Talking Doc’s Story. New York Times Conversations with the Paskowitz Family. Episode Two: Life through Navah’s Eyes.
by Chris Dixon
The Clan Paskowitz with Young Navah Leading the Way. Photo Courtesy: Navah Paskowitz.
Last Sunday, The New York Times published an obituary I wrote on Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz. The story was largely based on interviews with six of the nine kids Doc bore with his loving wife Juliette. The final NYT article came in at around 900 words, but anyone who’s ever seen the film Surfwise, or spent time talking with the Paskowitz clan, knows that the story of the mercurial Doc Paskowitz and his family goes way, way deeper than 900 words. In fact, after I’d finished my last interview, I had a count of around 10,000 words – and believe me, the talking story could have gone on far, far beyond that.
If anything became crystal clear during those conversations, it’s this simple fact: Each of the Paskowitz kids has had his – or her – own very unique experience growing up in Doc’s formidable shadow. And each one has his – or her – own opinions on Doc Paskowitz and the sprawling, fascinating, troubled, brilliant and iconic family he spawned. Leading up to the December 13 Paddle Out for Doc in San Clemente, TheScuttle will publish outtakes from my conversations with six of Doc’s kids.
Today, we’ll hear from child number eight: Doc and Juliette’s only daughter, Navah, 42. — CD
Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz and Navah. Photo Courtesy: Navah Paskowitz.
Autism has been so prevalent in my Dad’s life they jokingly call us the Brady Bunch of autism. There’s Izzy’s son of course, who’s 21, then I have two boys on the spectrum myself. My little guy who’s six is classically autistic, then Wolfy who’s 11 is high-functioning asbergers. Dad had a special place in his heart for autism and the scientific. He really believed this notion that the toxic levels of the world – as the world gets more toxic, the youngest, most vulnerable creatures are going to be the most affected. We live with it daily.
Photo Courtesy: Navah Pakowitz.
I was just hired to an organization – The Friendship Circle – through the Jewish Community Center and the Chabad. It’s sort of a special needs buddy system. They have typical teens who are joined with a special needs child. Having that social experience, the normal teen playdates, it’s so important.
Dad led a very conventional life. He went to Stanford. He was a very affluent doctor in Hawaii at the time, but he had severe anxiety disorder and would get severe panic attacks. I think he came to a crossroads – a real midlife crisis. He decided, there must be something more to life than this. He found out that his wife was having an affair and that just shattered him. So he just packed it up and started going on these walkabouts so to speak. He was very religious, so it began in Israel – he wanted to find his Judaic roots. His first thought was to join the Israeli army. (Ed’s note: the army rejected Doc, who was, by then, in his 30’s – despite the fact that he was probably one of the fittest human beings alive. So he instead taught a few Israelis to surf and brought the sport to Israel.)
Doc and Juliette. Cover Shot of Surfing and Health. Photo Courtesy: The Paskowitz Family.
Then Dad met my mom. She talks about it. The minute she laid eyes on him, she knew she was going to go anywhere with this man. My mom – she was on the cusp of being a very famous opera singer. She could have been very successful and well-known. But instead, she said, ‘I would follow this man anywhere.’ It was a very singular kind of love. And Dad saw something in mom. He knew she’d be very subservient and do what he wanted her to. He’d married normal, kind of conventionally jappy women in the past. Mom was different. She was very soft spoken and came from a similar dynamic to Dad with her parents. She’d grown up in Long Beach. Her Dad was very demonstrative and loud and her mom was soft spoken and very much sort of allowed the man to lead.
And that’s the way my parents were. She’d do anything Dad said. And of course, I was the only girl, so I went the opposite way. I rebelled for sure. Dad wanted me to be a mini-mom, but I wanted to be one of the boys – the ultimate tomboy.
The Ultimate Tomboy, with Brother Israel in the Background. Photo Courtesy: Navah Paskowitz.
That’s Navah on the Far Left. Photo Courtesy: Navah Paskowitz.
The first of our campers was purchased because I caught a disease – scarlet fever – in the hospital in ’71 or’72. At the time, Dad was a college professor at one of the main universities in San Diego. He bought the first camper because he felt like, if I was in the ocean every day, then I’d heal. Imagine, he’s got seven seven sons, and oh my God, I’m going to lose my only daughter. So the first camper was purchased because of my sickness. There were various campers after that. I remember the second, and I think, even a third.
That’s Navah on Top of the Camper. Photo Courtesy: Navah Paskowitz.
(Ed’s note, eventually the family moved back to Hawaii.)
We moved away from Hawaii back in the early 80’s. One of the main motivators was coming back in the summer to run the San Onofre surf camp. But Dad had created really wonderful life in Hawaii. He was the island’s first house call doctor – created Doctors on Call – which is now multibillion-dollar business – but he had no stake in it. It was such a comfortable life and we were so happy, but then something stirred in him. We went from living in this gorgeous house in Kahala Hills and Dad making money hand over fist to living in a Chevy Impala. Then we started our traveling.
Photo Courtesy: Paskowitz Family.
At that point, Dad was still working. He’d get jobs through government systems, various Indian reservations. So we’d go reservation to reservation and over time the kids started abandoning ship. Eventually it came to me, my brother David and the youngest children.
