Episode 1: The Pilot's Pilot (Transcript)

Episode 1: The Pilot's Pilot

[Theme Music]

Nahanni Rous: This is the maiden voyage… the pilot episode of Can We Talk?, stories and discussions from the Jewish Women’s Archive. For this pilot podcast, we’re bringing you a story about… pilots! Jewish women taking to the air, for business, for pleasure, and for independence.

[Airplane Sound]

Nahanni: I’m Nahanni Rous, and I’ll be your captain. Here’s our flight plan: we’ve plotted a course that takes us from Southern California in the 1940s all the way to the final days of British rule in Palestine, and into Israel’s War of Independence. But we’re starting our journey here in the present, at a small municipal airport in Frederick, Maryland, inside Hanger Charlie Seven.

Debbie Dreyfus: So, let me show you the plane. This is my race plane …You can get up there and sit in there so you can see better.

Nahanni: Debbie Dreyfus is showing off her 4-seater Cessna 182. She’s a flight instructor and a racer, and one of three Jewish members of the local chapter of the 99s, an international organization of women pilots founded by Amelia Earhart.

Debbie: Ok, so let’s get this thing up here and i’ll show you a little bit. This is the landing light. This is the taxi light. Nav lights, you only need these at night.

Nahanni: Do you fly at night?

Debbie: All the time.

Nahanni: Deb retired early so she’s got lots of time to fly. She’s been a pilot for 25 years.

Debbie: Well, I wanted to fly since I was a little kid. My uncle took me up, he was a recreational pilot, took me up when I was 6 … I ended up not doing a lot of things because my mother was a worry wart, she was overprotective. My first husband seemed alright… He says I got a bonus, what do you want to do with that money? I said, I want to take flying lessons. No, no, you’re not doing that, then you’re not getting any of it! So I got rid of him.

Nahanni: So you were a single mom with two kids and taking flight lessons and running a business?

Debbie: Yes. When I first started making real good money I bought my first airplane.

Nahanni: Are you ever scared when you’re flying?

Debbie: No.

Nahanni: Why not?

Debbie: No, cause i’m in charge. [Laughs]

Nahanni: What do you love about flying?

Debbie: I think it’s exhilarating. It’s like “wow.” I never get tired of that.

Debbie: Aux pump, I’m doing my little checklist. Beacon on, throttle in, a quarter of an inch. Here, let me close your door.

Nahanni: Yeah, closing the door sounds like a good idea.

Debbie: Locking the door. Yes, and don’t mess with that.

[Theme Music]

Nahanni: Women in the United States of America could fly airplanes before they could vote. In the early decades of flight, women competed in air races and aerobatics and made headlines for solo flights over oceans. They also flew airplanes in World War Two. During the dark days of that war, two young Jewish women came of age on different continents, one in America, and one in British ruled Palestine. During some of the most turbulent years in modern Jewish history, their stories were woven together, not by fate, but by flight.

[Skylark song]

Nahanni: Elynor Rudnick was born in 1923 on a cattle ranch in California’s Central Valley. Her parents were Eastern European Jewish immigrants, and she was the fifth of 11 children. She was married, for more than 30 years, to Dr. David Falk. Here he is on the phone.

David Falk: I am 101 years old. I was in the army, in WWII. I was a medic.

Nahanni: After David Falk finished his army service, he moved to Southern California. That’s where he met Elynor Rudnick. She was in her late 20s. She owned a flight school and ran a business selling and repairing planes. And she’d recently been indicted for violating the Federal Neutrality Act... more on that later. How did Elynor Rudnick become a pilot in the first place?

David: You asked me the question, I’ll have to tell you a story. Her father was from the old country. In his mind women didn’t go to school. He saw no sense in a woman going on into college.

Nahanni: Well, Elynor announced that she was going to college, and got herself into UCLA.

David: And he said, go ahead, but I’m not paying for it. So she went!

Nahanni: Elynor needed to make some money. It was the 1940s, and assembly lines all over the country were cranking out equipment for the war. So many men were fighting overseas that factories hired women to take their place.

Archival audio: Every one of these giants of the sky was 25% the product of women’s industry...

Nahanni: Elynor found a job building planes for the military.

David: And THEN, she said to herself, why should I be building airplanes? I want to fly airplanes.

