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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mayim Bialik: From Blossom to Brachot

mayim bialik of blossomA few months back, my friend Lisa Klug introduced me to the illimitable joy that is Mayim Bialik. Descendant of the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, neuroscientist, and former child star, she's going through a whole revolution now. With the birth of her second child and the emergence of her interest in Orthodox Judaism, she's wild and thoughtful and funny. (She's also doing a G-dcast for us, so stay tuned in the coming weeks for that.)

And, oh yeah, she starred in Blossom.

I was a child of the '80s in name only. I never watched Blossom when it first came out. I was aware of it only as - and, the few times that I did, it both intrigued me and turned me off: some too-cool kid who was two or three years older than me (at the time, a vast gap) who wore wild vintage-store outfits, used unnecessarily long vocabulary, and had a penchant for confessional D.I.Y. films about 2 decades before YouTube was even conceived of....It made me feel more than a little protective. This was my subculture they were stealing. She couldn't possibly be doing it right.

Little did I know, for its time - and even for ours - Blossom was completely transcendent. In the pilot episode, The Cosby Show's Phylicia Rashad, wearing a retro-'50s polka-dot dress, drew a map of the human ovaries on a sheet cake with a tube of icing in order to explain to 14-year-old Blossom Russo how her period worked. Subsequent episodes made pretty profound statements on puberty, body image, premarital sex and divorce and parental responsibility. The endings were always sugar-coated, but the TV show itself (which has just been released on DVD) was meaty and unafraid in ways that make current sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother and The Office feel positively sanitized.

As much of a travesty as grouping Blossom together with tepid '80s sitcoms such as Full House might be, mentioning the Mayim Bialik's name together with the name of the television show might be an even more audacious generalization.

In the decades since she stopped playing Blossom Russo, Bialik has not sat still. She's earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and has undertaken cutting-edge studies at UCLA as one of the top researchers of Prader-Willi Syndrome in the field. (Read more about the disorder here, or sift through Bialik's blog to find out about her work.) She's also testing the waters of going back into acting, with recent appearances on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Bones. And she's also in the middle of another big revival: she's experimenting with being an observant Jew.

What first motivated you to start researching the causes of Prader-Willi Syndrome? Are you still?

I always had an interest in working with kids with special needs, and in the neuroscience department at UCLA, you generally meet a lot of professors and then drop into a project that suits you. There's been a lot of genetic research on Prader-Willi, and there's been a lot of behavioral research, but there isn't a lot of research combining the two..and that's what I thought I could bring to it.

I got my doctorate last year, so my research was my thesis. Since then, I've done some writing for organizations that raise money for Prader-Willi research. In the meantime, I've started acting again, and we just had our second child, so I've had my hands pretty full, taking care of him and doing auditions.

Have you been auditioning a lot?

Yes, actually! Far more than I thought I would be. I'm auditioning for all sorts of things. I'm actually filming an episode of Bones tomorrow. I've auditioned for comedy, drama, movies -- anything they send my way.

Is it mostly one way or the other -- dramatic roles, films, or ironic stuff? Are you being selective about which roles you take?

Not really. I don't think I can afford to be selective. I'm just seeing what's out there, and whatever I do get, like Bones, is great practice to get into the swing of things again.

Have you tried connecting your Prader-Willi research to non-Prader-Willi patients -- that is, once you've discovered the impulse that makes people with Prader-Willi insatiably hungry, can you theoretically control that impulse in people who don't have PWS?

It actually depends on the mechanism itself. There's a lot of reasons that people with Prader-Willi can't control their hunger. Regulating the hypothalamus is difficult, because it connects to the brain and there's a lot of sources in the brain that control every function. There's a theory that the hunger you can explore, there are several different sources for, and we'll never be sure exactly what causes it. You can try and narrow down a little more...but also, the reasons are different. So it's difficult to pinpoint it down to one thing, for sure.

I remember reading a few years ago - you know, the way rumors spread between Jews - that you were active at UCLA Hillel, and that you'd started getting more observant. Um, are you?

My mother was raised Orthodox, and my grandparents are immigrants from Eastern Europe. I was raised in a Reform household, but with a lot of remnants of Orthodoxy. We lit candles. We had two sets of dishes, but my mom never told me why. I thought it was breakfast dishes and dinner dishes. There was no emphasis on halacha and learning. Totally not to disparage my parents; it just wasn't their thing.

When I went to college, I didn't have a lot of friends. Blossom had ended two years before. I'd always gone away to Jewish camps for the summer, and so I kind of ended up at Hillel and I started learning with the rabbi, and it kind of took off from there.

I'm hesitant to label myself or call myself Orthodox because people will be like, "Celebrity Mayim Bialik says she does X, but I saw her doing Y" - I guess, to be safe, I would say I'm Conservative, but in reality, I'd say Conservadox. But my husband and I have definitely increased our observance over the years, and we're always trying to grow.

We kinda do the Big Three [Shabbos, keeping kosher, and family purity], but it's hard. I mean, it's hard for everyone to classify themselves, but it's a whole new level of hard when people are watching you. Like, I pretty much eat a vegan diet, but I eat eggs if they're in things. What I say is, I eat a mostly vegan diet, and that's kind of how it is with Judaism. We keep Shabbos, we keep kosher, and I don't know if people want to hear about the Mikveh, but, um, yeah.

