In surfing circles, from Ventura’s C-street to the protected waves on Santa Barbara’s exclusive Hollister Ranch all the way to the fabled beaches of Hawaii and Israel, the amazing Paskowitz family have become legends.
I first met the remarkable clan in 1978 when I was a writer/producer with Two on the Town, a KCBS magazine show in Los Angeles.
Their true tale sounded like the perfect, upbeat if slightly wacky Southern California story: Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz was a Stanford medical school grad 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’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 permanently in a tiny, 24-foot camper, virtually foraging for food with only what they could make by teaching surfing and Doc’s occasional small jobs helping out as a physician in deprived communities, to keep the family from starvation.
Still it didn’t 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 aliens over the nearby Mexican border?
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, Moses, Adam, Salvador Daniel, (in honor of his mother Juliette’s Mexican heritage) and Navah — a beautiful little girl among all the boys — and the baby Joshua.
Their father, who did most of the talking, described 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 they could only eat like animals in the wild, though when our TV 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 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 by getting him up on a surfboard for the first time that day, the Paskowitzes became his heroes.
There was much, I thought, that was admirable about their life. Their devotion to each other 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 new documentary about them (which opens May 23) produced by, among others, son Jonathan, aged 47, and directed by Doug Perry, whose last documentary Infamy focused on illegal graffiti writers.
Predictably, however, the film quickly reveals that all was not sunshine and waves in the Paskowitz’s 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 took great pride in his Stanford medical degree but denied his sons the option of having any such achievement for themselves, and he says he has not seen the movie — nor will he ever.
Today, age has not mellowed him. He’s sprightly, opinionated and still stubborn and unyielding. He insists he will never view the film referring to it as, documentary “mishigas” — a Yiddish express for madness.
However, Juliette says she loved the movie, because, “I got to see the kids when they were tiny little puppies.”
Adds 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.”
At 87, after hip replacement surgery and now suffering from chronic asthma, Doc says he still surfs standing up on the board near his home in Laguna Beach and has a great fondness and respect for the waves in Ventura County, which were often a regular stopping-off spot for his raggle-taggle surfing band.
“The C-street waves are one of the best breaks in the world — with a lefts and rights,” he recalls. “I love it there, although I like to call it ‘a poor man’s San Onofre (beach)’,” he laughs.
But he doesn’t find anything funny about the documentary, which strangely he agreed to promote with interviews in Santa Monica where he and some members of his family offered writers surfing lessons as well as conversations about the movie.
One of the saddest notes in the film is when one son talks of his ambition to follow his father into medicine but realizes that because of his lack of formal education his dream can never be realized
“Most parents say, ‘Go to school. Don’t go swimming with sharks, that’s dangerous,” Seventh son Salvador notes, “Our parents said, ‘you can go swimming with sharks, but you’re not fucking going to school, that shit’s dangerous.”
By refusing to make money to keep his family — often it becomes clear in the film they did not have enough to eat — Doc ensures that his kids grow up to think of little else.
Navah, the sole Paskowitz daughter, now 39, laments the sexism of her father to both her mother and herself and 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 Juliette who met the twice divorced Paskowitz, 11 years her senior, in a bar in Catalina 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.
“For 10 years I was either pregnant or breastfeeding,” she says.
There were considerable achievements, however. Several of the kids became world champion surfers — and grew the legend of the Paskowitzs. In 1998 Dorian gave Izzy, the most famous surfer of the bunch, ownership of their by now world famous Surf Camp, the family business (though not one that ever made much money). Izzy’s inheritance laid the basis for a family feud with David — a feud which the film makes clear is even today still generating family bitterness.
While the movie depicts a man who while pursuing his own dream forces his offspring to follow his life path rather than their own, Paskowitz gets angry for the only time during our conversation when asked if they suffered as a result of his tyrannical rule.
“I didn’t live a life to fulfill my dreams — that’s absolute bullshit,” he says. “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.”
While his wife admits her husband of almost 50 years is still a male chauvinist — “Tigers never change their stripes,” she says, 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,” he says.
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.
His younger brother Adrian talks of Doc more in sorrow than in anger.
“He is crazy,” he says tearfully, “he’s like a receptacle for inspiring the terrible things of living.”
Paskowitz fires back: “Do you think if I had looked into any of my children’s eyes and seen unhappiness and despair I would have continued going on with what I wanted to do?”
“My kids lived a charmed life,” he 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 kids growing up in a materialistic world.
“They can become awfully over-ripened … like a plum … too sweet and gushy. Spoiled rotten,” he says. “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.”
In the end the film records a somewhat reluctant Thanksgiving family reunion in a public park in Hawaii. The closeness seems a little forced.
“Hug your brother,” their mother instructs one of her sons. Izzy, who runs the surf camp, complains at having to leave his severely autistic son and all of his problems behind as he arrives in Hawaii to indulge his father’s whims yet again.
Thirty years ago when we first told the Paskowitz’s story it seemed a sweet dream, but three decades later the tale is a little sadder, and one can’t help wondering what his 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.