Joel Chasnoff, American stand-up comedian turned tank gunner in the Israel Defense Forces’ 188th Armored Brigade, put on an Israeli-style comical performance for members and friends of Cornell Hillel on Tuesday night.
Noting that Tuesday was not his first time at Cornell, Chasnoff told the audience that he had toured the campus in high school and applied early-decision.
“Just as you can apply early, you can also get rejected early,” Chasnoff said at the event, which was titled, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Middle East.”
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he shirked more common Ivy League career paths and, after a futile attempt at stand-up comedy in New York City, enlisted in the IDF, serving from 1997 to 1998.
In sharp contrast to the preparatory education that he was used to in the United States, Chasnoff enrolled in a two-month basic training program, followed by another two months of tank school and three months of advanced warfare training. He no longer walked the halls of academia, but rather the dirt paths of the battlefield.
As a retired soldier, Chasnoff authored, “The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah,” a memoir recounting his year-long stint in the Israeli military, which he said engages the reader in a light-hearted discussion about the “army of kids, being run by kids.”
“I grew up worshipping Israeli soldiers — 18-year-olds who put their lives on the line to defend the state of Israel — but when I got there, it was like summer camp with guns,” Chasnoff said.
He described the “chutzpah,” meaning shameless audacity, of Israeli soldiers.
“Unlike Americans, Israelis will tell you upfront if they don’t like what you’re wearing, and indeed, if they don’t like you,” Chasnoff said in one of many lines satirizing his army experience that brought laughter from the crowd.
The Ivy League-educated, military-trained, professional jokester played four different characters to present alternative views on what he said is the “riddle” of 21st century Zionism. Chasnoff’s event posed the question of whether one can truly be both liberal and Zionist — “The Israel Conversation You’ve Always Wanted to Have,” as the event was marketed.
“Let’s have this be a safe space to discuss whether you, as American Jews, feel at all compelled to support Israel, despite reservations,” Chasnoff said.
Through portraying personalities ranging from a staunch-Zionist and New York attorney named Eric Fox to a hippie, teenage skeptic named Greg from Jacksonville, Florida, Chasnoff brought a unique approach to the complicated subject of modern-day Zionism that captivated the audience.
The audience of about 30 actively participated in a back-and-forth between the characters. At times, the conversations became contentious, yet were always infused with sharp humor.
The humorist, who has lived in Israel for about a year and is married to an Israeli woman, said he has “still not gotten used to the extreme open-mindedness of Israelis or wrapped my head around the conflicts of Zionism.”
Chasnoff ended the program by urging Cornellians to continue asking hard-hitting questions about Israel.
“This is only the tip of the iceberg … the Zionist conversation continues,” Chasnoff said.