Jewish Journal

Dark currents surface in surfing clan’s idyllic life

by Sally Ogle Davis

Posted on May. 21, 2008 at 12:53 pm

I first met the amazing Paskowitz family in 1978, when I was a writer/producer with "Two on the Town," a KCBS-TV magazine show anchored by Connie Chung before she left Los Angeles for greener pastures.

Theirs sounded like the perfect, upbeat if slightly wacky, Southern California story: Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz was a Stanford Medical School graduate who had rejected the world of Mercedes and mega-mansions to take his nine children and his Mexican-Indian wife on a nonstop surfing pilgrimage from beach to shining beach.

So we headed to the waves in the shadow of San Diego County's San Onofre Nuclear power plant to film the tale of a passionate surfer dropout and his large surfing brood.

The entire 11-person family lived in a tiny, 24-foot camper, foraging for food and making do on what they could make by teaching surfing. Doc also took occasional small jobs helping out as a physician in deprived communities, but only to keep the family from starvation.

Oh, and by the way, I was told by our producer, Joel Tator, "the Paskowitzes are Jewish."

This did not compute. What was a Jewish doctor doing with nine children in the sort of beaten-up camper that looked like it might be used for smuggling people over the nearby Mexican border?

When we met on that sunny day, the entire family, tanned, bright-eyed and photogenic, climbed out of their camper to greet us, announcing their names in order of age: David, Jonathan, Abraham, Israel (Izzy), Moses, Adam, Salvador Daniel (in honor of his mother Juliette's Mexican heritage), Navah -- a beautiful little girl among all the boys -- and the baby, Joshua.

Their father did most of the talking, describing his philosophy and the family's strict itinerant lifestyle. They followed a rigid diet, eating only organic and raw foods. Sugar was banned. Doc had decreed that they could only eat like animals in the wild, though when our director took them out for dinner after the shoot, he reported it was steaks all round.

None of them had ever attended school, though daily surfing was mandatory. They were not accorded any say in any part of their lives, including their education or lack of it.

The Paskowitzes didn't have bills to pay or taxes, and the truant officer never caught up with them because they were never in the system to begin with.

Mother Juliette was statuesque and friendly, with a permanent tan and a wide, even white-toothed smile. She was self-deprecating, making fun of her family and her lifestyle. Her Jewish sister-in-law, she informed me, called her a "squaw."

My 6-year-old son, Gideon, whom I had brought along for the ride, was entranced by the whole performance. What youngster wouldn't think it was paradise to live permanently on the sand and surf all day. And they didn't even have to go to school. And when the older kids demonstrated their teaching skills that day by getting him up on a surf board for the first time, the Paskowitzes became his heroes.

Doc told me he laid great emphasis on his Jewish heritage, which he was passing on to his kids. The family lit candles in their tiny camper every Friday night, and several of the children wore Magen Davids.

There was much, I thought, that was admirable about their life. Their devotion to one another was obvious. Their healthy disregard for "stuff" stood in admirable contrast to the growing Californian materialism.

So it was with great interest and anticipation that I sat down to view "Surfwise," a documentary about the clan that opens May 23 in Los Angeles. The film was produced by, among others, son Jonathan, age 47, and directed by Doug Perry, whose last documentary, "Infamy," focused on illegal graffiti writers.

'Surfwise' -- Episode 1

However, the film quickly reveals that all was not sunshine and waves in the Paskowitzes' Swiss Family Robinson lifestyle.

The story that vividly emerges is more like a Southern California version of the "Poisonwood Bible," in which a megalomaniac father forces his family to live out his dream, even as that dream retreats further and further from reality.

Doc, now 87, took great pride in his Stanford medical degree, but denied his sons the option of having any such achievement for themselves.

One of the saddest notes is when one son talks of his ambition to follow his father into medicine, which he couldn't realize because of his lack of formal education.

Seventh son Salvador notes, "Most parents say, 'Go to school. Don't go swimming with sharks, that's dangerous. Our parents said, 'You can go swimming with sharks, but you're not f----ing going to school. That s---'s dangerous.'"

By refusing to make money -- it becomes clear in the film the family often did not have enough to eat -- Doc ensured that his kids would grow up to think of little else.

Navah , the sole Paskowitz daughter and now 39, laments the sexism of her father toward both her mother and herself; she also recalls that since clothing was recycled from child to child in the family as she grew up, she never had any girl's underwear.

And in some of the most painful footage, she talks about the psychic and sexual damage she suffered as the only girl sleeping with eight brothers in a tiny camper with parents who noisily made love every night.

"We were like small monkeys in a weird monkey cage," she says.

Perhaps the most obvious sacrifices the film clearly shows were made by the mother, Juliette, who met the twice-divorced Paskowitz, 11 years her senior, in a bar on Santa Catalina Island and gave up her life and artistic ambitions -- at one point she sang with the Roger Wagner Chorale -- to marry him and raise his children.

The camper, she reveals, was actually a step up for the family. They raised their first son, David, for the first two years of his life in an old Studebaker.In the film, the children as adults recount their struggles to detach from their father and live some semblance of their own lives.

