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Paul Reubens, Pee-wee Herman creator and son of a pilot in Israel’s war of independence, is dead at 70

(JTA) — I was just out of college when I got a freelance assignment from a small entertainment magazine to interview a rising comic named Pee-wee Herman.

Of course that wasn’t his real name, but the man-child persona — one part Howdy Doody, one part third-grade nerd, who spoke as if he just took a hit off a helium balloon — created by a comic and actor named Paul Reubens. 

The publicist warned me that Reubens would be only talking to me as Pee-wee, but the voice at the other end of the call spoke in a flat, polite baritone. It was Reubens as Reubens, who had decided to drop the Pee-wee character, at least for our conversation. 

I don’t remember what we talked about, but the conversation was disorienting: a peek behind the curtain at the real Wizard of Oz. And Pee-wee was sort of a wizard: In his brilliant Saturday morning “children’s” show, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” and in riotous films like “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and “Big Top Pee-wee,” the adult Reubens fully inhabited a child’s sensibility, simultaneously making his audience relive the innocence of being a kid and undermining it from an edgy adult distance. 

Thirty years later I had another disorienting Pee-wee moment. I attended a screening of Nancy Spielberg’s 2014 documentary on American airmen who fought in Israel’s war of independence, “Above and Beyond.” Suddenly, there was Paul Reubens again, seated beside his mother and explaining how his father, Milton Rubenfeld, was an American pilot who volunteered in the fight for Israel. The film recounts how his father flew in a critical mission against the Iraqi army and was shot down over the Mediterranean (he survived).

“He was swaggering and macho, like Indiana Jones,” Reubens says. “He felt like it was his destiny.”

I hadn’t even considered until then that Reubens was Jewish. In “Why Harry Met Sally: Subversive Jewishness, Anglo-Christian Power, and the Rhetoric of Modern Love” (2017), one of the few books about Jewish  comedy in which Reubens appears, Joshua Louis Moss groups him with a cohort of Jewish comics whose acts were “nearly completely devoid of references to either their Jewish background or Jewish culture more generally.”  

Paul Reubens died Monday at age 70; a publicist said he “privately fought cancer for years.” And even though his career was derailed by scandal — he was arrested for “exposing” himself at a porn theater in his hometown of Sarasota, Florida, in 1991 — it’s not a stretch to remember him as an heir to the masterful comics who mined Jewish comedy’s more anarchic vein. Like the Marx Brothers, Pee-wee — with a crewcut, a too-tight suit, a red bow tie and a hint of lipstick and rouge — was a costumed agent of chaos whenever he bumped against straight (in all senses of the word) characters. Like Jerry Lewis, his character seemed stuck in pre-adolescence, but with an adult libido. He could be as sexually ambiguous as Milton Berle in one of his cross-dressing bits. And you could even connect him to Baby Snooks, the little-girl character created by Fanny Brice of “Funny Girl” fame.

Paul Rubenfeld was born Aug. 27, 1952, in Peekskill, New York, and grew up in Sarasota. Milton and his wife Judy (Rosen) owned a lamp store. Milton Rubenfeld had been a top fighter pilot who served in the Royal Air Force, and then the U.S. Army Air Force, during World War II. He became one of five Jewish pilots who flew in smuggled fighter planes and helped establish the Israeli Air Force.

“When I was a youngster, they seemed like fish stories to me,” Reubens recalled in the Spielberg documentary. “I didn’t have any real perspective on it until Ezer Weizman [an Israeli Air Force general and seventh president of Israel], I believe was the first book that actually mentioned my dad by name. And all of a sudden all these stories I’d heard my whole life growing up were in this book. Once I actually knew he really did all those things, and then they weren’t things everyone else did, I just had a completely different view of [my father].”

After studying at Boston University and the California Institute for the Arts, Paul created the Pee-wee character in the late 1970s as a member of the Los Angeles improv troupe The Groundlings. HBO produced a successful special starring the character, and Pee-wee became a cult figure, appearing on talk shows and often confusing the hosts with his child-like delivery and pansexual (or perhaps pre-sexual) persona. (David Letterman had him on his show regularly but never seemed completely comfortable in his presence.)

