in Hebrew.
She took to Judaism like a scientist. “‘Intellect is the glory of God,’” Bialik quotes Maimonides. “Judaism is a religion of analysis. We are raised with text in our ears and tension in our hearts.” Study, she says, keeps her mind active, distracts her from pettiness and binds her to millennia of Jews.
Academia and motherhood edged style practically out of Bialik’s vocabulary. When the hosts of TLC’s reality show What Not to Wear snagged her on the streets of New York in 2009, they intoned that Blossom had “seriously wilted” and become a “fashion fiasco.” Videos of her going about her daily life showed her in oversized and dated tops, voluminous coats and mid-calf skirts—even in her grandmother’s favorite cardigan—which she accessorized with knee socks and Army boots. The crew threw out her wardrobe (she rescued the cardigan), restyled her hair and makeup and created a more sophisticated look. “It highlighted the need to be seen as competitive esthetically,” Bialik says. She relies on a girlfriend and an unofficial stylist to ready her for red carpet events and other important occasions.
Ironically, bulky, shapeless sweaters constitute much of her wardrobe as Amy Farrah Fowler. Bialik’s impeccable comedic timing allows her to render funny lines with a straight face. Amy is both a stereotype and a true-to-life portrayal of a scientist, Bialik says: “When I was growing up, smart women on television were really one-dimensional. In some ways, Amy is this sort of stereotype, but her social desires add a lot of depth. She wants to be like one of the girls even though it’s clear she never will be. Her arrogance is refreshing.”
“Mayim is…a child star who turned out normal,” says Allison Josephs, her weekly phone study partner (havruta) for almost six years and the founder of the Web site www.jewinthecity.com. (Bialik also has another havruta in Israel.) “She’s got her head on straight. You would think [that a star] would be very egotistical, but Mayim is quite open to accepting criticism….”
Early on, Josephs asked Bialik why God had made her famous. “I didn’t have any answers and I found it unsettling,” Bialik says. “Judaism is providing the path on which to discover that purpose. People say to me, ‘Oh, you’ve really got it all together.’ I don’t see it that way at all, not at all. What I represent is struggle and learning.”