A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. Except when he or she is not, writes Sarah Wildman on Politics Daily.
Just ask Joel Chasnoff, a man who immigrated to Israel, joined the army, fought in Lebanon, then discovered the state didn't consider him Jewish.
In 1950, Israel, the Jewish state passed the Law of Return, granting "all Jews" automatic citizenship upon immigration to Israel. It was a visceral response to the Holocaust, to a time of refugees, of statelessness, of desperation for a homeland. Immediately the question arose: Who qualifies? In other words: who, exactly, is a Jew?
In Joel Chasnoff's marvelous memoir, "The 188th Crybaby Brigade," which came out earlier this year (think "Catch-22" for the post-modern generation), the author narrates his decision, at age 24, to leave America and join the Israeli army. It's partly for love – he's fallen for an Israeli girl and wants them to be able to live in Israel, should they choose (and if they do, he feels an army experience is essential). It's partly because he was raised in a certain kind of Jewish Zionist home – he was sent to Jewish day schools, raised with the idea that Israel needed defending. And so he goes, and becomes the best soldier in his unit --only to discover, having served in Lebanon, having patrolled the borders, the state does not consider him to be a Jew. To marry in Israel, he must convert. And though he hates himself for doing it, he goes through with it.
"To make aliyah [emigrate to Israel] and join the IDF [Israeli Defense Force], the Israeli consulate requested a copy of my bar mitzvah certificate; or, if I couldn't provide that, I could supply a letter from my rabbi (who happened to be Conservative), on synagogue letterhead, stating that I was Jewish," Chasnoff wrote me by e-mail.
"A year later, during a furlough from a tour of duty in Lebanon, Dorit (my then-girlfriend, now wife) and I applied for a marriage license. On application, I stated that my mother had converted to Judaism in 1968 -- five years before I was born. Suddenly, a letter from my rabbi was no longer enough to prove I was a Jew. The Rabbinical Authority investigated my mother's conversion and declared that, because she had studied with a Conservative rabbi, neither she nor I were Jewish. The army then sent me back to Lebanon to wage its war against Hezbollah. So I went back to Lebanon knowing that if I died in battle, I would not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. As Dorit put it: Israel didn't mind if I died for the country, so long as I didn't get married there."
When Chasnoff isn't writing memoirs that should be required reading for anyone interested in army life, Israel-Palestinian relations, or lost boys, he is a stand-up comic who frequently tours through the North American Jewish world. The buzz on the ground is one of disbelief and anger, distancing and reassessment.