February 18, 2020

‘Big Bang Theory’ Actress Lives at Intersection of Science, Religion [UPDATE]

On a recent afternoon, Mayim Bialik, having finished rehearsing a scene for “The Big Bang Theory” — the CBS comedy about a clique of uber-geeks that premieres its fifth season this week — had retired to her dressing room for a bit of Talmud study and to begin planning her kosher vegan menu for the High Holy Days.  The 35-year-old actress, who plays the brainiac Amy Farrah Fowler on the show, will chant the haftarah on Yom Kippur morning at UCLA and blow the shofar for the campus services, which are conducted by Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller and are open to the community.

Bialik, who grew up Reform but now considers herself “Conservadox,” became known for her role as the eponymous “Blossom” on TV in the 1990s. After taking more than a decade off to earn her doctorate in neuroscience at UCLA, she has re-emerged as the newest member of the “Big Bang” posse, while also serving as “celebrity spokesmama” for the Holistic Moms Network, as an advocate for attachment parenting and writing her debut tome, “Beyond the Sling” (Simon & Schuster), which will hit stores in March.  In her Warner Bros. dressing room, copies of the Mishnah and the Gemara shared coffee table space with her “Big Bang” script.

“Judaism is a huge part of my life — it is absolutely inseparable from who I am,” Bialik said, as the conversation turned back to the Jewish New Year. “There is a spiritual dimension to this month, and one of the beautiful aspects of Judaism is that there is a rhythm to our year that holds a mystical significance. Rosh Hashanah was the day that the world was created; it’s a time that feels ripe and pregnant with possibilities. 

“So I feel this tremendous sense of anticipation, but also a healthy anxiety,” she said of her synagogue duties. “I feel a very positive sense of obligation, and that I take on joyfully, but I’m very hard on myself.”

Until her parenting responsibilities precluded all-day shul duty — her sons, Miles and Fred, are 5 and 3, respectively — Bialik served as cantor throughout the High Holy Days. This year, the actress, who also plays trumpet, will practice daily to get her mouth muscles in shape for the shofar blasts required for Seidler-Feller’s services.  She says she already knows her haftarah well because she has chanted it at Seidler-Feller’s invitation for more than a decade.

Although Modern Orthodoxy is the denomination to which Bialik aspires, she chooses not to use that term to describe herself because she says her practice is not strictly Orthodox. After all, the practice of chanting in synagogue is forbidden to women according to Jewish law.

Yet doing so links her to her grandfather, a lay cantor in Poland who later served as chazzan to a congregation of Holocaust survivors in San Diego. “I’m part of thousands of years of people chanting this section of haftarah,” she said of the words she’ll chant on Yom Kippur. “I feel very connected to a community when I get to chant on their behalf. I praise God privately whenever I pray, but it’s very powerful to do it in a public way.”

Bialik as Amy on “The Big Bang Theory.” Photo by Richard Cartwright/CBS

Bialik was down-to-earth and good-natured as she showed a visitor her Tiffany Star of David — a gift she received from her parents when she was 19, just after “Blossom” wrapped, and which she wears daily.  She explained that she will need to take it off to tape her “Big Bang” scenes, although this season, the set decorators have added an empty maroon velvet tefillin bag to the décor in Amy’s room.  “For all I know, she may be Jewish; I’m still holding out hope,” Bialik said. (The show’s co-creator Bill Prady said in an interview that Amy is not Jewish, so the reason for the tefillin bag remains mysterious.)

Bialik has not publicly worn pants since 2007, when her continuing studies led her to increased Jewish observance, including aspects of tzniut, or modesty. “I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to wear skirts as Amy,” she said. “They dress her frumpily and in layers because they want her very asexual, so my curves are protected. I work in an industry where everything is very external — and in a good way, it has to be; we’re entertaining people with what is presented. But something really resonated about having a lot of positive control over how I present myself.

“It’s an interesting bind as a woman in Hollywood, where being classically attractive is still very valued,” added Bialik, who blogged on Kveller.com about her search for a dress to wear to last weekend’s Emmy Awards, which she dubbed “Operation Hot and Holy.”

“For those of us who are labeled character actors, because we don’t fit that mold, it can be a challenge. I come from the Barbra Streisand-Bette Midler concept of Jewish actresses, who are very recognizable by their look. Even the Jewish community is constantly torn by how to handle the concept of how we find women desirable,” Bialik said.

Bialik got an in-depth education on how actresses should look when she returned to show business, rather than pursuing a career in academia, after her younger son was born in 2008. The actress and her husband, Michael Stone — who parent without nannies or housekeepers — had determined that a television job would allow Bialik more flexibility for their 24/7 attachment-parenting style.

To jump-start her TV career, Bialik signed up to appear on the TLC makeover show “What Not to Wear,” whose producers “chose me to ‘fix,’ ” she said, with a laugh. They encouraged her to be “sexy” and to not hide under her clothing, but “I feel much more comfortable with what I call ‘subdued sexy,’ ” Bialik said. “The idea that you have to be sexy at all is kind of amusing, but part of my job description is to do publicity events where I look competitive. If you want to get more work, you need to be valued the way other actresses are valued. Even when you get auditions for roles that call for the homely girl, you still have to show your assets in a positive way. But I can only do that within the limits of what I find personally appropriate.”

When Bialik auditioned for “The Big Bang Theory” two years ago, it was perhaps another asset that helped her land the part of the asexual girlfriend to the obsessive-compulsive physicist Sheldon, played by Jim Parsons, who just won his second Emmy Award for the role. After Bialik had delivered the three lines her character was to utter in the third-season finale, she recalled that co-creator Prady scanned her resume and asked if she really did have a doctorate in neuroscience.

It also helped that Bialik had watched YouTube clips featuring Sheldon: “I had been told that they were looking for a female Jim Parsons, so I just did my best mimicry of what looked like a pretty socially challenged guy,” she said.

“Mayim is a very bold and fearless performer,” said Prady, whose writers made Amy a neuroscientist, like Bialik. “She never does anything with just one toe in the water.  Whatever you ask her, she dives in.”

Bialik’s Amy, as a female nerd, is far more interested in social bonding than Sheldon, and her blunt questions about sexuality have been sidesplitting. “I’ve said the word for every piece of genitalia: uterus, breasts, areolas, buttocks,” Bialik said, demonstrating Amy’s flat affect. 

Does this conflict with Bialik’s ideas about modesty? “I had a quite religious rabbi point out that I’m just acting,” she said. “And some friends of mine actually thought Amy was shomer negiah [observing the practice of not touching the opposite sex], because Jim and I almost never touch.

Bialik does share one trait with her character: “I’m a meticulous person,” she said. “I like science, and I like halachic Judaism. As a performer and as an actor, I tend to be a perfectionist,” she added.

That trait will apply to chanting the haftarah and blowing the shofar in shul: “It’s what makes me dedicated and consistent.”