Nahanni: Elynor Rudnick wanted to be a WASP— that’s Women Airforce Service Pilots. They were a civilian corps of female pilots who delivered planes and cargo in World War Two in order to free up male pilots for combat. Elynor was under 21, and needed her parents’ permission to go to flight school. She asked her father.

David: He said, “you want to fly? meshuggah!” you understand Yiddish? He says, “Crazy!” I’ll have nothing to do with that.

Nahanni: But she was determined.

David: And So she worked on him— and she could work on ya, pretty good.

Nahanni: Eventually her father said, “Go see what your mother says.” So she took the papers to her mother, and told her,

David: Papa said if you would sign that paper, he would sign the paper! He never said anything like that at all!

Nahanni: Both of her parents ended up signing. Elynor got her pilot’s license, but by then the war was winding down. The military dismissed the WASPs. So instead, she and two of her brothers pooled their money to buy an airstrip. Elynor went into business. The local Bakersfield newspaper wrote a doting profile of her in 1945.

Woman 1: Elynor Rudnick is probably the youngest woman in the United States to open a private flying field… // Already she has bought army corps planes that have been put up for sale, fixed them up mechanically, and resold them at a profit. She represents feminine initiative in aviation development. Says she, “I expect we’ll grow up together… I’ll learn about aviation and aviation will learn about me.”

Nahanni: That confidence served Elynor well.

David: She was a very good pilot. VERY good pilot. She was very bright, and she had good reflexes, and she was just a natural.

Nahanni: Were these unusual things for a woman to do at the time?

David: VERY! You have to understand a little about her personality. She didn’t wait for something to happen. She made it happen.

Nahanni: The WASPs may have been grounded, but Elynor Rudnick was going to have a career in flight anyway. And, whether she knew it or not, she was setting herself up to help a cause she deeply believe in.

David: She was aware of what happened in Europe and she was aware of the necessity for a home for the Jewish people.

Nahanni: Elynor was a Zionist, and believed in creating a Jewish state. Worlds away from the Rudnick’s prosperous ranch in California… another young Jewish woman named Zahara Levitov was growing up amid escalating violence under the British Mandatory government of Palestine.

Archival Audio: [ominous music] Palestine continues to present one of the most obstinate problems of today… Tension is most marked, nor does a solution to the problem appear to be in sight as yet.

Nahanni: By the time Zahara was a teenager, British support for the Zionist cause had eroded. During and after World War Two, the British turned away boats full of Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors trying to land on Palestine’s shores. Jewish paramilitary groups fought against British rule in the hopes of establishing a Jewish state.

Nahanni: Zahara Levitov graduated from high school and enlisted in the Palmach— the strike force of the unofficial Jewish army, the Haganah. The Palmach committed acts of sabotage, which the British described as terrorism. An official communique from the Mandatory Government recounts one such attack.

Man 1: Widespread attacks were made by armed Jews on road and rail bridges on or near the frontiers of Palestine during the night of the 16th/17th of June.

Nahanni: On that night in 1946, now known as the Night of the Bridges, the Palmach set out to destroy eight routes between Palestine and the surrounding countries. Zahara’s platoon, dressed in military uniform, crept toward a bridge near the Lebanese border.

Man 1: When one party of the attackers engaged the police guard post, another attempted to place a charge on the bridge. One charge blew up whilst it was being placed in position and the remnants of the bodies of six dead Jews were subsequently found on the site. The bridge was damaged.

Nahanni: Fourteen of Zahara’s comrades were killed. Her boyfriend was among them. Nineteen-year-old Zahara retreated to a kibbutz in Northern Israel to recuperate. There, she met another young Palmach fighter… Shmuel Kaufman. She fell deeply in love.

[Women’s voice: Hebrew fades under English]

שמוליק! מרגישה שאני יכולה לכתוב בלי סוף, לכתוב מעתה עד הרגע שתחזור.. Kodem Kol, וודאי קר לך…

Shmulik! I feel I could write to you endlessly! [pen writing sound… fades under] First of all, what are you doing? Are you cold? Are you eating dinner? Are you also writing to me? I just want to peek at you, and whisper “My Shmulik,” and maybe never let go of your hand.

Nahanni: In early 1947 Zahara and Shmuel decided to get married, and go to college in the United States. The day before their departure, Shmuel helped with one last training exercise, filling in for an injured fighter. During the training, a live grenade accidentally exploded. Shmuel died instantly.

