To everyone who picks up a copy of “The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah,” by Joel Chasnoff, beware: You may not expect what you’re about to read.
Many of you know Chasnoff as a hilarious standup comic, one who draws extensively from his Jewish background, including his two-year stint in the Armored Corps of the Israel Defense Forces.
So you may guess from the title, and from Chasnoff’s day job, that you’re about to read a very funny book. Even the cover illustration is funny (a soldier stuck head-first in the hatch of a Merkava 3 Baz Battle Tank).
Well, much of this book is funny, but much is deadly serious. Parts of it will disturb readers who have a preconceived notion of Israel and its army, but if you can get beyond that you’ll finish the read loving Israel even more — warts and all.
In “The 188th Crybaby Brigade,” Chasnoff, a 24-year-old comedian in New York whose career isn’t exactly taking off, decides to fulfill a dream of being an Israeli soldier. He takes us from the induction center near Tel Aviv through basic training in the Negev Desert, to tank training in the Golan Heights and finally to service in south Lebanon prior to Israel’s withdrawal in 2000.
As Chasnoff tells it, being an Israeli soldier is something he always dreamed of as, well, a skinny Jewish kid from Chicago. A product of Jewish day schools, Jewish summer camps and Hillel, he looked up to the image of the muscular, fearless Israeli warrior defending the people and the faith.
But as we see, his comrades in arms are really 18-year-old boys, much like teenagers anywhere else in the world. They’re mischievous, vulnerable, fearful and preoccupied with sex — in other words, normal.
They’re also a mix of newly immigrated Russians, light skin Ashkenazim and dark-skin Sephardim (Chasnoff’s references). In fact, his platoon is a microcosm of the racial and class struggles currently playing out in Israel.
As a young adult, Chasnoff has a rough time fitting in with what he sometimes calls an army of children; what keeps him sane are his Sabbath leaves with his Israeli girlfriend Dorit, who can’t wait to marry her soldier boyfriend.
But there’s a problem: Chasnoff’s mother is a convert to Judaism, and that leads to complications as he and Dorit plan their future together.
There are problems with army life, too. Chasnoff learns that being an Israeli soldier, indeed being an Israeli at all, doesn’t always jibe with his childhood impressions. Some of his fellow soldiers he respects and likes; others, including certain superior officers, he hates for their pettiness and their sadistic cover thy tuches conduct.
He also comes face to face with societal issues that threaten to divide Israel to this day, such as who is a Jew, and who may marry in the Jewish state.
But through it all, despite the impediments to being Jewish in Israel — ironic as that sounds — Chasnoff chooses Jewishness when he could actually walk away from it. It’s who he is, body and soul.
“The 188th Crybaby Brigade” shows us the reality behind the travel brochures for Israel, and not every reader will appreciate the vantage point. Israel is not an easy place to live; expectations aren’t always met, people sometimes disappoint, but how is that different from anywhere else in the world? As this book shows, even when viewed critically, Israel is a very special land.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)