Child star blossoms as observant Jew
Mayim Bialik says ritual bath is ‘divine rebirth’
She is 35 and has a PhD in neuroscience, but Mayim Bialik is still best known as “Blossom,” the lead character in the eponymous NBC comedy-drama that ran from 1990 to 1994.
After walking away from acting when the show ended, Bialik is making a comeback in more ways than one: She has recurring roles on The Secret Life of the American Teenager and The Big Bang Theory — and she has embraced an observant Jewish lifestyle.
Bialik was guest speaker at Blossoming in Hollywood: Jewish Actress Unplugged, the fifth annual event celebrating Mikvah Chana in Livingston. Held April 20 at the Westminster Hotel in Livingston, the program, which included a reception and Chinese auction, drew close to 500 women from a cross-section of the MetroWest Jewish community.
Dara Orbach, the great-granddaughter of Annette (Chana) Felsen, after whom the ritual bath is named, welcomed the audience and presented a short film about the spa-like facility. Toba Grossbaum, who with Ohrbach cochaired the fund-raiser and educational awareness program, introduced Bialik.
“My husband is upstairs with my hopefully sleeping children,” she said to understanding laughter.
Emphasizing that she doesn’t have answers for anyone but herself, Bialik described herself as “that kid who liked school plays.” She started going on auditions when she was 11. She played Bette Middler’s character as a girl in Beaches, the 1988 mega-hit tearjerker, which was released, she said, “the week of her bat mitzva.”
Following a run in Malloy, a short-lived TV series whose cast included another then unknown — Jennifer Aniston — Bialik was tapped to play Blossom Russo, a teenage girl with a unique style living with her father and two brothers. “We had some incredible times…some incredible guest stars, including Tobey McGuire and David Schwimmer,” she said.
“You can imagine what the industry was like…all the excess,” continued Bialik. “I was a pretty sheltered kid. I was aware of the excess but it wasn’t my thing.”
Bialik’s Jewish journey has taken many twists and turns. All four of her grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe. Her mother was raised in a non-English-speaking Orthodox home in the Bronx. Her father had a middle-class, assimilated American-Jewish upbringing on Long Island. They met, married, and became documentary filmmakers and teachers.
When Bialik was growing up in California, her family belonged to a Reform synagogue; they had two sets of dishes, but she never knew why. “I thought one was for breakfast and one was for dinner,” she said. Raised speaking Yiddish, she went to Hebrew school twice a week and to a Jewish camp in the summer. Even so, she said, she recalls no real concept of Jewish learning or study. She does remember, however, having a strong Jewish identity and being proud of her religious heritage.
Having fallen in love with science in high school, she studied neuroscience as an undergraduate at UCLA, but couldn’t escape her Blossom persona. “I was acutely aware I was still me but I was trying to find a new identity” outside of “Blossom.” Her positive experience at Jewish camp led her to the university’s Hillel, where she studied with its rabbi, whom she described as “intoxicated” with Jewish learning. It was at that point she added Hebrew and Jewish studies as a minor.
Bialik met her future (non-Jewish) husband in a calculus class; they dated for five years and he converted before they married.
As part of their joint studies, Bialik said, she learned about the custom of studying with a “bride teacher.” Hers “specialized in teaching women who knew nothing about these things, and since I knew nothing, she was perfect for me.”
Skeptical at the outset, Bialik herself became “intoxicated” by what she was learning. “I’m a feminist. The concept of niddah [family purity laws] was antithetical to everything I thought I stood for. But it felt really right for me,” she said.
At first, Bialik said, her husband thought “a lot of this stuff was kind of cuckoo” but he has come to appreciate it as much as she has. She describes the mikva experience as a rebirth. “There’s something unexplainable; you can call it divine….”
When it came time to have a family, Bialik said she knew she wanted to be at home for at least the first year of her children’s lives — her sons are now four-and-a-half and 20 months — a goal that thwarted her initial plan to become a research professor. She returned to acting, which offered her the flexibility she needed — along with the joy of performing.
She also began regular study on issues that “bugged” her — like the laws of modesty. What happened? She no longer wears pants.
Bialik admitted that her evolving observant lifestyle has made her life as a professional actress more difficult. Her dream is to one day get her own show where she will be able to call the shots — like no shooting in the fall. “Too many holidays,” she cheerfully said.
“We all have the picture of the kind of woman we want to be,” she said. “For me Judaism and Torah living directs me to the kind of woman I want to be. Everything I need I can find in my religion.”
Bialik concluded by saying, “We don’t have an all-or-nothing religion. Every mitzva is independent. We’re all on a path. I don’t know your path. I only know what my path is. I feel it’s OK to put a toe in the water. It worked for me. I commend all of you for being here and having an open mind.”