Joel Chasnoff was a lone soldier in Israel in 1997-98.
Because he was a deeply committed Jew, a day-school graduate, and an idealist, he decided to leave his life in the United States to join the IDF; because he is a comedian, he was able to write a funny book about it. (Because his mother, who was not born Jewish, had a Conservative conversion, he was not allowed to get married in Israel, and so did not make aliyah — but that’s a different story, told, along with his IDF adventures and misadventures, in “The 188th Crybaby Brigade.”)
Much of Mr. Chasnoff’s comedy comes from his Jewishness — not the kind of self-deprecating if not actively self-hating Jewish humor that used to propel so many Jewish comics, but instead a deeply rooted understanding of Jewish assumptions, vocabularies, and worldview. “I used to play at a lot of colleges and clubs, as well as at some Jewish events, but my best comedy is Jewish,” he said; by now, most of his audiences are Jewish. “In the Jewish world, word of mouth is very strong. Of course that goes in both directions,” he added. “You have to be good — but people seem to like what I do.”
Mr. Chasnoff still feels deeply connected to lone soldiers — his performance for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Comedy Night on Thursday, October 29 (see box for more information), is to raise funds for the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Mickey Levin. That connection goes both ways. “My book has gained somewhat of a cult following among lone soldiers,” he said. “They don’t buy it — they pass it along to their friends — and they write to me. It is very moving for me. “It’s challenging to be a soldier, and it’s even more challenging to be a lone soldier, so if I can bring them a little bit of joy, I am thrilled, and I am thrilled every time I can raise money for them.”
Mr. Chasnoff was a lone soldier in a very different army from the IDF as it is now, he said, and in an Israel that saw lone soldiers differently than it does now. When he was there, he said, the IDF was going through a sort of adolescence. It had begun with a clear mission. “The idea was to keep Israel from being blown off the map,” he said. “But after the Yom Kippur war, we knew that wouldn’t happen.” The army, like other Israeli institutions, became less clearly focused. “It was a transitional period,” Mr. Chasnoff said. “Rabin had been assassinated just a short time before, Israel had been in Lebanon for years, and we were wondering what kind of army this was. Parents were wondering, ‘Are we sending our kids off only to fight Palestinian teenagers?’
“The army was looking for its identity as I was searching for mine,” he said. His book details some of both searches; much of it is funny, and some of it is very sad.
“I think that the Lebanon war of 2006 was the culmination of a lot of what I mentioned in my book. It was a war that wasn’t so well organized. Israel could have dominated then, but it didn’t — and that was because of a lot of the issues I’d mentioned” — the lack of organization, the lack of a clear goal.
The war in Gaza was different, he added. “There were 60 or so deaths on the Israeli side, and that was obviously terrible, but they had a clear goal — to blow up tunnels, to stop terrorists. The army has gotten its act together. It knows that it needs to tell parents and families that it knows what it is doing. The Israeli public won’t accept things any more without knowing what it’s for. They ask: ‘How do we know when it’s over?’ ‘How do we know when we’ve won?’”
Israelis also now understand more about lone soldiers. Much of that new knowledge is a result of the death of Michael Levin, an idealistic young man who went from Pennsylvania to the IDF in 2006, and was killed in Lebanon at 22. Mickey Levin’s death, and his parents’ refusal to allow Israel to forget him, made a huge difference. “For the first time, Israelis realize that there are these guys coming from Australia and the United States and England,” Mr. Chasnoff said. “Last summer, three lone soldiers were killed in Gaza, and 20,000 to 30,000 people showed up at their funerals.
“Israelis are finally appreciating what lone soldiers do, and the sacrifices they make.”
Mr. Chasnoff, his wife, and their four children — 14-year-old twins, an 8-year-old, and a 5-year-old — lived in New Rochelle, N.Y., until mid-August. But now, with their cars sold, their rented house no longer theirs, and their other possessions in storage, the Chasnoffs are spending a year exploring the world. They’re chronicling it on a blog, www.chasnoff-we-go.com. They began their journey in Peru, and have been to Bolivia and Chile. They are now in Argentina; Mr. Chasnoff will fly to this country for a series of performances, including the one in Englewood, before rejoining them. Next, they will go to Africa. Mr. Chasnoff has performances scheduled in South Africa and in Australia.
Although it is not a specifically Jewish trip, the family is sampling shuls and other Jewish institutions on their path. They’ve been struck by the high levels of security they’ve encountered; just to go to shul in Argentina “was like trying to get onto an El Al flight,” Mr. Chasnoff said. “They asked us where we had been, who do we know, what do we know, what do we know about Shabbat. It’s a very tight community, and they are very wary of anti-Semitism.”
The Chasnoffs don’t know what’s coming next, and they’re excited about that.
“We don’t live anywhere right now,” Mr. Chasnoff said. “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.”