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Why You’re Over There And Not Back Home

An open letter to the lone soldiers of the IDF.

Tue, 08/05/2014
Joel Chasnoff
Joel Chasnoff

Dear Chayalim Bodedim (Lone Soldiers),

Until Michael Levin, the paratrooper from Philadelphia, was killed in August 2006, almost nobody knew who we were.

Two weeks ago we lost three more of our own: Max from L.A.; Sean from South Padre Island, Texas; and Jordan from Lyon, France. More than 50,000 Israelis attended their funerals. 

And now more people know who you are.

But there are people who still don’t know why you’re there, in an Israel Defense Forces combat platoon, instead of back here in the U.S., where you supposedly belong.

For example, your mom. You’ve explained it a dozen times. And she supports you. She has to. She’s your mom. But she’d rather you went to university, where you could major in bio and meet a girl at the Hillel barbecue.

And Dad? He supports you. He has to. He’s married to your mom. But he, too, would rather you were not there in an army so far away.

Your girlfriend—your ex-girlfriend—thinks you’re crazy. And Sam, who you’ve known since kindergarten (he’s pledging ZBT now), and your friends from camp, and Bubbie Fran, and Sarah who you went to prom with, and even your older brother Stu, who always understands you…

They think you’re out of your mind.

Which you are.

There’s another person who wonders why you’re here, on the Gaza border, sweating your ass off in hundred-degree heat while you stand guard on a tank, your thighs chafed, feet rank in the same socks you’ve worn since Tuesday, your helmet wobbly and your back sore.

Yes, there’s one more person who wonders why you threw it all away — the quad double and mixers with Tri Delts and a pre-paid meal plan instead of combat rations stamped “Kosher for Passover 1982” (tuna fish older than you are).

And that person is you.

Yes. You.

It’s okay. Happens to all of us. Moments when every Lone Soldier asks himself why he’s here.

So as you stand poised on the border, flak jacket on, magazine in, helmet tight as you can get it and Gaza footsteps away, I will remind you, Chayelim Bodedim, why you’re here:

You’re here because there are only so many trees you can plant, checks you can write and Israel Day Parades you can march in before it feels absurd.

You’re here because you read Yoni Netanyahu’s Self-Portrait of a Hero so many times the cover fell off, and because you still get choked up every time you watch the movie at Latrun where the tank commander who lost his eyes in the Yom Kippur War addresses his daughter he’ll never see.

And you are here because any country where you can buy chocolate milk in a plastic bag must be defended.

You’re here because in Israel there’s a spice to life that you just don’t get in Minneapolis, and because as much as you can’t stand how Israelis shout, cut the line, honk their horns the instant the light turns green and refuse to apologize because God forbid they might look like a freier, you still love them. And you don’t want them to go it alone.

In other words, you’re here because it’s only fair.

You’re here because you believe in country the way your grandpa believes in country. In this respect you’re more like him than like kids your own age. In fact, you believe in things like sacrifice and the doing of difficult tasks for the greater good. Society tells you these are silly things. But these are not silly things.

Why else are you here?

You are here because that Israeli counselor you had at camp the summer you turned 14 was the most all-around terrific human being you’ve ever met and you believe that by joining up some of that magic will rub off on you. And because in an age of Me, you believe in We.

That is why you are here.

Why else?

You’re here because you’ve figured out that the best way to bring out what makes you unique is to be part of something larger than yourself.

Plus, you want to look cool. Deny it, but it’s true. The Lone Soldier Fantasy: in uniform, M-16 over the shoulder, strutting down Ben Yehuda Street while yeshiva girls stare and think thoughts that could get them kicked out of yeshiva. You’ve got major-league chutzpah, and even if it’s dangerous, you know that the only thing worse than dying in Gaza is living in Scarsdale and wishing you’d at least tried.

You’re here because you have a scope of history that includes pyramids and temples and concentration camps and Ben Gurion declaring a state of our own, and you want to claim your place in this 3,000-year-old story. This is a more meaningful way to spend time now than beer pong and streaking naked through the quad. 

You’re here so you can live the rest of your life knowing you did the one thing you absolutely had to. The rest is commentary.

Soldier on, chayal. May the Holy One, blessed be He, bless you and your big-time chutzpah. Amen selah.

Joel Chasnoff is a comedian, former Israeli lone soldier and author of “The 188th Crybaby Brigade” about his IDF service. Visit him at

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I understand the comic relief inserts, but really, Scarsdale is what was chosen as a place "worse than dying in Gaza". Not so funny--in not so funny times. Yup, I take that personally--since many of our Westchester(Scarsdale and New Rochelle) boys are currently serving in the IDF and in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge. No need to isolate any group of Jews (even in jest), we have enough enemies!!!
Scarsdale Jewish Community supports Israel and the IDF like no other!!!

As a chayal boded, I served my time in NAHAL. I found it to be one of the most profound experiences of my life. I learned that I wasn't the center of the World, and that I could make a difference. I did the university thing, before and after the army. I founded two Hillels and had all of the other fun. The big difference was that I had learned who I was and what I could be. Had the chance to meet Joel, inAlaska, take I easy on him and do not be so thin skinned...something else I learned in the IDF was the importance of a good sense of humor.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

William Shakespeare's Henry V

Thank you for the wonderful and accurate article. My son just finished his service as a chayal boded in the IDF.
He was in Netzach Yehudah - a religious combat unit. It takes a special person to leave the comfort of the US, place your life on hold and put yourself on the front lines to defend and protect Israel. We are so very proud of him and his commitment to the People of Israel and the Jewish nation.

Thank you for saying it wello. My son is a lone soldier in Nachal and is so happy he is doing what he is. I will forward this to him.
kKl HA Kavod.

I agree with your overall message and enjoyed reading your article. However, I object to people who have to make fun of or put down others in order to raise themselves up. Leave the kid at Hillel or in Scarsdale alone. Don't minimize their ability to do good in their own way. Everyone is in a certain place and time to make the world better. No need to make comparisons. You are not in a place to judge. Just focus on the honor and merit you bring by your sacrifice and commitment to our people. Don't put others down. We all have a purpose wherever we are.

Yonah - I don't read this as a put-down; just a description (some tongue and cheek) of the mindset of those who go to Israel to become Chayalim Bodedim. The decision to do so is difficult and the actual experience can be grueling. Anyone who has Israel in his/her heart contributes in his/her own way and deserves honor and respect.

Last time I looked the Scarsdale Community were rock solid behind Israel.
Loved the piece but no need to mock our dear congregations abroad.

it's very easy to be "rock solid" for Israel sitting in shul in Scarsdale or in any other nice, quiet, safe Jewish community in the NY Metro area. Rock solid requires mouthing a few platitudes, adding a prayer or two, and writing a check that would otherwise have gone for some other "very important" cause.

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