Swaggering Through The Shuk
Fri, 03/19/2010
Special to the Jewish Week
The 188th Crybaby Brigade
The 188th Crybaby Brigade

I’m god. No—I’m bigger than god. And badder. I’m Clint Eastwood. I’m Jesus Christ, Captain America, and the Beatles.

I mean, look at me. Do you see me? Do you see me in my olive-green uniform, beret, and shiny black boots? Do you see the assault rifle slung across my chest?

That’s me! Finally! I am the badass Israeli soldier at the side of the road, in sunglasses, beret, forearms like bricks. And honestly—have you ever seen anything quite like me?

It’s Friday, 2 p.m., and I’m in Tel Aviv on my first Sabbath leave. I’m on the number 4 bus to Ben Yehudah Street. There’s an open seat, but I stand.

I must be seen.

A couple feet away, two college-aged American girls chat in English. They’re Yeshiva girls, decked out in ankle-length denim skirts and long sleeves. They giggle. Whisper. Then one of them—I think—yes!—checks me out. I turn my head and catch her staring at my uniform and gun. She’s smitten.

She is thinking thoughts that would get her kicked out of Yeshiva. I flash a smile. She blushes, looks away. I am the Israeli soldier who makes American girls swoon. I am fireworks. A one-man ticker-tape parade.

I am glory.

At my apartment, I drop my bag, lock the door, and head right back outside. Sure, I could have changed out of my uniform and locked up my gun. But then nobody would know I’m a hero. And what fun is it to be a hero if nobody sees?

I check my watch: 3:00. Since I have nowhere to go, I walk.

I head west, to the beach, then turn south and walk along the waterfront Promenade. On the Promenade, couples hold hands while they munch ice cream cones and yap into cell phones. Twenty feet away, on the beach, two bare- chested Israeli guys in cutoff shorts play bongos and smoke.

I walk past the usual peddlers: the old violinist, case open at his feet; the Russian caricature artist who stands proudly next to an exaggerated drawing of Tom Cruise. And then I walk up, into Yafo and the Carmel Market in the heart of Old Tel Aviv.

There’s so much about this country that drives me mad. The bureaucracy is crippling. Government offices operate when they want, for as long (or short) as they want, usually something like 8 a.m. until noon Mondays, Wednesdays, and alternate Thursdays.

Each week, another group goes on strike— schoolteachers, garbage men, postal workers, phone operators, cable guys, bus drivers, doctors, nurses, paramedics, airport baggage guys, and the old men in blue jumpsuits who walk the streets of Tel Aviv stabbing pieces of trash with meter-long spears have all struck in the past year—so the country never runs at full power.

In big cities, there’s dog excrement on the sidewalks. The Knesset, Israel’s fifteen-party parliament, is trapped in a state of perpetual gridlock. And as for the economy, it’s defective, backward, and in even worse condition than the sidewalks—a predicament I’m forced to deal with on the first of every month when it’s time to pay rent.

Like all Israelis, I pay rent in dollars but get paid in shekels. So when the shekel falls against the dollar—as it does pretty much daily—my rent goes up even as my pay holds steady.

This country!

And yet, when I step into the Carmel Market and hear the shopkeepers hawking their wares, smell the mixture of frying lamb, goat cheese, and human sweat, and watch the people lined up to buy flowers for the Sabbath, I remember why I love Israel so much.

And now that I’m a soldier, I can enjoy it without feeling guilty that I’m taking without giving back. When I was seventeen and visiting Israel with my American friends, I felt like a fraud calling Israel my homeland when it was the Israelis, and not me, who defended it.

I remember how, junior year of high school, I watched Saddam Hussein’s missiles fall on Israel during the gulf War, and it felt so wrong that we American Jews did nothing but pray and mail checks while the Israelis holed up in shelters with gas masks on. Walking through this market in uniform, I feel vindicated. After twenty-four years, I’ve earned the right to call Israel mine.

“Hey, soldier!” a shopkeeper beckons me over. “Where you serve?”

“Armored,” I say.

“Kol ha kavod!” He commends me. “Here—free falafel, just for you.”

Because it’s Friday, the market is packed. I inch along, crushed in the throng of human mass. At pushcarts and stalls, middle-aged men with gold chains and raspy smokers’ voices sell mangos, lemons, whole and quarter chickens, cow lungs, cow tongues, cow testicles, sheep brains, calculators, knockoff Nikes, carnations, sponges, girdles, bras, batteries, and men’s and ladies’ underwear. With only a couple of hours until sundown, the peddlers shout their last minute, pre-Sabbath bargains:

“Tangerines, one shekel, one shekel!”

“Pita, hummus, chickpeas—yallah! Shabbat, Shabbat!”

I love the excitement of this market, but also the Middle Easternness of it—the barking, the bargaining, the haggling that’s at once friendly and brutal. When I walk here, I think about all those American diplomats who call Israel the America of the Middle East. If those diplomats really want to understand Israel, they should leave their fancy Jerusalem hotels and take a stroll through the Carmel Market.

Here and there, a shopkeeper shouts, “Hayal!”—soldier!—and offers me a doughnut, a cookie, a wedge of baklava on the house. At the flower stand, I pick up roses for my girlfriend’s aunt, who’s hosting us for dinner. “How much for twelve?” I ask.

“Ninety shekel.”

“Pshhhh,” I say.

“How much you want?”

“Fifty.”

“Serious? Eighty, best price.”

“Sixty.”

“You want me to be poor?”

“Sixty-five.”

“Yallah, sixty-five. Here. Go. Good Sabbath, soldier.”

That’s the other thing I love about Israel—for all their shouting and arguing, Israelis are as warm and generous a people as any on earth. There’s this incredible bond between Israelis, and they take care of one another.

Maybe it’s a remnant of shtetl life in Europe, or perhaps it has something to do with living so close to your enemy. Whatever the reason, Israelis act as if everyone is everyone else’s next-door neighbor.

The first time I experienced this unique bond was the week I arrived. I was driving to Tel Aviv when a guy pulled up next to me at a stoplight and beeped his horn. “Hey, brother!” he called. “My girlfriend’s thirsty. You got water?”

Beside me, on the passenger seat, was a bottle of water. But it was half empty.

I held up the bottle. “It’s already open,” I said.

“No problem,” he said. He stuck out his hand.

The longer I’m in the army—and it’s been three weeks now—the more I think mandatory army service is the reason why Israelis are the way they are: aggressive, hotheaded, and stubborn on the one hand, and, on the other, unbelievably generous and community minded. It’s because these are army values.

And since just about every Israeli comes of age in the army, these values become national values. In fact, I sometimes feel like Israel is just one big army base, what with everyone shouting at each other, barking commands, refusing ever to back down—and passing around their water bottles when their buddy (or his girlfriend) needs a drink.

Joel Chasnoff is a comedian and writer with stage and screen credits in eight countries. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he served in the Israel Defense Forces Armored Corps. From THE 188TH CRYBABY BRIGADE by Joel Chasnoff. Copyright © 2010 by Joel Chasnoff. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.