The 188th Crybaby Brigade

For Joel (Yoel) Chasnoff, “a skinny Jewish kid from Chicago (as he is described in his book’s subtitle), joining the Israeli Army for one year might seem counterintuitive: He was 24 years old, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he acted in the all-male Mask and Wig Club dressed in drag. He was a left-leaning, lactose-intolerant peacenik who passed out when he saw blood.

Still, there was his strong sense of Jewishness, nourished in a Conservative home and day school–where he met his first Israeli, a teacher whose love of the country infected him–and family and youth group trips to Israel. Finally, there was Dorit, a Yemenite-Persian Israeli and Israel programs director at the Brooklyn College Hillel, where Chasnoff was hired to perform stand-up comedy. When Chasnoff realized he might one day want to spend his life with Dorit in Israel, he knew he first had to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. In The 188th Crybaby Brigade, Chasnoff’s account of his year makes us both laugh and cry at the absurdity and camaraderie of army life. The following is adapted from The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah by Joel Chasnoff. Copyright © 2010 by Joel Chasnoff. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All photos courtesy of Joel Chasnoff.

Our Fathers
Tomer’s father drives a taxi. Next Sunday, on Parents’ Day, Tomer’s father will drive his taxi down from Haifa, more than two hundred miles away. If Dorit needs a ride, Tomer’s father will pick her up at her parents’ house in Bnei Brak and drive her to the Armored School, free of charge.

Elran’s father sells ladies’ shoes. Elran says that if Dorit ever wants a deal on shoes, I should send her to his father’s store on Akiba Street.

Dror’s father has a Ph.D. in physics and lectures on string theory at the Technion. Twice a year, Dror’s father flies to Toronto, first class, and consults a team of engineers building a semiconductor.

Our fathers are locksmiths and lawyers. Our fathers patch tires, program computers and teach English literature at Hebrew U. They are bank tellers, factory foremen, pharmacists and high school principals. Our fathers deliver babies, and they deliver the mail.

A typical day of basic training goes something like this:

At 4 A.M., whoever’s guarding the bunk sticks his head into our bedrooms, flicks on the lights and shouts, “Boker tov, Platoon Two. Everyone up!” We respond by telling said guard to go f___ himself.

At 4:29, one of us notices it’s 4:29 and shouts, “Yallah! Four twenty-nine! Formation!” We sprint to the courtyard, line up in three rows and argue over our first dilemma of the day: Sleeves up or sleeves down.

The rule is, we can wear our sleeves either rolled up, above the elbow, or down, buttoned at the wrists, as long as we all wear our sleeves the same way.

“Everyone! Quick! Sleeves down!” I shout. As platoon scribe, my job is to decide how we wear our sleeves.

“It’s gonna be hot! Sleeves up!” someone shouts. As eighteen-year-old Israelis, their job is to challenge anyone who tells them what to do.

The sleeves argument lasts anywhere from two to four minutes. Then, it takes another minute for those with the wrong kinds of sleeves to fix them.

All photos courtesy of Joel Chasnoff

A little after 4:30, Sergeant Eran moseys into the courtyard and shouts, “Nu?”

“Staff Sergeant, can I please have an extension?” I say. As platoon scribe, it is my job to ask for extensions when we are not ready on time.

“You kidding me?” Sergeant Eran shouts in my face. “It’s 4:30 and you’re still buttoning your sleeves?” As commander, it is Sergeant Eran’s job to make me feel like a schmuck. “Yallah, Yoel. Give me the count.”

As platoon scribe, I am responsible for presenting an accurate count at every formation. The problem is, I can never figure out the count because I can’t keep track of the guys. The reason I can’t keep track of the guys is that they wander off without telling me where they’re going or when they’ll be back. Therefore, every formation is a crisis. Uzi wanders off to the infirmary. Tanenbaum’s in his bedroom, on hands and knees, looking for his boot. Doni’s asleep on the toilet, pants at his ankles. And I get blamed.

Our fathers are rabbis and plumbers, policemen and architects, deputy mayors and chemical engineers. Most of our fathers are living, Hayim’s father is dying and Etai’s father died when Etai was three.

From 4:35 until 5:30, we mop the floor, scrub the sinks, flush the toilets, collect the trash, beat our mattresses with broomsticks and fold our blankets into eighths. We shave. Then we sit in the courtyard, Indian style, and polish our boots.

“Shoe polish!” someone shouts.

Someone tosses him a tin of shoe polish.

“Hey, that’s my shoe polish!” shouts whoever’s shoe polish just got tossed.

