JLife spoke on the phone with Mayim Bialik, who proved to be a humble, intelligent and insightful Jewish woman. Raised in the Reform movement, Bialik now considers herself an observant Jewish woman. An actress, scientist and woman of faith, she is the mother of two young boys. Bialik portrayed a young Bette Midler in the movie “Beaches” but is best known for her lead role in the 1990s NBC sitcom “Blossom.” She currently portrays Amy Farrah Fowler on CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.”
I like to start my interviews with something fun. I can do fun…
Tell us about something funny related to Judaism that happened to you as a kid. Let’s think. There are so many [chuckling]. It’s not that I don’t have enough. I think one of the things was my sort of very recognizable Jewishness, in terms of my face and my nose. I was always told I looked like Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, which is always an odd thing for a small child to hear, especially since I wasn’t up on my Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler as a small child. But I think it is something that when I was cast in “Beaches,” as a young Bette Midler—I was 11 or 12 years old—it was kind of a nice nod for different-looking girls or girls who look Jewish. And even though that was kind of a weird way to get that recognition, it felt nice to be publicly acknowledged for looking, quote, Jewish.
I noticed you were raised in a Reform household and now you have gravitated toward the observant lifestyle. How did that come about? Yes, a lot of that shift in observance took place in college, when I got to leave my parents’ house and I got to discover things for myself. I tend to support halachic Judaism, but I am very, very liberal. I am socially conservative, but I would be on the far left of Modern Orthodox if I fit into a box, which I don’t [laughing]. You see I believe in halachic Judaism and I studied with an amazing rabbi in Hillel at UCLA, Rabbi Haim Seidler-Feller. He helped me… not choose a denomination, but taught me how to go about being a serious Jew.
How would you describe your Judaism since you cannot put it into a box? [laughing] Well, a lot of us are post-denominational. One of my mentors likes the term, “Serious Jew,” which many of us have used, but I like it in a lot of ways. I consider myself an intellectual Jew, I don’t fit into a box and I think many of us, especially in the Southern California area, don’t [fit into a box]. So it’s a lot about finding places that prayer is comfortable and comforting without feeling pigeonholed.
The term “Just Jewish” is a term used in the Pew Report, [which says] that millenials describe themselves as “Just Jewish.” Is this a topic that you have any thoughts on? There is so much to say about it. I’m not an authority on any aspect of this conversation. So, I grew up in a Reform synagogue where other kids in my school who were Conservative told me I was not as Jewish as them. And I hear this a lot from people. They will say, “I’m not as Jewish as you.” But I would rather people say they are “Just Jewish” rather than being “Bad Jews” because there is no such thing as far as I am concerned. You are either Jewish or you’re not. I think, there is a lot to cover. For instance, when you think about Israeli Jews, secular Israelis who consider themselves Israeli and not Jewish. It’s really, really complicated.
Your character Amy Farrah Fowler is an amazing character. And she is always dressed incredibly modestly. Is that a choice of tznius (modesty) or purely costume design? When I was first brought on the show, several costume designs were offered. I voiced the opinion that I would love to have Amy in a skirt because I don’t wear pants outside the house, so it’s just something that stuck. There were opportunities where she could have worn pants, but it became my preference not to and, as with all of our characters, each character has a distinctive look that they stick with. So, Bernadette also never wears pants.
So it did start with the fact you preferred a skirt over pants…. Yes. And the producers also wanted Amy to be kind of androgynous in her presentation and not have there be any sexy factor to her.
It would make sense with the character line. That leads me to a two-fold question: feminism and Judaism. I know that you are a huge proponent of both. You probably bring your Judaism onto the set in some way, shape or form, whether it be known by everyone or it’s your own private way of practicing. I’m curious about that. I don’t want to say I’m just Jewish. There is something Jewish about me all the time. There are other Jewish members of our cast and creators. There are a lot of Jewish people around. People know I eat differently at Passover, people know that I don’t do certain things on Shabbat and Yom Tov; however, there are certain things I am contracted to do. But I don’t know if there is anything more distinctive. People know I don’t wear pants, and I get teased for that [chuckling].
I’m sure it’s in jest. Do your thoughts on feminism play a role in that as well? Sometimes. It sort of forms the person that I am. A lot of my choices are a statement of feminism, meaning I choose how I dress and I want to control how I dress rather than how trends dictate what women should look like. So, to a certain extent that plays into it for me.
I know you are active in Shamayim V’aretz [a Jewish animal welfare organization that educates, trains leaders, and leads campaigns for the ethical treatment of animals]. What is your role in that? I was actually involved in the founding of it [Shamayim V’aretz] but there is no continuing or ongoing activity that I have been part of. I don’t know if it stalled, but I’m not the person to ask about it, Rabbi Yanklowitz would be. I was part of it at the start, that was several years ago, but I don’t know if he has done anything formally with it.
They’re having retreats, I looked into it. Just so you know. Yes, but beyond that I don’t have formal involvement.
But I assume you are still keeping up with the vegan diet that you mentioned in your book.Absolutely.
