A Canadian Jewish interview with Mayim Bialik


This past Saturday, Dec. 12, Mayim Bialik turned 40 years old. A prolific writer, actor, neuroscientist, attachment parenting advocate and proud proponent of modern Orthodoxy, Bialik, like her great-grandfather’s first cousin, Israeli national poet Chaim Nahman Bialik, has accomplished a fair bit in a short time.

Most of you know her as Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, the character she plays on the popular television show, The Big Bang Theory. If you are a ’90s TV fanatic and share an affinity for nostalgia, you’ll remember her from Blossom, or even from the short-lived series Molloy, where she starred alongside Jennifer Aniston.

But for many in the Jewish community, Bialik is also known for her lengthy statements on Judaism’s role in contemporary society, her musings on attachment parenting and homeschooling, and her unwavering stance on Israel’s right to exist.

You may also recognized her as the narrator of a film on agunot (women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce) called Women Unchained.

READ: Why Orthodox Judaism needs
female rabbis

As a contributor to Kveller, Bialik has shared her thoughts on poignant events such as the loss of her father, the Jewish connection to her vegan lifestyle, what Jewish women need to know about breast cancer, or the Hebrew prayer that brought her and her son closer together.

As the founder of GrokNation, she’s taken her influence a step further, commenting on the recent statement by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) that banned female rabbis, her thoughts on the refugee crisis, last month’s Paris attacks, and other issues.

Most recently, Bialik made headlines for a Facebook post she shared about being a Zionist:

For those of you who refuse to follow me and discourage others from doing so because I am a Zionist (as if that’s a…

Posted by Mayim Bialik on Tuesday, December 8, 2015

We spoke with Bialik, who was recently in Montreal to film an episode of YidLife Crisis with Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion, about her thoughts on the RCA’s ruling, her grasp of the Yiddish language, and if an anti-Israel bias does indeed exist in the media.

So you recently tweeted to Howard Stern to discuss your shared “unfashionable” views on Israel. Has he responded?

No, not that I’ve seen. I’m not constantly on Twitter. I actually haven’t been on Twitter in a while. That came up on my news feed, and I figured why not. I was possibly taking a trip to New York, so I know that my publicist suggested to reach out to his people so it wasn’t totally out of the blue.

Why do you use the word “unfashionable”? Do you think there is an anti-Israel bias in the media?

Howard was speaking about [calling out Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters for urging rocker Bon Jovi not to perform in Israel]. When I was on Howard’s show, we talked about it a bit. I mean, I’ve been very public about my support for a peace process and my support for people not calling for the destruction of the Jewish People simply because you believe that Israel should exist, so I’ve seen a lot of that on my social media for sure (laughs).

And Roger Waters? Would you call him an anti-Semite?

I am not going to speak more about Roger Waters. I don’t want to name-call. What’s going on with Roger Waters and Howard Stern is what’s playing out on the campus I went to university at, in the ’90s, at UCLA, and it’s playing itself out on every major campus pretty much all over the world.

How can we educate people like that on campus?

Israel needs a better publicist (laughs). I don’t know.

You recently wrote a piece on GrokNation about your reaction to the Rabbinical Council of America’s statement on female rabbis. Do you think there will ever be a time where female rabbis will be accepted within the Orthodox community?


What can we do to get there?

I think we’re doing it. There’s a lot to be said for slow change, and Judaism is big on slow change. There have been a lot of things, literally, for the past at least 2,000, or 3,000 years of Jewish history that were “this is never going to happen” and then did. This is not a halachic challenge, it’s a minhagim one. This is more about custom and history and culture than it is about legality, and for all of the people who don’t believe that, you know, they can ask a different rabbi. It’s actually not a halachic issue.

“I don’t think you should be ashamed to talk about your support for a country where Jews can have an autonomous existence”

I’m not big on talking about the halachic changes I think need to happen to Judaism. I’m just an actress who happens to be Jewish. Because this is not a halachic issue, because we’re dealing, again, more with bias and stereotyping, and I think we’re going to look back in 50 or 100 hundred years and not even think twice. And you can say that for every great civil rights progress that’s been made in the world and in the western world over the past 100 years.

