Mayim Bialik, ‘mikve connoisseur’

The ‘Big Bang Theory’ star speaks frankly about her frumkeit

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

'The Big Bang Theory' star Mayim Bialik  (Herrick Borchert)
'The Big Bang Theory' star Mayim Bialik (Herrick Borchert)

LOS GATOS, California — Celebrities endorse everything from cars to perfume to salad dressing. But actress Mayim Bialik may be the first-ever celebrity spokesperson for the mikve, or ritual bath, and the Jewish laws of family purity. In fact, having been given the name Mayim Chaya at birth, some might even suggest that she was destined to speak out about the benefits of immersion in living waters.

Having returned to acting relatively recently after earning a doctorate at UCLA and giving birth to two boys, the 36-year-old is riding the wave of publicity cresting in the wake of her landing the role of Amy Farrah Fowler on the hit CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”

'Beyond the Sling' (photo credit: Courtesy)
'Beyond the Sling' (photo credit: Courtesy)

In addition to making the requisite appearances on the late night talk shows and the red carpet at awards ceremonies, she has also been hitting the author tour circuit to promote her new book on attachment parenting titled, “Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way.” Somehow, she is also finding time to share her insights about being both a mother and a publicly observant Jewish figure — including her use of the mikve — in her regular posts for Jewish parenting blog Kveller, and at speaking engagements around the country.

Bialik also managed to squeeze in a sit-down conversation about mivke with The Times of Israel after speaking at one such event, a fundraiser for the Community Mikvah of Silicon Valley, a program of the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley. She admitted that it’s a bit of a balancing act to concurrently live a Torah-centric life in Los Angeles and work in the entertainment industry. Nonetheless, Bialik, who hasn’t worn pants in five years, feels it is important for her to be upfront about her frumkeit so that she can be a positive role model for other Jews, especially young ones.

Dressed in a knee-length, long-sleeved floral print dress and platform sandals, Bialik prefaced her remarks to the crowd of 160 men and women of all ages at the Addison-Penzak JCC (in Los Gatos) by saying, “I don’t speak as an authority. I’m just sharing my personal experience with mikve. I live a life governed by Jewish law, but I don’t have a religious agenda.”

After offering an overview of her career and some details about her family history, the actress shared the story of her journey toward halachic observance, and how the mikve played a key role in the process. A self-described intellectual second-wave feminist, Bialik emphasized how impressed she was with the “tremendous scholarship and mystical teachings for thousands of years on mikve.” Noting that she believes in being given all the information and then deciding for herself what to do, she emphasized that it was “my choice to embrace the halakhot surrounding mikve.”

Bialik, known for her impeccable comedic timing, used humor to dispel myths about the mikve and to tell how she learned about mikve etiquette and all the laws and practices surrounding the observance of the family purity laws. For modesty’s sake — and the fact that her mother-in-law was in the audience — she did not go into detail about the latter. She spoke with complete seriousness when she explained that going to the mikve has made her “the authority on my body. I know the cycles of my body, and it’s empowering for me.”

‘Every mikve has its own personality, but the waters are the same’

Jokingly declaring herself a “mikve connoisseur,” Bialik shared her impressions of various ones she has visited around the world. “Every mikve has its own personality, but the waters are the same,” she remarked.

Her personal experiences with oft-maligned mikve ladies have been uniformly positive, leading her to admonish people to remember: “mikve ladies are people too.” She has found that the only difference she found between Israeli mikve ladies and American ones is that “the Israeli ones are, well Israeli.” In other words, they declared — comparatively less enthusiastically — her immersion “kasher” instead of a Brooklyn-accented “kosher.”

Following her presentation, Bialik met with a group of 15 high school and college students. Was she disappointed that they only asked her questions about “The Big Bang Theory” and her acting career, and didn’t once mention mikve?

“Not at all!” she exclaimed in conversation with the Times. “To me a lot of this is about just laying the foundation, especially with young people. You lay the foundation for them by having a positive role model who’s Jewish. You let them hear gently about observance,” she explained.

‘As a ba’al teshuva, someone who came late to observance, I know how important it is that mikve not be the first thing you hear’

“I speak pretty reverently about my relationship with God, but you have to speak about it differently with young people. You want to be accessible to young people and not hit them over the head,” the actress said. “As a ba’al teshuva, someone who came late to observance, I know how important it is that mikve not be the first thing you hear.”

“I don’t discuss sexual or marital intimacy when men are present,” she cautioned. But she does speak frankly with women. “I give a really fantastic, fun, interesting talk about the sanctity of the Jewish intimate relationship,” she offered. “I’m not a rebbetzin, so I don’t talk from that level, and I’m not a family counselor. But I speak about the enormous complexity and beauty that structure around intimacy can provide, which I specifically learned about through the mikve.”

Mayim Bialik. (photo credit: Denise Herrick Borchert)
Mayim Bialik. (photo credit: Denise Herrick Borchert)

Although this particular group of young people was not inclined to delve deeper into the topic, Bialik nonetheless does enjoy talking about it with young women in their late teens and early 20s. “It’s nice to have the opportunity to talk to them, especially those who didn’t know about it. Because that’s the time in your life when all of the romance and all that stuff is kind of brewing — and how interesting to learn about a practice that is designed to regulate in healthy ways both your cycle and the concept of intimacy,” she said.

It’s one thing for her to talk about these things with community groups or with curious young Jews, but what about with her Hollywood colleagues?

“Most of my Jewish colleagues wouldn’t even think about the mikve,” she reflected. “For most people, there are a million other things that they think about and care about.

‘For me, being a public Jew is about knowing about when to be private, too’

“It’s generally not terribly popular to be a super-religious person or feel like your whole life is about being a humble servant of Hashem,” she said. “It doesn’t resonate with a lot of people, and it doesn’t have to. For me, being a public Jew is about knowing about when to be private, too. Not to hide it, but that I don’t have to advertise every aspect of my frumkeit.”

However, since all of her Kveller posts go out through Twitter, those among her colleagues who follow her know. Some of the show’s writers follow her, and she is close with one of the writers who is “religiously inclined.” Bialik and he engage in Jewish study together and talk about related things. “He’s my people, as it were,” she quipped.

The multi-talented Bialik admits that the pace of her life has been exhausting lately. “The publicity machine, it keeps going. I’m exhausted but it’s a true blessing that people want to hear me talk,” she said. “It’s a kiddush Hashem to try and present my self as a normal, struggling, believing Jew who really does believe that a book written thousands of years ago and divinely inspired living can actually lead to repair of brokenness. I’m not the only one who thinks this, I promise.”

‘It’s a kiddush Hashem to try and present my self as a normal, struggling, believing Jew who really does believe that a book written thousands of years ago and divinely inspired living can actually lead to repair of brokenness’

One might suppose that, given her hectic schedule, she might just be inclined to, on occasion, skip a visit or two to the mikve. But that is not the case. “It’s something that is incredibly central. What is true for mikve is true for a lot aspects of halakha,” she said. “You don’t have to like everything every single minute. You don’t have to find beauty and profundity in blessing food or waking up every morning. The fact is you put one foot in front of another and you keep coming back to some kind of foundation of gratefulness and tikva, of hope.”

When it comes to mikve, it’s simply a matter of faith for Bialik. “Please, God, that it should be inspiring every month,” she said. “And when it’s not, you pray that next month it will be.”

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