About 12 years ago, Joel Chasnoff had a personal crisis. Fresh out of the University of Pennsylvania, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. His father’s success as a doctor in Chicago made him insecure, feeling like he had too big a pair of shoes to fill. And his passions — acting, stand-up comedy — hardly promised a stable alternative. But Chasnoff did have a strong Jewish identity, the result of a day school education, and an especially romantic vision of Israelis.
“Like most 17-year-olds,” Chasnoff’s writes in his new memoir, recounting one of several childhood visits to Israel, “I was trying to figure out who I was and who my role models were going to be. Within days of arriving in Israel, I discovered my new heroes: Israelis. …They were the coolest, most exciting Jews I’d ever met.”
It’s a common sentiment for Jewish American teens, but Chasnoff’s next decision was not: In 1998, after college, he enlisted in the Israeli army. His brigade did a tour in Lebanon during his full year of service, the required amount for an enlistee his age, then 24. And he even ended up marrying his Israeli girlfriend, Dorit, who he now lives with in Riverdale. But despite profound bonds with fellow soldiers that continue to this day, Chasnoff left the military deeply disillusioned.
He explains why in “The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah,” published this week by Simon and Schuster. A mostly humorous, frequently tender and sometimes infuriating book, it is perhaps most notable for the dubious light it casts on a revered institution, Israel’s military. In an interview near Times Square, Chasnoff elaborated on a few of the book’s more hair-raising stories, offered others not included, and explained why he even wrote a memoir in the first place.
“I was not going in skeptical at all,” he said about his decision to enlist. “I wasn’t naïve to think that everyone was like that” — the heroic warrior type he imagined at 17. “I went in really scared that I was going to hold everyone up.”
But he was shocked to learn that he was far more capable than many other soldiers. The book takes its title — the “crybaby” part — from the name an officer gave their brigade. In the book, Chasnoff describes soldiers who would make up any excuse to avoid work in basic training. (Diarrhea was the most common, since it barred you from doing almost anything.) He sees the ethnic hierarchy within Israeli society — Ashkenazi on top, Sephardi on bottom — reflected in the microcosm of his tank unit, where European-descended Jews like himself get the best spots.
And despite an overall lack of preparation, Chasnoff thinks that the military’s training was sometimes pointlessly brutal. At one point a soldier contemplates suicide, and with the staff psychologist missing, Chasnoff is called in for help. His only qualification is a psychology course in college. “This is training for war,” Chasnoff said in the interview, exasperated. “If nothing else you’d expect them to get the best possible training.”
Chasnoff, now 36, does not fit your model of a soldier: at 5-foot-8 and 130 pounds, he is about the same size as he was when he served. In college, he was in an all-male comedy troupe where he frequently performed in drag. And politically, he’s liberal. “I’m a peacenik,” he writes in his book, counting the reasons why you wouldn’t expect him to serve. “I hate guns.”
Despite these reservations, he thought the military would toughen him up. He has no regrets, he now says, noting the invaluable things he’s learned about leadership, and the friendships he’s made. But if service proved that he had more fortitude than he’d thought, it was not without its comical absurdities. Some of the book’s best moments, in fact, are not high drama but flat-out comedy. One of the better moments has Chasnoff teaching his brigade the lyrics to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which they sing through thick Hebrew accents.
“Picture this,” he writes, “sixty green dots in the desert, sitting in a clump, singing ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ while I wave my hand through the air like a maestro: ME: You say that we’ve got nothing in common / THEM: You zay vee’ve got nussing in cowmon.” After bellowing the song one boiling afternoon, Chasnoff continues, his brigade lies down in exhaustion, each soldier resting his head on the stomach of the next guy, in one great long chain. “We such homos,” says one soldier. “You’re a homo,” says another. “Your mother,” says a third. “Then we doze off in the sun,” Chasnoff writes.
That is a tender, touching image, and “The Crybaby Brigade” has countless others. But some passages give pause to the notion, if it still exists, of military invincibility. Chasnoff served almost three months of active duty in southern Lebanon, just outside Israel’s northern border. His tank brigade’s mission was simple: kill any Hezbollah militant seen trying to cross the border.
The soldiers learn quickly that most perceptions they have of Hezbollah are dead wrong: they are not a rag-tag group of plainclothes men with shoddy munitions, but a better financed, more knowledgeable unit than even their Israeli counterpart. “One reason,” an officer explains to Chasnoff’s unit: “cash.” He goes on, “There is no limit to Hezbollah’s coffers. Iran and Syria are all too happy to pay Hezbollah to do their dirty work against Israel, and the Russians are happy to sell off old armaments cheap.”
Hezbollah’s other advantage is that they it knows the land better. The military stations Israeli troops past its own border and into Lebanon, which is Hezbollah’s home turf. Chasnoff said that his fellow soldiers would privately bemoan their disadvantages, but when he himself tried to object to a mission — an event not in the book — his soldiers failed to back him up. “I raised my hand and said basically that I didn’t think we were ready,” Chasnoff said. “The officer said, ‘Does anyone agree with Joel?’ and no one raised their hand.”
Luckily, no one died in Chasnoff’s brigade. But the book describes several close calls. Still, Chasnoff says the current beating Israel’s military has taken in light of the Goldstone report contradicts his own experience. (The report alleges that Israel deliberately set out to terrorize civilians in Gaza.) “Look, I think Israel does its very best to not kill [civilians] It’s painful for me when I see pictures of what’s happened in Gaza, but I really feel sorry for Israel.”
His book often contradicts Israel’s image of moral negligence, too. In one scene Chasnoff’s tank holds its fire against Hezbollah militants because the militants are positioned — intentionally — on a farm, which it is illegal to shoot into under United Nations law. Another scene highlights the basic training course called “Purity of Arms,” where soldiers are taught wartime morality.
Chasnoff recounts one poignant lesson plan: an officer posed a question to Chasnoff’s platoon using a real-life case from the first intifada. A colonel ordered his troops to open fire on Palestinian civilians, but when his soldiers refused, he said he would court-martial anyone who disobeyed. “My question for you is this,” the officer asked Chasnoff’s brigade, “If you were the solider in that platoon, what would you do?”
Some said they would fire, others said they wouldn’t. Then the teacher relayed what actually happened in that case: the colonel was stripped of his rank and sent to prison, while the soldiers who fired all went to jail. According to Israeli military law, you do not fire, the officer said.
“Just the fact that soldiers are going into houses” — a strategy the Israeli military designed in Gaza to prevent casualties — “says they’re taking a risk that they don’t have to. And I think that people don’t always appreciate that nuance,” Chasnoff said.
“But I’m torn,” he added. “I do think that Israel does sometimes overstep its bounds. If there’s anything I hope this book does, it’s that it shows how messy it all really is.”