Dorian Paskowitz: Surf Icon, My Guru

Finally, I have met my guru.

He’s $50,000 in debt and calls himself “the only poor, Jewish doctor”. One of surfing history’s most famous characters, he and his wife raised nine kids—eight boys and one girl—in a cramped, spartan camper van.

I finally got to spend time with my guru–Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz –after reading about and admiring him from afar for a dozen years. He has taught me to follow my bliss and don’t let money ever get in the way.

A 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 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, formal education be damned, instead, educating his kids in the camper van long before the term “home schooling” existed.

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

Shaun Tomson, the 1977 World Surfing Champ, put it best. He told me, “Certain people would rather chase waves than a dollar, and Doc is one of those people.”

Doc 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 that no college could provide.

Doc, the original Jewish soul surfer was—and still is—radical. (Doc will turn 90 in March, 2011.)

Although I haven’t chosen to lead a self-imposed impoverished life like Doc has, I can whole-heartedly relate to his philosophy and spiritual fulfillment through surfing. His book Surfing for Health, which he spent over 25 years writing, is my personal Bible.

After graduating from San Diego’s Pt. Loma High and San Diego State, Doc got 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. Doc, 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 Doc was miserable. His second wife was cheating on him, he was no longer surfing and he was suffering from insomnia and anxiety. His life, as he says, was a lie.

In 1956, Doc 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 who taught him how to be a capable lover, skills he still employs with his wife, Juliette, a strikingly-exotic, six-foot tall indigenous Mexican with Jewish-Marrano blood (Jews of Spanish and Portuguese ancestry), who played Bach arias in the camper every day. (Three of the Paskowitz children are professional musicians now).

Although financially bankrupt, Doc has led one of the richest lives of anyone I’ve ever met. I once did for four months what Doc did 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, Doc has worked daily on achieving a “superior state of well-being”, a mantra that I’ve adopted. For both of us, surfing is the conduit to sublime physical and spiritual health.

Doc is most likely the first Jewish surfer ever, having surfed Galveston, TX at age 12 in 1933. A year later, he persuaded his family to move to San Diego, where he’d hoped his asthma would subside. Dorian, who would be known to Mission Beach, San Diego locals as “Tex”, is probably San Diego’s first Jewish surfer and perhaps 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. This would probably make him the first Jewish surfer in history.

In 2007, Doc visited Israel three times, most recently with his eldest son, David Paskowitz, and with Kelly Slater, the ten-time world surfing champion.

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

While overseas, Doc, after two-hours of cajoling an Israeli border guard at Gaza’s Erez crossing, took the surfing t-shirt off his back and handed it over, along with over a dozen surfboards to a couple of unemployed Palestinian surfers (that previously had to share a shoddy board to catch waves).

Two other prominent Jewish surfing ambassadors for peace were in Israel this past August with Doc: 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 (the Holocaust Memorial) Yad Vashem,” Doc tells me recently, shading himself from the strong sun at Tourmaline beach, where the Paskowitz Surf Camp, one of, if not the longest running surf camps (since 1972) in California, is in session.

Doc, who founded the surf camp, celebrated the Jewish Sabbath, “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 tefellin [leather straps that observant Jews wrap around their arms] and I say my prayers, but I wouldn’t call myself religious.”

Doc asks me if I want to hear the story about how he started wearing the tefellin.

“After surfing one day, I realized 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 [synagogue], 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 Doc.

“During the bar mitzvah,” Doc continues, “I was dovening [rhythmic praying; rocking back and forth] 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 [prayer shawl] and yarmulke.”

“Do you put tefellin on?” he asked Doc?

“No I don’t. I’m sorry,” replied Doc.

After chanting “Baruch Ata Odenai Elohainu…,” the dapper worshipper said to Doc, “I’ll make you a deal. If you put on tefellin, 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 teffelin on?”

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

“I’ll make you a deal,” Doc 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 tefellin. In your name, for their honor, I’m going to put on tefellin for the rest of my life.”

For the last 40 years, Doc has put on tefellin every morning, in addition to performing deep-breathing exercises he learned from the departed surf icon, wind-gliding innovator and former San Diego resident and trailblazer Woody Brown.

Doc is a brilliant story teller. But at almost 90 years old, he still feels a huge burden from what the Nazis did to the Jews. He feels guilty for having “the time of my life” while lifeguarding and surfing.

Every morning, he greets and says a prayer to “mommy and baby”. He is honoring the memory of a Jewish mother clutching her child, facing certain execution by a Nazi soldier. He had seen the picture of the mother and child many years ago.

Doc will carry this guilt with him to his grave, but in the meantime, he’s got other great anecdotes, this next one about another unlikely Jewish surfer.

“In the depths of Baja, I’m riding waves too big for me. I was getting nervous and thought about paddling in, but all of a sudden, I saw somebody knee paddling on a longboard coming towards me. It was the guy who offered to pay me for wearing tefellin! His sheitel (wig)-wearing wife was on the beach waiting for him. I couldn’t believe it!”

A few years ago, before meeting him in person, I spoke with Doc on the phone. At the time, he was living in Waikiki. It was the day after Yom Kippur [The Jewish Day of Atonement].

“Damn right, I paddled out on Yom Kippur,” Doc told me. “We’ve had magnificent 6-8 foot surf for the last five days. But for 25 hours, I didn’t drink one sip of water or eat one crumb.” Although Doc’s temple is the ocean and not a synagogue, he still keeps the fast that observant Jews follow on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, when Jews are supposed to spiritually cleanse themselves.

On the beach near Touramline, I ask Doc if he regrets not having strived for financial success.

“It’s been very hard,” he admits. “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 while they are in misery.”

Doc made a name for himself as a legend and icon. But it’s a farce, he tells me:

“I’m no icon. 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 that fell in love with surfing and lifeguarding.

“You swallowed the legend!” Doc, continues, telling me, though seemingly addressing the entire surf community. “You didn’t say ‘Paskowitz, you’re not a [expletive] legend—Rabbit Kekai is a legend. Woody Brown is a legend. Duke Kahanamoku is a legend.’ ”

Doc 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,” Doug Pray told me. Pray made the documentary, Surfwise.

“He’d be the first to tell you that he’s not a world-class athletic surfer and hasn’t ridden any giants,” Pray adds. “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, Doc was mortified that Surfwise would be a tribute film, placing him on a pedestal that would seem self-aggrandizing to the peers that Doc looks up to.

Judging by the advanced screener of Surfwise, Pray did no such thing.

“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.”

And today, Pray says Doc is consumed by the need to acquire money so that he doesn’t leave Juliette—who for 10 years straight was either pregnant or breast feeding—in poverty.

Doc tells me he thinks he should profit from the documentary but says he wasn’t sure what financial stipulations existed in the contract. He thinks the producers of the movie, including billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner and “Dancing with the Stars” woeful hopeful Mark Cuban have stiffed him out of a fair deal.

Give them hell Doc! Get what’s rightfully yours. You deserve to be immortalized as not only a surfing icon, but also a great husband and father. Even if your children thought you were nuts at times! There’ll never be another like you. May you live for at least another healthy decade more to inspire us all!

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