[Funeral march from Eroica concerto plays]

[Women’s voice: Hebrew fades under English]

Shmulik, ha'erev yored l'eeto. Al hachalon kan omedet tzipor bodeda vshara. eineni yodaat al ma hee sharah... eem al osher, yofi, ahavah. O oolai al bdidoot, yeoosh v'chilayon. Mi yadaa al ha nefesh shel hatzipur?

Darkness descends. A lonely bird sings at the window. Does she sing of happiness, beauty? Love? Or loneliness, despair and destruction. Who can know the soul of a bird?

Nahanni: Zahara moved to Philadelphia to live with Shmuel’s sister. She continued to write dozens of letters to her beloved.

[Women’s voice: Hebrew fades under English]

Lifamim yesh li hargasha she lo hayiti tzricha laazov et haaretz…

Sometimes I have the feeling that I shouldn’t have left the country… that maybe my Shmulik will appear one bright day and he’ll have a strange tale to tell.

[Piano concerto plays]

The radio is playing Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto. I remember that night in Jerusalem, how the two of us sat in the dark and listened…

[Slow movement of the concerto, then quiet]

Now it is quiet as after a storm. But not a serene quiet. It’s like death.

Nahanni: From far away in America, Zahara watched history unfold in her homeland.

Archival Audio: The United Nations General Assembly has made its decision on Palestine. The map shows what partition means...

Nahanni: Partition meant the establishment of a Jewish state in part of Palestine, against the opposition of the Arab population in the country and the surrounding region - and the escalation of violence between Arabs and Jews. Zahara learned of the deaths of many of her friends.

[Women’s voice: Hebrew fades under English]

בקרוב לא יהיה בארץ אף בחור צעיר מידידי. אני מרגישה את עצמי זקנה בת 90 שכל בני דורה כבר עבר זמנם ורק אני עוד נשארתי לפלטה

Soon none of my young friends will be left in the country. I feel like a 90-year-old woman who has already lost everyone of her generation.

Nahanni: She considered going home, but then she learned of a special pilots course in Bakersfield, California. Elynor Rudnick had found a new way to use her flying skills and her airport. She would train thirteen Haganah fighters to fly, and they would return home to join a nascent Israeli Air Force. Zahara signed on for Elynor’s course.

Nahanni: On May fourteenth, 1948, just a few months after the course began, Israel declared independence.

Archival recording of Ben Gurion in Hebrew: Hakamat midinah yehudit b’eretz yisrael, he medinat yisrael. [Clapping fades]

Nahanni: War between Israel and the neighboring Arab countries quickly followed.

[Propellor plane sound]

Nahanni: In June, Zahara Levitov and the 12 other Bakersfield-trained pilots returned to Israel, where an Air Force was being cobbled together. Zahara flew combat missions and delivered food and mail to parts of the country that were under siege by Arab forces. In Bakersfield, she had become romantically involved with Amnon Berman, another pilot in the course. Amnon died just a month after they returned to Israel, when his plane was shot down.

Nahanni: Barely 21 years old, Zahara had already fought in a paramilitary underground, lived through the death of 14 comrades in a botched attack, and lost three lovers to war. And yet, she had the courage to become one of the world’s first female fighter pilots.

Nahanni: After enlisting in the pilot’s course, Zahara had written in her diary,

[Women’s voice: Hebrew fades under English]

הן ממילא ידעתי, כי אמות צעירה

I have always known that I would die young.

Nahanni: On August 3rd, 1948 Zahara Levitov took off from a makeshift airstrip in what is now a park near the Knesset in Jerusalem. The plane’s engine failed. Her two-seater Auster crashed into the 900-year-old stone wall of the Monastery of the Cross.

[Piano concerto plays]

Man 2: Hinenu modi’im b’tzar amok she Zahara Levitov, zichrona l’vracha she nafla b’milui tafkida byom 21 b’tamuz al yerushalayim… [fade]

Nahanni: Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, signed the death announcement.

Nahanni: War continued into the next summer. Thirty-four pilots from the Israeli Air Force were among many thousands of Israeli, Palestinian and Arab fighters and civilians killed. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes. When the war was over, Zahara Levitov’s family received her badge and a posthumous commendation from the Air Force Commander.

