Airing ‘dirty’ laundry

American stand-up comedian Joel Chasnoff on his year in the IDF and the tricky minefield of Jewish identity.

Joel Chasnoff 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Joel Chasnoff 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Joel Chasnoff jokes in his humor-filled memoir – The 188th Crybaby Brigade – about how scrawny he was when, at 24, he decided to leave Chicago and spend a year in an IDF combat unit.
But when the first-time author and full-time stand-up comedian walks into a Jerusalem coffee shop for our meeting, it’s clear he wasn’t joking. A decade later and Chasnoff’s still a little guy – almost see-through – and one can’t help wonder how he weathered the rigors of IDF basic training in the heralded 188th Armored Brigade specializing in Merkava tanks, never mind how he was named the outstanding soldier in his platoon.
But if his physical stature is less than daunting, his verbal and writing skills more than make up for it. A comic, Zionist, coming of age chronicle, The 188th Crybaby Brigade has been called “a great tale, a Jewish Jarhead... a funny, thoughtful, and poignant story.” But, as Chasnoff explains, the final manuscript – which encompasses issues of Jewish identity, the Ashkenazi-Sephardi cultural gap and the Orthodox stranglehold on issues of religion – wasn’t anything like the original narrative he had in mind.
“My initial concept was to just chronicle my year in the army for people who are interested in the IDF. But as I was writing and getting deeper into it, I realized it was about so much more,” says Chasnoff, who after his year in the IDF, married his Israeli girlfriend, moved to Chicago and eventually landed in Riverdale, New York, which serves as a base for his thriving stand-up career.
“The Jewish identity issue became so much more a part of it. And my editor, who’s not Jewish and has never been to Israel, forced me to ask myself these questions.
“‘You need to give the back story, explain why a kid who had been to Israel for a total of 14 months in his life, would up and join a foreign country’s army.’ Hearing her say it like that really did make it sound absurd,” adds Chasnoff with a laugh. “So it made me rethink, and go back to my experiences in day school and summer camp, and out of that came the idea of myth [of Israel and of the Israeli soldier] and how much that’s a part of it. Those were really not part of the original concept of the story, they came after. But I’m glad they’re in there, I think they make the story fuller.”
Fuller and unflinching, as Chasnoff takes a deep hard look at his own upbringing – where Israel and the IDF were put on idyllic pedestals – and at his experiences in the IDF, where those pedestals were swiftly slipped out from under him for a hard landing on the reality of kitchen duty, illogical commands and the maturity levels of the 18-year-old boys from all walks of Israeli life he found himself thrown in with.
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 they are – dealing with everything from feeble attempts 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.
A sublime passage in the book finds Chasnoff expressing his own maturity-challenged feelings about receiving his first leave in Tel Aviv and, for a brief moment, morphing into the mythical Adonis-like soldier that he longingly revered on his visits to Israel as a teen.
“Look at me. Do you see me? Do you see me in my olive-green uniform, beret and shiny black boots? Do you see the assault rifle slung across my chest? Finally! I am the badass Israeli soldier at the side of the road, in sunglasses, forearms like bricks. And honestly – have you ever seen anything quite like me?”
But as Chasnoff spends more time in the army, that superhero myth begins to strip away, revealing the contradictions, conflicts and humor of a bunch of confused, scared boys being groomed to defend their country. For Chasnoff, it created a bundle of different emotions that took years to unravel.
“I think the irony is I served in the army for a year, and it took three years to write the book,” says Chasnoff, who decided to join the army due to a combination of reasons ranging from childhood ambition to wanting to be closer to his Israeli girlfriend to frustrations over his inability to jump-start his comedy career in the US.
“There was a long gestation period. I think stories are always like that – it takes longer to really make sense of what the story is, and what the meaning is, and find the nuances.
“I kept a journal the whole time I was in the army, it’s something I’d done since high school. So I had these notes, and I made it a point to write at least one sentence every night, which I succeeded in doing. So I had that as a foundation, but in terms of seeing it as a story with meaning, it took a few years.”
That was partly due to the fact that his army experience was so intense, that he had no desire to immediately revisit it and relive all the minute details.
“I mean, when I first got out, it just felt good to be free from the army. There was no way I wanted to immerse myself in it again,” says Chasnoff. “Then a few years later, when I moved to New York from Chicago, I began to rethink it as sort of this central piece of identity in my own life. Between the conversion issue and the Israel identity, and I saw there was actually an arc to it.”
