Documentary offers twist on ’60s with surfing family


It starts out like a classic tale of the ’60s: Successful, Stanford-educated Jewish doctor decides to seek personal fulfillment by dropping out of mainstream society and becoming a wandering surfer, living on beaches out of a beat-up old RV. The twist is that Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz took along his wife and their nine kids.

Surfwise highlights the life and times of the Paskowitz family, legendary surfers who grew up roving around from beach to beach, surfing instead of going to school. Doc Paskowitz and wife Juliette lived, with sons David, Jonathan, Abraham, Israel, Moses, Adam, Salvador Daniel and Joshua and only daughter Navah, all crowded into a tiny 24-foot camper. Every day, they surfed and ate natural foods, with only themselves as community. Along the way, they became famous in the surfing world, with the father and brothers dominating surfing championships for years.

Surfwise was directed by Doug Pray and produced by family member Jonathan Paskowitz, now a filmmaker.

On one level, this is exactly the kind of ’60s story that infuriates culture-warriors on the right, a man who drops out of society to find himself and to surf, eschewing school for his kids, teaching distrust of society’s strictures and popular culture, feeding his brood on whole foods, rejecting materialism and wealth, and embracing openness about sex. For the first half of the film, that is indeed the counterculture, utopian ’60s theme, but then Surfwise takes a sharp turn and delves deeper, into complex family dynamics, varied personalities and the sometimes-dark consequences of such an unlikely upbringing.

The film reveals several ways in which the real Paskowitz family differed from the ’60s counterculture stereotype. For one thing, the Paskowitz children were raised observantly Jewish and invariably, the family lit the candles for Shabbat on Friday nights. For another, patriarch Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz was the absolute dictator of his family, a strict disciplinarian who tolerated no challenges and demanded the best from his children.

All expectations and assumptions are off in this fascinating truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale of family.

Doc Paskowitz was a success as a doctor in Hawaii, and a renowned athlete, when he decided to leave ordinary life behind. Following his second divorce, it dawned on Paskowitz that he was simply not interested in the material wealth and career successes that drove others in his profession. So he left for Israel.

Already a surfing legend when he took up his nomadic life, Paskowitz is credited with introducing surfing to Israel, and launching the Tel Aviv beach scene, when he lived there before meeting his third wife, Juliette.

Uninterested in the political movements of the day, Paskowitz was committed to a philosophical, religious view about self-awareness, a natural life and health. His life brings to mind Thoreau and Kerouac, but also extreme-sport outdoors adventurers of recent decades.

Surfwise uses family home movies and stills, and news coverage of the family, members of which became legendary in surfing circles, and contemporary interviews with friends and family, and the now-grown children. Director Pray also gives us glorious surfing footage, underscoring visually their love of a sport that still unites the Paskowitz family.

Pray gives each family member, including the now 85 year-old Doc Paskowitz, a chance to tell their version of the unique Paskowitz family experience. The film goes deep into that family experience, uncovering both the dark and light sides of their bizarre lifestyle, and their adult lives. The result is a fascinating film about a remarkable family.

Although the Paskowitz children did not go to school, they read great literature incessantly and listened constantly to opera on the radio, and often sung by their mother.

Doc Paskowitz is often philosophical, mystical and utopian when speaking of his goals for his family and himself, a search for knowledge and wisdom and for holiness in a natural existence. But it is the pressure, the competitiveness and the rigid discipline that the children talk about when they remember their upbringing.

Surfwise is an intriguing documentary film, one that moves far beyond the expected, revealing a human portrait of a remarkable family in an unusual time. It is also a visual delight for fans of surfing. Surfwise, which is rated R and runs 93 minutes, opens Friday, June 27, at the Tivoli Theatre for a one-week run.