I’ve done quite a few of these book events now – half a dozen through the Book Council, and another ten or so after my stand-up comedy shows – and sometimes it feels like they all blend together.
But then, every once in a while, I’ll have an event where something truly incredible happens, guaranteeing that I’ll never forget that particular night.
Last Thursday’s reading at the Posnack JCC in Davie, Florida was one of those unforgettable evenings.
It all started when a guy in the front row asked me about the title of my book. I explained that “The 188th Crybaby Brigade” was actually a nickname that my officer gave to our platoon during basic training. I told the crowd that in my unit we had a number of mama’s boys who faked injuries to get out of guard duty and literally broke down crying during hikes in hopes that they’d get a ride back to base in a jeep. “Having grown up on the myth of the invincible Israeli Army,” I explained, “I was quite shocked by the sheer wimpiness of some of my comrades.”
Right then and there, an old woman raised her hand and shouted, “Excuse me, you!”
I looked at her, startled. “Uh…yes?” I said.
The woman stood up. She was short, and thin, with dyed red hair that matched her polyester jumpsuit – a typical South Florida bubbie, and with the spunky energy of Dr. Ruth.
The bubbie shook her finger at me. “You are the crybaby!” she wailed.
I chuckled. Part of me wanted to dismiss her. But I was curious. And she was entertaining.
“And why am I the crybaby, Ma’am?” I asked.
The woman stepped forward. “There are no crybabies in the Israeli Army. Israeli soldiers are the bravest in the world. The only soldier who’s crying is you!”
Half of the crowd shouted at her to shut up. The other half – mostly the older folks – cheered her on.
“Whoa, whoa, wait a second,” I hushed the crowed. “Ma’am – with all due respect, I’m not saying that Israeli soldiers aren’t brave. I’m just saying that, in my platoon – my experience – there happened to be quite a few kids who, quite frankly, didn’t want to be in the army and tried every trick in the book to get out.”
The woman shook her head. “Not in the Israeli Army I know!” she bellowed. Her supporters cheered.
I was warned that, sooner or later, this kind of thing might happen on my book tour. Israel is an extremely emotional topic. I knew people would react to my book in ways I couldn’t necessarily predict.
Not that I ever had an agenda. In writing my book, I did not set out to praise Israel or to disparage Israel. Instead, my goal was simply to tell my story as honestly as I could. At times in my book, I express admiration for the IDF – for example, when our officer sits us down during basic training and leads us in a discussion of battlefield ethics.
Other times, like when I describe our lack of training before deploying to Lebanon, I’m critical. But I was always honest and, in my mind, fair.
The fact is, however, that there are many, many people out there – usually older ones, but some younger ones, too – who simply refuse to believe that the legendary Israeli Army is not perfect. This South Florida bubbie was one of them.
I explained to the woman that I was not the first author to write about Israel’s imperfections – in fact, in Self Portrait of a Hero, Yoni Netanyahu’s posthumous autobiography, Yoni himself describes the crybabies in his unit and how these guys hold back his platoon. Or, I suggested, the woman should check out the movies Waltz with Bashir and Beaufort – both of which are Israeli made, were nominated for Oscars, and present less-than-perfect images of the Israeli Army.
But the woman and her cohorts refused to back down. She simply couldn’t handle an Israel narrative that diverged from her own.
After the event was over, the red-headed bubbie approached me. I feared another shaking down. But instead she said, “Keep up the good work, young man.”
“Okay,” I said, surprised. “But what about – ?”
“We need people like you,” she cut me off. “We need you and we need your books. Otherwise, we Jews will have nothing to argue about.”
Joel Chasnoff (The 188th Crybaby Brigade) has been blogging for the Jewish Book Council on his Jewish Book NETWORK tour. Be sure to check back for his next post for the JBC Blog.