September 21, 2012
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‘Big Bang Theory’ star Mayim Bialik talks about her bat mitzvah

The blossoming of Mayim Bialik

The Brooklyn Paper

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Mayim Bialik’s on the set of the Big Bang Theory.
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Mayim Bialik as Amy Farrah Fowler.
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Mayim Bialik.

Don’t think of her as Amy on “The Big Bang Theory,” a younger Bette Midler in “Beaches,” or simply just Blossom. There are many different flowers that make up the unique bouquet that is Mayim Bialik, like prideful carnations to establish her Jewish faith, baby’s breath for her devotion to motherhood, and certainly chrysanthemums. Why chrysanthemums? Because they’re possibly the most scientific sounding flowers in the garden, and when brainiac Bialik ditched acting shortly after “Blossom” to attend college at UCLA, she picked up a PhD in neuroscience along the way. We know! Whoah! Not to mention she’s also a vegan; spokesperson for Holistic Moms Network, who makes her own green cleaning products; blogger for the Jewish parenting site Kveller.com; and most recently, the author of “Beyond the Sling,” a book about an alternative rearing method called attachment parenting. We caught up with the very busy bee known as Bialik, and chatted about her child-star past, how her education affects her lifestyle choices, and the experience of being the first woman in her family to have a bat mitzvah.

Elyse Wanshel: When did you first catch the acting bug?

Mayim Bialik: In elementary school. I really liked school plays, auditioned a lot, and learned pretty quickly that I liked it. The first play I was in was “Cats” in fifth grade. I actually lost the role I wanted and had to play an accessory cat.

EW: In the ’90s you were known for your quirky sense of style. Was this your own sensibility or was it the vision of a stylist?

MB: Everything was [costume designer] Sherry Thompson’s idea, not mine. I was just a model. She was experimenting with a lot of funky stuff in the early ’90s, clothing-wise, including the “Blossom” hats.

EW: The “Blossom” hats [brightly colored hats typically embellished with large flowers] were a pretty popular trend that you became synonymous with — did it feel weird sparking a trend that wasn’t your idea?

MB: Yeah, because, oddly enough, the Six character [played by Jenna Von Oy] wore hats more often than Blossom did on the actual show. But I think because I wore them a lot in the publicity photographs for the show it became known as more of my thing.

EW: How did it feel going from someone who’s known as a fashionista, to someone who’s a fashion victim, by appearing as yourself, and not Blossom, on an episode of “What Not to Wear?”

MB: [Laughs] Ultimately, what I learned from that experience is that I should not trust myself to get dressed. And that I need to hire a stylist if I’m doing red-carpet events or appearances.

EW: In 2007 you earned a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. But, back in 2000, when you originally left acting for school, you earned a Bachelor of Science in neuroscience and Hebrew and Jewish studies. What inspired you to explore your religion on a deeper level?

MB: Socially, I didn’t have a lot of friends when I went to college because I was two years out of high school and most of my friends were on the east coast at Ivy Leagues. So, I started hanging out and volunteering at our Hillel chapter, the international college organization for Judaism of all types, and just found a lot of comradery there. It was there I found a really interesting rabbi who I started studying with. I learned Hebrew, studied Yiddish, and Jewish history. My interest in observance really fleshed with where I was in my life at that time, and helped me to realize that I really enjoyed intellectual and philosophical Judaism a lot.

EW: Were you as passionate about your Jewish faith before college?

MB: My grandparents were religious, Yiddish speakers from Eastern Europe, so my mom was raised pretty Orthodox. I was raised in a traditional but reformed home, so I had never really been exposed to formal Jewish learning until later in life. It was in college that taking on a halakhah lifestyle [a lifestyle according to the Jewish law] really resonated with me and is something I started doing because of my studies in college. [Laughs] It was also something I took on outside the entertainment industry, so now that I’m back in it, it can be tricky, but I’m trying to make it all work together.

EW: Speaking of a halakhah lifestyle and Jewish observances, describe your bat mitzvah.

MB: I was bat mitzvahed at 13, my Torah portion was Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers, and it happened the same week as “The Beaches” premiere, so it was kind of a big week for me. My grandfather, being Orthodox, almost didn’t come because girls chanting from the Torah was not something he was comfortable with, but thankfully, he did. A lot of my Jewish friends were having big, fancy parties in Hollywood for their bar and bat mitzvahs, but because of my grandparents, we had a modest party right after, just in the synagogue.

EW: Did you want a big, fancy party?

MB: Well, it wasn’t like it wasn’t a great party. My name, Mayim, in Hebrew means water, so water was the theme and it was kind of fun because we served submarine sandwiches to go along with the theme. But, I do remember one of the kids that I knew, who had one of those big, fancy parties, had this guy who would sculpt candy into the shape of teeny, tiny hummingbirds and other little animals on a stick. I wished we had that at my party because I thought it was really cool.

