In “My Opinionation”: Looking Back on Blossom

My interest in Blossom blossomed relatively late, since I discovered the television series well after it stopped airing on NBC. When Blossom premiered in 1990, its title character was thirteen and I was six—more interested in Garfield and Friends than Blossom and Co. Instead, Blossom was “that show” to which older friends and other babysitters made wide-eyed reference. It was that show to which they hitched the nebulous term “very special episode,” one which did little to pique my youthful interest. In short, Blossom and I were not in step.                                                                                                                                  

Nineteen years later, we fell into step. Rather, in spring 2009 I stepped into Half Price Books in search of decently half-priced entertainment and casually stopped my shoes in front of “Blossom: Seasons One and Two.” I contemplated the timing of the DVD as the words “very special episode” flashed across my mind. There was a month and a half left before returning to graduate school and I had a rough interest in a television series with which older, other persons once had some sort of association.

I purchased the DVD that Monday evening, befitting the Monday evenings on which the show ran. Back at my apartment, I dimmed the lights, popped on my pajamas and popped in Blossom.

Several episodes into the first season, I fell in love with the series. To be more precise, I fell in love with the idea of what the series was to a teenage girl in 1990 and with what it was to a twenty-something girl in 2009. Five years later, I remain nostalgically in love with Blossom and with the idea of Mayim Bialik’s Blossom Ruby Russo, who showcases adolescence at a remove; she sashays alongside Full House’s Stephanie Judith Tanner as the other girl I would have wanted to befriend during the similarly precocious 1990s. For this twenty-something, the decade now unfolds to the tune of Jesse and the Rippers and big families and to that of Salt-N-Pepa and big hats. Belatedly, I wish to be Blossom, in a retroactive sense, as one could be before the 2000s.

The show’s heroine arrives onscreen with teenage panache. She fearlessly wiggles, shuffles and shimmies into the first season’s grainy, goofy camera sequence, and prances and dances through subsequent sequences. Clad in a comfortingly large sweater in the second episode, Blossom careens her cart down the aisle after Tampax shrouded in glum grey wrapping. In ensuing episodes, Blossom’s best friend Six, and sometimes she, speaks very, very fast and shrieks, in short succession, in her room. In one episode, Blossom calls up Six to talk, and she’s talking about the big time here—she’s thinking of going to second base with Jimmy! In one episode a month later, Blossom frets over what everyone’s going to think when her friend Dennis claims they went all the way in the balcony at the multiplex! Yet in time Blossom is not shy about the fact that she wants her boyfriend Vinnie and that she wants Vinnie to want her. Mayim’s Blossom repeatedly stresses this ambition to Six in a voice wonderfully inflected with Jewish notes; in the course of episodes, the equally academically ambitious young woman repeatedly stresses over attending Stanford.             

I see the bookish and sweetly preoccupied Blossom and I see myself at that age. Blossom and its protagonist confront me with my own adolescence. At thirteen, I, too, was on the cusp of junior fashions and was getting through womanhood with the help of chocolate ice cream. In due course, I, too, would consider Stanford.                  

As a result, I catch myself with the perverse wish to be an adolescent again. But I wish to be one on a particular day and time, namely, Monday evenings from 1990-1995.                              

I wish to be the brainy girl who is caught fervently studying her Latin assignment with Vinnie on these Monday evenings, the balanced girl who catches a study break to tune in to a Blossom television episode and to Mayim’s Blossom herself.                                                   

I wish to be the wry, witty girl who susses out her Harvard interview and evolving ambitions by visiting with her dotty, but not doddering, grandfather.

I wish to be the fretful girl who valiantly tries to talk to her father about her woes over chocolate chip cookie dough—even if that talk ends with the straight-faced “Good night, good-bye, God bless.”

I wish to be the astute, able girl who lovingly utilizes multisyllabic vocabulary words and who quirks asides in the privacy of her own room, her punch lines unknowingly aided by a laugh track.

Alternatively, I watch the episodic evolution of this girl between emails, via internet connection.

As taken from the show’s title character, this girl is “Blossom Russo, she wrote.”

Jewlicious offers pluralistic fun aboard the Queen Mary

“The Reform service is going crazy, the Conservative service is going crazy. Orthodox [service] is huge,” Josh Kaplan, a Jewlicious board member, said as he walked past the concierge to the Jewlicious merchandise booth.

Surrounded by black-and-white photographs of Winston Churchill, Bob Hope, Loretta Young and other historical and cultural figures, attendees of the eighth annual youth-oriented festival Jewlicious arrived onboard the Queen Mary on Feb. 24.

A carefree attitude defined the weekend festival. For the first time, it was a held on the retired ocean liner docked in Long Beach. In previous years, the festival, attended by college students and young adults, had been held at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach.

A blend of music, arts, lectures and Shabbat celebrations attracted approximately 700 people this year, with 350 people staying overnight.

On Friday night, “Blossom” and “Big Bang Theory” actress Mayim Bialik discussed her Jewish journey during “Inside the Rabbi’s Studio,” with festival director Rabbi Yonah Bookstein. Raised secular, Bialik’s transition to Modern Orthodoxy began with her involvement at UCLA Hillel. “What I understood about [Judaism] became more intriguing than what was going on in the secular world,” Bialik said of her time as a UCLA undergraduate.

