Comedy in fatigues
American stand-up comedian finds humor and absurdity in his stint in the Israeli army
What's funny about life in the Israeli army? To hear Joel Chasnoff tell it, plenty. His military tales also include plenty of sadness, frustration, friendship and absurdity.
In his book "The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah," Chasnoff, a stand-up comedian, looks back at his long strange year in the Israeli Defense Forces. Despite being 5 foot 8 and 130 pounds, he dreamed of being a Jewish Rambo, writing, "It wasn't fair that we American Jews called Israel our homeland but left Israelis to defend it." He imagined the soldiers as warriors in Ray-Bans. But in the military he found himself perplexed by the snack breaks, sing-alongs and slacker soldiers faking medical issues.
During Chasnoff's training, his love for Israel kept re-emerging through his frustration: while he was good-naturedly haggling with a market shopkeeper, for instance, or forging bonds with fellow platoon members. Fear, though, also loomed: fear of deployment to Lebanon, where he was ultimately sent for three months.
Chasnoff, who now lives in New York, will bring his recollections to Palo Alto on Dec. 25. He's the headliner at the annual Chopshticks Dinner and Comedy Show at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center.
In a phone interview, Chasnoff said he anticipates the evening will be a mix of stand-up comedy "just like you'd see Seinfeld do," readings from his book, and more stories from his military service. "Probably more stories about Lebanon, that there weren't room for in the book," he said.
Interestingly, Chasnoff's first description of Lebanon — where he was sent to fight Hezbollah as a tank gunner — is one of the gentlest passages in the book. He writes:
"I'd heard Lebanon was beautiful, but I never would have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself. I mean, dear God, have you seen the sky in Lebanon?
"The sky is an ocean, smooth and aquamarine. The clouds, gooey and white, stretch across the heavens like melted marshmallows pulled at either end. Have you ever seen a sky so luscious, so rich, you actually wanted to drink it?"
Far less tasty — but funnier — is Chasnoff's description of eating combat rations with his platoon, "like Vikings":
"We scoop tuna with our bare hands, drop it into our mouths like it's peanuts. When we do this, tuna juice dribbles down our chins, onto our shirts. We drink corn straight from the can, and when somebody shouts, "Corn!" we pass the can to whoever asked for it.
"We hold the Luf, which is ground beef crossbred with Jell-O, like an apple. We chomp off one bite each and then pass it on to the next guy. ... And if, by accident, we drop a handful of tuna in the sand, we open a canteen and rinse off the grit. Nothing is wasted."
What does get wasted often, in Chasnoff's recollections, is time. Some soldiers continually plead fake illnesses (diarrhea is popular) to get out of duty, and sergeants often issue orders that seem counter-productive, at the very least. At one point, Chasnoff recounts missing out on machine-gun training because a captain made him go pull weeds. And all the soldiers seem to spend huge amounts of time deciding whether to wear their sleeves rolled up or buttoned down.
Still, Chasnoff also delves into deeper issues, talking about the relationship between American Jews and Israel, bringing up family memories, and speculating about prospects for peace in the region.
In a review earlier this year, critic Matthew Schniper at the Colorado Springs Independent praised the book and noted that despite its humor, "the tone dips deep into tenets of Judaism, Middle East politics, discrimination, racism and more.
"Ultimately, the author offers a poignant account of attitudes and policies that are bound to fail the region. And sadly, it's funny as hell."
Overall, Chasnoff said, most of the reactions he's gotten to the book have been positive. "The only people who've had a problem with the book are older Jews, especially in south Florida, who can't handle hearing that Israel is anything other than perfect, that soldiers don't want to serve," he said.
These days, Chasnoff makes his living mainly as a stand-up comedian, giving some author talks but also traveling to perform his comedy at clubs, colleges and conferences. His adventures have included a U.S.O. comedy tour entertaining American troops in Japan and Korea, and opening for Jon Stewart.
Chasnoff says he never planned to write a book. He's kept a journal since high school, and in the army he continued jotting memories down. He added sketches to his journal, including images of tanks, Israel and its Middle Eastern neighbors, and a rather convoluted "Chemical-War Flowchart," all of which ultimately made it into "Crybaby Brigade."
"It was only about five or six years after getting out, in conversations with friends and looking over the old journal, that I decided to write a book," Chasnoff said. He laughed and added wryly, "Some people thought I'd joined the army just to write a book."
What: Comedian Joel Chasnoff performs and reads from his book at the annual Chopshticks dinner and comedy show.
Where: Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 25
Cost: Tickets are $55 general admission and $50 for JCC members. A 10-person table costs $500.
Info: Go to paloaltojcc.org/chopshticks or call 650-223-8664. For more about Chasnoff, go to joelchasnoff.com.