|Mayim Bialik in conversation with Rabbi Ronald Price of the Union of Traditional Judaism. Courtesy UTJ|
She’s an actress, a scientist, a celebrity spokesman for the Holistic Moms Network – and she spent a day of her vacation in Teaneck this week, playing herself in two film projects designed to spread Judaism and Jewish values.
“I do love entertaining people, but I ultimately believe in using my talents to make the world a better place,” Mayim Bialik said Sunday night.
She was speaking to a gathering of 100 people in support of “Jew in the City,” a website that produces videos aimed at answering questions and dispelling misconceptions about Orthodox Judaism. The next day she filmed a video segment for the site.
While in Teaneck, Bialik also was filmed in a 90-minute discussion on tz’niut, modesty, with Rabbi Ronald Price of the Union for Traditional Judaism. The discussion will be used in its series of MTV (Media and Torah Values) Challenge videos designed to help teens understand the values implicit in what they watch on television and to contrast those with the values of Jewish tradition.
Bialik, 35, is in the second stage of an acting career that began when she was a child and made her a generational icon as the teenaged star of “Blossom.” She then put aside acting for the “normalcy” of college life; she attended UCLA and became deeply involved in campus Jewish life, minoring in Jewish studies. She went on for a doctoral degree in neuroscience – and then returned to acting after the birth of her second child on the theory that acting was a better job for a mother than being a research scientist. This past year she had a recurring role in the geeky comedy “The Big Bang Theory,” playing a nerdy neurobiologist.
Bialik’s connection to “Jew in the City” is personal: She has been studying Torah by phone for years with the site’s creator, Allison Josephs, and the study partnership has grown into a friendship.
Each of Josephs’ videos addresses a question, such as “Why do Jewish women cover their hair,” or “Is birth control kosher for Orthodox Jews” or, as in the forthcoming episode for which Bialik was filmed, “How do I convey to people that the science that I’ve studied fits in with the Jewish beliefs that I hold dear?”
Josephs answers each question with a humorous touch. One of the points she is trying to make is that becoming Orthodox doesn’t mean leaving behind one’s personality.
“The questions are the questions that I had as I was becoming religious,” said Josephs. They also reflect the misconceptions about Orthodox Judaism she discovered when interviewing 3,000 Birthright Israel alumni during the five years she worked for the Partners in Torah outreach organization.
For Bialik, the questions are familiar.
“I feel I’ve been the guinea pig on ‘Jew in the City,'” said Bialik. “I see a lot of conversations I’ve had with Allison fleshed out.”
Where “Jew in the City” is using video to normalize the image of Orthodox Judaism, the “Media and Torah Values” project is devoted to using Jewish texts to question the values that media defines as normal. The premise is that Hollywood and Judaism offer two different value systems.
That’s something Bialik strongly believes.
“The life of acting and show business is not all that fulfilling spiritually,” she said. Where her Judaism teaches people to treasure what’s inside, “my industry cares about what’s outside. Nobody cares what you do in your dressing room, no one cares what goes on in your head, except whether you have learned your lines and get them right. Nobody cares if I’m a good person, and I want to be a good person. It’s what’s absolutely valuable.”
The MTV Challenge project is a series of DVDs with lesson plans, combining clips from television shows with traditional Jewish texts to study and discuss.
“By comparing the values that come out from each, we try to help them make choices that come out from that analysis,” said Price.
“The idea is for people to create a filter to use, so they don’t simply absorb everything they see on TV.”
The program featuring Bialik will depart from the usual format, combining clips from Bialik’s shows with clips of Bialik discussing the issues that they raise, as well as discussing how to be professional in Hollywood “and still be loyal to your values as a Jew,” said Price.
Bialik said that her desire to wear skirts rather than pants has mostly meshed with the socially-challenged character she plays on “The Big Bang Theory.”
“There was an episode where the character had to wear a casual outfit and the producers said, ‘You’re going to be wearing a sweat suit.’ They allowed me to wear a long shirt over it.
“I don’t have enough power to walk away from the job. Did I get off for the first day of Rosh HaShanah? Yes. The second day? No.”
After her character drunkenly kissed her “non-boyfriend” boyfriend, she received an e-mail from a fan: “I thought Amy was shomer negiah – that she didn’t touch men.”
Replied Bialik: “I thought so too until I got the script.”