Around the world in 11 months
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Around the world in 11 months

Comedian about to do benefit in Closter looks back on his time in the IDF, his family trip, and his choice of home

Joel stands on a hill overlooking Rio de Janeiro.
Joel stands on a hill overlooking Rio de Janeiro.

Comedians aren’t funny all the time.

Yeah yeah yeah, the sad clown.

But there’s far more to it than that. (The thoughtful clown?)

Good comedians are funny when they perform, although some of the funniest of them also are recognizably real, and their emotional range can be wide. But there’s no reason to think that comedians are funny — or only funny — offstage.

Joel Chasnoff can be funny in real life — you can see for yourself in Closter on Saturday night, as detailed in the box on page 12 — but he’s also someone who thinks and feels and makes decisions that have real-life consequences.

That’s why Mr. Chasnoff — a Chicago native, Conservative Jew, Schechter school graduate, Camp Ramah loyalist, USYer, and Zionist — decided to join the IDF as a lone soldier in 1997. His experiences there, told in his book “The 188th Crybaby Brigade,” detail life in the IDF and make a start at explaining how a culture as child- and family-centered as Israel’s also can take high-school graduates and turn them into a tough and effective armed force.

Part of it, he said in an interview a few years ago, was changing; armies, like people, like the times themselves, change and adapt to new conditions. The early IDF was forged in grim history and memory; by the time he got to it, those memories were older and the uncertainty around Israel’s changing place in a changing world made everything less certain. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated just two years before, and the divisions that roil the country now were boiling then.

It was an interesting time to be in the IDF. “The army was looking for its identity as I was searching for mine,” he said at the time.

And then there are the parents. He tells a story in his book about how a mother-mandated snack time demanded that the combat unit — most Americans do not enlist in combat unit, he said — stop tank training, and sit in a circle, in their combat gear, to eat chocolate sandwiches. It made their parents feel better.

Joel was a lone soldier, and that experience made him sensitive to others in that position. He’s done work to support them ever since.

Before he joined the IDF, Joel had assumed that he of course would make aliyah. He fell in love, proposed, and was accepted, and the young couple planned to marry and live in Israel. But complications ensued.

Joel’s mother was not born Jewish. She’d converted, not for love of Joel’s father — that came later — but for love of Judaism. Joel was raised as a committed Jew — hence the day school, USY, Ramah, and the rest of it — and joined the IDF out of that commitment. But his mother’s conversion was done by a Conservative rabbi and beit din, and that meant that the chief rabbinate didn’t consider Joel to be Jewish.

Eventually Joel was able to press and win his case, he and Dorit got married — not in Israel — and went on to have four children. But the experience made him less certain that he wanted to live in Israel. It also didn’t seem right for his career. Joel had known just about forever that he wanted to do standup. “Israel is such a small country,” he said. “I had to get out and breathe. I wanted to try acting, and I knew that comedy-wise I needed something bigger.”

So the couple moved first to Chicago, and then to New Rochelle. He was successful; not a huge name, but there are many Jewish organizations eager for sophisticated, post-Borscht-Belt Jewish comedy.

Joel does stand-up in the United States.

But in 2015, the six Chasnoffs — Joel, Dorit, the 5-year-old, the 8-year-old, and the 15-year-old twins — went off on a round-the-world adventure, 14 countries in 11 months. They sold their house, their cars, and most of their belongings, updated their passports, made sure their immunizations were in order, and took off.

They knew their itinerary, but they had no idea where they’d end up.

“We don’t live anywhere right now,” Joel said in 2015. “We have no home. Nowhere to come back to. We are still deciding where we will go next. We might settle in Israel.

“It’s all up in the air.”

The family started in South America, spending four months in Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, and Chile. Next was southern Africa — Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. Then Thailand, Australia, and Japan. A few times, Joel left the family to perform in the United States, not only funding the trip but also “giving me a little sanity by being in a familiar place,” he said.

They had to fly from continent to continent, but they did most of the intra-country travel by bus. “We really loved those rides,” he said. “That was the best time for family bonding. That’s when you really get close.”

What did they do on that unstructured, exciting but apparently endlessly sprawling trip?

“Some days definitely were planned,” Joel said. “We had an excursion to Machu Pichu, and to the Taj Mahal, and some other well-known tourist destinations that really are bucket-list places. But the majority of the time, though, we just were hanging out, exploring places on foot.”

The Chasnoff family explores the Indian desert.

