How She Does It
Emmy-Award nominee Mayim Bialik does us proud
From the time it premiered in 1990, “Blossom,” an NBC sitcom that ran through 1994, became a fixture in the collective psyches of American tween girls. In “Blossom,” actress Mayim Bialik played a 14-year-old girl named Blossom Russo, who lived with her divorced father and two brothers. Blossom wore funky outfits, had a “wildish” best friend named Six and encountered typical teenage conflicts with which many girls could identify. Although her character wasn’t Jewish, Bialik’s young Jewish fans weren’t fooled. In an entertainment industry full of Jewish talent, it was still extremely rare to find a recognizably Jewish actor — especially one with a starring role. Bialik’s name, as well as her un-Barbie-like appearance, gave Jewish girls a role model they could truly embrace.
After “Blossom” ended, its young starlet took a break from acting and went to college. As an undergraduate at UCLA, Bialik (who was also accepted at Harvard and Yale) studied neuroscience. She became involved in Hillel, started learning with her Hillel rabbi, and added Hebrew and Judaic studies as minor concentrations. After college, Bialik continued at UCLA, where she earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Bialik’s dissertation was on obsessive-compulsive disorder in adolescents with Prader-Willi syndrome. It was in graduate school that Bialik met her husband, Michael Stone. After dating for five years, Stone converted from Mormonism to Judaism, and the couple married and had two children — Miles, now 7, and Frederick, 4.
Bialik was committed to being an active parent and eventually, she and her husband became devoted to a child-rearing lifestyle called “attachment parenting.” Recognizing that an academic position would take her away from her children, she decided to return to acting instead. Bialik has had recurring roles on “Curb Your Enthusism,” “Secret Life of the American Teenager,” “Fat Actress” and “The John Laraquette Show.” She has guest-starred in a variety of television shows, appeared in several movies and played the voice of various cartoon characters. After guest-starring on the third season of the CBS hit sit-com, “The Big Bang Theory,” the following season, Bialik landed a recurring role as Sheldon Cooper’s girlfriend Dr. Amy Fowler, a neurobiologist and lead character. In July, Bialik was nominated for an Emmy Award for best supporting comedy actress for her portrayal of Dr. Fowler.
Earlier this year, Bialik published her first book, “Beyond the Sling: A Real Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way.” The actress also blogs for kveller.com, is a celebrity spokeswoman for “Holistic Mom’s Network,” and appears with her Partners in Torah study partner Allison Josephs in a series of YOUTUBE videos called “Jew in the City” that address challenging Jewish questions. She is also a certified lactation consultant and a vegan. Just before the premier of the sixth season of “The Big Bang Theory” on Sept. 27, iNSIDER spoke with Bialik about her career, motherhood, and her strong connection to Judaism.
iNSIDER: I’ve spent the last few days watching lots of “Blossom,” “Big Bang Theory” and interviews you’re done on entertainment shows. I even watched you on “What Not to Wear.” I guess there’s no tactful way for you to answer this question, but all I could think of while I watched the interviews and “WNTW” was that you seem like you’re so much smarter and more serious of a person than the people who are doing the interviews. What’s that like for you?
MB: I’m just one of those people who like to interact on a specific level and there are only a super-small range of people who do that. But there are plenty of people I enjoy talking to. I credit my parents with making sure I had lots of interests that broadened my outlook.
On “What Not to Wear,” you acted surprised that you were chosen for the show. Were you really surprised or was it an act?
(chuckles): There were lots of surprises. Of course there were details with my schedule and making sure I had childcare that had to be figured out, but, for instance, in the scene where they surprised me on the street, I didn’t know that was going to happen. They were pretty sneaky.
It’s kind of ironic that you were chosen for “WNTW,” when Blossom was considered such a fashion icon.
On the show (“Blossom”) we had an amazing designer, though. I had some say in what I wore, but it was really her ideas. In regular life I wore jeans and Doc Martens.
You were raised Reform. What made you become more traditional?
Well, my mom was raised Orthodox and my grandparents were Orthodox, so there were always elements of those traditions hovering around. My mother’s sister made aliyah in 1976, and in college I was very active in Hillel. I’m a product of the LA Jewish Federation — a Federation kid. I was drawn to Hillel because the experience mimicked my experiences with Federation programs. At Hillel I met Rabbi Chaim Seidler- Feller and I started studying with him. He encouraged me to take Hebrew before I learned Yiddish — what I wanted to do — and then I started studying Torah. After my first son was born, I began working with a study partner through Partners in Torah. We do a video show together called “Jew in the City.” Working with my partner gave me a new understanding and depth in my studies.
How does your Jewish observance mesh with your life as a Hollywood actor?
Well, it’s an industry full of Jews, but most of them aren’t observant. It’s a blessing and a challenge. I’m grateful to be employed — that’s what an actor wants, and God has given me a Jewish soul. It’s a difficult challenge, but I love the industry and I love performing on “Big Bang Theory.”
