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Himmelfarb Don’t Surf

One man’s quest to become a shredder

Tony Michels
September 06, 2006

In November 1980, about a week after my bar mitzvah, I bought my first surfboard, a used 6’10” Freeline Design. It was outdated, homely (faded white with black trim), and too long by about five inches. Still, my first board riveted me. For days I held it, stared at it, even took it to a neighbor’s swimming pool so I could paddle around. No longer would I suffer the yoke of Hebrew school two, three, four days a week. I’d be free, at least on afternoons and weekends before dinner. I regarded my bar mitzvah not as my coming of age as a Jew, but as the end of my Jewish self. My board signaled liberation.

Hating Hebrew school is a time-honored tradition. In immigrant fiction, the cheder often appears as a cramped, dirty room ruled by a smelly, cruel, ignorant teacher. My experience wasn’t quite that bad, but it was miserable enough: frazzled Israeli women yelling sheket (quiet) at mocking students. I spent most of my time in Hebrew school staring out the window and watching the clock. I just wanted to be done with it so I could start being a normal kid. In a different time and place, I might have fled to the jazz clubs of Harlem or the cafes of Greenwich Village. But I lived in northern California, 20 miles from the coast, and so I headed to Cowell’s Beach, Santa Cruz’s downscale version of Waikiki—about as far from Temple Beth David as I could get.

At the time, surfing seemed like the farthest thing there was from Hebrew school. I didn’t know of any Jewish surfers. If anything, surfing seemed downright goyish. No doubt that was how my Chicago-raised parents viewed my choice of sport, not so much with hostility, but with a mixture of bemusement, irony, and concern. Others, I’d later find out, also viewed surfing as un-Jewish. In 1980, H2O magazine described the sport as the preserve of “the young, blonde, tanned, be-muscled, Gentile. No others need apply; few do.” About four years later, one of my surfing pals asked me with a laugh if I knew of any Jewish professional surfers. Quickly and defensively, I identified Shaun Tomson, the 1977 World Champion from South Africa. I had read somewhere that Tomson was a Jew, an unexpected source of pride. That shut my friend up, though I knew the truth: Tomson, who revolutionized the art of tube-riding by maneuvering inside the wave’s hollow center rather than riding straight through it, did not represent a legion of Jewish pros. To the best of my knowledge at that time, there weren’t any others, except for Tomson’s less-accomplished cousin, Michael. In a way, their anglicized surname underscored their uniqueness, as if to say, “The Tomsons might surf but the Himmelfarbs of the world do not.”

Over the years I discovered other exceptions, such as Dorian Paskowitz, a physician who introduced surfing to Israel in the 1950s and later founded California’s first surfing school. As a teenager, I used to see his advertisements in Surfer magazine every month, but I never imagined (despite the obvious signs) that Dr. Paskowitz might be Jewish until about 1988 when I read a profile of him. In my mind, Jews just didn’t surf, the Tomsons notwithstanding.

Then there’s Kathy Kohner, AKA Gidget, one of the biggest pop culture icons of the postwar era. According to the Encyclopedia of Surfing, Kohner fell in with Malibu’s legendary, rough-and-tumble surf crew as a teenager in the mid-1950s. Someone in the group crossed “girl” and “midget” to come up with her nickname. Fascinated by his daughter’s strange new lingo ( “bitchen,” “hodad,” “kook“), her Czech-born refugee father began writing a novel based on her adventures. Gidget, which de-Judaized the main character, Frances Lawrence, went on to sell a half-million copies in 1957 alone.

Two years later, a movie starring the wholesome Sandra Dee hit theaters, followed by sequels that followed Gidget to Rome and Hawaii, and, in 1965, a television series, which introduced audiences to a perky young Sally Field. Gidget changed surfing forever. In 1959, there were about 5,000 surfers in the US; four years later, the number surpassed two million. The sport had been transformed from a tiny sub-culture into a national youth craze. Serious surfers, of course, hated the movies and series for misrepresenting and popularizing the sport. (An interesting footnote: Kathy Kohner married a professor who authored a book about Yiddish.)

