Many Jewish kids have Hebrew school teachers who make Israel come alive inside their classrooms.
Joel Chasnoff, originally from Evanston and now a Jewish comedian, was one such Jewish student. At Solomon Schechter Jewish Day School, back in the second grade, his Israeli teacher, Ruti, helped forge Chasnoff’s early connection to Israel. “Ruti would sit us down and have us read Israeli newspapers and sound out the words,” he recalled. “It just made feel connected to this other place. It made me feel like I belonged there even though I had never been.”
But unlike most Jewish kids, Chasnoff took it one step further. He credits his Jewish classroom experience with helping inspire him to join the Israeli Army years later.
His new book, “The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah,” (Simon and Schuster), due out Feb. 9, documents his time in a combat unit in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as a tank gunner in the Armored Corps. His unit was responsible for defending Israel’s north, including the Golan Heights and the Syrian border. His service in 1997-1998 included two months of Basic Training, two months of Tank School, three months of Advanced Warfare Training, followed by a tour of duty.
“It’s not a typical army story,” said Chasnoff, who these days is pursuing comedy in New York City and living in the Bronx with his Israeli wife and three children, 8-year-old twins girls and a 2-year-old daughter. “It’s about Jewish identity, it’s about a father/son relationship, it’s about the way Judaism is changing and how the Israel that we mythologize isn’t the real Israel.”
During his army stint, Chasnoff kept journals chronicling his army experience. “I had little notebooks that I kept in my pocket, and would write even if it was just one sentence a day,” he said. “I was ‘Twittering’ before there was ‘Twitter.’”
From the beginning, Chasnoff had strong Jewish roots. As a standup comedian, he isn’t a comedian who just happens to be Jewish. Indeed, his entire act examines his own Jewish experience, a very positive and loving one. Growing up in Evanston, he had a Conservative Jewish upbringing complete with a kosher household, Jewish summer camp, and Shabbat dinners with his parents and two younger brothers, where they “refrained from watching television, unless there was a Cubs game on.”
Despite his love for all things Jewish and for Israel, Chasnoff hadn’t always considered himself the ideal candidate for the Israeli army. He refers to himself as a short, skinny guy who isn’t exactly the warrior-type. In the eighth grade, he admits he was the only kid cut from the Solomon Schechter basketball team, “a humiliating experience made all the more shameful by the fact that I’d been cut not just from a sports team, but from a Jewish sports team,” he writes in his book.
But at age 23, despite his lack of athletic prowess, Chasnoff decided to put his comedy career on hold and join the IDF. He had his reasons—besides his inspiration from his second grade teacher. As a teen, he traveled to Israel several times, including at age 13 with his family. Then, at 17, he returned to Israel. “The Israeli soldiers were so much like us, Jewish, a lot of them from the same countries we originally came from, and yet they were so much cooler than we were,” he said. “They had guns, they were doing these mighty things that Jews were not supposed to do and that the Jews I grew up with never did. The idea of Jews that were powerful and didn’t take crap from anyone was so appealing to a 17-year-old boy, who was kind of small and skinny and short and wanted to be powerful himself.”
Oh yeah, and there was a girl. He met a Yemenite-Persian Israeli named Dorit at the end of college. Their relationship was growing more serious and Chasnoff knew that if he and Dorit stayed together, they would likely one day live in Israel. Since every Israeli gets drafted, he couldn’t fathom living in Israel as a “freeloader…without paying my dues” by serving the country himself.
In the army, Chasnoff was considered a lone soldier because his parents lived outside of Israel. He was also five years older than most of his comrades, who had joined the army right out of high school. He was assigned as his platoon’s soldier-in-chief, responsible for keeping track of every soldier in the platoon.
The title of his book, “The 188th Crybaby Brigade,” stems from Basic Training when, at one time, half of his platoon was in the infirmary with fake excuses and injuries—sprained ankles, stomachaches, headaches, anything—to get out of hiking, guard duty, and kitchen work. In response to their delinquency, their officer lined up the platoon and asked, ‘Who are you? Are you a platoon of Israel Defense Force combat soldiers? Or is this just Platoon Two, Company B of the One-hundred-eighty-eighth Crybaby Brigade?’
“The title represents the whole conflict of my experience of both fulfilling a lifelong dream to be one of those heroes yet, [at the same time his comrades] were nothing like the Israeli soldiers I wanted to emulate as a kid,” Chasnoff said.
In retrospect, Chasnoff is grateful that he joined the IDF because, at the end of the day, he simply loves Israel. “On just a physical land level, I love being in a place where I know my history happened. When you’re on Masada, that revolt actually happened there…I know I have something in common with just about everyone in Israel. When I get off the plane in Israel, I just feel like I’m home.”
“The 188th Crybaby Brigade” will be available on Tuesday, Feb. 9. For more information on Joel Chasnoff and to learn about his upcoming speaking engagements in Chicago, visit www.joelchasnoff.com .