How does your observance affect your performance on “BBT”?
Well, I don’t wear pants, so that’s limiting. I don’t wear strapless and sleeveless. I wrote a blog post about trying to find a modest dress to wear to the Emmy Awards for my blog on kveller.com. I’m not at the level of not touching Jim Parsons (Sheldon) on TV. And I’m happy the show doesn’t tape on Friday nights.
Why did you leave acting after “Blossom” went off the air?
When “Blossom” ended I was two years into high school. College was emphasized in my family. So I went to college and then graduate school. My husband and I met in graduate school and we got married. Really, we just fell in love with parenting. We wanted to be close to our children. I wrote my thesis when my oldest child was a newborn. I realized I couldn’t be a research professor and be home with my kids. So I thought I’d act a little bit. I didn’t expect to be cast on a sit-com. It’s been a wonderful surprise.
I understand your husband converted to Judaism, but because his conversion was not Orthodox, some people in your family don’t accept it. What’s that like for you?
It’s difficult. A lot of Conservative and Orthodox people don’t accept Reform conversions — so it’s not just my family. My mother-in-law converted too.
You are somewhat of a Jewish activist. Can you tell us about some of the causes you support?
I’ve worked with the Jewish Free Loan Association in LA since college. I co-founded a youth chapter of the association. I also speak a lot about the values of traditional Judaism — keeping Shabbat, modest dress, keeping kosher… I’m also active with the Agunah movement — helping women who can’t get a get — a Jewish divorce from their husbands. And I’m working with the Maccabeats Miracle Match. The Maccabeats are a Jewish band who do a fusion of modern and religious music. We’ve been raising money and awareness about the need for donors for blood and bone marrow transplants. At Chanukah our goal was to raise $80,000 and we ended up raising close to $100,000. We’ve had 17 matches and two transplants so far.
What’s your feeling about the woman’s role in Orthodox Judaism?
I think there’s a place for women who love halachah to also be Jewish leaders — women like Sara Hurwitz. I’m a person who loves it all. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s really important to realize a lot of what is said to be ‘forbidden’ is really only custom. It’s not all or nothing.
You just published a book on attachment parenting. Can you talk about that a bit?
I think what I tried to do with the book was to explain what works for us and why. My second son had a home birth. For us, it’s about co-sleeping, gentle discipline, being physically close to your baby, breastfeeding on cue. I explain the philosophy and then people can decide for themselves. My voice is different than some attachment parents. I try not to judge others. If I see someone bottle-feeding, for instance, I remind myself, who knows what’s going on in her life that made her choose to bottle-feed? I write about chemotherapy and how that might lead a mother to bottle-feed.
You also home-school your children? That sounds so hard to me. How do you do it?
We’re part of a large organization of home-schooling families in LA.
Is it a Jewish home-school organization?
No. I mean, some of the families are Jewish, but it is secular. I do teach Hebrew to my older son, though. And I also teach science for a Jewish home-school community.
Do the kids have classes with other home-schooled kids?
We have field trips and activities, but the learning is generally just the kids and one of us. We have a “Waldorfian”-inspired philosophy (based on the Waldorf educational model) — the learning is led by the kids’ interests, and there’s no one curriculum that we use.
I can’t imagine having the patience to home-school. I guess I’m not good at playing.
There are certain things I can do and certain things I can’t do. Let’s face it — babies are kind of boring and being at home for western women is a big shock. I’ve learned what I’m good at. I can do Legos, but I don’t like trains. I’m not big on drawing, but I love reading and science.
What does your husband do?
He’s an awesome stay-at-home dad. I work five days a week, and he’s home. We don’t have a nanny.
Let’s talk about the “Big Bang Theory.”
Okay, let me just get my kids out of the room. (Bialik asks her husband to take kids into another room.) They don’t watch TV.
Not at all?
Well, my husband has shown them “Sesame Street” a few times. But we are low-media in our house. I think there’s a time for everything, and we like them to play the way kids did before TV. We try to have lots of toys, but nothing with batteries, nothing that lights up.
So — the “BBT.” Tell us about your relationship with Sheldon.
Well, Sheldon and Amy have a ‘relationship agreement’ since the 5th season which means … nothing has changed.
But you’ve kissed, right?
Yes, I kissed him in the “Tiara” episode, and we’ve cuddled. And in last season’s final episode, Sheldon voluntarily held my hand. It was a big moment (laughs).
What can we expect for next season?
I don’t know. We don’t find out until the night before. It’s like that with every script. We have a week to get the script, learn it and tape it. The week starts on Wednesday and we tape on Tuesday.
Would you consider yourself a role model for Jewish girls and women?
The term “role model” makes me nervous. I hope I’m a positive image of someone on a journey who’s sometimes imperfect. I let my faith guide me.