Can you tell me how you feel more spiritually connected with that diet? I think one of the great things about Judaism and being Jewish is that there are no limits to how you are. It’s all contained in Judaism, meaning there’s no rule that if you don’t eat meat, you don’t get to light Shabbos candles. There’s not a list of things that you have to do in order to “qualify” for some sort of Jewish gold star. So, I think it’s neat that there is a place in Judaism for all parts of me whether they are feminist parts or vegan parts; that is something that is very comforting to me about being Jewish.
I am going to assume that translates into your home. I know you have two children. Are there any particular traditions you practice with them to educate them Jewishly? We have a Jewish house, we have a kosher house and vegan. But we celebrate Shabbos, and we celebrate holidays. My older son studies with a Jewish Studies tutor on a weekly basis, so there are all kinds of Hebrew homework I oversee. My sons’ consciousness is that of forward-thinking, liberal, Jewish young men. We talk a lot about a lot of issues in Judaism and society and I try to instill in them the notion of Tikkun Olam, which is a huge part of my Reform upbringing and one of the beautiful aspects of the Reform movement.
Is there any particular Tikkun Olam that you do on a regular basis that you would like to talk about? Gosh, I make a lot of choices about personal charities. I participate in Bet Tzedek, which is an organization that provides free legal care to those who cannot afford legal care. Specifically the elderly; [Bet Tzedek] started working with Holocaust survivors, the disabled, mentally challenged, and people who cannot afford legal defense when they are unjustly accused of things or evicted. So, I love Bet Tzedek, and I love the Gift of Life, which is a bone marrow foundation I did some work with to find 29 bone marrow matches.
Wow, I’m taken aback. That’s 29 lives you’ve saved! It’s really an incredible organization.
You have a Bachelor’s degree and a Ph.D in neuroscience. Is there a conflict between the neuroscience and Judaism? Did you find that a factor—to be torn between science and spiritual faith? I was taught by my rabbi that the Torah is not a science book. To be a person of faith is not in conflict with being a woman—in my case—of science. The more I learn about science, the more I am enthralled with the idea that I did not create all of the things in the universe. And the more I learn about religion, the Jewish notion of divinity, the more I appreciate the scientific world as a direct expression of the will of something bigger than me.
That is a great way to explain that! It’s so hard and I’m sure you get asked that a lot. It is hard, and I’m asked it very frequently, but there are plenty of very famous Jewish scientists and Jewish thinkers. Maimonides was a physician… It absolutely can exist.
Do you find yourself conflicted between science and acting? At this point in my life the place that I pay my mortgage from, feed my children, and pay for health insurance is from being an actor. But my training as a scientist is so incredibly important to me and will always be part of my brain and how I see the world.
You are incredibly successful. If there is one thing that made you feel like a success, what do you think it would be? Wow! That is a great question! To me being a mom is the hardest job and the one for which we receive the least formal training. I would like my children to respect me and see me as their mother, but also someone who is on this journey of life with them. So, I do not know if I will see that now or in five years, or 10 years, or 20 years. But I would hope that I would be able to see that. And that would feel like success to me.
Is there something you have not accomplished yet or that is still your journey? There are a lot of things I haven’t accomplished personally, professionally, emotionally. I would like to be less judgmental [of others] and I’d like to be less critical of myself. There’s a lot of personal growth I look forward to as I get older and hopefully wiser. But I try to be grateful for what I have and try not to have regrets.
I saw you on “What Not to Wear.” I remember watching that show and being amazed at how humble you are. Was that your true self? That’s my Jewish self! I was taught to behave as the Talmud or Mishna indicates, if you have two pieces of paper in your pocket, one should say, “For me the entire world was created” and the other should say, “I am the dust and ashes.” That’s a very Jewish ethic, to walk humbly.
I saw you speak at Tribe Fest; you speak to people in the 21- to 40-year-old demographic quite frequently. You will get that demographic in this magazine. I wonder if there is something you would like to tell them. I don’t know how specific to be. I’m sort of reluctant to be a role model and that gets put on me quite often, especially in the Jewish Community. But the Jewish world has always been full of very public leaders and very private leaders and I am absolutely grateful for the pressure put on me, but I also believe very strongly in not just public people doing great things as Jews or women, but in everyone’s ability to do so.
And if there’s one piece of Jewish advice you have for our readers, what would it be? Learn before you decide what you want your practice to be.
And, one thing to tell Jewish mothers… [Laughing] We don’t have to be like our Jewish mothers. We can take the best part of our Jewish mothers and create our own notion of Jewish mothers.
Mayim Bialik also writes for the blog Kveller.com. As private as Bialik is, she is able to address a lot of difficult and timely issues on the blog, and it is a “safe place to discuss being a Jewish female, being a Jewish woman in Hollywood, and some of the more intricate and personal issues of being a divorcee.” The blog is about helping other women with a similar journey. If you would like to read more about what Mayim Bialik has to say, go to www.kveller.com.
Rachel Schiff is an English teacher who graduated from Cal State Fullerton. She was president of Hillel, a representative of World Union of Jewish Students and a YLD intern. Currently, she is a Master’s degree student in American Studies with emphasis on Jews in America.
Dr. Lisa Grajewski is a psychologist working toward licensure. She is a therapist with Jewish Federation Family Services and is a psychological assistant for a private practice in Tustin. Dr. Grajewski has been writing for JLife since 2004.