Each of us has his own tin of shoe polish, but on any given morning, only five of us bring shoe polish to the courtyard. The rest of us assume someone else will bring shoe polish and leave our shoe polish in our kit bags. After we polish our boots, we clean our rifles with screwdrivers, old toothbrushes and WD-40 that we borrow from the same five guys who brought shoe polish.

In Platoon Two, Company B, we have four Drors, three Liors, two Omers and a Tomer. We have a Nir, a D’vir and a Ya’ir. We have a Liran, an Elran, two Erans and a Ron. We have a Gidi, a Gadi, a Gil and a Gal. We have a Chen Tal. We have a Tal Chen. We have an Oren Idan or an Idan Oren—I’m not sure which one’s his first name and which is his last.

We have a Pasha, a Nikolayev, a Vladimir, an Ofir and a Clemente. They are the Russians.
We have two Moshes. Both Moshes are Yeshiva Boys and wear yarmulkes and have beards. Yaki, Yitzi, Hudi, Yudi, Gershon, Shimon, Shlomi, Shmuel, Uziel and Issaschar also wear yarmulkes and have beards. I’m the only soldier with a biblical name who does not have a yarmulke and beard.

At 5:29, someone shouts, “It’s 5:29! Formation!” We throw together our guns—tubes into slots, pins into holes, spring into the buttstock, click-clack. In our bedrooms, we stuff underwear, socks, candy bar wrappers and yarmulkes into kit bags and then scramble into formation while I try to figure out the count, which is altogether different from last hour’s count because more soldiers have wandered off to God Knows Where without telling me.

“Staff Sergeant, can I please have an extension?”

“You kidding me?”

“We’re missing one!” I shout to the platoon.

“Uri’s in the kitchen!” someone shouts.

“No, Uri’s in the infirmary!” shouts someone else.

“I’m right here!” shouts Uri from over by the pay phone, guarding.

Then we eat.

We are two-thirds Ashkenazi white guys with Eastern European roots. The rest of us are dark-skinned Sephardic guys with roots in Turkey, Yemen, Iran, Iraq and Morocco. Ashkenazi white guys live in North Tel Aviv, Haifa and kibbutz settlements in the North. Dark-skinned Sephardic guys live in South Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Lod, near the airport. The Russians live in the south, in crumbling development towns on the outskirts of Beersheba. A few of the Yeshiva Boys live on settlements in the West Bank, deep in the Occupied Territories.

Lieutenant Yaron, Platoon Sergeant Guy and Sergeants Eran, Eli and Hanoch are all Ashkenazi white guys. Every officer I’ve seen so far at the Armored School is an Ashkenazi white guy. The highest-ranking dark-skinned guy I’ve seen at the Armored School is the barber.

When I asked Dror, an Ashkenazi kid and the smartest soldier in the platoon, why it is that I don’t see any brown-skinned officers, he explained that it was a result of complex sociological phenomena, including immigration patterns, weak school systems in traditionally Sephardic working-class neighborhoods, and a value system in certain dark-skinned communities that emphasizes religion over more contemporary fields of study, all of which lead to a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty and disproportionately, but undeniably, lower levels of achievement in dark-skinned Sephardic communities writ large.

When I asked my buddy Ido, who is Yemenite, dark and a pretty sharp guy himself, the same question, he said, “Because this Army is goddamn racist.”

Breakfast is cottage cheese, hard-boiled eggs and tea. We eat breakfast on blue dairy-meal plates. While the rest of us eat, the Yeshiva Boys pray. I find this strange: I’d expected that in the Jewish army, observant Jews would be given time to pray. But that’s not how it works; if they want to pray, they have to skip a meal. It’s like they’re being penalized for being pious.

Since the Yeshiva Boys don’t get to eat breakfast, the rest of us are supposed to make them sandwiches. Usually, we forget. When this happens, the Yeshiva Boys go hungry until lunch and Staff Sergeant Eran calls us self-centered pigs. This, in turn, makes us angry with the Yeshiva Boys.

Who knew it would be so tough to be a Jew in the Jewish army?

On the third morning of basic training, we hike into the desert for a tank show. To pump us up and get us excited for our service in the Armored Corps, Colonel Avi, the commanding officer of 188th Armored Brigade, puts on a demonstration of our tank, the Merkava 3 Baz

We march into the desert with Platoons One and Three until we reach metal bleachers set up on a cliff. Below us, in the valley, a Merkava battle tank sits with its engine idling.

Colonel Avi, a stocky officer with clipped gray hair, peps us.

