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Doc Paskowitz, Still Surfin’ for Health at 90 Years Old

Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz has been surfing for 70 years. He’s now 87 and $40,000 in debt from a hip replacement. He calls himself “one of the few dumb Jewish doctors,” probably because he’s one of the only Jewish doctors who have ever chosen to live a life of self-imposed poverty.

Paskowitz is one of surfing history’s most famous characters. He and his third wife fathered nine kids – eight boys and one girl – raising them all in a cramped, spartan camper van.

 A forthcoming documentary, Surfwise, reveals his life and that of surfing’s royal family, the Paskowitz clan, to be anything but a Brady Bunch episode. Indeed, the Paskowitz family is perhaps the most unconventional, and at times, dysfunctional family you’d ever meet.

Doc Paskowitz is the patriarch. He once turned down a $40,000 inheritance from an aunt for fear that the money would ruin the family’s nomadic odyssey and stress-free lifestyle. He truly believed money was the root of all evil.

Most conventional parents would be appalled at this man’s child-rearing proclivities, encouraging all nine kids to surf, and damning formal education, educating his kids in the camper van long before the term “home-schooling” existed.

So why believe in Paskowitz’s legend? Why would anyone want this type of role model as a guru?

Shaun Tomson, the Jewish South-African and 1977 World Surfing Champ, put it best. He said of Paskowitz, “Certain people would rather chase waves than a dollar, and Doc is one of those people.”

Paskowitz exchanged his medical expertise for fish to feed his family and drove them from Baja to Baton Rouge, from the Texas Coast to South Dakota, giving them a priceless experience, which no college could provide.

Paskowitz, the original Jewish soul surfer was – and still is – radical.

After graduating from Pt. Loma High and San Diego State, Paskowitz earned his medical degree from Stanford in 1941 and relocated to Hawaii, where he became head of the territory’s branch of the American Medical Association. Paskowitz, who concludes every phone call, with a warm “Shalom-Aloha”, seemingly had it all as a doctor: professional, financial and social high-standing, complete with a home servant.

But he was miserable. His second wife was cheating on him, he was no longer surfing and he was suffering from insomnia and anxiety. His life was a lie.

In 1956, Paskowitz gave up what he calls a life of “profiting from dying people” and spent a year of self-realization in Israel. He introduced the sport of surfing there to a small group of zealous Tel Aviv lifeguards, and enjoyed an amorous liaison with an Israeli woman. He credits that lady Sabra with teaching him the skills of love, which he still employs with his wife, Juliette, a strikingly-exotic, six-foot tall indigenous Mexican with Jewish-Marrano blood, who played Bach arias in the camper every day.

Although financially bankrupt, Paskowitz has led a life of incredible richness. His life is the ultimate soul surfer’s dream. Few have lived like he has for most of his adult life: living out of a camper van, exploring and surfing pristine, uncrowded beaches and living as simply as possible.

While most fathers’ health (and perhaps spirituality) withers in the name of pursuing material wealth for the family, Paskowitz has worked daily on achieving a “superior state of well-being.” For him, surfing is the conduit to sublime physical and spiritual health.

He is most likely the first Jewish surfer ever, having surfed Galveston, TX at age 12 in 1933. A year later, when he moved to Mission Beach, he would become San Diego’s first Jewish surfer and probably the city’s first Jewish lifeguard, working as a San Diego City Lifeguard in Mission Beach in 1936 and in La Jolla the following year.

Paskowitz has been to Israel three times over the last half year, most recently with his eldest son, San Marcos resident David Paskowitz (who was raised for the first couple years of his life by his parents in a Studebaker), and with Kelly Slater, the eight-time world surfing champion.

Paskowitz founded the organization Surfing for Peace. With Slater and a small army of some of surfing’s biggest names, he helped stage a concert, this past August, for the solidly stoked surfing community in Israel, estimated at 20,000.

While overseas, after two hours of cajoling an Israeli border guard at Gaza’s Erez crossing, Paskowitz took the surfing t-shirt off his back and passed it, along with over a dozen surfboards, to a handful of unemployed, boardless Palestinian surfers.

Paskowitz already has been a surfing forefather in Texas, San Diego, Hawaii and Israel and now perhaps he has ignited another surfing revolution in Gaza.

  Two other prominent Jewish surfing ambassadors for peace were in Israel this past August with Paskowitz: Hawaiians Eddie Rothman and his 22-year old son Makua, the latter of which is a big-wave surfer who won $66,000 in 2003 for riding a 66-foot wave in a tow-in contest.

“I think Makua now has a very strong consciousness of his Judaism, especially after I took him to Yad Vashem,” says Paskowitz, shading himself from the strong sun at Tourmaline beach, where the Paskowitz Surf Camp is in session, its 33rd year in business.

Paskowitz founded the surf camp. He has celebrated Shabbat every week with his family in the camper van, no matter where they were. And today, like everyday, Doc performed his morning ritual.