CHASNOFF’S CONVERSION issue turns out to play a prominent role in the book, and revolves around the Chief Rabbinate’s refusal to accept his application for a marriage license due to his mother having been converted in an Orthodox ceremony by a Conservative rabbi in the US decades before. At the end of the book, the reader is not sure if Chasnoff has given up on the country where he volunteered and fought Hizbullah in Lebanon, only to be told he wasn’t Jewish enough to get married there.
“I did leave Israel a little bitter. But I’ve been back many times since then, and I no longer harbor bad feelings,” says Chasnoff. “I think that whole issue and having to write about it later forced me to think about how I feel about Israel and about how complicated those feelings are.
“What does it mean to love the country, which I absolutely do, and at the same time, have deep reservations about some of the ways the country is run? In America, I struggle with this too, but because I don’t love America on the same level, it doesn’t bother me so much. I can live with a place where I don’t always adore the government and I don’t feel an attachment to the land like I do here. So, the book forced me to confront how complicated it was.”
Equally perplexing, especially for Chasnoff’s publisher, has been how to position the book for marketing purposes. Because the book slices across the spectrum of memoir, politics and humor, it hasn’t really fit into any of those categories. But Chasnoff is confident of who his target audience is – American Jews.
“I think it appeals to Jews with an attachment to Israel, Jews who have questions of their own about what it means to be identified,” he says. “It’s funny, in some book stores, it’s in Current Events, in other book stores it’s in Biography/Memoir. I think that for Biography, you need to be kind of famous of a certain level. It could be in the humor section – I haven’t seen it there yet, but that would be legit.”
Legit, perhaps, but while humor is Chasnoff’s natural reset button, he’s most proud of reactions he’s received from readers who told him they found something more in the book.
“The best reaction, that I’ve received consistently, is when people said, ‘I read it because I thought it might be funny, but I didn’t realize it would be so deep.’ That means a lot to me,” he says.
CHASNOFF HIMSELF is most proud of three chapters, which he says best exemplify the story he was trying to tell.
“In ‘Our Fathers,’ I try to give a portrait of the melting pot concept of the army, but I try to do it by mixing descriptions of who our fathers are and all our different fathers’ backgrounds, their jobs, ethnicity, and I mix it with a typical day of basic training, schedule-wise, and I really like how that turned out.
“The second is the chapter called ‘Buttons and Snaps’ – about camaraderie. There’s a very special camaraderie in the platoon and a love-hate relationship we had with each other. But the fighting would immediately stop when the pressure was off and become best friends again.
“The other section is ‘House of Mirrors,’ where I describe Lebanon and the strange ways that soldiers died there. So many times, I remember reading about soldiers who just got engaged and then they died the next weekend in Lebanon. It feels like this country, story after story, is like that. Maybe it’s because in America we don’t hear the personal stories behind the soldiers. But I like the fact that when a soldier dies, his story is in the newspaper and the country knows about it and values it.”
Because Chasnoff took off the kid gloves and portrayed the IDF and Israeli society with blemishes intact, he was ready for a backlash of criticism from idealistic Zionists who flinch when anything not exemplary is mentioned about Israel. But he says he’s been pleasantly surprised.
“Nobody’s called the book anti-Israel, but at some book readings I have been approached by people who engage me in a discussion on the issue,” says Chasnoff.
“There was one guy in particular in Minneapolis, whose theory was, ‘I’m not saying we don’t have issues, but we should keep them in the family.’ It’s our dirty laundry and we shouldn’t air it in public. And my response was I think the only way to make Israel stronger is to take these issues and be honest about them. I’m not lying or telling anything that isn’t true just to get a reaction. But I think that for many years, one of the problems is that Israel has kept too many of its issues only to itself. What does that do for us?”
Privy to inside IDF information, Chasnoff engaged in some self-censorship when making the final edits of the book, and was sensitive to not exposing any state secrets, even though he bypassed official military circles when publishing the book.
“I always kept in mind that I don’t want to write anything that’s going to hurt an Israeli soldier now, by putting them in danger. But there’s nothing in the book that Hizbullah doesn’t already know,” he says.
