‘Have you been in the army? Do you want to review this book?’ the books editor asked me with skepticism in her voice, as if the burned out hulk staring at her could ever have been a soldier.
“As a matter of fact, I have,” I responded, recalling the four months of shlav bet basic training I endured many years ago, along with 100 other out-of-shape 30-year-olds. If that was the criterion for reviewing The 188th Crybaby Brigade by Joel Chasnoff, then I was up
for the task.
One of the recurring thoughts I had during my army service and subsequent 15 years of reserve duty was “I hope that there are other units of the army who know what they’re doing.” It turns out that Chasnoff, a comedian and writer living in New York, was thinking along the same lines.
The cover didn’t look promising – with a graphic of a soldier stuck upside down in a tank and a subtitle of “A skinny Jewish kid from Chicago fights Hizbullah.” It sounded like it was going to be a simplistic, gung-ho book of slapstick about an idealistic American with two left feet who finds himself like a fish out of water in the IDF.
It turns out that while the last part proved right, The 188th Crybaby Brigade
is anything but simplistic and gung ho. It is, however, hilarious – one of the funniest books you’ll ever read about the sometimes absurd alternative reality of the IDF, written by an idealistically Zionist Conservative Jew who, at age 24 on the brink of a career as a stand-up comic, decided to enlist for a year in the IDF’s Armored Corps and finds himself on a tour of duty in the
security zone in Lebanon.
How did he end up in tanks? Chasnoff’s childhood hero had been Yoni Netanyahu, and he was intent on following his idol’s footsteps into the paratroopers.“Paratroopers is full. How about tanks?”I cleared my throat. Dorit [his Israeli girlfriend] had warned me that part of being an Israeli soldier was knowing how to stand up for myself. “With all due respect, sir,” I said. “I came from America to be a paratrooper. I refuse to leave this office until you grant my request.”“You can go to tanks, or you can go to jail,” he said. “How about tanks?” I said.
In between the belly laughs, however, there’s an unsparing but often tender look at Israel and its maddeningly diverse collection of lunatics written by someone who obviously cares a great deal about the country and its future.
What drives the book – which is named after the nickname Chasnoff’s commander gave to the unit – is Chasnoff’s uncanny ability to nail the various idiosyncratic elements of the Israeli psyche as mirrored in the 18-year-old boys he’s thrown his lot in with for a year. And boys
they are, swearing, bickering and complaining every step of the way as they’re dragged through basic training by boys only slightly older than them.
For those who have served in the IDF, Chasnoff’s accounts of basic training snafus and characters will ring howlingly true, from the feeble attempts by fresh recruits to stand in shloshot
to the more chilling army mentality fashlot of being sent to work in the kitchen
during the lesson on how to throw a grenade, and then being told to throw a live one without any training.
The book is an unflinching roller-coaster ride encompassing a year in Chasnoff’s life that touches on the Ashkenazi-Sephardi gap, the Orthodox stranglehold on issues of religion, the cat and mouse absurdities of hunting Hizbullah fighters in Lebanon, the wisdom of whether every 18-year-old is built to go through the emotional turmoil of army service and a nifty recipe for cooking meat loaf made out of loof
on top of a tank engine.
But beware, if you’re one of those Zionists who sees everything through rose-tinted glasses, this isn’t for you. However, like Chasnoff, if you can embrace the paradoxes that make up modern-day Israel – in which one of the most commonly used descriptive terms is
an Arab curse that involves the private parts of mothers, and where soldiers goose each other on an educational visit to Yad Vashem – then Crybaby
will provide page after page of insightful, thigh-slapping adventures. Chasnoff’s memoir brims not only with wry observations,
but with poignancy and heart that only can surface from someone who has been in love with something from afar for so long, only to discover up close that it wasn’t what he expected.
It sounds like a lot of our aliya stories – some of us can cope with the realization that Israel is a work in progress, and others end up disillusioned and bitter.
The ending of The 188th Crybaby Brigade
should have had Chasnoff and his Israeli bride building a home in his adopted land and standing up to the challenges and hardships of life here with the same humor and jaundiced eye that he brought to his IDF experiences. However, this isn’t a work of fiction, and unfortunately the story of the Chicago kid who realized his dream of becoming one of the post-Holocaust Jewish heroes in green he had idolized as a kid, ends on a troubling, and somewhat maddening note.
Which is a shame, because what the reader finds embedded within the
pages of this caustic, piercing satire on the army and Israelis is a
deep, uncommon love and understanding of the country expressed by
someone whose passion for Israel is matched only by his ability to
skewer it at any opportunity.
needs more people here like Joel Chasnoff, who can see the difference
between what Israel is, and what it should be. Come back home, Joel –
we can probably even get you out of reserve duty.