Juliette Paskowitz, matriarch of the ‘first family of surfing,’ dies at 89
It was the life any kid could only dream of, bounding across the country in an overstuffed camper — from San Clemente to Pensacola to the shoreline of Venezuela, always searching for the perfect wave.
With Dorian Paskowitz at the wheel, nine kids jammed in the back and Juliette riding shotgun, the family finally parked the rig on the sand in San Onofre, opened a surf camp and spent their days riding the glassy curls, playing in the whitewash and chasing one another from lifeguard tower to lifeguard tower.
“If ‘Nomadland’ was a 2, we were at a 10 as far as sheer adventure, uncertainty, homelessness and never knowing what the next day might bring,” said Israel “Izzy” Paskowitz, the fourth-oldest child in the clan. “It was wonderful.”
Juliette Paskowitz, the matriarch who held “the first family of surfing” all together, often singing arias while listening to opera on a small transistor radio in the camper, died Monday in a care facility in San Clemente, the family said. She was 89.
If any two people were packaged for each other, it may well have been Juliette and Dorian. He was a Stanford-trained physician who abandoned his practice because he felt so awful charging patients who were in pain. She was an aspiring opera singer from Long Beach who put her dreams aside when she became convinced she’d be held back because she was a Latina.
Together they embraced a Jack Kerouac lifestyle: boundless, free-spirited, going where the road took them — most often in the direction of the beach.
Dorian preached the rewards of surfing so relentlessly that it caught the attention of sportswear designer Tommy Hilfiger, who applied the family name to his line. A record label, perhaps thinking they’d found the sun-bleached version of “The Partridge Family,” invited the family to cut a record. A filmmaker made a 2008 documentary on the family titled “Surfwise.”
In the film, Moses Paskowitz — child No. 5 in the family lineup — recalls his father’s remarkable aversion to material wealth.
“There it is,” the son says, imitating his father while plopping a thin dime on a tabletop. “We’re down to our last dime, and I couldn’t be more excited.”
Juliette and her husband mostly homeschooled their children — eight boys and one girl — and otherwise kicked open the doors to the camper in the morning and told their kids to be back by noon for lunch.
Juliette Emilia Paez was born and raised in Long Beach, one of eight children. She longed to be an opera singer and hoped that when she went off to Cal State Long Beach it would help lead her in that direction. It didn’t, though her children said she never stopped singing.
She met her future husband in 1957 on Santa Catalina Island, where she was working as a telephone operator. They married two years later and began their cross-country odyssey, traveling in a series of beat-up cars. When money ran low, which was often, Dorian would find part-time work in emergency rooms or set up an impromptu surf school.
But it was on the sands of San Onofre where they put down stakes and raised their family in a 24-foot camper, a snug fit, for sure, but with a view worth millions. Because Dorian was then focused on children with emotional problems, the family surf camp was initially called the Paskowitz Surfing Psychiatric Clinic before being changed in 1985 to the Paskowitz Surfing Camp. The family says it is the oldest surf camp in the nation. Though slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, classes are again scheduled this spring.
The family went through a succession of campers over the years and Izzy Paskowitz recalls taking the last one on a planned trip to Cabo San Lucas. They made it as far as Ensenada before it rolled and was hit by an oncoming truck. Some years later, on another Baja trip, he noticed the abandoned camper had been repurposed as a food shack along the highway.
Juliette continued to surf into her late 60s. When she got older and moved into a care facility, Izzy Paskowitz said she acted as if she’d just moved into a Ritz-Carlton.
“She would say ‘I can’t believe they serve me breakfast, lunch and dinner,’” he said. “Of course, she’d lived in a camper most of her life.”
Juliette Paskowitz is survived by her daughter, Navah; eight sons, David, Johnathan, Abraham, Israel, Moses, Adam, Salvador and Joshua, 27 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 2014.
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