How has the transition been moving from Kveller to GrokNation?

It’s been good. I still write for Kveller, and I’m still part of the Kveller family, but I’ve found that I can have a broader reach and do more specific and targeted work at GroKnation, so I’ve been able to speak on a broader range of topics. We’ve also started doing videos, and we’re thinking of starting more formal video and lecture-type conversations and things like that, so it’s a different kind of format.

I understand you were recently in Montreal to film an episode of YidLife Crisis and you’ve been to Toronto a couple of times too – do you see a difference between the Jewish community here and the community in L.A. and the States?

You know, besides what I deem is the accent of Canadian Jews (laughs), there’s honestly not a lot of difference. There’s an east-coast flair to Toronto, just like there is an east-coast flair to the United States. Jews in Vegas are different from Jews in New York, but in a lot of ways they’re not, and so my experience with the Canadian Jewish community has been, really, a wonderful extension of the work that I do in this country with the Jewish community.

The stories are different. That’s fascinating to me, to hear some of the stories. Obviously when I worked with Eli and Jamie on their YidLife Crisis episode, I had never met French-speaking Jews who weren’t in Paris. It’s really neat to hear the stories of eastern European Jews, because, you know, a lot of Canadian Jews are eastern European, but how different the trajectory was for them. My grandparents came to Ellis Island and worked in sweatshops and lived in the very poorest parts of the Bronx and the stories of Canadian Jews are often very different, so it’s really fascinating.

How was doing the episode of YidLife Crisis with Eli and Jamie? 

They’re really great guys. We met for the first time in Montreal. My editorial director, Esther Kustanowitz, who is a writer and social media presence, connected me with them. We emailed a bit, and just filmed the episode a few weeks ago.

And you speak fluent Yiddish, right?

I was raised speaking Yiddish, and I raised my children speaking Yiddish, and I took Yiddish in college. I wasn’t raised with full proper grammar, but with a very large vocabulary, which was part of normal speech, meaning we didn’t just whip it out when we needed to. It was part of our speech, and that’s still kind of how I speak now.

WATCH: An interview with Jamie and Eli from
YidLife Crisis

When I speak to other Jewish people, I try and tone it down when they don’t speak Yiddish (laughs). But I have a very large vocabulary, and my children have a sizeable vocabulary. I learned proper grammar in college, but I haven’t spoken full yiddish probably since I was a very, very young child (laughs) or in college. So yeah, this was very different. I have enough of an understanding of the grammar to have been able to roughly make sense of the script, but it definitely took a little massaging and look, there are many words that simply don’t exist in modern English, or in Hebrew to accommodate modern English, so it’s a lot of massaging. It’s hard, it’s the language of love, and it’s primarily been used for that, right?

So it wasn’t hard to keep up with them.

Eli speaks a more refined and proper Yiddish, and Jamie and I were following along, but obviously they have more experience speaking fluently with it, which I have not done in quite some time. I speak short sentences with my children, and when I was in college, I was taking Yiddish and reading and watching Yiddish movies and things like that for class, but they are far more experienced speakers. I can catch some grammar things, but it was mainly me learning it and having it come out of my mouth, at least relatively correctly.

Sounds like a fun experience.

It was, it was really fun.

Do you feel as someone who is vocal about supporting Israel that you’ve educated those around you, including your co-stars on the Big Bang Theory?

Well, three out of seven of us are Jewish (laughs), and if you extend out, four of the eight of us in our extended cast are Jewish. I don’t talk about it a lot with our cast per se, but I think what’s important about speaking out is that I don’t even think of it as “speaking out.” I don’t think you should be ashamed to talk about your support for a country where Jews can have an autonomous existence. It’s become such a dirty word to say the word “Israel” and that’s really a shame, because although there are very, very difficult politics surrounding Israel, and I don’t agree with everything the Israeli government or the people in the State of Israel do, it’s not a dirty word to talk about a country amidst dozens of Arab countries in that region of the world.

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.