Mayim Bialik, a star of the smash U.S. television ensemble comedy “The Big Bang Theory,” has never played by industry rules, so it’s not surprising that her visit to Israel during the show’s winter hiatus hasn’t involved five-star hotels, room service or photo shoots in Jerusalem’s Old City.
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She speaks by phone while preparing breakfast with relatives on Kibbutz Gezer — taking vegan cheese from the refrigerator for her toast. Her trip is intentionally low-key, without official publicity. The press and the public learned of it only from her blog on the Jewish parenting site Kveller. In a post titled “Mayim & the Kids Take Israel,” she wondered whether she should break down and buy an iPad to keep sons Miles, 5, and Frederick, 8, entertained on the 15-hour flight from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv.
Now, she says, “We’ve really just been hanging out a lot. I love kibbutz life so I am just letting them kind of enjoy that nothing has to be locked and everyone walks around and is friendly.”
Her sightseeing has been child-centric: the Armored Corps Memorial Site and Museum at Latrun (“Yad La’shiryon), a visit to a nearby kibbutz to see friend and fellow Kveller blogger Sarah Tuttle-Singer and lunch in Abu Ghosh. The whole family is vegan, and they’re all big hummus fans.
She says the boys “loved the tank museum, they climbed on every single tank and took a picture on every single tank. They are fascinated by soldiers ... and they love the french fries here.”
Then there’s the manure. “On the kibbutz, I took my boys to the refet (dairy barn) where I used to volunteer when I spent my summers here ... and yes I would say that being up to my knees in cow poop when I was in the refet was pretty much unglamorous,” she laughs.
But glamour has clearly never been high on Bialik’s list of priorities. When it is suggested that a photographer be sent from the newspaper for a picture to accompany this interview, she issues an immediate veto with feigned horror. “No! I didn’t even bring my makeup. I mean, I think I look great. But literally — I am in jeans with a skirt and a dirty sweatshirt and I haven’t showered in three days.”
Fluent in Hebrew and Yiddish, Bialik is famously more Jewishly identified and observant than other Jews in the entertainment industry. She was raised Reform, but became more observant as a young adult. In a 2012 Haaretz interview, she said that while she doesn’t call herself modern Orthodox “in terms of ideology and theology I pretty much sound like a liberal modern Orthodox person,” and she often references her observance of Shabbat and of kashrut. Her religious commitment influenced the wardrobe of Amy Farrah Fowler. Both Bialik and her character in “The Big Bang Theory” wear skirts, with an occasional exception such as last year’s Superbowl commercial.
She is equally famous for her un-Hollywood Ph.D. in neuroscience and her commitment to home schooling and to so-called attachment parenting, the lifestyle featured in her book, “Beyond the Sling.” Since her divorce a year ago from Michael Stone, a Mormon convert to Judaism, Bialik has blogged with a raw honesty about the challenges of life as an observant Jewish single mother, from the loneliness of a solo Shabbat to missing the visits she made as a married woman to the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath.
Bialik visits Israel frequently, but this is the first trip since her divorce. She remains close to relatives who immigrated to Israel from the United States after the Yom Kippur War. Some are on Kibbutz Gezer, near Ramle, while a larger, more religiously observant contingent lives in the West Bank settlements of Etz Efraim and Mitzpeh Yeriho. And yes, the great Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik was her great-grandfather’s first cousin.
Bialik is adamant about her Zionism, but, she says, “I try to be very apolitical, especially when I’m writing on Kveller. I make it very very clear that A. I’m a bleeding heart liberal and B. I’m a die-hard Zionist and the two can and do exist together.”
When asked if her visits to the West Bank contradict her ‘liberal’ views, she replies: “My feeling is that’s where my family lives, that’s where all of them live in one place, that’s where I get to see them all together. I try to avoid topics of religion and politics with my religious Zionist family. But like I said, they came here after the Yom Kippur War, to be part of this country and protecting it and they serve in the military, they serve this country and they are very active intelligent people. Some things we agree on and some things we don’t. But to me it’s not a political vote per se for me to visit them.”
If she were less deeply involved with her kids, she confesses, she would probably aspire to a higher profile during her stays in Israel. “I would love to put myself out there to a couple of other larger organizations, just because I feel like it’s a tremendous ahrayut (responsibility) if I could publicly do something like that ... I would like to make clear to American Jews that Zionists go to Israel, and its a safe place and its an important place and it’s a wonderful place ... But you know, I was divorced in the last year and I wanted my boys to have a really comfortable and kind of normal time here.”
That “normal time” has also included time in Tel Aviv-Jaffa and the Old City of Jerusalem. Though she is occasionally recognized, the paparazzi have left her alone so far, and she has let down her guard a little in protecting her family’s privacy. “The El Al flight attendants all took pictures of me and I said to my older son, “You know in America I don’t usually let people take pictures of me when I’m with you because you know, I’m your Ima (Mom) and that’s our time together, and he looked at me, and he was like, “Yeah, but this is ISRAEL.’ I hope he’ll forgive me for that when he sits on the therapy couch in 20 years.’
The feared flight “went remarkably well,” she says, while admitting that for an hour or so she stretched on the floor under the seats “so the boys could have more room.”
They’ll fly back in a week, and she’ll return to playing Amy Farrah Fowler, the love interest of Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), the sweet but clueless scientist who respects Amy but can’t give her the affectionate sexual relationship she clearly craves. When asked if she is happy with her character and the Amy-Sheldon relationship, her answer is swift. “I’m happy that I’m employed!”
Now in its seventh season, “The Big Bang Theory” is a great success, its highest-rated episodes drawing more than 20 million viewers. As for hints about the narrative arc, Bialik, offers an intriguing hint, “I’m told that the Amy and Sheldon stuff will get very interesting.” So maybe her character will get some satisfaction.
Those who are charmed by Bialik’s down-to-earth if quirky style are more concerned about her love life than about Amy’s. At the end of our interview, I tell her that any other divorced Jewish woman visiting Israel would likely be hounded by well-meaning friends and relatives trying to simultaneously find her a local husband and convince her to immigrate to facilitate such a match, and ask whether the normally brash Israelis are too intimidated by her fame to do so.
“No, no, no — people have attempted to set me up a couple times already,” she laughs, without reporting the outcome. “As for aliyah, I’m already employed in the U.S. so that’s not an option right now but I thought about it many times. In my next life I will be a professional basketball player and I will also make aliyah.