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Blossoming Into Torah: An Interview With TV’s Mayim Bialik


  Many of us who are children of the ’90s – or who had children in the ’90s – remember the popular television show “Blossom,” which starred Mayim Bialik as a teenager confronting, and trying to survive, adolescence. After years away from Hollywood, Bialik now finds herself back in the spotlight with multiple guest-starring roles on cable and network TV shows. But there’s another, more important part of her life to which Bialik has returned.

 

   Raised as a Reform Jew, Bialik, now 33, has been searching for her place on the spectrum of observant Judaism. And, much like Jewish superwomen everywhere, she wears multiple hats: actress, wife and mother, and Ph.D. in neuroscience. Bialik, who currently makes her home in Los Angeles and is working on developing the “Rashi’s Daughters” books into a miniseries or movie, recently spoke with The Jewish Press.

 

   The Jewish Press: Growing up, what kind of Jewish rituals or traditions were prominent in your home? What kind of Jewish education did you receive when you were younger?

 

   Bialik: I was raised as a Reform Jew but my mother had been raised Orthodox, so we had a lot of remnants from her former level of observance in our own home. We always lit Shabbat candles and my mother made sure to have two sets of dishes in our kitchen. We celebrated Chanukah and Passover. We also went to temple on the High Holy Days. I participated in Board of Jewish Education programs until I was 19, and went to both Jewish camp and Hebrew school at least once a week. Judaism was really a presence throughout my childhood; the main thing missing was an understanding of halacha. I didn’t know why my mother kept two sets of dishes, and the laws of the holidays weren’t really discussed. I began learning about them when I studied further as I got older.

 

   Your grandparents were Holocaust survivors; what role, if any, did their experience play in your later return to Jewish observance?

 

   My grandparents weren’t in the camps, but they did escape from Europe during the Holocaust. My grandmother, who came to Ellis Island at 19, lost half her siblings in the war, and many more of my family members were also left behind. My grandparents were Orthodox and I was always conscious of their observance when I was growing up – they couldn’t eat off the plates in my house, and they walked miles to get to my bat mitzvah ceremony rather than drive there on Shabbos.

 

   What made you decide to pursue acting as a career?

 

   I started going out on auditions when I was 11, after acting in some school plays. Additionally, I saw a lot of theatrical elements within Judaism, such as the chazzan singing in shul. One of my first roles was for the Bette Midler movie “Beaches”; the movie came out the same week I became a bat mitzvah, which was kind of surreal for me.

 

   Has there been an encounter with a celebrity that’s made a particularly strong impression on you?

 

   I’d say it was either being interviewed alongside Michael Jordan, as I was a huge sports fan, or being invited by Bob Dylan himself to attend one of his concerts and meet him backstage.

 

   Have your Jewish values ever conflicted with a role or a specific episode of a show you were on?

 

   I wasn’t terribly observant during the years “Blossom” aired, when I was 14 to 19. I did feel some sort of conflict that we filmed the show on Friday nights, but that time of my life wasn’t centered around Judaism like it is now. I did always get off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which was written into the “Blossom” calendar.

 

   After successfully breaking into Hollywood, why did you decided to put that on the back burner and attend UCLA [from which Bialik graduated and later went on to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience]?

 

   I think a lot of it was due to my traditional immigrant background that mandated you go to college and that’s just what you do, even if you have your own television show! My grandparents came to this country so their children and grandchildren we could have the opportunity to go to school and learn, and that was always stressed when my brother and I were kids. Additionally, starring in one popular sitcom doesn’t guarantee lasting success in Hollywood – or, more importantly, life.

 

   What experiences did you have at UCLA that set you on the trajectory of exploring your Jewish roots more deeply?

 

   I minored in Hebrew and Jewish studies, I took a lot of Holocaust Studies classes, and I studied Yiddish for a year. I gravitated toward Hillel, where I felt comfortable with my Jewish peers, almost recreating the camp experience. I started learning with the rabbi there, running an a capella choir and Rosh Chodesh women’s group, and volunteering – especially with countering the anti-Zionism activism on UCLA’s campus. My involvement with Hillel was the main social highlight of my college career – and college was also the place I met my husband, Michael, while sitting in calculus class.

 

   Does your husband share your Jewish values? What Jewish traditions are you instituting in your home with your children?

 

   Neither of us was raised with the level of Jewish observance that we keep now, but we certainly make Judaism a major part of our everyday life at home with our sons, Miles (Meier Rosh), almost 4, and Frederick Heschel (Ephraim Hirsch), now 1. We keep a kosher kitchen and keep taharas hamishpacha, something neither of us expected to be a central part of our lives but which has become very important to us over time.

 

   We are somewhat Shabbos-observant as well, having Friday night dinner, for which I usually bake challah. Since the closest synagogue to our home is about an hour’s walk away, we usually spend Shabbos day at home with the family, not watching TV or listening to music or answering the phone. It’s really a driving force of our entire week, a day we can shut off the outside world. We also celebrate all the holidays and introduce our kids to Jewish books and music – they don’t want watch TV or movies.

 

   After college, how did you stay connected to Jewish education and exploring your religion?

 

   After my first son was born, a friend mentioned to me that she was really enjoying her participation in Aish’s Partners in Torah program, which pairs people looking to study Judaism in-depth with mentors and teachers.  In my new identity as a mom, I was completely devoted to my baby and thought of little else but nursings, naps, diapers, and baths.

 

   I wanted to do something intellectually enriching, and was quickly paired up with Allison Josephs. Incidentally, as a fan of “Blossom,” she had tried in vain to contact me herself when she heard I was identifying increasingly with Judaism, and was then randomly assigned to be my Partners in Torah teacher. Together, we’ve studied the laws of Shabbos, the teachings of Rav Soloveitchik, and a beautiful book called Bread and Fire, an anthology of Jewish stories. We also studied the laws of tzniut, which led to my personal commitment to no longer wear pants.

 

   Now that you’re back in the acting world, is it hard to reconcile that newfound practice with your TV roles?

 

   It hasn’t been too hard, especially when playing a chassidic woman on “Saving Grace,” on which I mostly wore a long skirt and scarf on my head. I was able to finagle wearing leggings under a shorter skirt on another role. However, the first TV spot I did since I stopped wearing pants was a makeover show called “What Not To Wear,” and when they were dressing me, I had to say several times that I would only wear skirts. It may be hip to be Jewish but it’s not yet so hip to be an observant Jew. There are not too many observant Jewish women in Hollywood, which expects you to be sexy first, and I have a different concept of what that means now. Still, I hesitate to label myself completely Orthodox, as the level of mitzvot I keep can mean different things to different people. I tend to get labeled as Conservadox, but it’s not a black-and-white title.

 

   How do you balance motherhood and acting?

 

   Being around for my kids absolutely comes first with me. I realized that if I wanted to be with them most of the time, being a research professor wasn’t going to work. Luckily, television scheduling is often flexible enough that I can, for the most part, be with my kids, but I would not take a role that stipulated I needed to be away from my kids for any extended period of time. Our family comes first, which is a very Jewish value.

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