EW: So opulence was scaled down out of respect for your Orthodox grandparents?

MB: Yes and no. The party wasn’t the point for me, but I do remember other interesting things happening because my grandparents were Orthodox. Like, they also refused to pose for pictures on Shabbat, so we had to get dressed up two days before, pose for pictures, and pretend it was actually my bat mitzvah.

EW: Being that you’re religious and a woman, how does your grandfather’s initial resistance towards attending your bat mitzvah make you feel?

MB: As a kid I didn’t know enough about Jewish law to even understand why my grandfather would’ve had an objection. Now that I’m older, I understand the technicality. For me, it wasn’t that he just didn’t like girls or he didn’t think that girls are worthy of a bat mitzvah, it was just something that wasn’t done. My mother didn’t have a bat mitzvah; Orthodox girls in Eastern European communities with Yiddish speaking backgrounds were not having bat mitzvahs in the Bronx back then. But, I think the notion of a bat mizvah does exist even in Orthodox communities. I think the way we’re forming Conservative Judaism, as in embracing bat mitzvahs, has been in ways that many people find objectionable, aliyahically. So, I don’t know if I can make a judgment on that, or even should. But there are Conservadox communities that are teaching girls to chant from the Torah in ways that are aliyahically permissible, and I think that’s really amazing. That’s something I would choose if I had a daughter.

EW: Could you offer any advice to kids preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs today?

MB: Sure. I guess, for me, the point is the ceremony itself. The bat mitzvah is about entering the community of Jewish adulthood, and with that comes a very big and kind of interesting responsibility. So, although parties are nice and fun, focus more on a party when it’s a birthday, not a religious ceremony. For me, my bat mitzvah was a really meaningful day. But, I was always a serious kid who was very interested in chanting. [Laughs] The Cantor even remarked that I was the only kid who knew all of her parts in the service as well as my own.

EW: After a long hiatus, what brought you back to acting?

MB: My husband and I had our first son in graduate school and we realized very quickly that we wanted a lifestyle that would allow me to be the primary care giver for the first couple of years and a research professorship in neuroscience was not going to allow me to do that. We both finished our degrees, but I became pregnant with my second son the weekend I filed my thesis, so I had to figure something out. I thought I’d audition here and there, try to make something work, but just a year later I now have a regular job on “The Big Bang Theory,” so it kind of caught all of us by surprise.

EW: Based on your educational background, do you think your character on “The Big Bang Theory” accurately portrays a scientific woman?

MB: I think she’s definitely a caricature of a scientific woman. She’s pretty much Sheldon [Jim Parsons] with a desire for social belongingness. In a way, I think she’s the comedy relief for a lot of these themes and situations, but, at the same time, I’m also proud of Amy’s sincerity in her emotions. She does feel deeply and she does communicate in her own way. She has some really strong feelings for her desire to both be social and still maintain her integrity as a scientist. I think that’s pretty admirable.

EW: As a teen, you once shared a kiss on an episode of “Blossom” with one of your current co-stars on “Big Bang,” Johnny Galecki [who plays Leonard Hofstadter, PhD], how does it feel working with him today?

MB: It’s really cool. Johnny was always a super hip guy. I was always intimidated by him, even back then, especially since he rode a motorcycle. He’s also a really skilled actor and it makes me really proud that someone I viewed as a sibling when I was younger has had such tremendous success and now critical acclaim. Plus, to this day, he’s probably one of the best dressed men I have ever met.

EW: He’d never end up on an episode of “What Not to Wear,” huh?

MB: No way! He’s always wearing cool, Italian shoes with different colored socks, awesome jeans, little vests, collared shirts with a scarf. He’s got a great sense of style, very put together, but also really casual. Like he can’t even be bothered with fashion, he’s too cool.

EW: You just wrote a book called “Beyond the Sling” about a parenting method called attachment parenting. Can you describe this term in your own words?

MB: It’s an umbrella term for the way primates and most mammals parent. It includes things like natural birth, breast-feeding, wearing you baby in slings, gentle discipline, and sleeping with your children. It’s not all or nothing, but these are just some of the main things attachment-parenting people do.

EW: Does choosing to raise you children in this fashion have anything to do with your background in neuroscience?

MB: It’s actually part of the reason why I wrote this book. My perspective in the book is as a real mom whose instincts were directing her to parent this way. For instance, because of my graduate studies, I feel it makes sense to wear your baby in slings. It promotes bonding and closeness, and because I have a PhD in neuroscience, I can speak to the hormones your body releases when you are close to a child.

EW: Do you think attachment parenting will aid you in teaching your children about Judaism?

MB: Attachment parenting encourages a complicated and dynamic interaction between children and parents, which I hope will only facilitate them absorbing Jewish information as well, but obviously, it’s not the only way to go about it.

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