Keeping Her Cool in Hollywood

When it was announced this past summer that Mayim Bialik would be taking over special hosting duties on “Jeopardy!,” the online mob came for her. On Twitter, in comments sections and even in The New York Times, critics called her out for her past stances on vaccines, her support of Israel, her love of attachment parenting and her endorsement of a brain health supplement. 

Rolling Stone magazine asked, “The TV star has made a fortune promoting pseudoscience and making parents miserable — so does she deserve an even bigger platform?” Comedian John Oliver bashed her, saying she is “A person I think is great ‘cause I don’t have Google.”

The criticism is something that Bialik is used to; this isn’t her first trip on the merry-go-round. In 2017, she wrote an op-ed for The New York Times, “Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World,” where she advocated for modesty and said she doesn’t flirt with men as a personal policy for herself. She subsequently faced a barrage of backlash and issued an apology on Twitter, saying, “I support these women as we seek out and demand accountability from the only ones responsible for assault and rape: the people who perpetrate these heinous crimes.”

Being a public figure today, it’s par for the course that everything you say and do can and will be scrutinized by the online mob. Sometimes people deserve to be called out, and sometimes they do not. Either way, for Bialik, stepping back from reading everything that’s said has been the healthiest option.

“I was raised to be really sensitive to what people say. That’s been a challenge that’s been amplified on social media.”

“I’ve learned to try and distance myself more emotionally from people’s opinions, whether it’s on Twitter or in real life,” she said. “I grew up in a house that had a lot of emotional complexity. I was raised to be really sensitive to what people say. That’s been a challenge that’s been amplified on social media.”

Bialik is the rare woman in Hollywood, Jewish or otherwise, who talks about modest dress, and she’s one of a few celebrities who stands up for Israel. Even if they are Jewish, many other celebrities stay silent or even take to bashing the Jewish State. 

The New York Times brought up how Bialik was a controversial figure because she wrote a Kveller article on donating money to send bulletproof vests to the IDF. Nowadays, just sending money to keep Jews alive and saying “No matter what your politics are, soldiers sent into war zones deserve to be protected from enemy fire” is considered controversial. 

“If people are critical of me for being Jewish or because I visit Israel or believe in the right of Israel to exist, that hurts me a lot,” she said. “I’m a sensitive human. I don’t think anyone wants to be taken out of context, but imagine that being amplified in the millions.”

You could talk to Bialik for an extended period of time and never guess that she’s a celebrity. She doesn’t showboat, she isn’t overly expressive and above all, she’s real and honest. That’s not something you normally see from famous people, let alone actresses, who may put on a façade to protect themselves – especially if they’re household names like Bialik is. It’s hard to believe that she’s been wrapped up in so much controversy.  

Perhaps it’s because, as Bialik said, she’s different. Unlike many former child stars, she didn’t get started in show business to become famous, and there was no stage mom pushing her to perform. 

“It was something I really gravitated towards because I enjoyed the process of auditioning and pretending,” she said. “I could mimic and do funny voices and accents and I enjoyed being on stage. That intimidated other kids, but it didn’t intimidate me.”

Before she was born, her parents were documentary filmmakers, though, she noted, her father was an “old-school bohemian artist” who was “very skeptical of fame.”

When Bialik started acting in school plays in Los Angeles, her hometown, and eventually going on auditions, she didn’t realize how different she was.

“It didn’t occur to me that no one looked like me in the business.”

“It didn’t occur to me that no one looked like me in the business,” she said. 

Bialik also didn’t fall prey to many of show business’ temptations, which can be a real challenge for child stars, who often turn to drugs or alcohol as an escape. 

“Child actors are in an adult industry that has a tremendous amount of pressure,” she said. “When you factor in the fact that we have a society that doesn’t exactly tend to our mental health, it can be a perfect storm for a lot of people. All of us are struggling in one way or another, and certain situations can exacerbate it. If everyone is telling you you’re amazing, it’s not always optimal for development.” 

Even back in her teenage years, when she was coming of age and starring in movies like “Beaches” and her hit TV show “Blossom,” Bialik tried to separate herself from getting caught up in Hollywood’s darker side. 

“I was very studious, and I didn’t party or do anything interesting,” she said. “I grew up in the industry at a time when there wasn’t a ton of pressure to have hair extensions and things like that at a young age. We have definitely seen a shift in expectations, especially for young girls and young women in the industry to look more like adults than I felt pressured to when I was a teenager. We’re seeing that in all aspects of our society, not just in the acting world.”  

When she got older and became an observant Jew who was pro-Israel, dressed modestly on the red carpet and defended traditional Jewish values, she began to stand out from her colleagues in Hollywood even more. 

