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Mar 11 2011

Mayim Bialik On Being Jewish, And Why She Digs It

By at 12:44 pm

When Mayim went on What Not to Wear she explained that she was an observant Jew and only wore skirts.

This is adapted from a speech Mayim gave this week at Tribefest in Las Vegas.

I chose to expand my Jewish observance in college when my husband and I were dating. And the structure and logic of halachic Judaism resonates with me, as does living the principles of Torah values to the best of my ability. However, my Jewish identity exists alongside my observance, not because of it. My identity–and yours–is not predicated on how many mitzvot I do, and Judaism is not a cafeteria religion; rather, it is indeed a Tribe of cumulative acts: each mitzvah is independent. Every time we light candles it is an act that cannot be negated or diminished by the activities we engage in before or after we light those candles.

In the interest of not boring you with the details of my love of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, my decision three years ago to not wear pants in public, the myriad ways I clean my microwave to prepare for Pesach, and my apparent obsession with Yeshiva University’s a capella group, The Maccabeats, I would like to do something different.

I would like to share with you 7 (it’s an important Jewish number, no?) things in my career and personal life that I would not have been able to experience were I not Jewish. We’ll call it my Jewish Top 7. Think Letterman.

7) The Jew Crew. Also known as the Tribe. Show business is  a place where I can put all of my Jewish angst and neurosis, while channeling some of the historical aspects of Judaism that make us thrive in the industry. It is my belief that so many Jews choose to go into show business because we are a culture that is written in song; we have a desire to tell stories, and we have a lot of chutzpah. Woody Allen and Larry David have made careers of capitalizing on Jewish identity and neuroses–independent of religious observance. I was privileged to work with both of these men in my career and felt united in a Jewish cause of anxiety and self-deprecation even though their concept of Judaism differed starkly from mine. Being part of a club that allows membership no matter what you believe or DO, but exists simply because of what you ARE is comforting and pleasant. Yes: there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood, but not many observant ones. It’s still a struggle for me to get off for all of the Jewish holidays (and now that I observe many more of them than I did in Blossom days, it’s even harder), but I feel a strong kinship with Jews in the industry, and especially get excited when we are featured prominently in the media. In addition, I got to meet the Maccabeats this past Shabbos, and as proud as I was to be Jewish before “Candlelight” hit YouTube, I am even more excited now.

6) Devotion to the Next Generation. Judaism gives us a notion of utter and complete devotion and responsibility to raise a generation who will pass on the Judaism we are privileged to practice in freedom. Even if we do not have our own biological children, our community is one of dedication to the next generation; each of us responsible for the other. As a mother, my Judaism guides and directs my parenting, as I seek to impart the lessons and ethics both of our Torah mothers and fathers as well as our Rabbinic sages. In addition, Judaism provides a powerful framework for marriage from antiquity; a framework that was centuries ahead of its time, and a tradition not afraid to grow and explore the issues of modern marriage and love which sets the stage for raising the next generation.

5) A country to call my own. Israel. Not to get political, but Israel is the country I most identify with as  mine. I am a proud American and I love the United States, but after visiting Israel, about a dozen times since I was 16, I have fallen in love in a profound way with a country built seemingly overnight; a land that flows with milk and honey, and controversy and complexity. Israel is not perfect, but learning to love Israel has been like learning to love your bashert even if you find out your bashert is really complicated and sometimes unavailable and possibly always making you angry or unsure about your relationship. We have a historic and spiritual homeland, we have a language brought back after 1,000 years of sleeping, and we have a nation full of our distant family. We don’t always have to love what everyone in our family says, stands for, or believes, but they’re still our family.

4) Brains. I went to college because that’s what you do in my family; you get an education no matter what–no matter if you just starred in your own TV show for five years and would prefer to go sit on a beach in Hawaii. So, I went to college. And in my training to become a neuroscientist, I spent a lot of time thinking. I did a minor in Hebrew and Jewish studies, so I also spent a lot of time thinking Jewish. My professional opinion is that Maimonides was right: Intellect is the glory of G0d. Judaism is a tradition of learning, analysis, dialectical discussion, debate and argument; even those Jews who reject God find themselves forever enmeshed with the techniques of understanding that Judaism initiated thousands of years ago. We are raised with text in our ears and tension in our hearts. This has served me well in times of joy, struggle, and everything in between. I study with two different partners every week (one in New Jersey, one in Israel). It keeps my mind active, it distracts me from the pettiness of my day, and it binds me to millennia of Jews who sometimes cherished the only thing that had not be taken from them: their minds. Intellect is the glory of God.