We moved to New York when I was 15. Mom had contracted a disease at one point when I was 12, Salvador was 14 and Josh was a little baby. She got it from unpasteurized cheese in Mexico. So at that point for Dad, it it was basically, I gotta take care of mom, all you guys fend for yourself. He took mom to all these different hospitals – tiny hospitals. On the border of Juarez, they’d seen these cases and were some of the first to diagnose her with brucellosis. She was one of the first to be treated with experimental drugs for it. So there was this period of years where we lived like orphans – Daniel, me and Josh. We were left with family and friends in Hawaii for long periods of time. It was very intense and it was really the end of our childhood. We didn’t have anywhere to go, so we eventually went brother to brother and eventually moved to New York City. (Ed’s note; Doc’s sister still lives in New York City).
Navah – top of the Pyramid. Photo Courtesy: Navah Paskowitz.
My husband Matt’s father is Ed Asner (the actor). He reminded me so much of my Dad. Such an outspoken man in his life, but also extremely giving and selfless. The similarities between them are really amazing. We had our wedding planned for a long time, but Dad’s sickness postponed it. In Dad’s last weeks though, he made us promise we’d go through with it. And we did.
Ed, Matt and Navah. Photo Courtesy: Navah Paskowitz.
Brother Adam and Navah. Photo Courtesy: Navah Paskowitz.
Navah and Matt. Drawing Avivah Paskowitz.
Navah and Doc. Photo Courtesy: Navah Paskowitz.
Looking back on my life with Dad in hindsight. I’ve always been the person – and you see it in Surfwise – don’t ask Navah these questions because she’ll give a negative response, and I continue to. Dad raised us in a very unconventional way, but he also instilled in us Judaic-Christian values. (Because of that) a point of my whole adult life has been to make sure that my own children got an education. It’s really unfair, in my opinion, that Dad didn’t give us that opportunity. His parents struggled mightily to send him to Stanford, and I thought it was a bit lofty for him to say that I made the decision that my kids wouldn’t have that same opportunity.
Late 90’s Era Paskowitz’s. Around the Time They Were Featured in This New York Times Article.
It’s a hard issue for my brothers. And I don’t speak for them. If we’d stayed in our family bubble and weren’t released into the world, that would be one thing, but he didn’t give us the tools for life, and we suffered for it. I was a single mom for years and was still able to send my kids to really good schools. But I worked my arse off for that, and it’s my biggest accomplishment as a grown-up. So from that perspective, I’d have to say that I didn’t agree with what Dad did. The adventure part of our lives is what people see, but I’d honestly never do that to my children. I think it was incredibly selfish. It’s a person who is really thinking about their own desires and not about the safety and well-being and the needs of a child. My brothers will say, well, there she goes again, the voice of negativity. I have eight brothers. Not one of them can comprehend my point of view as the girl. I’m one of one. I don’t mind being a voice of negativity. And the thing is, Dad, in the last ten years, completely agreed with me. He was so proud that all the kids were going to Jewish schools and getting that experience. He felt really regretful about that (where we were concerned) in the last decade.
Doc and the Grandkids. Photo Courtesy: Navah Paskowitz.
But with all that said, Dad and I had a very close relationship. I adored him. What you’d call my rebellious period was actually very short lived, because for the last two decades, he and I were sweethearts. I talked to him every day. I had a horrible divorce a few years ago. He helped me so much through that.
Photo Courtesy: Navah Paskowitz.
When Dad got sick, my husband Matt and I both, we had been going down to see him every weekend. With six kids, our time with him was definitely limited, but I had probably some of the best visits with Dad ever in my life. But more importantly, he had these private times with my husband. It was incredible to me. He gave Matt this whole lecture on, his marital advice. I was so happy that we had that experience. But really, more importantly, a couple of my brothers had been estranged from Dad. Especially David. In Surfwise, you can see his hurt, anger and resentment. And at the end of the five-minute period in the film where we reunited, he went back to the hate.
But it really was as if my Dad’s passing reunited us. David came down. Adam flew in from New Zealand. And we had this wonderful time together. And that coincided with us having this meeting with the doctor. Him saying, ‘Your Dad’s not responding, his organs have shut down. We really need to give up the dream.’ My little brother (Joshua) – he really didn’t want to believe that was the case. It was, just such a turning point – for all of us. We finally had each other again. We had each other to support and hold each other up. My mom especially – she really needed that.
Photo Courtesy: Navah Paskowitz/Paskowitz Family.
David never would have come to my wedding in the past, but he was really moved by something the cantor Nathan Lam said. He gave an awe-inspiring speech where he said, Tikkun olam. It means, to heal the world with goodness. David keeps referring to that. This from a man who not only declared himself an atheist but a Satanist. For him to be at my religious wedding ceremony spouting Hebrew? Wow. This was just a life changing experience for me and my brother. He really feels like a different person.
Order Doc’s book Surfing and Health, or make a donation to the Doc Paskowitz Legacy Fund.
Talking Doc’s Story. New York Times Conversations with the Paskowitz Family: Episode One: Izzy Speaks.