[Man’s voice: Hebrew fades under English]

L’mishpachto shel ha’Tayas Levitov Zahara…

I hereby send to you the wings of the pilot Levitov Zahara, which *he* never had the honor to wear in life, as he took wing in defense of our country. [Fade] Thanks to his merit and the merit of his colleagues...

Nahanni: That’s what it says-- “his merit.” Hebrew is a gendered language. In the commander’s letter the pronouns are male, and Zahara’s actions are described with masculine verbs. Is this just a form letter? Does it hint at a military elite’s unwillingness to share victory with a woman? It’s as if she’s still up there in the air somewhere— so high up that all they can see are the contours of her plane. They forget that there’s a woman at the controls.

[Piano concerto plays]

Nahanni: A handful of other women trained as pilots and navigators in Israel’s first decade. Shortly after the 1956 war in the Sinai, the Israeli Air Force discharged its female pilots, claiming it cost too much to train them when they’d only leave to have children. It wasn’t until 1996 that the Israeli Supreme Court re-integrated female pilots into the Air Force.

Nahanni: A similar story unfolded in the United States. The WASPs— the female flying corps that Elynor Rudnick wanted to join— were disbanded at the end of World War Two. General H. H. Arnold wrote...

Man 3: I am very proud of you young women…. You have freed male pilots for other work, but now the war situation has changed and the time has come when your volunteered services are no longer needed… If you continue in service, you will be replacing instead of releasing our young men. I know that the WASP wouldn't want that.

Nahanni: Though 38 women had died while flying, the WASPs weren’t even acknowledged as part of the military until the late 1970s. Around the same time, the US Air Force began training women to fly, but it wasn’t until 1993, just three years ahead of the Israeli high court decision, that American women were allowed to fly in combat.

[Music: Skylark]

Nahanni: In 1949, Elynor Rudnick was convicted and fined in the US for violating the Federal Neutrality Act - she had attempted to smuggle a piece of airplane equipment to the Israeli Air Force. Elynor went on to become one of the world’s first female helicopter pilots. With her helicopter company, she surveyed and mapped Alaska for the US government and explored the North Slope for oil. She had business ventures in agriculture, oil and real estate, and she founded the Bakersfield Air Park. Elynor Rudnick died in 1996 at the age of 73.

[Music: Skylark]

Debbie: Are we clear?

Nahanni: Back in the cockpit of Deb Dreyfus’s Cessna, we’re ready to take off. Only we’ve been sitting and talking for so long that the battery is dead. We need a jumpstart.

[Engine sound]

Debbie: Ah.

Nahanni: So close!

Debbie: We’re close, we’re getting there!

[Engine working] Nahanni: Should i get out and push?

[Debbie laughs]

[Engine starts]


Debbie: Alright, we’re good.

Debbie: Fredrick ground, Skyliner 199 Charlie Alpha at North Hangars with kilo, ready to taxi to runway 5.

Man 4: Cessna 199 Charlie Alpha Frederick on runway 5, Northeast bound departure is approved cleared for takeoff.

[Beethoven’s Piano Concerto plays]

Debbie: Wow that was quick!

Nahanni: Oh, wow, it’s such a good feeling.

Debbie: Awesome…

Debbie: we’re actually perfectly trimmed out… perfectly honed in for this little flight. Let’s go a little higher, because we can.

[Piano music]

Nahanni: On behalf of the flight crew, I thank you for flying with us. Please join us again next month!

Nahanni: I’d like to thank the rest of the crew: Jewish Women’s Archive Executive Director Judith Rosenbaum and Director of Engagement Tara Metal. You heard the voices of Dr. David Falk, David Milner Gillers, Sarah Gershman, Daphna Berman, Yehuda Daskal, Moshe Horowitz, and Simon Lazarus. Editors Celeste Wesson and Ibby Caputo helped get the script off the ground.

[Engine starting]

Nahanni: Thanks to Deb Dreyfus, for a beautiful ride over the Chesapeake Bay, and to Girls in Trouble for our theme music.

[Theme music]

Nahanni: This has been the pilot podcast of Can We Talk?, from the Jewish Women’s Archive. To help this project soar, visit jwa.org/canwetalk. Subscribe and make a donation. Thanks! I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. See you next month!

[Theme music fades]


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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 1: The Pilot's Pilot (Transcript)." (Viewed on October 2, 2022) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-1-pilot-s-pilot/transcript>.


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