Short TED-style talks dominated on Friday, featuring Jewlicious blog creator David Abitbol (speaking on “Young American Jews and Israel”); Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Esther Kustanowitz (“Comedy, Connections and Today’s Jewish Community”); Tea Party member Michael Prell (“My Jew-ish Journey”); young adult and former Israel Defense Forces soldier Jay Schreiber (“Stories of a ‘Lone Solider’ ”) and Torah scribe Julie Seltzer (“Birthing the Torah”). Tahlia Miller, Matisyahu’s wife, examined “how personality affects relationships,” and Rav Shmuel Skaist led “Torah and Chulent,” the sole all-night event.

“The overall goal of Jewlicious is to create the best experiential weekend for young Jews in the country,” Bookstein said in an interview. “That’s always been our goal, and that’s what we constantly strive to achieve. As the years have progressed, we’ve had a lot of involvement with our participants, with feedback and their involvement in planning it.”

Hurrying around an 11 p.m. ice cream party in the ship’s Britannia Salon, a 7,500-square-foot room that once served as the Queen Mary’s second-class lounge, Bookstein described this year’s festival as “next level.” For the first time, festival-goers slept on site, bunking in the cruise ship’s cabins, as opposed to previous years, when they slept at hotels adjacent to the Jewish community center.

The venue also allowed for more freedom. In previous years, attendees were confined to the JCC. This year, they could walk anywhere on the boat. After a massive Shabbat dinner that had four long tables seating 50 to 80 people each, a bunch of students from California State University, Long Beach, ventured off to the Observation Bar, an art deco lounge with live music and cocktails.

After the TED-style talks, 20-year-old Becky Rudin, a member of Claremont Students for Israel at Claremont College, along with six female friends from Claremont who were at Jewlicious for the weekend, walked the ship’s deck, enjoying the evening’s cool air.

“I just wanted to get more involved in the community … and have an enlightening Jewish experience,” Rudin said.

Friday was filled with lectures, Shabbat and attendees getting to know each other — and their way around the ship — but the rest of the weekend featured live music and comedy. On Saturday night, ska and reggae band The Aggrolites and stand-up comedians Todd Barry and Moshe Kasher performed. The Los Angeles band Fool’s Gold filled in for Moshav, which had to cancel for personal reasons.

On Sunday, an acoustic concert with The Wellspring took place on the Captain’s Deck overlooking the Long Beach harbor and skyline. Later, a panel discussion examined “Jews and Cannabis,” workshops explored the Jewish art of paper cutting, and mimosas complemented an outdoor brunch.

“It was just so scenic and gorgeous,” Bookstein said of the weekend’s weather, but he could as well have been describing the event.

“The new venue really brought a whole new atmosphere to the festival; everybody was just raving about having it on the Queen Mary,” he said. “I think that with the success with 8.0 on the Queen Mary, we’re already looking forward to doing the ninth one there.”

The many hats of Mayim Bialik

Mayim Bialik’s career has gone through several phases since she burst onto the pop culture radar as the lead of the 1990s NBC-TV series “Blossom.”

After the show wrapped, she earned her doctorate in neuroscience at UCLA while marrying and becoming the mother to two sons. Now she has returned to the small screen as a regular on the CBS series “The Big Bang Theory.”

If the task of transitioning from child star to working adult actor wasn’t time consuming enough, she also blogs regularly at the Jewish parenting site Kveller.

And she’s added yet another title: social justice activist. On Dec. 19, Bialik will host a fundraiser for Rabbis for Human Rights of North America that will honor clergy members who have stood out for their devotion to justice. Rabbi Israel Dresner, the “most arrested rabbi in America,” is 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,” Jacobs said.

Bialik credits her Jewish upbringing with her lifelong devotion to performing good works.

“I was raised in a very vibrant Reform community in Los Angeles,” she said. Temple Israel, the synagogue she attended as a youth, was “very tikkun olam 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 said. 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 observed.

In addition to her work in social justice, Bialik also has become something of a spokeswoman for a more observant lifestyle. As a student at UCLA, she began moving toward greater Jewish ritual observance, including an increased emphasis on kosher (not too hard for the mostly vegan actress), Sabbath and modest dress. She explores these topics and others with candor on her Kveller blog.

For religious reasons, Bialik primarily wears skirts, which hasn’t been hard to manage in her current role since her character wears loose-fitting skirts and layers.

“I could’ve been cast as many things in this incarnation of my career. I happen to play a character that producers like to dress modestly,” she said of the bookish Amy Farrah Fowler, who is the love interest of Emmy winner Jim Parsons’ Sheldon Cooper. “Thus far I have not been in a miniskirt.”

Yet despite hewing ever more closely to religious law in her personal life, Bialik refuses to identify fully with Orthodoxy. She has written forthrightly about having to work on Jewish holidays. And a future role might demand a more immodest wardrobe.

Yet when she can, Bialik goes to great lengths—quite literally—to observe. She agonized over her choice of Emmy dress—on her Kveller blog, she described her mission as “Operation Hot and Holy”—before settling on one that met most of her modesty requirements: covered arms and knees, with a hint of collarbone and cleavage.

She felt validated when she later saw Paris Hilton in the same dress in People magazine, with the suggestion that “you don’t have to show tons of skin to be sexy.”

Perhaps the editors at the celebrity magazine have been reading Bialik’s Kveller articles. Or maybe, in addition to being a mom, actor, scientist and activist, she has discovered one more hat to wear: fashion trendsetter.