“Tank soldiers! Welcome to the Armored Corps of the Israel Defense Forces. By show of hands, how many of you requested to serve in Armored?”

Only six of us raise our hands.

Problem One: Nobody wants Tanks. Unlike paratroopers and Navy SEALS, who compete for coveted spots in their elite units, we tank soldiers don’t request Armored so much as end up here. We go to Armored because we have flat feet, heart murmurs and asthma, or because the more popular units are full. In fact, the only guys in my platoon who asked for Armored are the ones whose fathers or brothers were tank soldiers before them.

“Hands down,” Colonel Avi orders. “Whether you know it or not, tanks are the backbone of this army. Engineers build the bridge. Air Force patrols the sky. But until there’s a tank on that hilltop, we don’t own the land.

“Now some people think tanks aren’t sexy.”

Problem Two: Tanks aren’t sexy. In the month and a half since I arrived in Israel, I’ve learned that each unit has its own distinct reputation: Paratroopers are heroes because they jump out of planes. Golani infantrymen are the shoot-first, ask-questions-later badasses for whom no mountain is too high to conquer. Navy SEALS are he-men. At the top of the food chain are the fighter pilots. They live in luxury dorms on Air Force bases that have swimming pools. And as for us Armored guys—we’re a bunch of wholesome, intelligent, nose-to-the-grindstone soldiers who don’t ask for attention and don’t get it. Or, as my buddy Shai puts it, “Infantry guys are the ones your daughter wants to date, but tank guys are the ones you want your daughter to marry.”

Colonel Avi points his finger in the air and continues. “Walk into any hotel gift shop in this country and you’ll see postcards of paratroopers praying at the Western Wall. You know why paratroopers pray at the Western Wall? Because they have to. In the Armored Corps, we don’t pray–we win wars. Understood, tank soldiers?”

“Yes, Colonel!” we shout from our seats.

Then, it’s show time. For the next half hour, Sergeants Eran, Eli and Hanoch crisscross the desert in our Merkava 3 Baz battle tank. The tank zigzags up and over sand dunes at forty miles an hour, ejects a smoke screen, zooms forward and fires a missile at a metal bull’s-eye a kilometer away while my comrades and I ooh and ahh, whistle and cheer, like kids watching Shamu do tricks at Sea World.

“So who wants to be a paratrooper now?” barks Colonel Avi.

There are platoons within the platoon.

The Yeshiva Boys pray three times a day. At night, after they pray the evening service, they join us in bedroom 2 and play guitar.

I am one of two Lone Soldiers in the platoon. The other is a kid named Eldad. Eldad’s mother and father live in South Tel Aviv, but Eldad ran away from home when he was fifteen and hasn’t seen his parents since. Next Friday, when we’re furloughed home for our first Sabbath leave, Eldad will sleep in a shelter for troubled boys.

The Russians are an island within the platoon. At meals, they sit alone. At night, when we play guitar in bedroom 2, the Russians play checkers. We make fun of the Russians constantly. Or, rather, Ben Gerber makes fun of the Russians constantly and we laugh. The main way Gerber makes fun of the Russians is by imitating their accents and mimicking the way they sprinkle Hebrew military words into otherwise Russian sentences:

Vladimir! Nidnya blodnik vil nalfnik grenade launcher?”

We live ten to a room, where we sleep on rusty bunk beds that creak when we breathe. The inhabitants of my bedroom, clockwise, bottom bunk to top:

Doni: A six-foot-four lumberjack with red hair and meaty hands that look like they should be drenched in motor oil. Loves Israel, hates Judaism–which is why he never had a bar mitzva. Talks openly about his sexual conquests to the gleeful astonishment of the Yeshiva Boys, most of whom won’t touch a girl until they’re married.

Tomer: A scrawny, blue-eyed Tom Sawyer type with rimless glasses and a warm smile. Madly in love with his girlfriend back home, Tali, whom he talks about constantly.

Ganz: A stocky, blond smart aleck who’s always ticked off about something. Classic middle child: older brother flies F-16s in the air force, younger brother’s a soccer star. Plays saxophone. Hopes to one day start a rock band.

Dror Boy Genius: A clean-cut Ashkenazi kid with dark hair and the lean, angular face of an Austrian skier. One of three in Platoon Two to score above the 99th percentile on his high school A-levels. He’s that rare breed of genius who’s both wicked smart and socially affable, equally adept at discussing quantum physics and Animal House. Prone to uttering annoying phrases such as “When I become an officer…” and “If I go to Harvard…”

Nitzan: A dark-skinned geek with a screechy voice, thick eyeglasses and asthma. Sings constantly. In the shower, he harmonizes with Ganz on an Israeli pop song called “Boray’ach”–“Running”–by the rock group Shikler’s List. Thanks to Nitzan and Ganz, the song is slowly becoming the unofficial anthem of the platoon.