“Being a person who is observant in Hollywood is very different,” she said. “I work with a lot of people who don’t observe the way I do or believe the things about Israel I believe. Among the people who know me, I try to be consistent and compassionate in explaining where I come from. For all of us, being a Jew or a Zionist right now – especially a liberal Zionist – is a real challenge. We’re talking about things differently in our culture and there’s been a tremendous change in many arenas.”

This change has been something that Bialik, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA, has learned to be sensitive to over the years. When her sons were younger, she stated in her 2012 book, “Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way” that she was choosing not to put her children on the typical vaccine schedule. 

Then, when the online mob was digging for dirt in the midst of her “Jeopardy!” appointment, she was indeed labeled an anti-vaxxer… a dangerous title in today’s environment, where COVID is still killing people around the world. 

She responded by stating her stance on vaccines in a video called “Anti-Vaxxers and COVID.” In it, she says, “This year, I’m going to do something I literally haven’t done in 30 years: I’m gonna get a vaccine.” She then went on to discuss how she was going to get the COVID vaccine and the flu shot, and give her boys the flu shot as well. 

“I have never, not once, said that vaccines are not valuable, not useful or not necessary, because they are,” Bialik continued. “I’ve received a ton of negative press about this and to be quite honest, most of it was inaccurate. The internet jury decided I was a danger to my children, a disgrace to science and a member of the Hollywood elite responsible for the killing of babies.”

Despite the truthful and reasonable video from Bialik, the headlines prevailed, because today, it’s all about clickbait. Nuance doesn’t matter. Perhaps that’s why she’s decided to stop paying so much attention.

“I’ve had to pull back from investing in time to correct everything about me,” she told the Journal. “I still wonder how things are received, but being more and more in the public eye with my ‘Jeopardy!’ responsibilities has been a good reason to create a bubble around myself.”

Courtesy Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

Bialik is acutely aware of what can happen if you give into the pressures of the world or are too sensitive to what other people think: it can negatively impact your mental health. The actress goes to therapy more than once a week, tries to exercise, focuses on self-care and observes Shabbat as her day of rest to stay healthy throughout it all.  

“I’ve been known to nap more than twice on Shabbat,” she said.

She also hosts a podcast called “Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown,” where she discusses mental health and the tough issues surrounding it with her guests. In a recent episode, she interviewed fellow child actor Kel Mitchell from “Kenan & Kel,” “Good Burger” and “All That,” who told her he had tried to commit suicide, but found faith and became a youth pastor instead.

Bialik is also channeling her struggles into making art. “About a year after my dad died, as a creative cathartic process, I decided to start writing,” she said. “I decided to write a story of a family impacted by a mental illness, which I definitely was as a child. My father struggled a lot. I didn’t write a memoir, but I took some experiences of mine and others that I know who have struggled in homes impacted by mental illness.” 

That project is now a movie in post-production called, “As Sick as They Made Us,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Candice Bergen. Along with working on getting the movie out, she’s also starring on her FOX show “Call Me Kat” and filming episodes of “Jeopardy!”  

“I would love to be the permanent host of ‘Jeopardy!’ ’Jeopardy!’ is a place where intellect is celebrated and wisdom reigns supreme. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m happy to continue working on it and see what comes next.”

“I would love to be the permanent host of ‘Jeopardy!’” she said. “’Jeopardy!’ is a place where intellect is celebrated and wisdom reigns supreme. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m happy to continue working on it and see what comes next.”

Recently, one of the categories on the show was called “Sabbath,” and a question that came up was about making cholent on Shabbat: “Exodus 35:3 bans doing this on the Sabbath, hence the Jewish dish ‘cholent,’ which can go on the stove Friday and cook until Saturday lunch.”

One contestant answered, “What is cooking?” and another answered, “What is work?” but both were wrong. Bialik corrected them: “What is ‘lighting a fire?’”

“I didn’t write the question about cholent,” Bialik said, laughing. “There are a variety of categories about literally anything that exists. I learn new words and facts and I get to test my knowledge as well.”

What keeps Bialik grounded — whether she’s wrapped up in the scandal of the day or simply living her life – is her Jewish faith.  

“I have a conscious awareness of the God of my people that I carry around with me,” said Bialik. “I find opportunities to pray throughout the day. I feel very motivated by my religious and cultural tradition. My humor has been touched by people who come from my history. I don’t drink caffeine. I half jokingly say that I am powered by the Lord. It’s kind of true.” 

With her belief in a higher power, she can put aside all the controversy and the stresses and focus on what truly matters: making a contribution to the world. 

“My ultimate goal for my life is to continue my personal growth and make a positive impact both in my family and in a larger way,” she said. “I also want to walk humbly, and listen for the voice of God.”

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