June 30, 2013
The Challenge of Defining Who is a Jew and What is an Israeli Today – A Book Review
"The 188th Crybaby Brigade – A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah," by Joel Chasnoff (publ. 2010) is a well-written, insightful, at times hysterically funny memoir of a young American Yeshiva bucher who sought to live the complete modern Jewish experience while shedding the Diaspora coat of victimhood. He made aliyah, enlisted in the Israeli army, did basic training, was chosen “Outstanding Soldier of the Platoon,” fought the Hezbollah as a tank commander in Lebanon, and got engaged to a beautiful Israeli woman.
One would think that he had arrived. But not so fast!
Joel’s army experience was not what he expected. He was, in fact, disheartened by the capricious, nasty, sadistic, and dehumanizing treatment of recruits by some of the commanders. Yet, after three weeks of training he reflected that
“…mandatory army service is the reason why Israelis are the way they are: aggressive, hotheaded, and stubborn on the one hand, and, on the other, unbelievably generous and community minded. It’s because these are army values. And since just about every Israeli comes of age in the army, these values become national values.”
When he finished his service, Joel and his fiancé Dorit sought out an Israeli Orthodox rabbi to officiate at their wedding, but upon inquiring into Joel’s family past, the rabbi said, “You are not a Jew!”
As Joel and Dorit sat there bewildered, the rabbi explained that though Joel’s mother had converted before he was born with an American Orthodox rabbi, she was instructed by a Conservative rabbi who “practiced an invalid brand of Judaism.”
Dorit was furious, and, pounding her fist on the desk, shouted, “A young man risks his life for the Jewish state, and you have the chutzpah to say [he’s not a Jew]… Rabbi, did your sons serve in the army?... You don’t mind if he dies for your country, so long as he doesn’t get married here.”
Joel was devastated: “It’s as if my entire identity just got kicked in the nuts, and then it hits me: As far as this country is concerned, I’m a Gentile….I was enraged at how Israel had stabbed me in the back.”
He then reflected about his identity and Israel’s dilemma:
“I was a Jew, through and through. I couldn’t reinvent myself if I tried…. I’m not the one [however] with the identity crisis. Israel is. I know exactly who I am, but after two generations in which Israel defined itself as a post-Holocaust haven from antiSemitism – in other words, the past – Israel now faces a much greater challenge: defining its future. In the meantime, the country has no idea who it is. It’s a democracy with no separation between church and state. It’s a sovereign nation with only one rigidly defined border: the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a Jewish state where observant Jewish soldiers have to choose between breakfast and prayers, where the most religious Jews don’t even have to serve in the army, and where the criteria for getting drafted aren’t enough to get you buried in the military graveyard. The country is confused. Meanwhile, at the top of the pyramid is this tiny group of rabbis who think they’re Kings of the Jews and therefore get to decide who’s in and whose out. But the Kings of the Jews are out of touch, because they fail to realize that Israel’s future, if it has one, depends on all the reject-Jews they’ve been pushing away from the table: the half-Jews and intermarried Jews, the queer and bi Jews, the women rabbis and young, freethinking Israelis who crave spirituality, not just restrictions, and the children of supposedly illegitimate converts, like me.” (p. 255-256)
The author articulates the central challenge of the Jewish people and State of Israel today. Who are we and what are we becoming? Are we stuck in the past governed by narrow religious definitions and extremist politics, or are we inclusive of all religious streams, expansive in our thinking and moving forward?
Despite his feelings, Joel decided to convert, but admitted:
“The stage in my life where I could innocently take for granted that I belonged to the Jewish people simply by virtue of being me-when I dunked in the water, that part of my life ended and a piece of me died. Even though I chose to convert, I’m furious at Israel for forcing me to choose, for humiliating me, for making me stand naked before three rabbis. I’m also furious at myself for going through with it, because by dunking in that pool, I accepted their claim that it is they, not I, who get to determine who I am.”
Joel and Dorit married and now live in Chicago. Their decision to leave Israel is a great loss for the State.