They have a normal family. There were some squabbles, some centering on exploring places on foot. “I love to come to know a place by walking it,” Joel said. “By eating at local restaurants, immersing myself in daily life, not doing anything special.

“The kids get more easily bored. They were bored by going back to the market. They could do it once. I could do it every day.

“It was a challenge,” he continued. “How do you keep four children excited?” Particularly given that the oldest two are 10 years older than the youngest. They’re often not interested in the same things.

He has a tip for parents, in the fairly unlikely event that they choose to do what he did. He is strongly against technology, or at least against technology’s role in absorbing users’ full attention. He’d prefer that his children look around them. Still, “if I were to do it again, I would be less stringent about that,” he said. “I tried to make it a no-tech trip, but my philosophy was butting up against the reality of the 21st-century world.”

Dusk falls in a salt desert in Bolivia.

So really, Joel, what did the kids do all day?

“The younger ones always had a soccer ball, and they could meet local kids and play with them,” he said. “For the older ones, it was harder. They were at an age when all they wanted to do was be social.” They would bicker among themselves and the others. “They were great sports, but there were times when they were so bored,” Joel said. “They would ask me what they could do, and I didn’t really have a good answer. My answer was ‘You can read a book,’ but how many times can you say that?”

As in so much of life, “There was a big gap between the imagined glory and the reality,” he said.

The Chasnoffs’ trip was not meant as a Jewish tour — “it wasn’t a USY Pilgrimage trip to Jewish sites,” he said — but they always found the Chabad House on chaggim. “Rosh Hashana was in Cusco, Peru, and Yom Kippur was in La Paz, Bolivia. Passover was in Bangkok, Thailand.” They found a small, very old synagogue in Kerala, India, and visited JCCs in Cordoba, Argentina, and in Sydney, Australia. “And of course there always were Israelis everywhere,” he added. “For better or worse.”

So what happened after the trip?

Be-ponchoed, sombrebro-topped Joel stands with cowboys at a rodeo in southern Chile.

“Israel was not on our itinerary,” Joel said. “But Dorit needed emergency surgery, and we didn’t know where else to go.” And anyway, Israel was far closer than New Rochelle. “So we went back to Israel for a month. We couldn’t do nothing with the kids, so we put them in school in Ra’anana,” a place where neither of them ever had lived before. Then, when Dorit was ready, they resumed their trip.

And then?

“We had to decide where to put down roots, and that month in Israel showed us that it was realistic. That it was possible. That we would enjoy it. That it was a viable option for us.

So now the Chasnoffs live in Ra’anana.

Joel and a daughter board a bus in Chile.

It’s different now, Joel said. “I have different issues now than I had when I left. Then I was 23 and single. I’d had my fill of my life there, I’d had the experiences I needed, and I was ready to try something else.”

There is something almost full-circle about returning to Israel with 15-year-olds. “I have two kids going into the army next summer,” Joel said. “But I also know that if we went back to the United States, we’d have to deal with the whole college chaos.” (He’s talking about the remarkably stressful application process.) “I am not prepared for it, and I actually don’t approve of it. And I do like the idea of civic service.

“And of course the twins are girls,” he added. That makes it a bit easier. Still, “We would not have moved back to Israel with two 15-year-olds if we didn’t feel okay about it.”

What’s life in Israel like now for a Conservative (in Israel, that’s Masorti) Jew?

“We always were observant,” he said. “I always was an observant Conservative Jew. It’s kind of funny, or amazing, or whatever, but the cliché is so true.” Which cliché? The one that the synagogue you don’t go to is Orthodox? No, the one about how “in Israel, you just feel it.” Being Jewish. “You don’t need it” — a formal connection — “in the same way.” It’s in the air. You breathe it.

“Our kids only have one day a week off from school — Sunday — so getting up early seems extra. You don’t even have to think about keeping kosher being it’s so easy it’s not an issue. The calendar goes by Jewish holidays. And you don’t have to worry about Jewish identity.”

Still, he said, there are trade-offs. “I miss the shul community,” he said. “They are always the most dedicated, committed, learned souls. They are the people who really moved me at Camp Ramah, and at the discussions at our shul in Pelham after services.” (That was the Pelham Jewish Center.) “We don’t have that now, and I miss it. I miss the Camp Ramah Shabbat Judaism that I could get at a good Conservative shul in America but I can’t get here.”

For now, most of Joel Chasnoff’s stand-up gigs are in the United States, but he hopes to grow his career in Israel. He plans to perform in Hebrew there. “If you’re in Rome, do comedy for the Romans,” he said.

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