IN THE FUNNIEST SCENE IN “The 188th Crybaby Brigade,” Joel Chasnoff is in sixth-grade sex education class. But his father’s the teacher.
“‘Everybody masturbates!’ my Dad shrieked with glee. My classmates erupted into explosive laughter. Then they turned to look at me.”The adolescent discovery that other guys are as perverted and immature as you are is the central motif in Chasnoff’s memoir of his year in the Israel Defense Forces’Armored Corps.
As an adolescent, Chasnoff dreams of defending the Jewish people as an IDF paratrooper.
His Zionist parents in Chicago take him to Israel and send him on youth trips; he co-leads a six-week Jewish teen tour to Poland and the Jewish state. Israel is his Elysian Fields, his Avalon, a place peopled by Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu (the slain hero of the IDF’s 1976 Entebbe rescue operation) clones. He, too, wants to be one of those muscular, hairychested heroes who selflessly put their lives on the line for the Jewish people, grim but kind, disciplined but easygoing, imbued with Zionist ideology, forging in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race.
So, at the age of 24, after college and an unsuccessful attempt to launch a stand-up comedy career in New York, he flies to Israel to join the army. The author does not specify in what year he enlisted, but it apparently was sometime in the mid- to late 1990s, before the pullout from Lebanon.
Disenchantment sets in almost immediately.
A spaced-out kid in the induction center tries to cop some drug-free urine from Chasnoff.
The induction officer, blind to Chasnoff’s chosen destiny, puts him in tanks instead of the paratroops. When he gets to tank school, he discovers to his astonishment that his comrades- at-arms are pimply kids whose overriding concerns are food, sex and sleep. They are certainly not eager to go to Lebanon to fight Hizballah, the fundamentalist Shi’ite militia.
It also transpires that the IDF, which everyone knows is the world’s strongest, leanest, but not meanest (not us!) army, is a huge bureaucracy in which more time is wasted than used wisely. Instead of getting beefed up so that he can match Hizballah’s wily guerrillas, Chasnoff finds himself doing duck-walks and getting punished for petty disciplinary infractions.
On the day he’s supposed to learn how to fire the MAG machine gun, an essential weapon mounted on every Merkava tank, he’s sent to weed his base’s garden; advanced combat training in the Golan Heights consists of hours and hours of scraping omnipresent mud off the tanks, and no real preparation for patrolling the security zone that lies north of his country’s border.
IN THE SMALLER PICTURE, HE finds that his battalion and company are run by kids four years his junior who clearly lack the maturity, foresight, and experience to take a bunch of average guys and turn them into Jewish Rambos.
“I can’t believe this is the same military that pulled off such legendary feats as the raid on Entebbe and the Six Day War,” Chasnoff writes. It’s a telling passage because Entebbe and the Six Day War are the engagements that are, for many Diaspora Jews, the be-all and end-all of Israeli military prowess. It’s the selective memory of a Diaspora people who desperately want to believe that they’ve got a clever, limber, crack army protecting them against Nazis and terrorists, an army that is always victorious.
Like red-state Republicans who blithely ignore the fact that Medicare is a successful state-run medical insurance program, many American Jews simply block out the fact that the IDF has blundered and failed many times.
Talk to a tank commander who fought at the Chinese Farm in Sinai during the Yom Kippur War; or to one of the infantry reservists who was sent into Lebanon in the summer of 2006 without basic equipment and after not having trained for three years. You’ll get a different story.
This is not to say that the IDF is not a good army – as armies go. It just means that it’s run and manned by human beings, not by legends, and that it’s an accurate reflection of the flawed society that created it.
Chasnoff has a hard time getting over that.
He keeps relapsing into mythic mode. When his unit stages a sing-along or holds an impromptu cookout, he and a fellow American in the unit can’t square it with their image of themselves as tough fighters: “Tim and I are certain the evening will be a flop. We’re Israeli combat soldiers. We carry assault rifles. We throw grenades. We’re way too cool for some hokey sing-along. But our 18-year-old comrades eat it up.”
CHASNOFF’S DISILLUSIONMENT with the army has its parallel in the Israeli civilian version of the idiotic duck walk he’s forced to do as a basic trainee.
Chasnoff’s got an Israeli girlfriend, Dorit, and they’re planning to get married. They decided on a venue, a band, all the rest – and then the rabbinate calls.
The problem is that his mother’s a convert to Judaism. She didn’t convert to get married – rather, she chose to cast her lot with the Jewish people out of spiritual and historical identification with the Torah. She was converted by an Orthodox rabbi. How much more kosher could you get? But it’s not kosher enough for Israel’s official religion czars. They discover that, while Mrs. Chasnoff was converted by an Orthodox rabbinical court, the person with whom she studied Judaism, in anticipation of her conversion, was (gasp!) a Conservative rabbi. So the rabbinate declares Mrs. Chasnoff’s conversion invalid and Joel, bereft of the Jewish mother that halakha requires, is not a Jew.
So to marry his dark-skinned Levantine sweetheart, Chasnoff has to go
back to standup comedy. He dresses up as a yeshiva boy, and goes through
his own conversion process. This involves allowing a rabbi and two
rabbinical students to hold and examine his penis. (In other parts of
the book, it’s not a rabbi who’s holding it. Despite his father’s sex
ed. lesson, Joel never quite gets over the fact that Israeli soldiers,
himself included, sometimes need to take matters in hand.)
FOLLOWING THAT EXPERIENCE, one can hardly blame Chasnoff for deciding
to decamp for America after his discharge and wedding. Still, I can’t
help but wonder whether his disabusal might have been less traumatic had
his Zionism been more prosaic. Had he come here to live rather than to
serve in the army, he might have found, as a member in good standing of
this troubled, vibrant and varied society, a way of staying here and
working to better the Jewish state rather than giving up on it in
Because, ultimately, and despite the misconception of all too many young
Diaspora men, the core of Zionism is making a life in Israel, not
serving in its army. Ironically, it’s the book’s anti-hero, Dorit’s
draft-dodging brother Alon, who says as much. Every American kid
dreaming of donning Israeli battledress should pay close attention:
“This country doesn’t need another soldier,” Alon says.
And he’s absolutely right. The Jewish state needs dedicated, concerned
and active citizens far more than it needs another guy with a gun.
Yes, the Jews need heroes. By all means admire Chasnoff for not only
dreaming of being one, but of actually devoting a year of his life to
the cause. Kudos to him for enduring cold, sleepless nights and
psychotic platoon sergeants. But, ultimately, he lived out his teenage
fantasy without proceeding into Zionist adulthood.
At the opening of his classic story “Red Heifer,” Micha Josef
Berdichevsky’s narrator tells his readers that he is writing his story
so that future generations will “know that we were Jews, but also that
we were human beings of flesh and blood.” To learn that lesson about
Israelis, Joel Chasnoff had to spend a year in the armored corps. Young
guys like him can save themselves the trouble by reading this
entertaining book. Haim Watzman is the author of
C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel’ and
‘A Crack in the Earth: A Journey
Up Israel’s Rift Valley.’ He blogs at
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