“The first thing I do when I get up is to honor my [departed] Hawaiian friends, who were great men,” says Doc. “After I say a prayer for them, I put on tefillin and I say my prayers, but I wouldn’t call myself religious.”

Like many surf icons of his time, Paskowitz is a great storyteller. Here’s how he started wearing teffilin:

“After surfing one day, I realized that two of my boys, Abraham and Jonathan, weren’t bar mitzvahed. So I went to the Fairfax area of L.A. and found a little hole-in-the-wall Bnet Knesset, barely bigger than a hot dog stand run by a Russian rabbi, a man by the name of Naftali. I told him I had no money.”

“Bring in a nice bottle of schnapps, then I’ll bar-mitzvah your boys,” the rabbi told Paskowitz.

“During the bar mitzvah,” he continues, “I was dovening and out of the corner of my eye I could see a dapper-looking man coming closer. He wore a straw hat, a hounds-tooth coat, white pants and shiny black and white shoes, and of course a tallis and yarmulke.”

“Do you put tefillin on?” he asked Paskowitz.

“No I don’t. I’m sorry,” Paskowitz replied.

After chanting Baruch Ata Odenai Elohainu…, the dapper worshipper said to Paskowitz, “I’ll make you a deal. If you put on tefillin, I’ll pay you $25 a month for the rest of your life.”

“You’re going to give me $25 a month for the rest of my life for putting teffilin on?”

“Okay… I’ll make it $35,” countered the dapper one.

“I’ll make you a deal,” Paskowitz counter-offered. “I don’t want your money but there must be Jews that were killed in the Holocaust who never got a chance to wear tefillin. In your name, for their honor, I’m going to put on tefillin for the rest of my life.”

For the last 40 years, Paskowitz has put on tefillin every morning, in addition to performing deep-breathing exercises he learned from surf icon, wind-gliding innovator and former San Diego resident and trailblazer Woody Brown, now in his 90s, living in Hawaii.

Although his temple is the ocean and not a synagogue, Paskowitz still keeps the fast on Yom Kippur – despite surfing 6-8 foot swells for several hours.

Paskowitz now lives in Dana Point, but often visits Hawaii. “There was magnificent overhead surf for five days in between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.”

Asked if he regrets not having strived for financial success, Paskowitz admits, “It’s been very hard. No matter what, though, I have no regrets that I’m stone broke. At the end of the day only one thing matters: That I’m happy I did not have to make my living out of charging other people for their misery.”

Paskowitz, one of the original Hawaiian beach boys, provided medical service to surfers free of charge. But he thinks it’s a farce to say he’s a surf legend and icon.

“I’m no [expletive] legend; it was the people and personalities that shaped me into who I am and molded my reputation. I’m just a nice little Jewish boy from Galveston, Texas who fell in love with surfing and lifeguarding,” he says.

Beach boys like Duke Kahanamoku, Rabbit Kekai and Woody Brown are legends.

Paskowitz says he was just lucky enough to be in the right era to have been thrust into the pantheon of surfing history.

“Doc’s desire to not be treated as a surfing icon is true and well-intentioned,” says Doug Pray, documentarian of Surfwise, set for release in Spring 2008.

“He’d be the first to tell you that he’s not a world-class athletic surfer and hasn’t ridden any giants,” Pray says. “Instead he is known and loved for being a surfing advocate and a great doctor to surfers everywhere.”

Pray says that when he began putting the film together, Paskowitz was mortified that Surfwise would be a tribute film, placing him on a pedestal that would seem self-aggrandizing to the peers that Paskowitz himself looks up to.

Judging by the advanced screener of Surfwise, Pray did no such thing, but he did highlight the blowback of Paskowitz’s parenting style. Some of his children had a hard time adapting to the real world when it was time to strike it on their own.

“As his kids point out in the movie so clearly, the great irony,” says Pray, “is Doc’s self-avowed hatred of money and insistence on leading a poor lifestyle forced his family to constantly worry about money.”

But now that all nine children have grown up –they range in age from 33 to 48 – they have adapted to life outside a camper van. Three of the Paskowitz children are professional musicians. The lone daughter, Nava, lives in Encino, is married with two children and is on the board of her synagogue. Israel “Izzy” Paskowitz, son number four, now runs the Paskowitz Surf Camp.

Dorian Paskowitz will be immortalized as a surfing icon. He was also way ahead of his time in his thinking about preventive medicine and hated the traditional focus on treating sick people. His anecdotal compendium about surfing and ways to achieve a “superior state of wellness,” a book called Surfing for Health, is a Biblical source for anyone needing inspiration and instruction in improving their health and raising spirit.

Originally printed in the San Diego Jewish Journal, December, 2007

Judd
Judd Handler is a freelance writer and wellness/lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He surfs uncrowded, fun reef breaks; plays instrumental alternate-tuning guitar; goes hiking in the backcountry; and is amazed on a daily basis by just being alive.