Jamie Lynn Sigler 224.
(photo credit: Dina Kraft / JTA)
"Everyone assumes I'm Italian," says Jamie Lynn Sigler, 26, with a sigh, pausing over her hummus lunch at the open-air market in Jaffa, one of the stops on her birthright israel tour. "Even kids on the trip keep asking, 'Are you Jewish?'"
Sigler, who played the daughter of Mafia kingpin Tony Soprano on the acclaimed HBO show "The Sopranos," grew up in a Jewish home in Jericho, N.Y., going to Hebrew school and having a bat mitzvah.
Her father's family immigrated to America from Greece and Poland. Her mother, who is Puerto Rican, converted to Judaism.
But it was only touring in Israel, during her recent visit to the country, that she said she felt a true spiritual and emotional connection to her roots.
"It's one of the most beautiful, inspiring places I've ever been to," Sigler said. "I now have a greater understanding and motivation about preserving my Jewishness."
Among the highlights she noted were riding camels in the desert, dining on roast lamb in a Bedouin tent and exploring the back alleys of Jerusalem's Old City.
Sigler said she was especially moved during her visits to the Western Wall, where she was surprised by her tears, and to Yad Vashem, where the Holocaust and its history suddenly felt deeply personal.
"I started to think, 'What if I was there, what if I had been ripped away from my family?' " she told JTA.
Sigler said Israel had been a fairly abstract concept before the trip, with her images limited to the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict portrayed in the media.
On the birthright trip, which brings Diaspora young people between 18 and 26 to Israel for free 10-day tours, her group was accompanied part of the time by a small group of Israeli soldiers.
Through them, Sigler said she heard about a much different life than the one she and her friends lead in America. She was taken by their sacrifices and the pride they have in their country and history.
"It's so different but so inspiring to be part of that," said Sigler, her face dominated by a pair of large designer sunglasses. "I would want to move here and join the army" too.
She bonded quickly with the other birthright participants; Sigler and her new friends kidded about returning to Israel together and renting apartments in the same building.
She compared these fast and seamless friendships to her experience with the cast and crew of "The Sopranos."
"It's a similar dynamic - people loving what they are doing," she said.
Sigler acknowledged it's been difficult realizing that the show, considered to be among the seminal works of television drama, is finally over after six seasons. She has plans to move to Los Angeles and continue her acting career.
So would Tony have allowed Meadow to come to Israel?
"Probably not," she says.
Her friend, noting that Tony's mob rivals were out to kill him by the end of the series, interjects: "What are you talking about? It's probably safer for Meadow in Israel than near her father."
Sigler laughs, saying that's probably true.