3) Meaning. Judaism gives me a purpose beyond my work. Judaism provides me with perspective. I am not going down into the coalmines when I go to the Big Bang set, and I am grateful to have a job like mine. But it’s not “easy” on any given day and what IS easy is getting caught up in a lot of silly stuff. Judaism gives me direction; a place to go when I feel overwhelmed, it gives me a framework for my purpose here on earth. Is it to make as much money as possible? To achieve fame? To be prettier than everyone else and steal people’s husbands? No. The purpose, philosophically speaking, is to find my purpose. Be helpful to others. Comfort the stranger. Be kind to all people, for we were all made in the image of Something Divine. Judaism teaches me humility.

2) A path. No one has ever accused me of being perfect, except maybe my mother, and you know you can’t  trust your mother when she says stuff like that. Judaism reminds me constantly that I am not done. I am not perfect, and I think there are so many commandments just to make sure I can’t ever get them all right. This derech (path) I am on winds around a lot, and I sometimes feel lost. But I never give up searching for whatever it is that is ultimately not what I am seeking to find, but what is seeking to find me. A path. My path.

1) All of you. I would not be here if I wasn’t Jewish and you wouldn’t be sitting there listening to me if you weren’t Jewish. We don’t know each other, but we are related. We share DNA, we share history, or maybe we share similarities such as eating the same foods or having the same diagnoses for generalized anxiety disorder, or diabetes, and extreme enmeshment with one’s parents (I can’t decide which of those I should be more embarrassed describe me). It’s all good, it’s all because we are Jews. I don’t believe in good Jews or bad Jews; we’re just Jews with different levels of observance and different paths. But I’m glad I found you on this path. And I hope you’re glad you found me.

Want more Mayim? Read about her husband’s journey from Mormon to Jew and how her mother-in-law followed the same path. And check out her tips for Purim costumes on the cheap.

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on Kveller are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

9 Responses to Mayim Bialik On Being Jewish, And Why She Digs It

  1. Sarah says:

    I am neither a Jew or a mother, but I love reading your posts. I am the first woman in my family to get a degree, and it has blown my family’s minds. As a chemist, it makes me proud to read about another woman in what I assume is another male-dominated field. Add to the fact that you have a strong faith, and two beautiful, healthy young boys, and an amazing husband gives me hope that it IS possible to “have it all.” Thanks for being you, and please keep up the posts!

  2. Samantha says:

    Hi Mayim, I know that your Tribefest appearance has led to a slew of vitriolic personal attacks on your facebook page about circumcision. I really hope that the experience doesn’t stop you from continuing to write your intelligent, thought provoking articles with the openness that you have. I, for one, enjoy your articles immensely and find exactly the seeming paradoxes in the things you are (e.g. attachment parent AND observant Jew who circumcised her sons) the most interesting.

  3. erickajen says:

    im not jewish, but im closer than most of the general public (seventh day adventist, at basic its like jewish with Christ, and more…. LOL) and i completely love your posts. i love how you are sure of what you know, and you dont hesitate, or allow anyone to beat you down. i too believe in humility and kindness and respect for everyone at their place in their path. and that no one is ever going to be perfect. i just love it. i cant see how anyone can give you a hard time.
    anyway. happy Sabbath!

  4. Jodie Anna says:

    I enjoyed this post. I’m not Jewish, but I’m Orthodox Christian, so I can relate to a lot of your top 7 in my own way. Since you only wear skirts or dresses in public (which I think is beautiful), I was wondering, what do you think of the practice of head covering?

  5. Ellobie says:

    Me too, Leona! I was raised Catholic and am now agnostic at best. But I have been a fan of Mayim’s since Blossom carried my weird self through high school. Sorry if that bursts your bubble, Mayim, but I have enjoyed learning more about Judaism and parenting from your posts.

  6. robyn says:

    I’m not Jewish, but I do have Jewish heritage (on my maternal grandfather’s side) and what I like to think of as a “Jewish soul”. Despite my non-Jewish status, I could relate to a lot of what was said in this post.

  7. Talia says:

    I was at TribeFest and I am SO glad you posted your speech here! I truly enjoyed it. You hit so many points that are so true and so important.

    Thank you for being a positive Jewish female role model that my future kids can look up to. :)

  8. Leona says:

    I am not Jewish, but I am a Mayim fan. I enjoy your honesty and openess. I am interested in other cultures and ways of thinking. We can all listen to different points of view to learn. Anyway thanks for being you.

    • Like Leona, I am not a Jew. I am also not a mother (says the woman who hasn’t been able to type with 2 hands in weeks due to caring for 10 week old triplets), but I am grateful for Mayim and for this site.

      My husband and I are both descended from Polish Jews who emigrated in the early 1900’s and left their old faith in the Old World. We are trying to conceive our first & the process as left me reaching out for spiritual roots. I feel like I’m meeting a long lost cousin here; I’m flustered & unsure that I really belong, but glad to make your acquaintance.


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