Paul Reubens and his father, Milton Rubenfeld, in a scene from “Above and Beyond,” a 2014 film about pilots like Rubenfeld who served in Israel’s War of Independence. (Playmount Productions)

His first feature film, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” (1985) was directed by Tim Burton (who would go on to direct “Beetlejuice” and one of the best of the “Batman” reboots) and was a financial and critical hit. A sequel, “Big Top Pee-wee” (1988), was less successful but had its moments. 

From 1986 through 1990, Reubens starred in 45 episodes of the CBS Saturday-morning children’s program “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” It was both a children’s show and a send-up of a children’s show, featuring a recurring cast of characters that included a sea captain (Phil Hartman), a cowboy (Laurence Fishburne), a “mail lady” (S. Epatha Merkerson) and a talking chair. More than one critic noted Reubens’ debt to Soupy Sales, another Jewish comedian whose 1960s kids show also managed to appeal to children as well as adults who were in on the joke. 

The indecent exposure arrest led to a media frenzy that made it impossible for Reubens to continue playing a children’s entertainer. He eventually emerged in a series of cameos and small roles in film and television shows – including a memorable term as a grotesquely inbred Hapsburg prince on “30 Rock,” and as a drunken Pee-wee opposite Andy Samberg in a 2011 “Saturday Night Live” video.

In 2010, he revived the character that made him famous on Broadway in “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” and in 2016, he co-wrote and starred in the Netflix original film “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.”

Reubens kept his health issues private. ““Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years,” he said in a statement distributed by his publicist after his death. “I have loved you all so much and enjoyed making art for you.”

In a 1987 Rolling Stone interview, Reubens acknowledged those who said his act built on the Jewish comedians who came before him, including Eddie Cantor, the former vaudevillian who played a frenetic, wide-eyed innocent in a series of popular movie comedies of the 1930s. 

“Jerry Lewis I saw when I was little,” he said. “Soupy Sales I probably saw when I was younger. I never knew who Eddie Cantor was until years later, when a lot of older people used to go [in an old Russian-Jewish furrier’s accent], ‘You’re like a young Eddie Cantor.’ I started to watch Eddie Cantor, and I could definitely see the resemblance. His movies are just incredible, very fantasy oriented and comedy oriented.”

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Biden Highlights US Commitment to Israel, Ukraine, Indo-Pacific in West Point Speech

West Point graduating cadets congratulate each other at the conclusion of commencement ceremonies in West Point, New York, U.S., May 25, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Tom Brenner

President Joe Biden emphasized the critical role of U.S. support to allies around the world including Israel, Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific in a speech on Saturday at the commencement for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

The speech before 1,036 graduating U.S. Army cadets is part of a push by Biden to highlight the administration’s efforts to support active and retired military personnel. These include a bipartisan law he signed two years ago to help veterans who have been exposed to burn pits or other poisons obtain easier access to healthcare.

Biden described American soldiers as “working around the clock” to support Ukraine in its effort to repel a two-year long Russian invasion, but repeated his commitment to keeping them off the front lines.

“We are standing strong with Ukraine and we will stand with them,” Biden told the crowd to a round of applause.

He also highlighted the U.S. role in repelling Iranian missile attacks against Israel and support for allies in the Indo-Pacific against increasing Chinese militarism in the region.

“Thanks to the U.S. Armed Forces, we’re doing what only America can do as the indispensable nation, the world’s only superpower,” Biden said.

The president is scheduled to participate in Memorial Day services at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Monday. A week later, he will travel to Normandy, France, to participate in ceremonies marking the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

Biden is expected to give a major speech about the heroism of Allied forces in World War Two and the continuing threats to democracy today.

As vice president, he twice addressed a graduating class of cadets at the academy about 40 miles (64 km) north of New York City, but this was the first time as president.

Donald Trump, Biden’s Republican challenger in the 2024 election, was the last president to speak at a West Point commencement, in 2020.

College campuses nationwide have erupted in sometimes-violent protests over Biden’s support for Israel’s war against Hamas following the militant group’s Oct. 7 attack. Students have used commencement speeches at universities such as Harvard, Duke and Yale to protest Biden’s actions.

Earlier this month, the Democratic president gave the commencement speech at Morehouse College, a historically Black men’s college, where protests were sparse.

