Some laughs, some tears: Comic-educator enlightens crowd on today's Israel

By Carl Zebrowski

“I’m a little anxious tonight,” Joel Chasnoff told a crowd in the JCC’s Kline Auditorium on April 3 for a Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley Main Event.

Chasnoff, coauthor of the book “Israel 201: “Israel 201: Your Next-Level Guide to the Magic, Mystery, and Chaos of Life in the Holy Land,” was visiting his native United States from Israel. He’d made aliyah from his boyhood home in the Chicago suburbs after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in the 1990s. 

He told the Lehigh Valley audience he was nervous about his family back in Israel, nervous for the Israeli people, for Israel itself. Two days earlier, an Israel Defense Forces air strike on the Iranian consulate in Syria killed 16 people, including an Iranian military leader and officers. Iran immediately vowed a forceful response. There was no doubt a response would come. The only questions were how forceful and when?

Chasnoff was at the JCC for what was billed as “a night of storytelling and reflections about our magical relationship with Israel.” His goal, here as elsewhere during his present tour in the States, was to give the audience a better idea of what it was like to be a Jew living in Israel—specifically an American-born Jew.

“I want to bring you the good stuff,” he said, “but also the challenges.” The subject matter of his presentation was more or less the subject matter of “Israel 201”—with the recent war with Hamas and its repercussions added into the mix.

“We didn’t want to write the intro to Israel, because we felt like that story has been told over and over,” he said of the book. “We wanted to write a deeper book about Israel, the next level, which is the 201. They are the things that nobody knows about, including many Israelis.”

The anxiety Chasnoff was experiencing about the moment-to-moment situation in Israel led him to walk outside for a break and some fresh air before his presentation began. His wife and three daughters were back home, where seemingly anything could happen at any time. 

Rain suddenly burst out of the sky as he walked. “Is that normal here?” he asked. Just as quickly as the downpour started, it ended. “A rainbow formed and I reminded myself there is good in the world.”

He began his story with his aliyah and the inspiration behind it. That took things back to his childhood, his first connection with Israel: the board game appropriately named Aliyah. The game and its objective were simple. You kept moving your token in one direction, toward Israel, until you became the first one to reach the destination.

A little bit later, there was the long visit his family made to Israel. “I look back at my teen tour as one of the as one of the most meaningful six weeks of my life,” he said. His parents’ goal was for him to fall in love with Jerusalem. He joked that he instead fell in love with the soldiers in their uniforms, and the women.     When he got home, he had a sit-down with his parents. “I’m not going to college,” he told them. “I’m going to join the Israeli army.” He explained to the audience, “When I was in Israel, I felt like a more complete version of myself.”

His parents said: College now, IDF later. So off to Penn it was. Then came Israel, and the 71st Tank Battalion. He was 24.

Chasnoff got to know Israelis up close and very quickly. The ensuing years have only further immersed him in a fascinating, unending learning process.

One thing he was completely certain about regarding his new countrymen: Israelis call it as they see it. “They’ll tell you exactly how you can be a better person just like them,” he said. 

And if they ever get things wrong? “They do not apologize in Israel,” he said. “In the Middle East, apologies make you look vulnerable.” He added that if there ever is an apology, it’s like those his wife gives him: “I’m sorry you’re an idiot.”

Someone in the audience asked if he ever had times that made him seriously consider moving back to the United States. “Honestly,” he answered, “this morning I had one of those moments.” There was the ongoing war with Hamas in the south, boiling tensions with Hezbollah in Lebanon in the north, and the likely upcoming attack by Iran (which came a week and a half after Chasnoff’s engagement here). He also lamented some everyday life frustrations—“cars are taxed 100%,” Targets don’t have parking lots, to name two. 

And education. “The schools—it’s not a secret—are not that great.” But Israeli kids are probably taught lessons in school that many American kids aren’t: “They’re learning what it is to give to a cause that is bigger than you.”

As for the war with Hamas and the way it’s viewed around the world, someone asked, why can’t Israel, with all its impressive accomplishments, seem to win a PR contest? Antisemitism loomed large in Chasnoff’s answer. “When it’s a Jewish message,” he said, “it doesn’t count as much.” 

In addition, in a world focused on quickly changing images and short videos, often without context, he said, “There’s nothing more compelling than crumbling buildings in Gaza and starving children in Gaza.” 

“We’re in a paradigm of oppressor and oppressed. Israel is seen as the oppressor,” with its tanks and guns and planes,” he continued.  “Hamas is seen as a wing of the oppressed. This is the world that 20-somethings and 30-somethings live in.”

Meanwhile, he said, the civilian situation in Gaza is made worse because “100% of aid that goes into Gaza is taken by Hamas. There’s a second Gaza under Gaza—tunnels. Every dollar that they have received since 2005 has gone into building this tunnel system.”

Chasnoff’s talk finally came around to national politics, here and there. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approval ratings were in the tank, Chasnoff said.  “Most Israelis want a new election,” he explained. “Most Israelis do blame Netanyahu for the October 7 attacks, either directly or indirectly.”

Then there’s the president of Israel’s main ally. “I think it makes a difference who the president of the United State is,” said Chasnoff, alluding to this year’s presidential election. He believes that whatever Biden has been saying about the situation in Israel, his actions have remained mostly supportive. “We need to take what he’s saying with a grain of salt,” he said. Biden has an election to try to win and a diverse constituency to try to satisfy.

Chasnoff ended the night’s discussion—a little laughing, a little crying—with signs of and hope for the best. He pointed out that 22% of Israel is not Jewish, yet “day to day, Israelis Jews and Arabs get along very well. We have among us 2 million non-Jews who could have risen up against us but did not.”