Comedian Joel Chasnoff sits across from me at Mel’s Diner on Sunset Boulevard. It’s early – too early – but Chasnoff is wide-awake.
It’s not just because Chasnoff, 36, is on New York time (Chasnoff resides in the Bronx with his Israeli wife and their three daughters).
No, Chasnoff is excited to discuss his first book, “The 188th Crybaby Brigade,” a politically keen but ultimately humanist memoir about how he spent a year fighting as a tank gunner in the Israeli Defense Forces and did one tour of duty in Lebanon.
In other interviews I’ve done with comedians, they try hard to be funny. They even tell jokes and try to pass them off like they just came up with them on the spot. Thankfully, Chasnoff doesn’t do that. He’s just a smart guy who decided to do something different when he was 24 and then wrote about it.
“Are we officially on?” says Chasnoff, leaning over a cup of tea and speaking into my mini recorder.
What follows is an abridged transcript of the interview:
Chasnoff: I’ve always said that this book is not about military operations. It’s about people. It’s about the guys in the platoon. It’s about what it means to be a Jew.
Jewish Journal: While you were in the army, did you know you were going to write it?
JC: About halfway through it occurred to me that I had a story. Every night, I made it a point [to] write at least one sentence about that day. Often it would be pages, like in Lebanon. There was so much downtime.
JJ: In certain sections, the book seems anti-war and anti-Israel. You portray an Israeli army that is, at times, reckless and inept. In certain passages, you depict the war against Hezbollah as without clearly defined goals. Was that your intention?
JC: I set out to write a personal, true story that’s honest as possible. My feelings are on the page.
I love Israel. I don’t want Israel to look bad. But that’s the thing: If Israel is going to grow, books like this need to come out.
JJ: Do you think it was a traumatic experience?
JC: Some of [it] was traumatic.
JJ: It certainly sounded traumatic. There’s a point during your intense training where you’ve just had it. You call your father and you tell him you want out. But you cut it off there. You don’t say how your dad responded.
JC: [That was] my point. My dad was incapable of saying anything. All through my childhood, my dad’s been powerful, overbearing and always had something to say. [He] always knew the answer. Whenever I had a girlfriend in high school and we broke up, my dad would be like, “Oh, I knew you didn’t belong together.” He always knew.
JJ: How true was the dialogue to how the conversations actually happened?
JC: [Author] Dave Eggers, in “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” has an incredible introduction to the book where he explains the things that were changed and had to be molded to make the book work. You remember the conversation [and] construct it so that it’s readable.
JJ: Right. Eggers omitted all the times that people said “dude.”
JC: Exactly. That’s my favorite book of all time. I’ve reread it so many times that I feel like I almost know it by heart, or at least sections by heart. Every time I read it, I read something that I forgot was there.
JJ: How do you view Israel now, when you go? How does it feel?
JC: I can go without the sense of guilt I had as a kid. I’m not saying every American Jew needs to feel guilty if they haven’t served in the army. I always felt a little wrong going there, seeing soldiers, calling Israel my homeland but letting them do the work. I feel absolved of that guilt. I can complain about the country when I want to. I’ve given something to it.
It’s a complicated relationship. It’s like a relationship with a woman. At first, you’re struck by her beauty. Then, when you get to know the person, it’s a little more nuanced and complicated, but the love is deeper.
JJ: Do you know if you took any lives in Lebanon?
JC: In the book there’s this story with a dog that we inadvertently kill in Lebanon. It was kind of a fiasco. The truth of the matter is that there’s always a small, small part of me that has not been 100-percent sure if it was a dog. Maybe it was a human being. I included that in [an earlier draft, but] the editor felt I was introducing a whole new topic. So we left it out.
I’m 99.9 % certain that it was a dog [and that] I didn’t kill another human being. But there is that small chance. Every once in a while I think about it but no so often.
JJ: Do you ever regret joining?
JC: Not at all. I look back at it as one of the defining experiences of my life.
JJ: There is a passage with one of your fellow soldiers holding a gun to his head and contemplating suicide. Did you worry that the serious passages like that one would not come across as seriously as they should, placed in the midst of comedy.
JC: It’s funny. When I do readings of the book, I usually start off with a funny reading from early on in basic training. Then I usually finish with Lebanon. There’s a section where I describe how an officer mistakenly kills his own soldier in Lebanon. Sometimes people laugh. There is something to be said about being primed for comedy and not realizing it’s tragedy.
JJ: I’ve heard the book might be turned into a film.
JC: I think every book has a chance of being turned into a film. It would take the right people. War movies in general aren’t a big draw. The key is to make a film about people and relationships, not a war film.
JJ: Do you think American Jews should join the army?
JC: If you want to help Israel, it’s not the best way. I could have been a teacher for low-income children. That would have been a better way to help.
I’ve gotten emails from people who have read the book and said, “I was thinking about joining. What do you think? Should I do it?” I haven’t written back yet. I’ve been thinking about how to answer.
JJ: You said that the book is about what it means to be a Jew. It seemed like such a big deal to you, emotionally, that your mom was only a convert. I read it and thought, ‘Big deal. His mom converted.’
JC: I have a hang up about conversion. So much about Judaism is our history. We are defined by the exodus from Egypt. All these Bible stories define who we are. Can you just sign papers, dunk yourself in water and suddenly all that history is yours? I’ve always felt like I didn’t fully belong.
JJ: You touch on racial and class issues between the Ashkenazi Jews and the Sephardic Jews.
JC: [And] the Russians.
JJ: Were you hesitant about including that?
JC: I was. It’s something you need to treat tenderly. On the one hand, I want readers to know that I wasn’t just going to cheer Israel on and not confront any of the domestic issues. The class issue is one that Americans don’t think about. We think about Israel [and] we think about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, [but] not so much about domestic issues. On the other hand, it could easily turn into a generalization that makes it look worse than it actually is. I had to do it carefully.
JJ: What are your plans now?
JC: I don’t know. It’s very strange. For the past three years, this book has been my life. I’ve always wanted to study in yeshiva for a year in Israel. It might be the year to do it soon.
To read the Jewish Journal review of Chasnoff’s book, click here.