And now that you're acting again, that whole "celebrity Mayim Bialik" factor is coming back into play. Is it weird to get back into the arena after you've been away so long? What sort of gigs are you looking for? What sort of gigs are you getting?

When I was younger, things came in and I got offered things a lot. Now it's my manager saying it's the girl who played Blossom, which has its own attractiveness, and its own stigma.

And then I have projects that I want to do. I just optioned the Rashi's Daughters books. I love that I can do something like that in the first place, and I'd love to get it made into a film. But I don't have the kind of star power to say, I'm ready to talk to Steven Spielberg next weekend....

Do you ever watch old episodes of Blossom? Would you ever show them to your kids, or is it kind of something you want to keep in the past?

No! I stopped watching in the middle of the first season, and I would kind of watch the last half and part of the second season. But I literally have never watched the last three seasons. So, needless to say, my kids haven't, either.

What was your life like during Blossom? Did you have much contact with the outside world?

Yeah. It was actually pretty normal - we would work for three weeks, then I would go to school on my week off. I had tutors on the rest of the set. We got there two hours early than everyone else - me, Joey, and Michael each had our own tutors, and our lessons started at 7:00 and lasted until everyone showed up at 9. I was on the show from when I was 14 years old until when I was 19. At a certain point, I was very recognizable-I'm a pretty normal person, I was always a pretty normal person. I wasn't motivated by fame or money. I just wanted to act.

Were you doing anything Jewish at the time?

Not so much. We filmed on Friday nights. The local Bureau of Jewish Education used to have programs for beyond-bar-mitzvah-age kids, which was helpful. I went on retreats like Shabbatons, and that actually really cemented my Jewish identity. When my parents weren't doing Jewish stuff anymore, I still had a place to pray and live Jewishly. But it wasn't until UCLA that I really fully realized my Jewish identity.

And that was where you started doing chazzanut and leading services, right?

I haven't done that for about 2 years. It's in conflict with some of what I've been learning, but it's also in line with a lot of what I do as a performer. It's a great honor to daven, and to daven on behalf of a community. My grandfather was a chazzan in San Diego and the Bronx, and I inherited his voice. It takes a lot of learning, and it takes a lot of kavanah [concentration], but it's complicated, as anyone in this line knows.

And there's a reason that, in traditional Jewish circles, women don't lead services. I've been pregnant twice in the past three years. Going to shul has been incredibly different after having one child, and then having, thank God, two children, it's been even more different, and Judaism kind of knows that.

How has your Jewish life changed with the birth of your sons? Are you taking them along?

At this point, my oldest son's not yet in preschool. Religiously, my husband and I are both still growing. We're not quite ready for day school yet - we don't feel like it's quite our niche - but a Conservative day school wouldn't meet our needs at this point. Kosher home, but you get into all sorts of conflicts about other things....You have to find the right place; it's very important to find the right place. At this point, he knows all the holidays, and we've started studying Torah, and he knows all the brachos, and he doesn't know the English alphabet but he knows the Hebrew alphabet.

I grew up speaking Yiddish, and I'm trying to do the same thing with my son. He has a large vocabulary - well, for a 3-year-old, at any rate.

Are you still working?

No, it's just me. All day. With both of them. That's how it is most of the time -- I'm filming tomorrow.

Is it true that you're related to Chaim Nachman Bialik?

Yes, I am. I'm from his brother's line; he was my great-great-grandfather's uncle. My grandfather met him when he came to America. My grandfather was young, and Chaim Nachman Bialik passed away young as well, so they didn't have a chance to know each other well. We do get in free to the Bialik Museum in Tel Aviv. We have some nice collections of books, and we carry that heritage.

But all the Bialiks have been extraordinary people. I'm very proud -- especially in Israel -- to carry his name.

What do you have planned next, after Bones? How far are you into Rashi's Daughters; do you have a screenwriter or anything lined up?

I optioned it. So I'm looking to have it written as a movie or a miniseries. I'm kind of a classic actress-performer: I like to be given a script, and then I try to make you laugh or cry. This is the first project that I found that I'm really inspired by, inspired to get involved in the production of. There's a good story there, a meaningful story. But what I'm interested in emphasizing is the beauty of Orthodoxy, and the dimension and depth of women's relationship with study. It's a wonderful story that shows a lot of facets of Judaism that I think want to be appreciated.

Other than that, I'm just auditioning and taking care of my kids.

Which can pretty much fill up your time, just that.

And I learn once a week. My mentor lives in New York -- we were paired up totally accidentally, and it's been amazing. Her name is Allison Josephs, and she runs a YouTube series about Jewish topics. She was a Blossom fan, and wanted to study with me, and I called an organization and they paired her with me. She couldn't believe it, that she found me after all that time. She's my Jewish instructor and my guru. We study melachos of Shabbos and tznius and stuff, but even when my son had a bris, I go to her for moral support.

What are your favorite things to learn?

I didn't grow up with a strong sense of halacha, and I have family who are religious Zionists, but I never really knew about halacha. I'm a nitty-gritty person. I love that our tradition encourages debate, and a lot of what I love to learn is practical -- how to kasher things for Pesach, what legally constitutes bishul. My husband calls it my Jewish book club. It's more than that, though. We read a Soloveitchik book. I read Rivka Slonim's book Bread and Fire, which I've gained so much from. We're making our way through our lives with whatever we come up with.

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