Jonathan Cohen and Mayim Bialik, co-hosts of the podcast Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown, help launch the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign on Sept. 8. (PR photo)
Television viewers watched Mayim Bialik grow up, most notably as the character Blossom Russo on the series Blossom, and in a string of other TV and movie roles, including playing the child version of Bette Midler’s character in Beaches. More recently, Bialik has been nominated four times for an Emmy Award for her role in The Big Bang Theory and it was announced last month that she and Ken Jennings will jointly fill the late Alex Trebek’s shoes as hosts of the game show Jeopardy.
But, when Bialik speaks to a Vancouver audience Sept. 8, she will not be acting or holding the cards with all the answers. She will be opening up about an issue that is close to her own experience: mental health.
Bialik is one of three headliners at the opening event of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign. She will be beamed in live from Los Angeles, along with her podcast partner Jonathan Cohen. They co-host Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown, which is described as “a quirky, informative and interactive podcast breaking down the myths and misunderstandings about mental health and emotional well-being.” While the pair will join from Los Angeles, live on stage at Congregation Beth Israel will be Fran Drescher.
Best known for her titular role in the 1990s sitcom The Nanny, Drescher is also an accomplished producer and author who has won several awards in the health field. Only recently, she has begun to open up about the traumas and major health issues she experienced earlier in her life, including those she says she never adequately dealt with at the time. At the campaign launch, she will reflect on how important mental health issues are to overall well-being.
In a recent interview with the Independent, Bialik and Cohen shared some of their vision and a little of what audiences can expect when they speak. Mental wellness is a core theme of the opening event, in part because these issues have become more pervasive due to stress, uncertainty and isolation caused by the pandemic. Bialik has been open about her own experiences with these challenges.
“I think one of the things about mental health is, depending on what you’re dealing with, there can be a lot of isolation,” Bialik said. “Talking about it, and being part of challenging the stigma, I think, makes you feel less alone. I definitely feel less alone. A lot of my fears around my challenges have definitely gotten less. I have less fear about talking openly about it. I think that’s really made an impact on me.”
On the podcast, she and Cohen discuss their personal experiences, welcome experts and also introduce a buzzy crowd of celebrities like Sarah Silverman, Dustin Hoffman, Margaret Cho and Howie Mandel. Topics include managing anxiety, overcoming trauma, alternative medicine, body positivity, grief and gratitude.
A lot of the time, Bialik said, people tell her and Cohen that the show raises questions viewers didn’t know they needed to ask, or that they didn’t have the ability to express to their medical professional – or maybe they do not have access to professional care.
“We are not doctors of that sort, we’re not looking to make diagnoses,” she said. “But, in sharing our experience, a lot of people are hearing their stories and that’s been really, really very powerful. We’ve had some incredible interactions with some of our fans. One of the reasons that we do a lot of giveaways and things like that is it creates a sense of community and it lets people know that we are real people behind our microphones.”
They hope to hear from audience members in Vancouver.
“We really want to have an interactive component to the evening because, for us, we are very interested in other people’s stories and we really enjoy that part of our podcast,” said Bialik. “So we’re excited to bring that to an audience live and be able to share, and also hear what other people want to share. We are also quite funny together – we think so, but other people have told us that as well – so it will be a way for us to show how we use our humour to interact and especially discuss difficult things like mental health.”
In addition to the podcast, the pair have pitched a few TV pilots, which have yet to get picked up, but they have more up their sleeves.
“It’s been a very fun partnership and we have lots of ideas of ways we’d like to change the world,” she said.
“We also both like to explain things,” said Cohen, “which sometimes makes us compete for airtime, but usually results in a further understanding of something.”
They both balked jokingly when asked if they were drawn together by their “nerdy” pursuits. Bialik is a neuroscientist and Cohen’s expertise is artificial intelligence.
“Neuroscientists and people in AI are the new superstars,” said Cohen.
“It’s not really nerdy,” Bialik insisted with a laugh.
But seriously, she continued: “Really, when we started talking again and connecting again, [that] was when we started realizing how much we had in common in terms of our interest in science and mind and body.”
Bialik is tough to pigeonhole. A mother, a scientist, an actor, an author, a game show host, a proud Jew, a vocal Zionist – she doesn’t feel a need to choose between her complex identities.
“I don’t know if it was ever really a question of settling for just one,” she said. “I’m a mother and I think that is the role I most enjoy personally. In terms of professional activities, I really did enjoy being a scientist and the knowledge that I acquired does not go away just because I’m not a full-time scientist. I do love advocating for causes that are important for me. I love writing. I do love writing. I guess it’s hard to pick just one.”
Hosting Jeopardy is a very different kind of job than being an actor, she acknowledged.
“I obviously have to be myself, but I have producers and judges talking in my ear the whole time, so it’s a big division of attention and that can be hard,” she said. “It’s a lot of really difficult words to pronounce, which I do get to practise a little bit that morning before we tape each set of episodes, but [it’s] very, very different and you have to be ready for anything because anything really does and can happen at Jeopardy.”
As one of Hollywood’s most visible Zionists, Bialik has been a lightning rod for anti-Zionism and antisemitism. But that’s not new, she said.
“The fact is, I’ve been dealing with antisemitism and anti-Zionism for decades in my professional presence,” Bialik said. “I will say that the climate of North America has definitely shifted.… [But] for me, it’s always been an issue. It’s one I was raised to know about and be aware of. I think I’m more touched, as many of us are, by the increase in antisemitic acts, and violent acts especially, against Jews. As someone who has been going to Israel and continues to go to Israel – I’ve been probably a dozen times – that’s always something on my radar. There’s definitely been more of this kind of hatred and activity and specifically targeting me. But it’s also been something that I’ve always had to think about.”
The Thursday, Sept. 8, Federation annual campaign launch at Beth Israel starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets, $18, are at jewishvancouver.ca.