Nearly every American-Jewish male who visits Israel can talk about his “Uzi” moment. At some point, the young American finds himself next to an Israeli soldier, not much older — or even younger— than he. The American, slathered in sunscreen, stands there in his khaki shorts, college T-shirt, Mets cap, and the squeaky leather “Nimrod” sandals he bought that morning. The soldier standing next to him is bronzed, in a coolly disheveled green uniform, a smart beret, aviator sunglasses, and a rifle casually slung across his chest.
Unless you are a conscientious objector, incredibly secure in your masculinity, or have never read Exodus, it can be a terribly deflating moment. Israel is a lot of things: a religious homeland, a haven for the dispersed, a light unto the nations. For American-Jewish males (I can’t speak for the women) it’s also a test of manliness. It’s hard to grow up a Zionist, with its undercurrents of “muscular Judaism,” and not fantasize about joining the Israeli army. It’s harder still to stand next to an Israeli soldier and not be embarrassed by the soft, soft lives we lead in America, where reading a section of Torah is considered a ticket to “manhood” and the biggest fear we have for our 18-year-olds is that they won’t get into their “first-choice” college.
Here’s Joel Chasnoff, a Jewish kid from Chicago, describing a visit to Tel Aviv as a newly minted recruit in the Israeli army: “I am the Israeli soldier who makes American girls swoon. I am fireworks. A one-man ticker-tape parade.
“I am glory.”
Chasnoff is a comedian who performs the Hillel and synagogue circuit with good, smart jokes about his day school upbringing, the odder-seeming Jewish rituals, and other insidery mishegas. In the late ’90s he made aliya and immediately enlisted in the army, eventually serving in the Armored Corps and manning a Merkava tank in southern Lebanon.
When I heard that Joel had written a book about his year in the army called The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah, my heart sank a little. I was expecting a jokey stunt a la The Year of Living Biblically or perhaps an American-Jewish version of Stripes, with Seth Rogen in the Bill Murray role.
Instead, Crybaby turns out to be a wise, carefully observed, profanely funny, and even touching portrait of Israeli society in all its polyglot, improvisational, maddening, and beleaguered glory. And for all the important things it says about Israel itself, it ultimately becomes a book about American Jews and our ambivalent relationship with our “homeland.”
Chasnoff grew up in a Conservative home and attended a Solomon Schechter school, where the teachers nicknamed him “Little Rabbi.” He fell in love with Israel on a teen tour when he was 17, enthralled by the gorgeous women and the “muscly men” who provided such a contrast to the Jewish doctors and accountants he had known back home. The Jewish soldiers in particular provided a “new narrative: Jews who kicked ass.”
Months after graduating college, to the chagrin of his pediatrician father, Chasnoff flew to Israel. Days later he was in the Negev for basic training.
His fellow recruits are Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Russians and Yemenites, secular and religious. He learns that “American” is a euphemism for pampered and selfish. He is genuinely in awe of the Israeli melting pot and the role of the army in instilling a sense of national character. At the same time, he knows it’s no Benetton ad: Chasnoff writes honestly about class and ethnicity in Israel, where top jobs and privileges are reserved for the Ashkenazi elite, and darker-skinned Sephardim grumble about racism.
Similarly the army comes off both as astonishingly expert and surprisingly slapdash. “The problem with serving in an army run by twenty-year-olds is that I sometimes feel like I’m serving in an army run by twenty-year-olds,” writes Chasnoff.
And while Chasnoff is never quite convinced that he has learned what he needs to know to fight Hizbullah, he finds himself in a tank, patrolling the Security Zone that Israel maintained until 2000. Pitiless training has mostly filtered out the misfits and goof-offs, and the soldiers who remain, while hardly superhuman warriors, are up to the challenge of sleepless nights, monotonous patrols, and sudden bursts of terrifying action.
Chasnoff, unsure about Israel’s Lebanon policy, eventually becomes even more disillusioned after an encounter with Israeli religious authorities that should alarm all American Jews who care about pluralism. I won’t give away what comes as an unexpected coda to the book, but it’s a turning point in Chasnoff’s relationship with Israel. After marrying his Israeli girlfriend, he returns to the States for good.
Crybaby, a sympathetic but not dewy-eyed depiction of the IDF, provides a useful counterpoint to the uniformly negative portrait of the Israeli military being painted by the Goldstone report and hostile bloggers. The army and the politicians don’t come off unscathed, but Joel restores a sense of perspective and realism to a subject that usually serves as a projection of the fantasies of those who are thinking and writing about Israel, whether they are cynical critics of a Jewish state — or American Jews with identity issues.