Dorian Paskowitz: Physician who gave up medicine, launched surfing in Israel and tried to bring peace to the Middle East

Paskowitz’s book Surfing and Health became something of a lifestyle guide to many surfers, advising them to achieve well-being through diet, exercise and a good moral attitude

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The Independent Online

The son of Russian Jews who had fled the Bolshevik revolution, Dorian Paskowitz was born in Texas, studied medicine at Stanford University, California, and became a well-paid and well-respected physician until he was 35. And then he had an epiphany: “Why should I be making money from people who are ill?”

Instead he became a 20th century frontiersman. “In 1956, after years of insomnia, after years of anxiety, I embarked upon an odyssey,” he said. Doc Paskowitz, as he became known, hung up his stethoscope, bought a mobile home and a surfboard, married a Mexican-American of a similar free spirit, had eight sons and a daughter and took them across the Americas and beyond, seeking the perfect wave, perfect health and mortgage-less freedom. None of the kids went to school. Surf, health and morality were their parents’ by-words. The American media dubbed them “the first family of surfing” or “surfing’s answer to the Von Trapp family.”

A proud, devout but questioning Jew, Doc Paskowitz travelled to Israel regularly, working on a kibbutz. He took a few surfboards with him and was instrumental in launching surfing there. He founded a surfing school in Tel Aviv in 1972, later opening one in San Onofre, southern California, the Paskowitz Surf Camp, specialising in children with learning difficulties or emotional problems. His family still run the camp and it and has taught thousands to surf.

The media’s term “Father of Jewish Surfing” embarrassed him somewhat. In his later years, along with multiple world champion Kelly Slater, he founded the group Surfing for Peace, and after the flare-ups along the Gaza Strip in 2007 he put his boards where his mouth was. “He had heard that Palestinian surfers were using ancient, battered boards,” his son Joshua said. “So he rushed the border crossing with a load of surfboards. They were hardly lethal weapons, so they let him in.”

A photo of this elderly man with 15 surfboards, passing armed Israeli guards to get into Gaza, appeared  worldwide. He believed surfing the waves of the same seas could help bring Israelis and Palestinians together. “To be able to go to your enemies and give them something that makes them happy is a most fulfilling adventure,” he said. He saw his mission as a mitzvah, a commandment or good deed.

While the trauma of his parents in Russia, and later the Holocaust, during which he lost many relatives, scarred him, he considered himself, according to his son Moses, “a surfer and human being first, a Jew second and a doctor third.” He was also an almost-fanatical student of animals, their natural habits, what they ate, how they interacted. After seeing a gorilla eating an apple in the San Diego zoo, and throwing away the peel, he insisted his family do the same – it’s nature’s way, he insisted.

He was born in Galveston in 1921 to Russian immigrants Louis and Rose. He was 10 when a deaf and dumb lifeguard called Leroy Columbo taught him to surf on the Gulf of Mexico but asthma inhibited him. When he saw a photograph of surfers in a magazine, he said: “Mom, if you take me there, I’ll get better.”

The family did move, to Mission Beach, California, and sun and surf cured his asthma. It was the beginning of a journey that would lead him to his deep beliefs in how riding nature’s waves could interact with health and spirituality.

His physique made him a natural lifeguard and he studied medicine and played American football for San Diego State University then gained biology and medical degrees from Stanford. Bitten by the surfing bug, he was attracted to Hawaii, where he met some of his heroes, not least Duke Kahanamoku, described as the greatest man ever to make love to a wave.

After Pearl Harbor Paskowitz was called up to the US Navy. He later served on the USS Ajax, which took part in the atomic bomb tests in Bikini Atoll.  Being part of a system of mass destruction did not agree with him. He was happier graduating cum laude from Stanford Medical School, and returned to Honolulu to set up a medical practice. “The years between 1950 and 1956 saw one professional success after another for me, but in actual fact these were the worst years of my life,” he said. “My spirit shrank until there was nothing left. You see, when I kept surfing, surfing kept me.”

Having married Juliette Paéz, a budding opera singer whose family were from Durango, Mexico, in 1959, he asked her: “Hey, how does the road sound?” Initially sleeping in a “beat-up Studebaker”, later graduating to a 24-foot “rig” (a camper van), they travelled the US and farther south, riding waves and creating babies. By the end of the odyssey there were 11 people travelling and sleeping in that van.

“When someone ran across a doctor who lived at the beach in a camper with all those kids, it was kind of stunning,” according to Steve Pezman, founder of Surfer’s Journal. “But he was so witty and charming, they would fall under his spell, even if he would tell them he was scamming them. They would offer to help out, just because they were digging his deal.”

One child recalled: “In a sense, he was a dictator. Sometimes he fed us branches for breakfast. No white bread, no sugar.” One son, Salvador, said: “Most parents will tell you go to school ’cos it’s safe, but don’t go swimming with sharks ’cos it’s dangerous. My parents said, ‘hey, kids, you can go swimming with sharks but don’t go to school ’cos it’s dangerous.’”

“Doc” Paskowitz died a legend in the surfing community, perhaps not so much because of his surfing technique but because of his lifestyle: two cool parents and nine kids in a 24-foot camper van.  Some of the world’s great surfers remember arriving on beaches and seeing that van parked on the dunes. “The Paskowitz family was always there first, soon as surf was up,” one of Doc’s sons, Israel, a former world champion longboard surfer, told the Independent.

Paskowitz’s book Surfing and Health became something of a lifestyle guide to many surfers, advising them to achieve well-being through diet, exercise and a good moral attitude. Paskowitz had suffered a hip injury this year. He released himself from a hospice and went back to the beach.  Announcing his death, his family recalled his beliefs: “Follow your dreams. Never compromise. Be passionate. Live Life to the Fullest! Surf more! And stay away from refined sugar! Aloha Doc.”

Dorian Paskowitz, physician and surfer: born Galveston, Texas 3 March, 1921; married firstly and secondly (three daughters), 1959 Juliette Paéz (one daughter, eight sons); died Newport Beach, California 10 November 2014.