Mayim Bialik assembles a very Jewish cast in her directorial debut J. – The Jewish News of Northern California

Posted By on April 11, 2022

Mayim Bialik has become arguably the most visible Jewish face on TV, thanks to her gig hosting Jeopardy! and her presence on ever-present The Big Bang Theory reruns. But for her latest project, As They Made Us, Bialik stepped behind the camera to write and direct a semi-autobiographical, low-key melodrama about a Jewish family encountering death and dysfunction.

Will it have tearjerker moments? Well, itisproduced by Chicken Soup for the Soul (via its film distribution arm, Screen Media).

Dianna Agronof Glee fame plays Abigail, a divorced mother and full-time print magazine writer who is somehow still able to afford a sparkling house. The generic Jewish publication that employs her, titled The Modern Jew (no joke), must pay quite well although her mother Barbara (Candace Bergen) demands to know why she hasnt gotten a cover story yet.

Barbara is like that, needling and poking in her adult daughters life like many a Jewish mother, spreading ill will about others while blind to the troubles at her own doorstep: namely, that her husband Eugene (Dustin Hoffman, alternating between his cuddly and abrasive personas) has a degenerative illness. Hes gotta eat more! an in-denial Barbara yells at the doctor trying to convince her he needs hospice care. Maybe if you gave him an enema he would make room for more food.

This is a family story, so the drama focuses on interpersonal dynamics and long-held grudges. There are many flashbacks to Abigails younger days living under her parents roof, where we see that her father, a failed novelist who always regretted settling down with a family, was often physically abusive to his children. Bialik, whohad the cast and crew recognize the Sabbathwhile on set,told the Jewish Telegraphic Agencys sister publication Kvellerthat she wrote the script in the aftermath of her own fathers death, shortly before Passover 2015.

Bialik casts her Big Bang Theory co-star Simon Helberg as Abbys brother Nathan, a hipster academic who, owing to his childhood trauma, has avoided his parents his entire adult life leaving Abby to clean up their messes. We assume at first that Nathans central anger lies with their father for his explosive outbursts, but in fact it becomes clear their moms endless insults did the more lasting damage: His wreckage was tangible. Hers was so insidious and disturbing.

Judaism becomes a quiet stabilizing force in the story, with Abby pushing her kids to saythe Shema prayerevery night before bed even as her world crumbles around her, and Agrons character wearing Bialiks own Star of David necklace throughout the film. (The household appears not to keep kosher, but there are hand-drawn menorahs taped on the walls.) When grief enters the story in its third act, the Shema comes out againas does a Yiddish song, Voz Geven Iz Geven Un Nito, that has been a lullaby in multiple generations of Bialiks family.

We never learn why Abby got divorced, although we can gather her parents didnt exactly model a healthy marriage for her. In this and other ways, the subtleties of the films family dynamics can be quiet as a whisper. Bialik admits that one aspect of the familys tension, the fact that Abigail is more religiously observant than her parents, goes largely unaddressed in the film, telling Kveller, Thats a whole other movie. Still, the one we have will likely feel familiar to many a Jewish family that has encountered grief and strife.

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Mayim Bialik assembles a very Jewish cast in her directorial debut J. - The Jewish News of Northern California

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