Halfway through Surfwise, a mesmerizingly ambivalent documentary about an itinerant family of Jewish surfer-dude health nuts, we meet the 84-year-old patriarch, “Doc” Paskowitz, at Los Angeles’s Museum of Tolerance, showing director Doug Pray a blown-up photo of a Nazi preparing to shoot a Jewish mother and child at close range. “This happened when I was at the top of my powers,” says Paskowitz, who, despite declining health, still bursts with physical vitality. “And I didn’t do one goddamn thing to help this woman.”
The scene feels awkwardly set up, yet also loaded with interpretive potential. Is this a gesture of remorse from a man who’s spent his life pursuing physical perfection, based on some cockeyed notion that bodily prowess would have saved the Jews from Adolf Hitler? Another messianic fantasy from a lifelong narcissist whose first name happens to be Dorian? Or a bit of melodrama staged by Paskowitz, or perhaps urged on him by the filmmakers?
Up until that moment, Surfwise operates in breezy colorful-geezer mode, offering Paskowitz as an intrepid explorer of an alternative American dream that will vicariously spring us from our nine-to-five doldrums. In the 1950s, after two divorces and a bellyful of respectability in Hawaii, Paskowitz chucked his career as a doctor to hang out with Bedouins in Israel while teaching the locals how to surf and experimenting with promiscuity. Then he returned to the States, where he informed a beautiful Mexican-Indian woman named Juliette that she would become the mother of his seven sons.
So she did, give or take an annual birth: The Paskowitzes raised eight sons and a daughter—”Doc wanted to repopulate the world with Jews,” one son says wryly—while cruising the coasts of America, Mexico, Hawaii, and Israel in a beat-up two-room RV. They lit Shabbat candles every Friday night, fed the kids a strict diet of raw organisms, homeschooled them in the virtues of healthy living and the evils of money and status, and drafted all nine into running the family surf camp.
Surf photographer Dave Homcy’s idyllic wave footage sets off photos of the tanned, smiling children lined up behind their boards. But whether you call this a Rousseau-ian paradise or Capturing the Friedmans by the Sea will depend on where you stand on hippie living—up to a point. (As the steak-loving daughter of a proselytizing vegan, I’ll own up to my own biases.) Without warning, the film takes a sickening sideways lurch as the Paskowitz offspring, still smiling away for the camera, admit that their father beat them when they didn’t shape up; that he used his eldest son David as an enforcer; that they had to listen while Doc had nightly sex with his terrifyingly compliant wife, who by her own admission told her daughter, Navah: “Always be grateful when someone will fuck you.”
Paskowitz isn’t scary just because he’s an abusive father, but because he’s an absolutist—and, like most absolutists, he’s a self-absorbed perfectionist, blind to the differences between himself and anybody else, let alone his own wife and children. It’s not hard to see why Israelis were so taken with Paskowitz in his youth: Tanned and muscled, he came across as the alpha-male antithesis of the shtetl Jew and the Holocaust victim, with a body that would have made Leni Riefenstahl lick her lips. But as a Jew, I find another Jew’s obsession with physical perfection and cleanliness (“We all had scrupulously clean assholes,” one of the children tells Pray with bitter mirth) profoundly disturbing.
In his mid-eighties, faced with a family riven by conflict and estrangement, Doc Paskowitz has begun to acknowledge the destructive side of attempting to shape his children in his own utopian image: “A real man is capable of controlling himself before he controls his children,” he says ruefully.
Surfwise is a forgiving film, and to Pray’s credit, he tries to offer us Paskowitz, the whole man, without judging him or his children. Indeed, it may be a little too forgiving—despite Pray’s inclusion of some weak testimony from Doc’s siblings, we never learn how Doc himself became such an autocrat, and, as you’d expect from a documentary co-produced by the son of its subject, the film ends with hugs all around. But at a family reunion (arranged by whom?), the genial old gent who still exercises daily can’t resist pitting a slim son against his chubbier brother. Today, the kids are mostly functioning remarkably well in a society for which they felt singularly unprepared. But the image I carried away comes earlier, in a long, tight close-up of Doc’s eldest son, David, his face contorted as he lip-syncs to a song he composed about impotent rage—a rage that can only be his own.