The first thing you need to know about Joel Chasnoff’s “The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid From Chicago Fights Hezbollah” (Free Press, $25) is that it’s laugh-out-loud funny. It was tough for the rest of my household to concentrate on “The Bachelor” for all of my chortles and guffaws, and I was repeatedly asked: “What are you reading?”
But you also need to know that Chasnoff, a stand-up comedian from Chicago who joined the Israel Defense Forces and served as a tank gunner in Lebanon, is not just telling jokes here. He has some serious and even shocking things to say about Israel and its relationship with American Jews, and I promise you that you will not think about your own Jewishness in quite the same way after you finish his smart, funny and provocative book.
Chasnoff is exactly the right guy to conduct the American reader on a tour of Israel. Raised in the suburbs as a Conservative Jew, he reminds us that buying Israel bonds and picking up a Glilon assault rifle are quite different ways of supporting the Jewish state. “When I told my father I wanted to join the Israeli army, he slammed both hands on the table and yelled, ‘What?’ ” writes Chasnoff. “From across the table, my father glared at me like I’d just announced that I was Republican. And Muslim. And gay.”
Chasnoff’s Israeli girlfriend was even less enthusiastic: “Real Israelis are animals,” she warned him. “They’ll eat you alive.” And the immigration officer at the Israeli consulate in New York asked: “Are you out of your goddamn mind?”
Chasnoff sets out to replace the image of Israel that we see on posters and postcards with a hard dose of reality. He shows us a selection of combat rations, which includes two sets of utensils, a kosher version of Spam and chocolate spread in cans stamped “KOSHER FOR PASSOVER — 1985.” We hear army slang, which includes a good many words you never heard in shul; Chasnoff usefully provides a glossary where you can look up the words. He observes that officers tend to be Ashkenazim while “[t]he highest-ranking dark-skinned guy I’ve seen at the Armored School is the barber.” And he explains that observant Jewish soldiers, whom he calls “the Yeshiva Boys,” are not given time off for prayers and must skip meals if they want to daven: “Who knew it would be so tough to be a Jew in the Jewish army?”
So the IDF is hardly lionized in the pages of Chasnoff’s book, but the “insanities” that he describes — including the shirkers in his training unit who inspired the title of the book — can be found in any army. Chasnoff is likened to “Woody Allen channeling Leon Uris” in one of the blurbs on the back cover of his book, but it is far more accurate to say that he stands in the tradition of Joseph Heller, author of “Catch-22,” a civilian who bravely does his duty while fully aware of the absurdities of war. Clearly, Chasnoff is going for more than yucks when he reveals that his tank unit was forbidden to fire on Hezbollah commandos because they happened to be in a “Closed Fire Zone” but was later ordered to launch a $5,000 missile at a stray dog that showed up on the night-vision targeting screen of their tank.
Indeed, the historical weight and meaning of wearing the uniform of a Jewish soldier are not lost on Chasnoff, and he is far more sentimental than his comrades-in-arms about the heartbreaking photographs on display at Yad Vashem when his unit is sent there on a field trip. His fellow soldiers cheer because the trip means “three less hours of push-ups, wind sprints, and Platoon Sergeant Guy busting our balls,” not to mention the ice cream on sale at the coffee shop next to the Walk of the Martyrs. For
Chasnoff, however, it is a life-changing experience.
“Standing here in Yad Vashem in my olive-green uniform,” he writes, “I feel absolved of the Holocaust guilt I’ve been carrying since grade school. Finally, I don’t have to whisper, ‘Never again’ — I am Never Again!”
But, as it turns out, there is a catch, and, not unlike “Catch-22,” it is a thoroughly crazy-making one.
Chasnoff was Jewish enough to serve in the IDF, but when he and his fiancée start planning their wedding, his Jewishness is suddenly challenged by the religious authorities. His mother was a convert to Judaism, and even though the conversion was conducted by an Orthodox rabbi, the Rabbinical Council in Tel Aviv has gone to the trouble of determining that she prepared for the ceremony by studying with a Conservative rabbi. “Which means that according to the state of Israel,” says the municipal rabbi, “you’re not a Jew.”
The book ends on a funnier and happier note, but Chasnoff leaves us thinking about the ironies that he regards as nothing less than a life-and-death matter for the survival of Israel: “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,” he concludes.
“Israel’s future, if it has one, depends on all the reject-Jews they’ve been pushing away from the table.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author of 13 books, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and blogs at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve. He can be reached at email@example.com.