The Jewish Nomad: Zooming about Judaism with first-time filmmaker Mayim Bialik

How interviews are done from Hollywood in the 2020s.

Just before Passover, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jewish TV celebrity, neuroscientist and Jeopardy co-host, Mayim Bialik, about her feature film directorial debut.

The initial seed for As They Made Us came about a year after the 2015 death of her father. Full of emotions to release, Mayim began writing in prose. A close mentor of hers then suggested turning it into a script. (She’d never written one before.)

With a primarily Jewish celebrity cast comprised of Dustin Hoffman, Diana Agron of Glee fame, and Mayim’s Big Bang Theory co-star Simon Helberg—along with Candice Bergen, who grew up among members of the tribe to the point where she could improvise Yiddish lines—the result is a film which touches on themes like intergenerational trauma, family dysfunction and love in the midst of turmoil.

We follow a Jewish divorced mom of two named Abigail, played by Agron, who is trying to balance dealing with her difficult family dynamics and finding her own happiness.

The story really touched my soul. After the death of my Bubby, I started listening to more Jewish and Yiddish music, had long emotional walks around her old neighborhood and began wearing her jewelry that I inherited.

Beyond the fact that Abigail also happens to be a columnist for a Jewish magazine—although the one in the movie is fictional—I saw a lot of myself in her. 

Later in the movie, she begins to wear a Magen David necklace (turns out Mayim lent her own personal jewelery for the star to wear!) and also says “Shema Yisrael“ with her two boys every night.

As the cornerstone Jewish prayer, the Shema is also one that’s stuck with me, even throughout the many years where I fell out of my own observance.

It was the first time I saw myself represented on screen. Many Jewish films I’ve seen are about the Hasidic community or secular Jews.

Abigail’s household looked like the one I grew up in, with details like a mezuzah on every doorpost and Hanukkah drawings in the kitchen. (Fun fact: Mayim drew those herself!)

For once, it wasn’t a Hallmark Christmas movie version of a Jewish household.

Moreover, there was no exposition around the Jewish customs. The characters simply do them and move on with their lives. Like REAL Jews do. Who’da thunk it? (It’s about time, Hollywood!)

“I didn’t make a movie about a Jewish family, I made a movie about a family who happens to be Jewish,” Mayim shared with me.

She went on to explain how she was raised in a Reform household, to a “lapsed Orthodox” mother, and became more observant in college—after an adolescence bookended by starring in the movie Beaches and the sitcom Blossom.

A quarter-century later, I was excited to ask Mayim about how she’s been able to balance modern Orthodoxy with her acting career. But it seems like even a star like her is still figuring it out. 

Luckily, the schedule for As They Made Us allowed for her not to work on Friday nights and Saturdays.

Mayim even went as far as bringing Shabbat to the set with other Jewish crew members.

“I realized that when Friday approached, Shabbos happens whether you like it or not,” she said of this unusual adoption of it in a Hollywood context.

“Some people had never seen Shabbos done, so they watched—but it didn’t feel like we were in a museum. And then I would make an announcement every Friday: ‘If anyone would like to light…’ And we literally had crew members like ‘I’m Jewish and I haven’t lit candles in a million years’.”

Honestly, it sounds like my ideal movie set environment. Sign me up!

In a recent episode of her own podcast, Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown, she interviews Diana Agron, who is Jewish but is often cast as non-Jews. (In fact, in the recent indie film Shiva Baby, she plays the only character who isn’t Jewish.)

Diana shared that she, too, like Abigail, had to look after her sick father for a lot of her life. She joked that she was hoping someone else would write a script on the subject, so she wouldn’t have to herself. The actor was also yearning to play a role that reflected her Judaism.

Mayim’s script ticked all those boxes. The two hit it off right away.

I really admire Mayim’s ability to express her grief through the screenplay. (The film is not autobiographical, for the record, though she draws on her experiences as inspiration.)

I’m still kvelling over the opportunity to chat with an artist I truly admire and look up to, as an observant Jew and mental health advocate, not to mention actor and all-around personality.

And hopefully some of that courage rubbed off in our 15 virtual minutes—just enough for me to write a screenplay of my own someday.

To listen to the full interview, check out the latest episode of The CJN’s weekly podcast, Bonjour Chai.

As They Made Us premiered on April 8 and can be watched on-demand on many platforms—including Cineplex for Canadian audiences.

Talking about Charlotte with CBC

Charlotte is an animated film I wrote about last September for The CJN. It’s a Canadian-French-Belgian co-production that tells the story of Charlotte Solomon, who fled Nazi Germany only to end up in the South of France.

The determination to paint her autobiography finds the main character producing nearly a thousand gouaches before her death at Auschwitz. Solomon’s art is re-created as part of the story surrounding the creation of her masterpiece, Life? Or Theatre?

As a result of reviewing the Toronto International Film Festival premiere, CBC News invited me to sum up my thoughts about Charlotte, alongside its director, Tahir Rana. This time, I was the one being interviewed on Zoom.

You can watch the two-minute report here or read a summary of what I had to say in this article:

Ilana Zackon can be reached at ilanawritesthings[@] and found on Facebook and Instagram.

HEAR what else she has to say every week on Bonjour Chai