Sunday, May 1, 2011
Jamie Lynn Sigler on Taglit-Birthright Israel
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"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. 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. She further noted that the trip gave her a greater understanding to preserve her Jewish identity and, after talks with Israeli soldiers who were also participants on the trip, she expressed solidarity towards the efforts of the young soldiers.
"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. As a Birthright alumna, Sigler speaks of how the trip has transformed her relationship to Judaism and Israel, and now advocates for Birthright in speaking engagements and interviews around the US.