The Daddy Who Never Took the T-Bird Away

By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 25, 2008

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- "Snap up! SNAP UP! Snap up like a wild Albanian in Turkmenistan!"

Chest-deep in the Pacific, Jonathan Paskowitz is performing what might be called free-associative exhortation, trying to get his surfing student to do something the lad has never done before: Stand up on a surfboard in the middle of the ocean. (Okay, 100 feet offshore, but who's counting?)

"Paddle! Paddle! Paddle! Hold the rails! Snap up . . . !"

It would be pretty to think this all went well. That the novice actually rose on the board and glided to shore, where he was rewarded with fragrant bouquets, a free Cadillac and 99 bikinied virgins.

Instead, exiting the 50-degree air for 50-degree ocean, this reporter and the sea became one, with one thought coursing through his head:

Paskowitz and his siblings used to get to do this every day.

Did we mention siblings? As chronicled in the new documentary "Surfwise," directed by Doug Pray, there are eight Paskowitz brothers and a sister, all of whom were raised in a 25-foot camper rattling along the California coastline, surfing, subsisting on a fat- and sugar-free diet, with very little money, and in such close quarters as to set the average suburban family screaming.

But the surprising thing the viewer discovers through Pray's film -- or by surfing with several Paskowitzes in Santa Monica -- is not that the brothers were made profoundly eccentric, delusional or visionary by their idyllic-idealistic, off-the-grid upbringing. It's that they're no more freaky or screwed up than any other family.

"There were obvious feelings of brothers hating other brothers. But who doesn't?" says Salvador Paskowitz, one of the brothers. "Doug, the director, was sort of surprised that we wanted to say so much about it on camera, but it was an important thing to us that it be artistically and honestly done. So I don't have any mixed feelings about it. Besides, how many people who see the movie say, 'That's my family'?"

Pray is best known for his films about the Seattle grunge scene ("Hype!") and the world of hip-hop DJing ("Scratch"), and this latest work has been popular with critics and festival audiences. The idea for the movie originated with Paskowitz sibling Jonathan, who produced the film (along with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who learned to ride the waves at the Paskowitz Family Surf Camp).

"Surfwise" isn't "Capturing the Paskowitzes," but it's not "The Brady Bunch" either. While the film acknowledges the novelty of their upbringing, it airs the resentments that linger. And the object of most of the angst and derision in the film is Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, Stanford-educated physician, surfing pioneer and part-time martinet.

After two failed marriages and a revelatory trip to Israel in the '50s, he set off on his unorthodox (but devoutly Jewish) course of action. He married his wife, Juliette, in 1956 and in rapid succession had seven sons -- David, Jonathan, Abraham, Israel, Moses, Salvador, Daniel -- a daughter, Navah, and one more son, Joshua, all now in their 30s and 40s. Shabbat was observed on whatever beach Friday happened to fall on. The children were home-schooled. And the parents had sex -- "every night," their children groan, at intervals throughout the movie -- in the tiny camper.

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