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 boysthey 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 kitchenduring 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 isan 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 thepages of this caustic, piercing satire on the army and Israelis is adeep, uncommon love and understanding of the country expressed bysomeone whose passion for Israel is matched only by his ability toskewer it at any opportunity. Israelneeds more people here like Joel Chasnoff, who can see the differencebetween what Israel is, and what it should be. Come back home, Joel –with protektzia we can probably even get you out of reserve duty.