Gerber: A hyperactive motormouth with a shaved head and the face of a pit bull. Like a boxer, he’s constantly darting, jabbing–except instead of throwing punches, he pummels away with one-liners and insults that sock you in the gut. Hilarious, but like sugar, too much Gerber makes you sick.

Shimon: A muscular Yeshiva Boy with a yarmulke and wire-rimmed glasses. Born in L.A., he immigrated with his parents and four older sisters at age three. Speaks perfect English. I turn to him for translations. Like Dror Boy Genius, he scored above 99 on his A-levels.

Ronen Peretz: A chunky Sephardic kid from Tel Aviv. Still looking for his kit bag.

Tanenbaum: A smiley Persian with light brown skin, fashionable glasses and an easy laugh. One of those guys who’s impossible to dislike. A tad scatterbrained. Has a tendency to misplace his boots.

Yoel: A twenty-four-year-old Chicago native in a jungle of Israeli teens. Conceived: Florence, Italy, March 1973, after his parents spent the day at a winery. Joined the Israeli Army against the wishes of his father, though he harbors the secret hope that doing so will make his father proud. Keeps a journal–every night, after lights out, he sits on his top bunk with a flashlight and scribbles in spiral notebooks while his roommates wonder why in God’s name he doesn’t go to sleep. Despite his initial fears of being an outsider, he actually fits in quite well, to the point where you might even say he’s made friends. Smitten by his Israeli girlfriend, a Yemenite-Persian beauty who at once reinforces and challenges everything he’s ever thought about Israelis. Enjoys the camaraderie of training, but deathly afraid of combat. Torn by dueling impulses, on the one hand, to be a badass Israeli warrior and, on the other, his hope that he will never have to pull the trigger.

In Platoon Two, we speak a language all our own. This language is a combination of Arabic proverbs, modern Hebrew slang, military acronyms, English imports and invented words. It’s nothing like the Hebrew I learned in Jewish day school, yet I picked up this new language within days because the words so perfectly describe the life of a soldier.

First, there are the words we use to describe one another. A Rosh Gadol–“Big Head–is a soldier who goes above and beyond the call of duty. Ask him to scrub the toilets, he’ll scrub the toilets and then mop the bathroom floor while he’s at it. The nemesis of the Rosh Gadol is the Rosh Katan–“Small Head.” A Rosh Katan does the absolute minimum. Ask him to clean the toilets, and he’ll flush each toilet once then lock himself in a stall so you can’t assign him any more chores until morning inspection’s over.

A Laf-laf is a nerd. A Chik-mook is a hapless slob—shirt untucked, bootlaces untied, drool dribbling off his chin. A Dibeelee is an imbecile, not to be confused with a Shocko’ ist, who is a soldier who tends to say and do stupid things, but only under pressure.

An example: Moti Sasson sleeps in his clothes, boots included, so he can sleep later in the morning. Moti once went four straight nights without showering (to get more sleep at night) until, finally, Sergeant Eran threatened to take away his Sabbath leave if he didn’t bathe. The kid’s a Dibeelee.

My buddy Tomer, on the other hand, is a sharp guy who, once in a while, does stupid things that leave the rest of us shaking our heads. Like the other night, during our weekly platoon meeting, Lieutenant Yaron asked if anyone had any complaints, and Tomer stood up and said there were too many flies at the Armored School. Not untrue. But a totally idiotic thing to say. The only way to explain it is that Tomer was in shock. He’s a Shocko’ist.

The easiest way to label a soldier is to just add –nik to his most prominent characteristic. A guy who’s from a kibbutz is a kibbutznik. A guy like me, from outside Israel—hutz la’aretz—is a hutznik. A soldier who works a noncombat desk job is a jobnik. If he’s got a medical excuse—a p’tor—he’s a p’tornik.

Since army life is often frustrating, miserable and downright disappointing, we’ve got plenty of expressions and words of disdain. Most of these are sexual in nature. There’s rabak! I have no idea what this means, but it sounds Arabic and we say it when we’re angry.

And then there’s the English word f___, which in army Hebrew means “mistake” or “f___-up.” Every night, before bed, we line up for our nightly Meesdar F___im—our “F___-up Formation”—where Sergeant Eran reads his Reshimat F__im—his “F___-ups List”—which contains all the times we messed up during the day, for which we’re then duly punished.

