‘Meadow Soprano’ explores her Jewish spirit in Israel

Meadow Soprano, Jewish?

“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 during her recent visit to Israel 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 said.

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, I would want to move here and join the army, [too],” said Sigler, her face dominated by a pair of large designer sunglasses.

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.

A Jewish ‘Sopranos’?

In my house last Sunday evening Tony Soprano easily defeated Anne Frank as “must-see TV.” Yes, even in the home of committed Jews, the rancid affairs of a New Jersey Mafia family beat out the young girl of the Holocaust. The question is, why?

All season long my friends and I, Jewish boomers, have followed and then avidly discussed the gangster Sopranos, whose patriarch, Tony (James Gandolfini) endures the slights of his own mother, suffers panic attacks and sees a therapist, Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) while conducting his nefarious business at the Bada Bing Club.

For a week or two, after Dr. Melfi’s graphic rape and the particularly hideous murder of a pregnant prostitute by one of Tony’s low-lifes, we swore off watching the HBO series, protesting its gratuitous violence. But we came back, as did much of upscale America, in time to see Meadow Soprano’s gloomy affair with a Jewish African-American student and Uncle Junior’s struggle with chemotherapy.

It never occurred to me to forego the season finale, though I didn’t expect its competition to be an updated realistic portrait of the Jewish girl with the diary in which Anne’s father, Otto, is played by Ben Kingsley.

Yet after watching the conclusion of “Anne Frank” on ABC Monday night, a story that concludes with a heart-breaking descent into the concentration camp, I see the truth behind my own instincts. In such small choices we discern the changing nature of Jewish life and the meaning of our history in America today.

First, I was struck by the superficial similarities between the Frank and Soprano domestic situations.

The Franks are hidden from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic and soon are part of a new extended family, rife with suspicion, hysteria and misunderstanding. So too are the Sopranos in hiding, not only from the FBI and police but from non-Mafia Americans who might mistake their ethics; in their extended clan betrayal is the name of the game.

Otto Frank and his wife, Edith, don’t get along much better than Carmela and Tony. Anne is just as attracted to her attic-mate Peter as Meadow Soprano is to Jackie Jr., son of Tony’s late friend Jackie Aprile.

Otto is guilt-ridden over not getting his daughters to freedom. Tony, likewise, is beset with how his own crime career affects his wayward son, A.J.

Of course the Sopranos are fiction and guilty. The Franks are real and innocent. But those are not the telling differences. One is old-world drama fearing big government; the other is new-world drama, in which life’s problems come down to class and self.

Of course we must continue to retell the story of Anne Frank, as each generation learns the horror of the Holocaust and the death of innocents, with the caveat “never again.”

But if Anne Frank, great, sweeping and tragic as her story is, is the only story about Jews that TV understands, then we’ll all be victims of the remote control.

It’s not only out of respect to the Six Million that television continues to rely on Holocaust dramas for Jewish life, it’s a failure of nerve and the imagination. We can ask if our community would tolerate stories in which the Jewish religious world duels with the realities of government and/or business as the Sopranos must. The dearth of Jewish characters on television today suggests otherwise, that we have painted ourselves into a corner called self-righteousness.

Not so long ago, Isaac Bashevis Singer won a large audience by portraying the dramatic conflicts of the religious life, including the passions that push devout people to go over the line. His stories were populated by ghosts of destroyed Eastern European Jewish worlds, but they were deeply rooted in the now.

If we want to get to the contemporary moment, we have to be ready for the bombshells. Jewish crime did not end with “Once Upon a Time in America.” The newspapers tell us that we are not removed from the human dilemma: a rabbi is charged with a murder for hire; another is accused of sexual abuse; a religious husband traps his wife in a loveless marriage. Certainly we understand that commitment to a religious life does not end one’s fight with temptation, but in a way it only begins the battle. In our fictions we can know ourselves.

I’d love to see a weekly script dealing with the conflicts between an observant family and contemporary life. How do we read the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and then handle labor negotiations? How does a patriarch, knowledgeable about the laws of Leviticus, control sexual jealousy? Last week, in the portion Behar, there is a warning about dealings in real estate, with the warning repeated, “Do not wrong one another, but fear your God.” There’s a plot device right there.

Are we ready for a Jewish “Sopranos”?