The 188th Crybaby Brigade:
A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah
by Joel Chasnoff
Free Press, 288 pages, $25
In The 188th Crybaby Brigade, Joel Chasnoff recalls the year in the mid-1990s he spent in the Israeli army, serving in the armored corps. In between tales of his mother’s illness and his girlfriend’s growing frustration, he takes an irreverent look at the reality of the Israeli military, at differences between Jews in America and Jews in Israel, and at the paradoxes of Israeli identity. Even before I read it, I knew this book would make me feel nostalgic for my own not-so-good old days: the time when I—an overweight, prematurely balding kid from Michigan—became a tough-guy Israeli soldier.
So I gobbled up 188th Crybaby in one night, recalling the same vomiting on my commander’s boots at the end of an excruciating march; the same hallucinating—out of sheer physical and mental exhaustion—while on guard duty at the ammunitions bunker; the same parading around the city on my first weekend leave, in my spanking new uniform, like God’s gift to masculinity; the same wondering whether we actually would train in between all the cleaning and mess duty.
And yet, looking back with twenty years of perspective, I have become much less enthusiastic and somewhat more jaded. The army keeps calling me back for annual stints of reserve duty, but today I have four jobs, five kids, and a bigger gut than I did as a teenager. Fortunately, my officers are a pretty understanding bunch, my excuses get better and better, and I don’t serve much anymore. I may not be a great soldier, but part of me continues to love and appreciate everything that the army has done for me.
Chasnoff was not only a better soldier than I, but also a better observer of things. His wry humor and spot-on remarks about the day-to-day idiocy of the military provide a glimpse at a side of Israel that, under normal circumstances, outsiders don’t see. (He does get some of the slang wrong, though: Yes, mooral describes an overly zealous soldier, but the word derives not from the Hebrew ra’al, “poison,” but from the English, “morale.” Not to be pedantic or anything.)
Military heroism is in short supply, but Chasnoff weaves almost seamlessly between the sad moments of confused loneliness and the vulgar humor that develops in the unit. On one page Chasnoff comforts a fellow soldier mourning his unborn child, whom his girlfriend had aborted; on the next page he threads a kitchen hose through his fly so it looks as if he is “urinating with the force of a water cannon.” On one page his military unit, as part of its training, visits the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem; on the next page he explains how to use a tank’s searchlight to make a grilled-cheese sandwich without blowing anything up.
In short, Chasnoff tells the only good joke that has ever been told about the military: the one in which you juxtapose the muscle-bound machismo of the action-filled army, the horrors of war, and the fear of death with the banal inefficiency and pointlessness of so much actual military life. It may not be a new joke, but it is still funny: It’s what made M*A*S*H one of the greatest television productions of all time.
But 188th Crybaby differs in that M*A*S*H went on the air in 1972 in large part to undermine America’s presence in Vietnam, while Chasnoff writes with a love for Israel and an appreciation of its impossibly complex military situation. He criticizes Israel’s (then) military presence in Lebanon, but only after humbly identifying his own ignorance of the absurdly intricate geopolitical and military reality. He celebrates the “ingathering of the exiles” and shared sense of purpose forged in military training even as he points to lingering inequality between Israel’s socioeconomic classes. Chasnoff’s Israeli army is far from perfect, but it still prepares its soldiers for combat by teaching them when they are morally obligated to refuse an unjust order.
Non-Israelis, even those who take great interest in the Jewish state, can read the news reports, the propaganda, and the international and internal criticism—and they can hit the tourist traps. They can appreciate the eighteen-year-olds who risk their lives for the Jewish people and gawk at the attractive female soldiers with their long hair and assault rifles. They can take pride in everything the state of Israel has accomplished. But non-Israelis generally have no idea of the military experience that proves so formative for a plurality of Zionist Israeli youth. Chasnoff provides just such a glimpse, in a funny and somewhat off-kilter manner.
Still, I realized after reading Chasnoff’s memoir that the ways in which time and age have made me more jaded have also made me more skeptical about the power of books like this one. The real Israel remains as elusive as ever. The nation has become—or perhaps always was—a bifurcated and divided culture. I pretend that I understand Israel, but I live in a wealthier-than-average, largely English-speaking neighborhood—the closest thing Israel has to the suburbs—and in my professional life I spend a lot of time with foreign students. What do I know about the lives of immigrants from Ethiopia, even the ones who live just a block away from me?
In my academic life I study the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox)—but what do I really know about the day-to-day life of a yeshiva boy, a mother of twelve, or a Hasidic rebel who breaks off ties with his family and joins the army? Readers can use Chasnoff as a tour guide into the lives of combat soldiers, but are there similar guides to Israeli Arabs, to wealthy post-Zionist cosmopolitans, to settlers, or to the myriad other groups and subgroups that make up Israel’s intricate cultural tapestry?
Much has been made, of late, of American Jews’ distancing from Israel. Perhaps in his next reincarnation Chasnoff should come back as a skinny Jewish kid from Chicago who becomes a traditional Sephardic farmer in the Negev, a secular Ashkenazic stockbroker from Tel Aviv, or an ultra-Orthodox schoolmarm. I’d buy the books, even if I couldn’t laugh quite as much.
Yoel Finkelman teaches Talmud and Jewish thought in Jerusalem, where he is director of projects and research at atid, a foundation that provides resources and training for Jewish educational leadership.