Jewish surfing guru tells the whole truth about oddball life

In the opening scene of “Surfwise,” a documentary about Dr. Dorian Paskowitz and his family, Paskowitz lays tefillin in preparation for his morning prayer. But don’t let this fool you. While the 87-year-old gent looks as though he might be a minyan-maker at a fading Lower East Side shul, in fact “Doc” Paskowitz might have been America’s first beatnik.

Paskowitz was Jack Kerouac before Kerouac; he went on the road to places where there frequently were no roads. And he lived an unconventional lifestyle that hippies would emulate decades later.

Doc, his wife Juliette and their nine children (eight boys and a girl) lived in a 24-foot trailer and traveled up and down principally the West Coast in search of the perfect wave. All the kids were home schooled and raised on a strict dietary regimen.

But Paskowitz insists he wasn’t a hippie. On the contrary, he says, “I conformed. I was traditional. I followed the rules of what I thought most human beings did. Most people in the world eat a lot of fruits and a lot of vegetables and just a little bit of meat. Some of those rules were unnatural to the environment I was in, so I looked like an oddball … This documentary, this director that made [the film], just wanted to make me an oddball, an eccentric.”

That last sentence, by the way, is not an exact quote. In fact he uses a euphemism for sex when referring to the documentary and another for illegitimate child when talking about the director. All this despite the fact that he hasn’t seen the film and has no intention of doing so.

Paskowitz was born in Galveston, Texas, and learned to surf when he was 11 years old. When his father’s dry goods business went bankrupt during the Dust Bowl years, the family followed “the Okies toward the West.”

They moved to San Diego, which was fine with Doc because he’d seen a picture of three surfers riding a big Pacific Ocean wave and he’d pushed his parents to resettle there. Surfing consumed him. He was, as a result, a poor student. But he became interested in science in his senior year in high school; after a couple of years at San Diego State and a respite surfing in Hawaii, he landed at Stanford, where he finished college and attended medical school.

Ironically, his mother was “the only Jewish mother in the world” who became upset when her son announced he wanted to be a doctor. A believer in a holistic approach to curing illness, she railed at him, “How can you do that to me? They’re thieves. They’re drunks.” In the end, Paskowitz and medicine didn’t agree. “I’m not a very bright Jew,” he says. “I’m the dumbest doctor in the world.”

His problem wasn’t so much intellectual as emotional. “I couldn’t take money from sick people.”

So after serving the Navy in the last year of World War II, he returned to California and spent most of his time surfing — stopping occasionally to fill in for physicians taking vacations to earn some money. He eventually wound up in Hawaii as a public health officer. During this period, he went through two wives and a lot of angst. His second wife left him in 1956 when he was 35.

“I was really very, very down. I was having panic spells. I couldn’t sleep. I was unraveling, so I said I was going to try to make a man of myself. That was my problem — I’m not a mensch,” he says.

He wound up in Israel and attempted to enlist in the paratroopers during the Suez War of 1956, but the military laughed at him. “The colonel said, ‘Do you watch a lot of John Wayne movies?’ I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I do.’ He told me to go to Cyprus for a couple of weeks, meet a couple of Polish girls and come back. The war will be over by then.”

Instead, Doc spent most of the conflict on a kibbutz planting cabbages. But he also spent much of the next year on the beach in Tel Aviv where, he thinks, he introduced the first surfboard to the Mediterranean.

After a year in Israel he returned to the United States, where he met Juliette one night while bar-hopping. They lived in his Studebaker while they traveled into Mexico and elsewhere, got married in 1958 and in relatively short order had nine children.

It seems idyllic. But the film shows appearances can be deceiving. One son complains that their upbringing did not prepare them for the real world. His daughter claims she was traumatized by the sounds of her parents having sex.

Nonsense, says Paskowitz. “Scarred for life? I just pray your daughter has the sex life my daughter has. My daughter has orgasms whenever she wants.” Well, OK.

Despite his tendency to be a tad opinionated and not to edit what he says, there is a serious side to his life. Paskowitz has spent much of his time lately promoting his book, “Surfing and Health” (available at, about a combination of exercise and diet that leads “to a superior state of health, not just an absence of disease.”

“How tall are you?” he asks a reporter. “How much do you weigh?” You sense his disappointment over the phone. “You gotta promise me you’re gonna read this book,” he says. “You gotta promise.”

He also seems serious about his faith. Wherever the family was when the kids were growing up, they’d gather Friday night to light candles and have a Shabbat meal.

And he lays tefillin every morning. Moved by a photo he saw of a Nazi murdering a young mother and child, every morning as he straps on the phylacteries, he says, “God bless you mommy and baby.”

And then “like every good Jew, I say keep me alert so I can be of service.”

He also prays for three men in the picture digging the woman’s grave — and probably their own — as well Anne Frank and the black-handed children “who used to take the ashes out of the furnaces.”

“Believe me,” he concludes, “you have not seen the last of the Holocaust.

“Surfwise” opens at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco on June 13.

Curt Schleier
Curt Schleier

Curt Schleier is a freelance writer and author who covers business and the arts for a variety of publications. Follow him on Twitter at @tvsoundoff.