How a doctor, surfer and family man broke all the rules in his search for a natural way of life, a path towards higher understanding, and peace among people of the sea.
Words: Nik Zanella Photos: Surfwise/Magnolia Pictures
“I went into the water literally ready to pull my brains out, and I came back out of the water a warrior.” Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz
August 21st 2007, Erez, Israel. The Mediterranean’s most contentious beachbreak lies only a few miles west from the Erez Crossing Terminal. Inside the frontier’s fortress a palpable sense of fear is amplified by the 40°C heat of the southern Mediterranean summer. Qassam rocket bombings become the daily norm in this area since the victory of Hamas in the June ’07 elections forced authorities to shut the frontier between Israel and the Gaza Strip. But not to “Doc”!
Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz is now 86. He is one of the oldest surfers still catching waves at the point in San Onofre in California and he’s been doing it for decades. He left the Gaza Strip 33 years ago when the Suez crisis between Egypt and Israel forced him to move his surf school and his family from Tel Aviv back to California. His facial skin is wrinkled from six decades of saltwater and offshore winds, but under his white-haired chest pulses the heart of a young lion – a lion determined to leap over that fence, or at least to help the 14 boards he brought reach the Palestinian locals waiting on the other side.
The sparks that set off this unusual adventure in surf diplomacy were a couple of pictures that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in July 2007. They showed two surfers on the beach of Al Deira, together with their only battered board. The article explained how some Palestinians try to escape the poverty and violence of the area by riding the waves, with any board or floating device they can get hands on. Doc was struck by this story. He was the first surfer to ride the waves along the Gaza Strip in the mid-1950s, looking for surf with a Hobie pintail under his arm, chased by army officials confusing his longboard for a rocket launcher. He spent months roaming these clean beachbreaks nearly alone, studying the Pentateuch and working towards the socialist utopia on Kibbutz farms. The surf school he opened in Tel Aviv in that same year triggered the birth of the Israeli surf community, the first to bloom in the enclosed basin of the Mediterranean. They still consider him a prophet down there and for good reason: thanks to his enthusiasm, surfing is today a hugely popular pastime along Israel’s shores with thousands of devotees, many of whom also serve as soldiers along those same troubled shores.
“So I told myself, we'll go to Israel and get those Palestinians some boards,” remembers Doc in an interview given to the New York Times after his return to the US. His first step was to contact Mr Rashkova, the Israel representative of Surfers 4 Peace, an NGO founded by the Paskowitz family and Kelly Slater to help Palestinians and Israelis share waves on the basic philosophy that “people who surf together, can live together.”
The project required help from both sides of the Erez fence but it wasn’t long before, bare-chested in exploration-style kaki shorts, Dorian faced the Israeli guards at Erez with two surfboards under his arms, asking them to authorize the meeting. The first answer was, a harsh, “Lo” (that’s ‘no’ in Ivrit), but the words he proffered afterwards made the miracle happen: “I came 12,500 miles from Hawaii to give away these boards. The guys who need them are standing 50 meters from here, and you’re trying to stop me? How can you do that to a fellow Jew?” He then hugged the guards and begged them … and the gates of Zion were opened.
Doc Paskowitz’s flirt with the Gaza Strip is only one chapter of Paskowitzs’ extravagant surf saga which is summed up in Doug Pray’s documentary, Surfwise. Pray specializes in making films about American subcultures (Hype! and Scratch) and Surfwise tells Doc’s story using interviews with him, his immediate family of eight sons, one daughter and two wives, using plenty of original super-8 family footage.
In the ‘50s Doc was a successful Jewish-Californian physician, regularly surfing in Hawaii and totally integrated in the America’s post war economic dream. But Doc was looking for something more than money and a career. Attracted by the newly-born promised land of Israel he quit his first wife and the safety of his job to “embark upon an odyssey” as he often says. Suffering from anxiety and in dire need of a spiritual rebirth he moved to Tel Aviv in ‘56 where he linked back to his Jewish background and a growing an obsession with maintaining the human body for optimimum performance (in 1998 he published a book titled Surfing and Health). He developed a strict kosher diet of no pork, sugar, fat, alcohol or drugs of any sort – a diet he rigorously imposed on his whole family.
When he went back to the US in the ‘70s, the social conventions dictated by American capitalism had lost any meaning to him. He married Juliette Paez (a stunning Mexican beauty 40 years younger), customized a 24ft camper van and started to live “like a family of gorillas in the forest,” as he says, governing his drove with the authority of a monarch. He home-schooled his nine kids, moving up and down and across the American continent from Northern California to Costa Rica to New York, giving medical consultations for a living, honoring Shabbat every Friday and catching a lot of waves in the process. Surfing has played a crucial role in Doc’s didactics and discipline. “Most parents say ‘Go to school. Don’t go swimming with sharks, that’s dangerous,” recalls Salvador, the seventh Paskowitz son in a touching interview recorded for the movie. “Our parents said, ‘you can go swimming with sharks, but you’re not fuckin’ going to school—that shit’s dangerous!’”
Critics of this lifestyle at the fringe of society came from inside and outside the family. His daughter Navah (born in ’69) was the only girl in the crammed van. Her memories of those days show a love-hate relation with that outcast life: “We were just like puppies,” she remembers. “There’d be three or four people in that little lower bed thing, a couple of guys on the side couch bed, there would be at least two or three on the floor, mum and dad would be up above and I was on this weird board-thing that we made at their feet – which certainly disturbed me sexually, because mum and dad were doing it every night!”
The world famous Paskowitz Surf Camp, is what perpetrates the family creed nowadays. In 1998, Dorian gave his fourth-born son, Israel, ownership of the famous school. Izzy and Danielle have three children, including Isaiah, who is autistic and is shown in Surfwise at home with his father. Inspired by the positive results of tandem surfing with Isaiah, Izzy and Danielle founded Surfers Healing, a successful nonprofit organization that offers free surfing day camps to autistic children and their families in Southern California, New York, and Hawaii (www.surfershealing.com). It is supported by the wider family – who all now live in real houses – and by numerous pro surfers who volunteer their time. Meantime, Doc Paskowitz has his hands full again, this time trying to bring some of his radical positive philosophy to bear upon a conflict that deseperately needs some aloha.
You can check out more on the Surfwise and the Paskowitz story on these websites: www.surfwisefilm.com/
Surfer’s Healing on: www.surfershealing.org/
Paskowitz Surf Camp on: www.paskowitz.com/
BIO: Nik Zanella is editor of Italy’s foremost surf magazine Surf News. A fluent Mandarin speaker and avid explorer, he probably knows more waves in the Mediterranean and China than anyone on Earth. Nik lives, writes and surfs in Ravenna on the Italian NE coast.