Comedian Joel Chasnoff was 24 years old when he decided to join the Israeli Army. A self-proclaimed "skinny Jewish kid from Chicago," Chasnoff wanted to be exposed to a different kind of Jew.
"I wanted to be Israeli," he says. "Namely, the badass, tough Israeli soldier who was such a contrast to the Jews I knew growing up — dentists, doctors, lawyers, etc. I visited Israel when I was 17 and fell in love with this new kind of Jew. And I knew that one day I would be one of them."
Chasnoff got enough material from his experiences to write a book, The 188th Crybaby Brigade (Simon and Schuster), which he's developing into a one-man show that he hopes to run off-Broadway. Now 39 years old, Chasnoff tours the country as a comedian, sharing his Israeli adventures as well as the experience of life as a Jewish man in America.
While Chasnoff's time in the military only takes up a small portion of his current act, the experience informs all of his material. "As a former Israeli soldier, I know firsthand that Jews can be strong and unapologetic," he says, noting his efforts to avoid the "downtrodden, schleppy Jew routine of comedians like Woody Allen." He adds, "It's just too pathetic to keep seeing ourselves as anything but."
He works hard to avoid tired stereotypes about Jewish people. Rather than point out the differences between Jews and Gentiles, he likes to focus on how to build a meaningful life in a society as a minority. "To me, that's a much more interesting topic," he says. "It's also important to me that we not be thought about, by others and ourselves, in the same stereotypical ways we have been: money-grubbing, neurotic, cheap, etc. The truth is, I just write what comes naturally to me, and stereotypes have never been part of my upbringing or how I see myself. It's part of why I joined the Israeli Army — I liked that Jews were strong and not weak, outspoken instead of timid."
Perhaps a holdover from his education at the University of Pennsylvania, Chasnoff approaches his joke-writing with precision. "I treat jokes like a scientific equation," he says, carrying a notebook in his pocket at all times. "I understand completely how a joke works, on a technical level: the premise plus the twist of the unexpected, but still within a context that makes sense. So I know when a joke is finished and when it still needs work." That said, he says that some of his greatest performances have been improvised.
When he's not working on his own show, Chasnoff is writing a cookbook with Israeli chef Einat Admony, owner of Taim and Balaboosta in New York. "She got an offer to write a cookbook, but she wanted it to be more than just recipes," he says. "She wanted it to have funny stories that tell the story behind the recipes and her history as a chef." Because she's not fluent in English, she tapped Chasnoff to help her with the project. The book is called Balaboosta: Recipes and a Way of Life.
Chasnoff's core audience is typically Jewish, but don't write him off if you're not. "Ultimately, my jokes are not about Jews," he says. "They're about people and the strange things people do to keep life meaningful and survive the trials and tribulations of life in the 21st century. Everyone relates to that. Some of my jokes are more heavily Jewish than others, but many are about technology, parenting, and other issues we all face."