“Oddly enough, I never bothered to contact the IDF censor. I never bothered to ask. There haven’t been any repercussions – I’m sure this article will change that,” he laughs. “But at the very end, after all the proofs were done, and in the last draft before it went to print, there were a couple things I took out about Lebanon, about weapons that Israel uses that may or may not according to UN regulations be the most ideal weapons to use. And I just decided they didn’t add to the story.”
THE ODDEST responses to book that Chasnoff has received have been a handful of e-mails from young American males looking for direction in their lives and asking for advice about whether they too should join the IDF.
“Suddenly I’m in a position to help them?” he laughs. “I haven’t written them back yet, but when I do, it will be very careful advice, something like, ‘Think about this carefully. If you think you’ll go your whole life regretting not doing the army, then you should do it. But don’t think it will solve the riddle of who you are by any means.’”
If those seekers do follow through on their idea to join the IDF, Chasnoff has some concrete suggestions that he garnered during his service that may help ease their time in uniform.
“Give yourself completely over to the experience, and most importantly, don’t complain. There’s going to be a lot of stuff you’re going to find bothersome, the way the guard schedule is made. Your commander is going to have you do things that don’t make sense to you, but when you start complaining, you stand out in a platoon, you become a sore thumb. Go with the flow,” he says.
“Of course, if it’s dangerous, or if you’re getting orders you reallyfeel are immoral, then you should speak up. But to be bitching abouthow little sleep you get or who’s guarding more, just go with it anddon’t stick out. Because I think that’s what’s most resented in aplatoon is the nudniks.”
Speaking of nudniks, Chasnoff excitedly recounts getting together withthe main subjects of his book – his old friends from his IDF unit –earlier in the week in Tel Aviv. And instead of beating him to a pulpover what he wrote, they embraced him.
“Thanks to Facebook, we’ve been able to find each other – maybe 15 or20 of us are in touch,” he says. “That’s been really nice and I’ve beenable to watch them grow up, which has been very cool. Because they’reall five years younger than me. So they’re all getting married andhaving kids. It’s been fun to see them come of age.”
And what did they think about The 188th Crybaby Brigade?
“The one I called Dror Boy Genius read it and liked it a lot. Two otherguys said they liked it too, and one said to me that he could seethings the same way as me 95 percent, and 5% different. And I thinkbeing native Israelis, they must see their experiences differently,”says Chasnoff.
Chasnoff’s own experiences in the army, his natural-born humor and hisinsight into both the American Jewish and Israeli psyche have enabledhim to enjoy a successful stand-up career. After returning to Chicagofollowing his IDF stint, he took classes at the fabled Second Cityimprov group and eventually began performing on his own with a stand-uproutine.
“Between combination of luck and circumstances, I started performingfor Jewish audiences. And thank God, Jews talk and the word startedspreading,” he says.
“I sort of built up a nice following in the Jewish world doing Hillelhouses at first, then moving onto federation events and shuls. The factthat I had a clean act that was smart and about Judaism, but not aBorscht Belt style, was a good selling point,” says Chasnoff, addingthat he also performs a set at universities that’s without Jewishcontent.
“In the Jewish act, a good block of it is about Israel – some armyexperiences, but also being married to an Israeli and the challenges.And a lot of it goes back to the myth that we grow up with in the USthat all Israelis are just like us. Then when you get to know anIsraeli or marry one, you get know how different the Israeli mentalityis. And, of course, humor ensues from the conflict.”
That’s why, with three children and an Israeli wife, Chasnoff isconstantly laughing. And regularly thinking about possibly moving toIsrael. “There is still a plan to come back here, and for that reasonI’m glad I did the army because I wouldn’t want to live here withouthaving done it,” he says. “But certain things have be done in myAmerican life first, closing the book on that before I can come. Itwill require me developing a different attitude toward success, and Istill have some of those old-school American ambitions.”
He’s not at all opposed to his three daughters (the oldest beingeight-year-old twins) following in his footsteps and joining the IDF.
“It’s a long way off, but when we talk about life after high school, Ialways mention you can go to college, take a year off or go into theIDF,” says Chasnoff. “Those are my three options for them. I would loveit if they serve in the army; I love the idea of people contributing. Ithink America is missing out on the idea of the people giving to thecountry.”
And would Chasnoff revisit his own IDF experience by joining the ranks for annual reserve duty?
“Sure, I like to go camping. What more could you want?”