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February 04, 2016

A Modest Success

Mayim Bialik has always succeeded on her own terms.

Matt Powell

Mayim Bialik started big.

In 1988, at the age of 12, she was cast to play the young Bette Midler character in Beaches. Two years later she was the lead in a hit NBC sitcom and a cultural icon. 

Growing up as a slightly awkward girl, Bialik did not see female leads on television that she could relate to. She knew she was different – in appearance and in substance - from her peers and, especially, from the female characters her age on television. Young female roles were reduced to archetypes of the pretty blonde cheerleader or the homely, nerdy friend.

Blossom bridged this gap. Bialik’s character was not necessarily a nerd, but she certainly was not the blonde cheerleader. Blossom had her own sense of style and her own set of values. Blossom proved that a female teenage lead could carry a show.

Even more, Bialik’s quirky teenage character gave a voice to kids who did not fit neatly into the assigned roles of the often debilitating adolescent social order.

“Knowing you are special and different is empowering because you are special and different, but it can also cause anxiety - because you are special and different.” Bialik confesses to having moments of insecurity, but ultimately empowerment won out over anxiety. Today, nerd culture is the new cool. With Blossom, Bialik was a pioneer for self-described nerds with confidence. 

Most child stars begin a slow decline after their initial burst of success. Bialik was just getting started.

She earned a PhD in Neuroscience from UCLA, where she studied OCD and the specific hormones related to human attachment. She’s since authored a book on attachment parenting, Beyond the Sling, building on her work at UCLA, as well as a vegan cookbook. In 2015 she launched GrokNation, a website featuring her personal writings on a myriad of subjects.

Most notably, she plays Amy Farrah Fowler on the hit CBS show The Big Bang Theory - a role for which she recently won the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. Her work on The Big Bang Theory has also garnered her two SAG Nominations and four consecutive Emmy Nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.

Bialik seemed genuinely surprised by her recent Critics’ Choice win, claiming to have “never won anything” before. She dedicated her award to her late father, who passed away nine months earlier, a touching moment from a woman whose close-knit family is an integral part of her life. "So Abba, this is for you,” she closed her improvised acceptance speech, “Thank you.”

Bialik observes Jewish practice as her work life allows, and is currently in a year-long period of mourning. Her win is made all the more special as she begins to transition out of this mourning period.

This foundation of her family and her faith have given Bialik a sense of self that has helped her navigate her varied career, and the often corrupting world of Hollywood. Her grandparents, Eastern European Jewish immigrants, instilled in the young actor an integrity that helped her forge a healthy and refreshing approach to celebrity.  

They also gave her a perspective that guides her to this day. Growing up, she heard first hand the stories of her grandfather coming to America across the Atlantic by ship to build a new life in a new land.

“It makes it hard to take your problems too seriously when you see their lives,” she explains. As Jews, they ate different food and lived off a different calendar from mainstream America. This gave her family a different worldview and a sense of otherness. “It’s humbling,” she says of this otherness, “and it’s helpful.”

In the eyes of her immigrant grandparents, the streets of America were paved with gold. Watching their granddaughter become a successful television star personified what they earnestly referred to as “The American Dream.”

Many child stars are not adequately equipped to handle the pressures and temptations that come with too much money and too much freedom too early in life. Bialik credits her family with helping her avoid the common pitfalls of child stardom. Even when she was the lead on a hit network show, she still had to do her chores and finish her homework.

Education was essential in her family. After Blossom, which ran for five seasons from 1990-1995, Bialik entered UCLA where she earned a B.S. in Neuroscience with a minor in Hebrew & Jewish Studies, before going after her PhD 

Bialik describes her practice of  Judaism as traditional but unconventional - a seeming contradiction, perhaps also described as sincere but realistic. She juggles such contradictions throughout her life. 

She is a traditional Jew who is also a feminist. A scientist who believes in God. She is a celebrity and an actor who actively practices modesty.

These aren’t contradictions in Bialik’s world.

She writes candidly about reconciling issues with traditional Judaism in modern times that are “theoretically problematic but not insurmountable” – including women’s issues such as divorce in the Orthodox world, or her philosophy of attachment parenting (which she considers more rooted in tradition than in vogue), and even the increase of sexual pleasure from following Orthodox practices.

For the most part being a devout person of faith in Hollywood is a “non-issue.” Any tension is more practical than ideological, which mostly comes down to calendaring. She’s glad The Big Bang Theory tapes on Tuesday and not Friday, for example, so that she can observe Shabbat with her two sons, and she tries to keep the Sabbath holy as much as possible.

Bialik is an outspoken practitioner of modesty. She refuses to appear in public wearing anything sleeveless, strapless or above the knee. Not because she is ashamed of her body, but because she believes in respecting her own privacy and, in turn, respecting herself.

Putting her science degree and her celebrity to use, Bialik, who was raised in a family of teachers, has often conducted speaking engagements designed to get kids interested in STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). She is proud of her ability to put a female face on STEM education.

Her teaching instincts carry over into her home life. In 2014 she released her cookbook, Mayim’s Vegan Table. She values preparing meals with her sons as a means of bringing the family together communally, reinforcing math skills, and showing how modern moms, including single moms, can cook in the kitchen while balancing careers.  

Music is also a way to build cognitive math skills and Bialik, who sings and plays piano, trumpet and bass, teaches piano to her sons. Her Orthodox practice forbids her from playing or listening to music while in mourning for her father. When not in mourning, she plays everything from Adele to Blues Traveler on the piano and lists Sting and Elvis Costello among some of her favorite artists. 

Last year she established GrokNation, where she devotes a large part of her time writing about a host of topics, from Hollywood and pop culture to parenting and women’s issues in an “accessible, relatable and unapologetically nerdy way,” with the loftier goal of “mobilizing individuals toward changing the world as a community.”

GrokNation tackles serious issues, but also showcases her sense of humor and appreciation for fun. She has plans to expand the site in the coming year, adding more content platforms and building up its charity component. Yet she considers herself first and foremost an actor who writes, rather than the other way around. 

With her role as Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, she is able to culminate many threads from her life: her love of science, her feminism, her proud nerdism, and especially her sense of humor. And now, with her recent Critics’ Choice win, as a way to honor her father.

The Big Bang Theory is currently in its ninth season and has been picked up for a tenth. “We never thought we’d make it to six seasons,” she admits. While she would love to expand her craft – including doing indie films - Bialik considers it a blessing to be an employed actor, especially on a hit show.

“There’s nowhere else I‘d rather be.” 

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