The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid From Chicago Fights Hezbollah
By Joel Chasnoff
Free Press, 288 pages, $25.00.
It’s a shame Hanukkah has come and gone — the perfect gift is only just making its way into bookstores. Joel Chasnoff’s memoir, “The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid From Chicago Fights Hezbollah,” is set for release by Free Press on February 9. It’s an unusual story, humorous but not without heartbreak, told well by an intelligent and funny person.
Chasnoff attended the University of Pennsylvania and, defying the school’s predilection for turning out pre-professionals, opted to go into stand-up comedy as a career. Perhaps unsurprisingly, life after the Ivy League was not so rosy for Chasnoff: The comedic rejections and basement dungeon apartment in Brooklyn weren’t exactly what he’d envisioned for his future.
If that were the whole story, in all likelihood, Chasnoff would be doomed to the purgatory of the eternal blogosphere to tell his tale. Instead, Chasnoff, raised an observant Conservative Jew and a Zionist, decides to take matters, and a gun, into his own hands. Motivated by both a strong Jewish identity and a serious Israeli girlfriend, he enlists in the Israeli army.
But from the moment Chasnoff signs up, he has fallen through the rabbit hole. During one interaction with a man at a dog tag machine, Chasnoff laments: “Hey, I think you misspelled my name.”
“So don’t die,” the man says, and shoos him out the door.
Chasnoff is 24 when he enlists, but his peers in the Armored Tank Brigade are 18. The difference in their maturity is a Grand Canyon-sized chasm, aggravated by the fact that Chasnoff has joined the Israeli military out of conviction, unlike his peers, who are there because of conscription.
The differences yield amusing fruit. Chasnoff is great at capturing dialogue, and the language used by the boys is colorful, to say the least. Chasnoff has received a swift and thorough education in Hebrew profanity. (Writing anything these guys say to one another in a newspaper article would be unseemly.) The interactions with one another veer perilously close to slapstick comedy, ranging from the Medical Excuse Guys’ endless efforts to get out of work to the description of the soldiers eating like monkeys with their fingers.
Throughout, Chasnoff strikes a terrific balance between humor and self-effacement. He hits a wonderful note with his description of himself in uniform, on a bus during his first leave: “I’m God. No — I’m bigger than God. And badder. I’m Clint Eastwood. I’m Jesus Christ, Captain America and the Beatles…. I am the badass Israeli soldier at the side of the road, in sunglasses, beret, forearms like bricks. And honestly — have you ever seen anything quite like me?”
The book then takes a well-executed turn for the serious. In a tank-education camp, Chasnoff learns that tank soldiers have the shortest life expectancy of any soldier in the Israeli army: 17 minutes (tanks are usually easiest to bomb with artillery). Chasnoff and his crew may have even worse odds, because they’re going into Lebanon. “Sometimes, for fun, my platoon mates and I talk about our funerals,” Chasnoff jokes darkly. But it’s no joke. The platoon keeps screwing up in training, and Chasnoff even goes so far as to tell his commanding officer that the platoon is unprepared to go into Lebanon. But it’s going anyway.
On a parallel track, Chasnoff begins to have issues of Jewish identity — not the kind that result from inner turbulence, as most American Jews have, but rather those resulting from the outside world. In a discussion with the other American soldier in his unit, Tim Bailey (raised a born-again Christian, he discovered that his mother had been Jewish when he was born and that he was, therefore, a Jew), Chasnoff reveals that his own mother had converted to Judaism before he was born. To Chasnoff and his observant Conservative family, this is a nonissue.
Chasnoff plans to marry his girlfriend, Dorit, after his tumultuous service in Lebanon ends. But because his mother studied with a Conservative rabbi before being converted by an Orthodox rabbi, the Israeli rabbinate has decided that Chasnoff is not, in fact, Jewish at all.
“So in other words,” Dorit says to the Israeli Orthodox rabbi, “you don’t mind if he dies for your country, just as long as he doesn’t get married here.”
Chasnoff converts to Judaism, marries Dorit and lives to tell the tale for mass consumption. But the conversion, mandated by a state for which Chasnoff exemplified willingness to give his very life, was nothing short of infuriating to read about. In contrast, Chasnoff, in an interview, described it with a glass-is-half-full aplomb and grace.
“The one silver lining of the incident is that it allowed me to confront Judaism anew, and to see Judaism not as something thrust upon me, but something I can define a little bit for myself,” Chasnoff said. “The conversion was a logistical thing: I was dunked in water and signed the paper. It means very little to me — I’m not a changed man. I did it to correct a logistical error. But now, if I’m someone who, in a way, is choosing to be a Jew, then how do I want to define it for myself, and what does that mean? It’s something I now have a little more leeway in defining.”
But how does Chasnoff feel about the anatomy of his identity being up for public dissection? “I’m not embarrassed,” he said. “If anything, it’s important because a lot of people are going through similar questions. ‘Who is a Jew?’ is a big story.
“I think Israel needs to clean up its act in a lot of ways. I want to make an impact, and for people to think differently about who makes Jewish laws and who gets to decide who Jews are. I have no problem being the poster boy for that. This happened to me, and it was painful, and I think change is needed.”
Jordana Horn is a lawyer and writer at work on her first novel.
Read an excerpt from “The 188th Crybaby Brigade” here