Joel Chasnoff spoke at a Zoom event presented by Jewish National Fund of Canada on June 1 and he’ll speak at a CHW Montreal Zoom event on June 21. (photo from APB Speakers)
Michael Levin grew up in Philadelphia, joined the Israel Defence Forces as a lone soldier and died in a battle with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 2006. At that time, most Israelis weren’t familiar with the concept of a lone soldier – a legal term for a volunteer, usually (but not always) from outside Israel, who enlists to defend the Jewish state.
Levin’s death at 22 came just days after he returned hastily from his leave back home in the United States when he learned of the start of the Second Lebanon War. He flew back to Israel, hitched a ride to his platoon in Lebanon and took up the fight against the Iranian-backed terrorists. He was killed in an intense firefight in the Hezbollah-controlled village of Aita al-Shaab.
His grieving mother, Harriet Levin, was concerned that her son’s funeral would not have a minyan to say Kaddish and so, on arriving in Israel, she asked a few people to come to the military cemetery to ensure a proper Jewish burial. On her way to Mount Herzl, traffic was so congested she feared she would be late for her son’s funeral but, when she did get there, she discovered that the few people she had asked to spread the appeal for a minyan had shared the news widely. Media picked it up and more than 10,000 Israelis showed up to pay their respects.
It was a turning point in the Israeli consciousness, according to Joel Chasnoff.
Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian and writer who shared his own story of leaving his Chicago-area home two decades ago to become a lone soldier. In a Zoom event presented by Jewish National Fund of Canada June 1, Chasnoff, who now lives in Israel, spoke of the changing understanding of lone soldiers – and his reflections on now being the father of soldiers. A decade ago, he chronicled his experiences as an IDF volunteer in the book The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah.
Today, lone soldiers are a better understood phenomenon in Israel and supports are in place that were not when Chasnoff volunteered in 1997. There is now a network of Lone Soldiers Centres – commonly called Michael Levin Centres – around Israel, to help overseas volunteers adapt and smooth their way to a successful integration, coordinate holiday and Shabbat homestays and deal with the myriad complications that arise for a newcomer to Israel.
Chasnoff shared comedic experiences, including the challenge of proving he was indeed a lone soldier without Israeli parents, when government officials insisted that Levin’s father had never left Israel after his first visit in 1976. The stakes were basic – a lone soldier’s salary at the time was $160 a month instead of $80, plus a few privileges. But it required a sheath of documents from the States to prove that his father was indeed an Illinoisan, not an Israeli.
“Never mind that he had raised me in the U.S. and I have a very strong and good relationship with my dad. The Israelis believed that my dad was actually living in Israel the whole time and I was just trying to pretend that I was a lone soldier to get the extra $80 a month,” Chasnoff said.
His decision to join the IDF was sparked by a visit to Israel as a teenager.
“I got off the plane,” he said, “and, you know, you’re 17, your hormones are raging. What’s the first thing you notice being a teenager coming to Israel? How beautiful the Israelis are. The women were all tan and fit, the men were these hunks with muscles and crew cuts. It’s so odd because they have the same roots as we do, right? Except they look like supermodels and we look like Jews. How does that happen? That’s not fair.”
The soldiers he met were just a year older than he was.
“They were 18, and they had machine guns and berets and Ray-Ban sunglasses and forearms like bricks,” said Chasnoff. “And then there was me, slathered in sunscreen, wearing a fanny pack … stuffed with lactose pills.”
One of the eye-opening things Chasnoff discovered about the Israeli army, he said, is how democratic it was.
“I would even say insanely democratic,” he said, noting that soldiers argued about orders and fought with their superiors. “People ask me what’s it like in the Israeli army. I think the best way to describe it is, imagine a bunch of Israelis running an army. That is the Israeli army.”
This is why one of his platoon-mates was a darling among commanders: he didn’t speak Hebrew. The young man was raised in an evangelical Christian home in Oklahoma, but, at a certain age, learned that his mother had converted from Judaism. One thing led to another and he volunteered for the IDF.
“So, they made him a tank gunner,” Chasnoff said, “because, to be a tank gunner, you basically need to know six words – stop, go, left, right, forward, back. Tim was one of the best soldiers in our platoon because he didn’t have the Hebrew to argue back. When the commander would give orders, the guys would argue. Tim, by not having Hebrew, just did what he was told. And was an excellent soldier for that reason and one of our commander’s favourites.”
Unfortunately, a lack of Hebrew can be deadly in moments of military conflict. Chasnoff said some casualties in conflicts in Gaza may have resulted from linguistic challenges and he believes the military is doing a better job ensuring fluency in such situations.
While lone soldiers is a term associated with overseas volunteers, Chasnoff said that about half of the 6,000 lone soldiers are Israelis, mostly Charedim whose volunteer service or other factors estrange them from their families.
While lone soldiers were not so much in the Israeli consciousness a few decades ago, they are now a welcome oddity.
“I think, when you get a lone soldier in your platoon, people are very excited about it,” Chasnoff said. “Everyone wants to bring him or her home to show the family the sort of strange character who came all the way from New York City or Sydney, Australia, or whatever. People are really interested in what motivates them to serve, so they are invited. It’s very, very different than the old days.”
Addressing the broader differences between Israelis and Diaspora Jews, Chasnoff riffed like the comic he is.
“We grow up with this myth that Israelis are, you know, just like us. They are Jews and we are Jews and we’re one big happy family. And then you get to Israel and you realize the Israelis are nothing like the American Jew. They speak their minds. They shout. They argue,” he said. “You’ll never be with an Israeli and wonder to yourself, ‘I wonder what she really thinks about me right now.’ I’m married to an Israeli for 21 years and I can honestly say that once in those 21 years has my Israeli wife apologized to me because, in the Middle East, apologies make you look weak and nobody wants to look weak. We had one huge fight where she actually apologized and it wasn’t even a real apology, it was an Israeli apology: she came up to me a few days later and said, ‘Yoeli, motek, I am sorry you’re such an idiot.’”
He also has plenty of material about growing up Jewish in America.
“My mom was actually one of these Jewish mothers who – let’s be honest – they have a special ability to worry about every situation,” he said. “You give them any scenario, they will figure out the potential thing that could hurt you in that scenario.”
For their annual family visit to Texas to see his paternal grandparents, Chasnoff’s mother would book the family on two separate flights so that, if a plane went down, the entire family wouldn’t be lost.
“That’s a typical Jewish upbringing,” he said.
When his zaidie gave him a jersey with the number of his favourite player and his own name, Joel, on the back, Chasnoff’s mother refused to let him wear it outside the house because a stranger would know his name.
“And, because he knew my name, I would think he knew me, so I would go with him,” he said. “You know why? Because I’m an idiot. That’s why there are no Jewish athletes. Not that we’re bad at sports, our mothers won’t let us wear the jersey.”
Readers will have another chance to hear Chasnoff speak this month. CHW Montreal is hosting a Zoom BBQ with the comedian on Father’s Day, June 21, at noon, Pacific time. Visit facebook.com/chwmontreal and click on Events for details. Funds raised benefit hospital workers at the Shamir Medical Centre and Hadassah Hospital in Israel.