The military academy was founded in 1802 by President Thomas Jefferson to train Army officers and has produced some of the United States’ greatest generals, including two who went on to become president.

Trump has seen some of his support from the military community erode.

In 2016, he won 60% of voters who said at the time that they served in the military, according to exit polls conducted by NBC News. That figure dropped to 54% in 2020, according to NBC News.

In 2020, Biden won 44% of voters who said they served in the military, according to the data.

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World Court’s Order on Rafah Does Not Rule Out Entire Offensive, Israel Says

Some rises after an Israeli strike as Israeli forces launch a ground and air operation in the eastern part of Rafah, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, May 7, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Hatem Khaled

Israel considers that an order by the World Court to halt its military offensive on Rafah in southern Gaza allows room for some military action there, Israeli officials said.

In an emergency ruling in South Africa’s case accusing Israel of genocide, judges at the International Court of Justice ordered Israel on Friday to immediately halt its assault on Rafah, where Israel says it is rooting out Hamas fighters.

“What they are asking us, is not to commit genocide in Rafah. We did not commit genocide and we will not commit genocide,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, told Israel’s N12 TV on Saturday.

Asked whether the Rafah offensive would continue, Hanegbi said: “According to international law, we have the right to defend ourselves and the evidence is that the court is not preventing us from continuing to defend ourselves.”

The ICJ, which is based in The Hague, did not immediately comment on Hanegbi’s remarks. Hamas also did not immediately comment.

Another Israeli official pointed to the phrasing of the ruling by the ICJ, or World Court, depicting it as conditional.

“The order in regard to the Rafah operation is not a general order,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Reading out the ruling, the ICJ’s president, Nawaf Salam, said the situation in Gaza had deteriorated since the court last ordered Israel to take steps to improve it, and conditions had been met for a new emergency order.

“The state of Israel shall (…) immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah governorate, which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” Salam said.

That wording does not rule out all military action, the Israeli official said.

“We have never, and we will not, conduct any military action in Rafah or elsewhere which may inflict any conditions of life to bring about the destruction of the civilian population in Gaza, not in whole and not in part,” the official said.

The ICJ has no means to enforce its orders.

Israel began its offensive in Gaza to try to eliminate Hamas after Hamas-led terrorists stormed into southern Israeli communities on Oct. 7 last year, killing 1,200 people and taking more than 250 others as hostages. It has pressed on with its offensive since the ICJ ruling.

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ICC Chief Prosecutor Denies Equating Israel with Hamas

Defense Counsel for Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto, Karim Khan attends a news conference before the trial of Ruto and Joshua arap Sang at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague September 9, 2013. Photo: REUTERS/Michael Kooren/File Photo

i24 NewsIn an interview with The Sunday Times, International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor Karim Khan has firmly dismissed accusations that he equates the actions of Israel with those of Hamas, labeling such claims as “nonsense.”

This marks Khan’s first major interview since announcing his intent to request arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and three Hamas leaders.

Khan clarified his stance, emphasizing that he does not consider Israel, with its democratic framework and supreme court, comparable to the terrorist group Hamas.

“I am not saying that Israel with its democracy and its supreme court is akin to Hamas, of course not. I couldn’t be clearer, Israel has every right to protect its population and to get the hostages back. But nobody has a license to commit war crimes or crimes against humanity. The means define us,” Khan stated.

In response to an Israeli official’s inquiry about locating hostages, Khan drew a parallel with the UK’s handling of the IRA.

He referenced various terrorist incidents involving the IRA, including assassination attempts and bombings, noting that despite these, the British did not resort to indiscriminate bombing in populated areas known for IRA activity. “You can’t do that,” Khan asserted.

Khan also shared his personal commitment to the issue of hostages, revealing that he wears a blue wristband with “Bring Them Home” inscribed on it and carries a dog tag dedicated to Kfir Bibas, the youngest hostage at nine months old.

“This would break anyone’s heart,” he remarked. “There are Palestinian babies dying and we cannot have double standards.”

Addressing the potential issuance of arrest warrants, Khan stressed the global community’s responsibility to enforce them. “If states don’t step up, it has massive implications,” he warned.

“The ICC is their child — I am just the nanny or hired help. They have a choice to look after this child or be responsible for its abandonment.”

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