“M*A*S*H*,”, originally a novel by Richard Hooker, followed by a movie of the same name in 1970, and a CBS television series from 1972-1983, somehow made the mundane details of army life, funny. In his book, “The 188th Crybaby Brigade,” Joel Chasnoff manages to replicate that unlikely feat by exposing the foibles of an armored unit in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Chasnoff, a Chicago-area native, enlisted in the IDF following his graduation from the University of Pennsylvania. “I never considered joining the American military,” he recalled recently from his home in New York City. “I love America. It’s my country. But I have always felt more like an Israeli.”
Chasnoff’s book is currently being transformed into a script for a one-man show which he hopes will eventually land on Broadway. He has also recently co-authored a cookbook, “Balaboosta: A cook book,” with award-winning Israeli chef Einat Admony. In the meantime, the young, married, father, performs stand-up comedy, mostly around the United States, at Jewish-themed venues. He also teaches creative writing to recuperating troops at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland, and teaches stand-up comedy at the 92nd Street Y in New York.
“What I find amazing about the IDF, is that it’s a bunch of average Israeli’s running an army,” he explains. “They are too proud and humble to be hardcore or rah-rah” he continues, contrasting his IDF mates to American soldiers depicted by Hollywood. And even a tank unit, which one would imagine is the best-of-the-best, was often comprised of leftovers from the IDF’s elite units. “Those of us in the tank units had crooked backs and flat feet. Most of us couldn’t make it in the other units.” But, as he wrote in Crybaby Brigade, the soldiers worked hard: “For all its speed and firepower, the Merkava tank (the Israeli battle tank) requires more pampering than a newborn baby. We spend hours each day greasing, tightening, and lubricating every inch of the tank. Thursdays we take the tank apart, top to bottom, and fine-tune the engine, wax the treads with Vaseline, and dunk every knob, switch, lever, and bolt in a barrel of benzene. And if we drive the tank forward or back, even a single meter, we’re required to do the whole procedure all over again. Our tanks are spoiled bitches.”
Chasnoff kept a diary during his time in the IDF, which he converted into Crybaby. On some days, however, not much was written down. “Sometimes I was so tired that I could only write two or three lines before I’d fall asleep,” he says. But somehow, he survived his commitment to the Israeli military and grew to respect his commanders. “I learned a lot about leadership,” he recalls. “The best leaders don’t have to yell or shout.”
And you can bet, with a soldier like Chasnoff in the unit, there is a lot of laughter.