Why Pee Wee Herman mattered

Paul Reubens, aka Pee Wee Herman, was in the tradition of the great Jewish comedians.

Actor Paul Reubens portraying Pee-wee Herman poses for a portrait while promoting

“Is it time for Pee Pee?” my young son shouted from the den.

Before you think that this was an urinary inquiry, let me assure you that it was an often-heard malapropism in our household during my stint as a young father.

My son was really asking: “Is it time for ‘Pee Wee’s Playhouse’?” — starring Pee Wee Herman, nee Paul Reubens, who died of cancer yesterday at the age of 70.

The death of Paul/Pee Wee took me back to those days in the 1980s and early 1990s, when I would watch the show. Out of an initial distaste, a certain admiration grew. As is true with many kids’ shows (I am thinking of “Sesame Street” and my all-time favorite animation, “The Animaniacs”) the humor was bi-leveled — some of it too subtle for kids, and aimed at adults.

Pee Wee Herman’s humor was insane. The show was chaotic, almost like a latter-day expression of Dada art. Pee Wee never talked down to kids. He was a kid himself — an overgrown kid, a man child stuck in a world of his creation. He repeated that persona in his movies “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and “Big Top Pee-wee.”

It was all hysterical; other worldly; surrealistic.

To quote Andrew Silow-Carroll in JTA:

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 Reubens would go beyond “Pee Wee” — notably, in “Batman Returns;” for several seasons on “Murphy Brown;” on “30 Rock;” and “The Blacklist.” He had a great range. He was always memorable — funny, absurd, and/or darkly disturbing.

One of Pee Wee’s iconic lines was his childlike playground retort: “I know you are, but what am I?”

Yes, that was the question. “What am I?” What, and who, was he?

Yes, he was Jewish. Paul Reubens grew up in Peekskill, New York, before his family moved to Sarasota, Florida.

His father, Milton Rubenfeld, was a military hero, and contributed to the military prowess of the Jewish state even before it was founded.

From military.com:

Before World War II, Rubenfeld taught aerial acrobatics to would-be pilots. When Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, he went overseas and joined the Royal Air Force, as the U.S. had not yet entered the war. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rubenfeld joined the U.S. Army Air Forces…

He was approached in February 1948 by representatives of [the] Haganah, a paramilitary group fighting for a Jewish state in Palestine… The Haganah wanted to create an air force for its forces. It was looking for Jewish WWII pilots with combat experience, and Rubenfeld fit the bill.

Rubenfeld began ferrying planes to Israel in 1948. That same year, he started training in Czechoslovakia on the Avia S-199, a fighter designed from the Messerschmitt Bf 109…

Rubenfeld took off on his first mission from Israel’s Ekron Air Base on May 30, bombing and strafing an Iraqi armored column, with he and Ezer Weizman [who would become Israel’s seventh president] flying the only two functioning aircraft left. He was hit by Iraqi anti-aircraft fire and was forced to bail out over the Mediterranean Sea. His chute didn’t open before he hit the water, so he sustained painful injuries as a result. He finally came home to the U.S. a short while later.

That is some kind of yichus (family connection). Paul Reubens’ father was one of the heroes that helped create the Israeli air force, and in so doing, he helped create the State of Israel.

A quiet hero, I daresay, whose neighbors in Sarasota might never have known his story.

What about Paul Reubens’ sexuality? We just don’t know. Again, as Silow-Carroll wrote: “He could be as sexually ambiguous as Milton Berle in one of his cross-dressing bits.”

As my LGBTQIQA+ friends affirmed for me, “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” had a gay vibe.

Paul Reubens had been married to a woman. He had affairs — a rather well-publicized one with actress Debi Mazar. There was a darker side, as well. In 1991, he was arrested for indecent exposure in a pornographic movie in Sarasota, which caused serious damage to his career. Years later, there was also an arrest for possession of child pornography, which seemed to have been part of a larger collection of kitsch erotica.

Paul Reubens never emphasized his Jewish background. It never made a guest appearance on “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” (There was no mezuzah on the door).

But, it was an essential part of his family story, and part of the larger story of Jewish and Israeli history as well. His Jewishness was unspoken, subterranean, subtle, and hard to identify, which is often the case in popular culture — what some people would call “Jew-ish.” It is a vibe, though inchoate vibes will not sustain either Judaism or Jewish culture.

Recall Malcolm’s brief eulogy for the treacherous Thane of Cawdor in “Macbeth”: “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.”

That was true of Paul Reubens as well. At the end of life, there was a dignity and a tameness that we would never have expected, and that utterly belied his public persona.

He had kept his illness from his fans. “Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years,” wrote Reubens in a statement posted to Instagram after his death. “I have always felt a huge amount of love and respect from my friends, fans and supporters. I have loved you all so much and enjoyed making art for you.”

Paul Reubens was a clown. That was his job, and that was his calling, but the makeup and the mask could, and did come off.

In the Talmud (Taanit 22a), we find the story of Rabbi Beroka, who was walking in a market place with the prophet Elijah, who was known to occasionally, mysteriously and mystically, return to earth.

Rabbi Beroka asked Elijah, “Is there anyone among all these people who will have a share in the world to come?” Elijah answered, “Sorry, there is none.”

Later, two men came to the marketplace, and Elijah said to Rabbi Beroka, “Those two will have a share in the world to come!” Rabbi Beroka asked them: “What is your occupation?” They
replied: “We are jesters. When we see a person who is sad, we cheer him up. Likewise, when we see two people quarreling, we try to make peace between them.”

Let that be Paul Reubens’ ticket into the world to come — that he made us laugh, and that he cheered so many people up. May his memory be a blessing.

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