Mayim Bialik, a neuroscientist, actor, author, mom and vlogger best known for her role as Amy Farrah Fowler in the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” visited Pittsburgh last weekend to demonstrate solidarity with the city’s Jewish community. Spurred by the events of Oct. 27, Bialik reached out shortly after the massacre to offer condolences and assistance. Through discussions with Pittsburgh’s Jewish communal leaders, it was determined the actor’s presence would be most appreciated months later. So last week Bialik traveled from Los Angeles to the Steel City for Shabbat and a series of weekend programs with local organizations.
In an interview prior to her arrival, Bialik said that although this was her first trip to Pittsburgh, she was excited to learn more about the city’s quirks and charm.
“I sort of read as much as I could” about Squirrel Hill, she said, in the days following Oct. 27. “What I can say is that everybody seems like they know each other, and it seems like a giant family.”
These impressions were confirmed by her interactions with representatives of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh.
“I think it’s the greatest collaboration I’ve ever witnessed. It’s really, really sweet,” she said.
After arriving on Friday afternoon, Bialik visited Hillel JUC and met with student leaders from Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pittsburgh, Chatham University, Duquesne University and Community College of Allegheny County. The pre-sunset event featured vegan appetizers from Elegant Edge Catering and enabled a blend of structured and informal engagement. Prior to Bialik’s address, in which she related childhood anecdotes, her belief in the importance of Jewish communal life and Hillel’s significance in forging her Jewish identity, she took photos with attendees.
“My first thought is, ‘Oh my gosh, I just met Amy Farrah Fowler,’” said Carolyn Brodie, president of Pitt Hillel. “She’s really cool. It was so nice of her to donate her time. She’s just like a normal person. It’s really great that she’s doing something so nice for us.”
“The students had a really hard semester last semester, and I think it was such a generous act of her to decide to come and to bring her presence as a comfort to the students,” said Danielle Kranjek, Hillel JUC’s senior Jewish educator.
Following the Friday afternoon event, Bialik and the group walked to Rodef Shalom Congregation, where more than 200 college students enjoyed a vegan Shabbat dinner — Bialik is the author of “Mayim’s Vegan Table: More Than 100 Great-Tasting and Healthy Recipes From My Family to Yours.”
For college students, the value of spending time with Bialik is that she is able to share “a powerful message of Jewish identity and belonging that gives them a sense that they’re part of a greater Jewish peoplehood,” said Dan Marcus, Hillel JUC’s executive director.
Shabbat morning, she attended services at Shaare Torah Congregation. On Saturday night, she participated in a Shalom Pittsburgh event, and on Sunday she spoke with a group from the JCC.
The functions featured “four very different kinds of talks,” said Bialik. “I want people to take out of [the talk] what is meaningful to them.”
But she was also interested in dialogue. So while listeners gleaned aspects of Bialik’s Jewish journey, discovered an insider’s look at Hollywood or heard from a neuroscientist — she doesn’t just play one on TV — the actor said it was an honor for her to learn more about Pittsburgh and its inhabitants. And visiting Jewish places allowed her to share the Jewish facets of her life as well, she said, whether “joy, destruction, my personal experience or being a person touched by aspects of what it’s like to be Jewish and vulnerable in our society.”
Similarly, for those interested in neuroscience, she was ready to discuss that subject, too, and she was certainly qualified: Bialik got her Ph.D. from UCLA in 2007, with a focus on psychoneuroendocrinology.
Having studied PTSD as part of her thesis research, she now gets easily annoyed when she hears the term employed incorrectly. “Once we kind of learn a term, it becomes like part of pop culture in a lot of ways. One of the blessings and curses of being a neuroscientist is that I have very low tolerance for the misuse of medical terms.”
For the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, she said, PTSD “is a real thing.”
These days, Bialik feels like her scientist self and her actor self are closely related. “It becomes part of your worldview. You know, it’s kind of like, if you’re an artist, a painter or something, you see life differently. It’s kind of like that when you become a scientist. Even if you don’t live as a neurologist or, you know, practice, even if you’re a stay at home parent, that information that you have is with you always, so it kind of just becomes a part of my parenting, a part of my existence. It’s just part of who I am.”
Bialik’s visit was gratifying to those who met with her. Teddi Horvitz, a staffer at the JCC’s Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement, who organized Sunday’s event, enjoyed learning about Bialik’s journey.
“She understands being part of a community,” Horvitz said.
Even more impressive than the narrative may have been Bialik herself, said Rebecca Knoll, who hosted Bialik while she was here.
“She was just incredibly approachable. She came here to really support the community, not in a showy way, in a way that was just really low-key and authentic. I think she is just an incredibly genuine person.”
Bialik, who refused to accept any money for her visit, stayed with the Knoll family throughout the weekend.
“It was like having your favorite first cousin who came over who happens to be off the charts smart, a comedic genius, fun, kind, genuine and all good things,” said Dovid Knoll.
On Sunday, shortly before heading to the airport, Bialik made two final stops. She toured the Tree of Life building and visited first responders at Zone 4 in Squirrel Hill.
“That’s what Mayim Bialik is,” said Knoll. “She’s just super in every way.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org