Pee-wee Herman’s father was founding member of Israeli Air Force

Deceased actor Paul Reubens, who created the iconic character, is inextricably linked to Israel’s fight for independence through his father, pilot Milton Rubenfeld, who flew with Ezer Weizman.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Jewish actor Paul Reubens, best-known for his alter ego Pee-wee Herman, died Monday at age 70 following a six-year battle with cancer.

Reubens’ Pee-Wee comedic character was a children’s TV show favorite in the 1980’s and he parlayed it into a film career that also included more serious roles, such as a drug dealer in the move “Blow” that starred Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz. He was best known for his comedy, however, and other comedians such as Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien paid tribute to his brilliance, originality and “devout silliness,” as well as his kindness and friendship, in comments after his death.

Reubens had an inextricable link to Israel through his father, Milton Rubenfeld.

Well before his famous son was born in 1952, Rubenfeld was a flier, teaching aerial acrobatics to those who dared learn the sport. When World War II broke out, he joined Britain’s Royal Air Force since the U.S. was playing neutral. Then, when America joined the fight two years later, he entered the American Air Transport Command instead, delivering military planes, supplies and personnel to overseas combat theaters until the war ended.

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As Israel was gearing up for its fight for independence, it desperately needed experienced war pilots to found its nascent air force, and the Haganah found Rubenfeld in February 1948. According to his biography in the records of the 101st Squadron – Israel’s first fighter squadron – he went to Czechoslovakia with nine other pilots in early May to train on fighter planes. Only he, two other Americans and two Israelis, including future president Ezer Weizman, graduated the very abbreviated course, cut short due to the Egyptian air force bombing Tel Aviv on the third day of the war, May 18.

On May 29, the IAF had all of four planes, and Rubenfeld as the fifth pilot had to sit out the IAF’s very first mission, against the Egyptians. Although the enemy was shocked that Israel had any air force at all, they managed to shoot down two planes during that initial sortie. Rubenfeld, together with Weizman, then flew the last two available planes the next day, their target being an Iraqi light armored column advancing towards Kfar Yonah, a settlement near Netanya. They dropped the two bombs they each had, but then both were hit – Rubenfeld by either antiaircraft fire or shrapnel from his own bomb, and Weizman by a bird smashing his windshield.

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Weizman made it back to base, while Rubenfeld could only get his injured plane to the sea, bailing out at just 1,000 feet. His parachute barely had time to open and he hit the water hard, breaking three ribs and injuring his groin. According to the biography, he said he swam for several hours, not realizing that the water was only knee-deep and that the farmers on shore shot at him as he was coming out, thinking him an Arab. Luckily, they missed, and then took the time to find his Israeli ID in his coveralls.

It turns out that this was Rubenfeld’s last mission for the IAF. He returned to the U.S. for better medical treatment and did not return. However, his place in Israel’s history as a founding member of the country’s vaunted air force remains in place.