They are brutally frank on camera: One son talks about how he worried constantly about the physical strain on his mother of having all those children and living in such primitive conditions.

Juliette agrees: "For 10 years I was either pregnant or breastfeeding."

Of Doc's two daughters from one of two previous marriages, there is no mention.

There were considerable achievements, however. Several of the kids became world- champion surfers -- and grew the legend of the Paskowitzes. In 1998, Dorian gave Izzy, the most famous surfer of the bunch, ownership of their by-now world-famous Surf Camp, which was the family business, though it never made much money. Izzy's inheritance laid the basis for a family feud with David -- a feud the film makes clear is even today still generating family bitterness.

None of the Paskowitz sons still profess their Judaism. Only Navah, who lives in the San Fernando Valley with her writer husband, John Henry and three children (Avivah, ll, Max, 8, Wolf, 4, and a fourth on the way in June) and volunteers at her local temple, is devoutly Jewish.

Though the Paskowitz boys all became bar mitzvah, Doc denied them the knowledge necessary to live a meaningful life as a Jew, says his daughter, although there is little doubt his own love of his heritage is sincere.

Before his marriage, Doc took several trips to Israel, the first in 1956 when he lived with the Bedouins and tried to join the Israeli army.

When his efforts failed, he instead introduced surfing to the Tel Aviv beach boys. Some of the members of that community years later talk of him with real admiration and affection.

In one sequence in the film, Doc, now on a cane after having hip replacement surgery and suffering chronic asthma, is supported by two of his sons as he walks painfully to the Western Wall.

He is shown laying tefillin in the small condo in Waikiki he and Juliette lived in at the time of the film. (They have since moved back to Laguna Beach, close to the surf.) But by his own admission, he doesn't know how to do it. Likewise, the family in the camper lighting candles on Friday night had no idea what prayers to recite, so Doc, wearing a kippah recited the "Shema."

The film also shows him visiting the Simon Wiesenthal Center and viewing a blowup photo of a Nazi executing a woman and her child, in front of which he laments, "I was a lifeguard ... but I did nothing to help these people."

Inevitably, most of the kids ran away from their father's iron grip as soon as they were able, but each in their own way found they were ill equipped for life beyond the waves. Each of the talented sons has gone into creative fields, where their lack of education is less of a detriment: rock music, movies and popular art.

As for Doc, he is deeply wrinkled and walks with great difficulty, although he still surfs. In his typical stubbornness, he refuses to take medication for his severe pain. He and Juliette have 17 grandchildren (three more on the way), most of whom, but by no means all, are being brought up very differently from his own children.

In early May, I spoke to Doc and his wife. They were on the movie promotional trail -- though Doc adamantly refuses to see the film.

At the time, they were uncomfortably ensconced in a posh Manhattan hotel (courtesy, of course, of the film company) and yearning to get back to the surf.
On another press day in Santa Monica, Doc and members of the family offered surfing lessons to the assembled press people. Doc says he surfs daily and is still able to stand up on the board, despite his surgery.

Age, however, has not mellowed him. He sounds sprightly but just as stubborn and unyielding. He insists he will never view the film, referring to it as "documentary mishegoss."

However, Juliette says she loved the movie, because "I got to see the kids when they were tiny little puppies."

Said Doc somewhat bitterly, "They didn't want a documentary. They were looking for a guy with one arm who is able to box in the world championship. They want bizarreness and eccentricities -- and they got it from me."

Paskowitz became angry only once during our conversation, when asked if his family suffered as a result of his tyrannical rule: "I didn't live a life to fulfill my dreams -- that's absolute bull---t," he said. "I had no dreams. All I had was a way of life that I made up as I went along. It seemed to be healthy, peaceful, happy, humane and loveable ... and that's the way it came out."

His wife admits that her husband of almost 50 years is still a male chauvinist -- "Tigers never change their stripes," she says -- but Doc maintains he simply follows the laws of nature: "There was no choreography, no philosophy behind it ... just as there's no philosophy of a sperm whale or a snow goose."

Nevertheless, in a reflective mood in the movie, Paskowitz does admit that perhaps he did not give his kids what they needed for a productive life.

"I'm one of the few dumb Jewish doctors," he says."My kids lived a charmed life," he nevertheless insists, "and if they hadn't, I wouldn't have continued it for five minutes, and my wife would not have allowed me to live a lifestyle where our kids were unhappy."

He says he was always aware of the dangers facing Jewish kids growing up in a materialistic world. "They can become awfully over ripened ... like a plum ... too sweet and gushy. Spoiled rotten. That wasn't going to happen to my kids. I said my kids are gonna live like animals and puppy dogs -- and I found a wife that would do that with me."

Thirty years ago, when we first told the Paskowitzes' story, it seemed a sweet dream, but three decades later the tale is a little sadder, and one can't help wondering what these talented children might have contributed if Doc had used his undoubted originality, drive and passion to educate them and prepare them for the real world beyond the beach.
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