In a sense I had known Mayim Bialik most of my life. I grew up with her as my television best friend when she starred on the TV show, Blossom. I remember being shocked that here was a girl who looked like me, with a ‘Jewy’ name like me, a Jewish kid on television! I thought Blossom was the coolest thing since sliced bread.
However, in recent years this Jewish actress came back into my line of sight. I learned that she was studying Judaism with a learning partner, and taking upon herself different aspects of Jewish observance. Pretty cool I thought. Then she appeared on the television show What Not To Wear and tried to explain the laws of modesty that she lived by to mainstream America. WOW! A real actress that only wore skirts like I did? I was hooked.
A real actress that only wore skirts like I did? I was hookedAnd I continued to learn about her through her honest, direct and relatable articles as she shared her lessons and insights ranging from holistic parenting (her first book just came out called Beyond the Sling), her reasons for becoming a vegan or her search for a modest dress for the Emmy’s. The more I read from her and about her, the more she blew me away with her strength, determination, talent and down-to-earth approach. Not to mention her humor—the girl is hysterical!
Then this gal showed up on the hit TV show, The Big Bang Theory as a modest-dressing neurobiologist nerd. How she managed to convince the producers to let her character dress in a skirt that covers her knees is remarkable. And while she is far from a nerd, the other aspects of her character really mirror her life. In addition to being an incredibly talented actress, she really is a neurobiologist. It is so rare for a child actress to have a strong focus on academics as most feel they need not bother…they have already made it big. But not with Mayim. She always took her studies seriously, attending highly gifted programs in elementary and junior high school and then receiving her undergraduate degree in neuroscience, Jewish studies and Hebrew (why have one major if you can have three?). Oh yeah, and then she continued on to her PhD in neuroscience. And the skirt wearing part of her character? Her growth in her Judaism is something she works on daily and modesty is so important to her.
So before I ever had the chance to meet Mayim, I felt like I knew her, related to her and most definitely admired her. And it was only by Divine fate, that we actually met face to face. And in typical Mayim fashion, when we first met she greeted me with “OH! You are the Talia” as if I was the famous one of the two!
I have been fortunate that for the past year, Mayim and I have enjoyed each other’s company, traveling to Los Angeles or Denver to see the Maccabeats perform and joining her as she taped an episode of her television show with over 17 million viewers, The Big Bang Theory. In this time, she has inspired my Judaism, encouraged me to continue learning, and offered her shoulder to lean on. I consider her part of my mishpacha, my family, and am inspired by her daily. So here are a few of the ideas we recently discussed:
In addition to being an incredibly talented actress, she really is a neurobiologistTalia Hava Davis: Growing up in LA, what was your religious identity? How were your parents raised?
Mayim Hoya Bialik: My mom was raised by Eastern European immigrants who never spoke English in the home and worked in sweatshops and assembly line piecework as tailors. They were Orthodox but also very “old country” so for my mom, that kind of Judaism didn’t speak to her a lot. My dad was raised by a more assimilated mother (she came to the US as a child) and an American-born father. They moved out of the Bronx to Long Island and went to more of a “Reform” style synagogue. I was raised Reform but with some remnants of my mom’s Orthodoxy: 2 sets of dishes, lighting candles, Yiddish spoken, and emphasis on fun holidays like Passover and Chanukah.
THD: What was the moment when you decided that Judaism was something you wanted to explore deeper in terms of observance?
MHB: It has come in waves since I was a teenager: my Bat Mitzvah was hugely profound for me, as was taking on aspects of keeping kosher as a teenager, and walking into UCLA Hillel to try and find myself in Judaism was enormous. My Rabbi helped me find beauty and meaning again and again, and studying with a kallah teacher [a teacher for Jewish brides] (more as an anthropological study than life course path) showed me that the mikvah – something I thought I knew so much about and about how wrong and silly it was – can hold tremendous meaning and fulfillment, and Judaism may have more things like that waiting for me. I was right! Learning through Partners in Torah, and most recently, letting myself be challenged by an incredibly persistent and phenomenal chevrusa (learning partner) who has not let me rest on any laurels has been the most brave and boldest step in my observance.
"I keep adding and growing and being intellectually honest"THD: One of my favorite things that you have spoken about is your path in Judaism. That you may not be 100% where you want to be but it’s a journey. How does that come about in terms of taking holidays off, modesty, Shabbat observance?
MHB: The way I see it, everyone has a path and no one can rush anyone’s journey. Judaism is a religion of cumulative mitzvoth, commandments. Each mitzvah is independent of others and lighting candles is as important and meaningful on its own, regardless of what you do after. So I keep adding and growing and being intellectually honest. And I know first and foremost that my faith in G‑d will never waiver, just as my faith in the sun coming up each morning doesn’t waiver. G‑d can handle all of my complexity and struggle, and I know I will be okay.
THD: In terms of your parenting, how important is giving them a Jewish home?
MHB: I was really the one to lead the way and bring customs from my childhood to our family. I love Rebbetzin Jungreis and Slovie Wolff-Jungreis’ books on parenting, and they really have encouraged me to set up structure and rhythm Jewishly for our kids. I have a long way to go, but saying the bedtime Shema at night and Modeh Ani when they wake up was a great place for us to start!
THD: Do you feel like an emissary sometimes when it comes to being in Hollywood or on the set of your television show?
MHB: Ha. I don’t know what I have been “sent” for sometimes…! My friend and study partner Allison (Jew in the City) Josephs asked me when we first started learning why I think G‑d made me famous. I think she thinks she knows the answer but as for me, I am still finding out. I think my life is really amazing and complicated and I am grateful every day for the opportunity to open my eyes and stand up and be, hopefully, living B’Tzelem Elokim, in the image of G‑d. That’s about all I can do, one day at a time!