Many of our words aren’t words at all, but just sounds, hand motions and facial tics that everyone understands. These looks and sounds express not just the meaning, but also the speaker’s opinion of the other person. Usually, this opinion is that the other person is a moron.

A simple tongue click means “No–and how stupid are you for asking that?”

Pshhhh! means, “Wow–aren’t you some kind of big shot!”

Yo! means “Incredible!”

Uf! means “Damn! I don’t feel like it!”

Wallah! means, “You don’t say!”

Nu! means pretty much everything–including, “So?” “Well?” “Now what?” “And then what?” “Come on already!” “You with me?” and “What the hell is the matter with you?”

An upturned hand with the fingers and thumb bunched together means “Hang on, you impatient son of a bitch!”

A finger wag, such as the one a parent might use to scold a child who snuck a cookie, means “You are so wrong!”

In fact, it’s possible to have an entire conversation where nobody speaks a single word.
But probably our favorite word of all is the term achi–“my brother.” Most of the time, we call each other achi and don’t even bother with given names.

Dinner is breakfast: cottage cheese and eggs on blue plates. Then, our food still digesting, we change into sneakers and shorts for our date with Revital, our fitness instructor. She has long legs that don’t have hair. To us, this is incredible–we’ve already forgotten what legs without hair look like. This is our favorite time of the day.

After we stretch, we play an Israeli game called thirty-on-thirty basketball. It’s just like regular basketball, except there are thirty guys on each team instead of five and there are no fouls. Kicking, biting, pinching, eye gouging and elbows to the groin are allowed and in fact encouraged. We play until 8:30 or someone gets a bloody nose. Then Revital leads us in a post-game stretch.

We stare at Revital not because we want sex, but because we remember we’re supposed to want sex. The truth is, after a week of army life, we’re too tired for sex. If Revital invited me to her room, I’d ask her to tuck me into bed and sing a lullaby.

Our fathers speak Hebrew, German, Polish, Russian, Romanian, Arabic, English, French and Farsi. Despite the many languages our fathers speak and the countries from which our fathers hail, the soldiers of Platoon Two, Company B are united by the one trait we all have in common: We are Jews.

Except for the Russians. There’s a rumor that next week, when the Russians go to Beersheba to visit “the dentist,” they’re actually going to a surgeon to get circumcised. It’s just a rumor, but Gerber swears it’s true. To prove it, he says he’ll look at their penises in the shower and check to see if they have foreskins.

Most nights, before lights out, I call Dorit on the orange pay phone.

“Sweetheart!” she says. “How are you?”

“Alive,” I say.

She tells me about her job at the Vita Soup factory. Dorit landed in Israel two days after I started basic training, and already she’s the product manager for an entire line of powdered soups. She gets a cell phone and maybe even a company car. I ask her if she’ll have the car in time for Parents’ Day. She says she’s not sure, but that Tomer’s father has already called and offered to drive her down in his taxi.

Then Dorit asks, “What’d you do today?”

“Well…” I say.

But I can never remember. Each day lasts a year and flies by in an instant. Every morning I wake up and wonder how I’ll make it through another day. Every night I lie in bed and marvel at how I got from morning to here. It is like this every day–each day endless, the minutes fleeting, and the days topple one into the next like dominoes.

More and more, I feel like a soldier. My biceps are solid. For the first time in my life, my pectoral muscles have broken the plane of my breastbone. During our nightly two-kilometer runs, my pecs jiggle up and down and I feel a tremendous thrill.

I am wedded to my assault rifle. My gun is an appendage, as much a part of my body as my leg. In those rare moments when my rifle is not physically on me, I feel naked and I panic—the way I might feel if I’d been stripped of my underwear in front of a crowd.

I have also begun to think like a soldier, often in ways I’m not proud of. I joined the army thinking I’d be the model cadet who always volunteered. But I quickly learned that a big part of being an Israeli soldier is not being what Israelis call a friar–a sucker, or dupe, who gets taken advantage of—and that it’s every soldier’s responsibility to look out for his own ass. So when, on the first Friday night of basic training, just minutes before the Sabbath, my platoon mate, Ro’ee Shemesh, announced that he needed three volunteers for a twenty-four-hour stint of base guard duty, I ran to the latrine and locked myself in a stall. As I sat there cowering on the toilet, I thought about how Yoni Netanyahu would never have acted so selfishly. Obviously, I wasn’t Yoni Netanyahu. But I also wasn’t about to be a friar.

Date: 5/5/2010