Actress, mother, neuroscientist Bialik to speak at Connections

Mayim Bialik

Mayim Bialik may be known as the brainy Amy Farrah Fowler on the popular TV sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” but she’s also an observant Jewish mother, writer and neuroscientist. Bialik will be the speaker at this year’s Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Women’s Philanthropy Connections brunch on Feb. 19, where she’ll discuss “female values in Judaism, passed on through the women in my family and their experiences.” The event will be held at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, starting at 10 a.m.

Bialik’s most important role, with her husband, Michael, is raising their young sons, who, she says, “are the center of my world. We don’t have much of a social life. We don’t sleep much. We try to keep life simple.” Still, Bialik has eked out the time to write her first book, “Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way,” which will be published in March by Simon & Schuster. She frequently contributes to the Jewish parenting website kveller.com.

Bialik starred as Blossom Russo in the 1990s hit TV series “Blossom,” portrayed the young Bette Midler on the big screen in “Beaches” and appeared in Woody Allen’s “Don’t Drink the Water.” Bialik’s TV audience may see her as a funny nerd on “The Big Bang Theory,” she told the AJP, “but in my personal life I’m very self-deprecating, which is sometimes funny.”

When “Blossom” ended, “I was 19. I took a 12-year break,” says Bialik. “That’s when I got more involved in Judaism.” As a student at UCLA, where she majored in neuroscience, Hebrew and Jewish studies, Bialik began moving toward greater Jewish ritual observance, including an increased emphasis on keeping kosher, the Sabbath and modest dress.

“I loved getting my undergraduate degree,” she says, and went on to graduate school at UCLA, where she earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2007. “I met my husband in graduate school. We both hoped to be research professors.”

Bialik, now 36, grew up in Los Angeles, where her family was active in the Reform Temple Israel. “My mother was raised Orthodox, with some leftovers,” she says, that may have contributed to Bialik’s greater observance. “I don’t identify as an Orthodox Jew. I worked on Sukkot but made halachic modifications to the day, which doesn’t change the fact that I was still going to work,” notes Bialik. “I don’t have negotiating power on yontifs.” And she acknowledges that another acting role may require more immodest dress. Also looking to the future, Bialik “would like to be considered as an actress in a Jewish film about faith.”

Meanwhile, the life of an actor is very “unpredictable,” she says, adding, “I’m contracted for the rest of this year until May” for “Big Bang Theory.”Bialik has started to work on her second book about attachment parenting, a philosophy that espouses extended nursing, natural birth and a lot of holding.

And Bialik has added yet another title to her busy life: social justice activist. On Dec. 19, she hosted a fundraiser for Rabbis for Human Rights of North America that honored clergy members who have stood out for their devotion to justice. Rabbi Israel Dresner, the “most arrested rabbi in America,” was among the honorees.

Bialik acknowledges that she was unfamiliar with RHR until she was contacted by Executive Director Rabbi Jill Jacobs about emceeing the event. Yet after a little online investigation, she discovered that she was already connected to RHR.

“I went to the website and saw that my rabbi from UCLA, Chaim Seidler-Feller, was there,” Bialik told JTA. That sealed the deal.

“We were looking for someone who is known for being deeply committed to Judaism and deeply committed to justice,” notes Jacobs.

Temple Israel, the synagogue Bialik attended as a youth, was “very tikkun olam (repairing the world) based.”

As an adult, Bialik has worked with the Jewish Free Loan Association, helping to found a branch of the organization aimed at encouraging young professionals in Los Angeles to become involved in philanthropy.

“It’s a cause close to my heart,” she says. Yet her involvement has shown her just how difficult it is to get that demographic to participate. “People think, ‘When I’m older I will donate,’” she observes.

“I’m a vegan,” Bialik told the AJP. “I believe that’s being socially active. It’s a Jewish value to not be overly materialistic. We’re a household that tries to consume as little as we can,” she says, noting that she and her husband don’t buy paper napkins or towels. “We’re trying to raise children who will reduce consumption.”

Another cause Bialik supports, the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, will have a registration table for potential donors at Connections. (see related story, page 15)

Since starting her own family, Bialik’s lifestyle has increasingly revolved around Judaism. “Being observant really allowed me to become more of who I want to be, not to say that’s the only way to be,” she says. Not holding grudges, not gossiping, and “the fact that I open my eyes every morning wanting to help others,” she says, are precepts at the core of her identity. “The beauty of Torah infuses every aspect of our lives.”

Tickets for the Connections brunch are $36 plus a $180 minimum pledge to the JFSA Annual Campaign ($18 for students). To RSVP by Feb. 7, contact Karen Graham at 577-9393, ext. 118, or kgraham@jfsa.org.

JTA correspondent Dvora Meyers contributed to this article.