So, other Jewish surfers existed, but they struck me as anomalies. Like African Americans and hockey, Jews and surfing seemed incompatible. I vaguely felt this as a teenager, but I didn’t dwell on it. I wanted to surf and wasn’t interested in much else, Jewish identity least of all.

And yet even as I immersed myself in surfing—its culture, its myths, and the sport itself—I eventually realized I didn’t fully belong. Increasingly, I saw surfers as narcissistic and self-congratulatory. I grew disenchanted with the surfing magazines, which seized every opportunity to indulge their readers’ sense of specialness. Who else but surfers, they asked, are crazy enough to wake up at dawn? Who else but surfers have the balls to swim in cold water? Who else but surfers dare to purchase an airplane ticket and fly to another country? “Only a surfer knows the feeling,” a famous ad campaign has boasted since the late 1980s. Yes, indeed, only surfers know the feeling of surfing…and only cake eaters know the taste of cake. By the time I finished my freshman year at UC Santa Cruz in 1986, as many of my friends set off for Mexico, Australia, and Hawaii, I concluded that I wouldn’t devote my life to surfing. Surfing, I decided, did in fact belong to the “blonde, tanned, be-muscled Gentile,” and though I’d continue to surf as often as possible, I wouldn’t be a Surfer. Intellectual pursuits now captured equal attention.

To some extent Jewish alienation from surfing was determined long before the sport became popular. Geography had something to do with it. For much of their history in the US, Jews lived in the major cities of the Midwest and Northeast, where very few people surfed. But after World War II hundreds of thousands of Jews—along with millions of other Americans—moved to surfing hubs like Los Angeles, which, by the 1960s, had one of the country’s largest Jewish communities, second in size only to New York City’s. Yet LA’s Jews focused their energies on film, Democratic politics, real estate, and other endeavors, not “hanging ten.”

Thus distance from the ocean alone cannot explain why Jews haven’t flocked to the surf. Culture must have something to do with it. As urban dwellers long divorced from nature, Jews have failed to cultivate what could be called surfing family values. Almost all of my gentile friends had parents who came from small towns, where they fished, sailed, water-skied, camped, and even hunted. My parents, city kids born and bred, knew nothing from nature, let alone water sports. Sleeping with bugs was hardly their idea of fun. Surfing seemed altogether crazy. What self-respecting mother would encourage her child to risk drowning, sharp reefs, stinging creatures, and sharks? Even those Jewish parents who allowed their children to take up surfing didn’t instill in them the fearlessness needed to excel, to become the sort who “rides giants.” Each time I headed to the beach, board in hand, my mom issued urgent safety warnings. My friends’ mothers used to drop us off and pick us up at the end of the day; mine stayed the entire time in case of an emergency. Who knows what deeply rooted Jewish values and fears infused my mom’s heightened (though reasonable) worry? An impulse to avoid danger, born out of centuries of persecution? An association of Jews with physical weakness? Valorization of scholastic achievement over athletic ability? At the risk of trafficking in old stereotypes, I think all played a part.

So, with the weight of generations bearing down on me, I faced dilemmas unknown to my gentile friends. How could I become a “shredder” when I had to exercise utmost caution? How could I “charge” large waves and simultaneously contemplate the consequences? And yet, despite my caution, I nonetheless suffered a terrible injury, worse than any incurred by my reckless friends. On Christmas day four years ago, at age 34, I severely dislocated my shoulder while trying to jump off a rock ledge. A wave slammed me into a cliff and onto a rock that cut through my wetsuit and deep into my knee, resulting in some 20 stitches and a bad infection. After six months of intensive therapy, the doctor informed me that I wouldn’t fully recover due to tissue damage. “Jews don’t belong in the ocean,” a senior colleague—originally from Brooklyn—admonished. My arm in a sling, I had to consider that he might be right.

Even today, the ideal California surfer is a blond with blue eyes and delicate features. Nearly all of my childhood friends fit that golden-boy image, whereas I, after a day at the beach, looked like I’d just emerged from Sinai. True, I took guilty pleasure in the fact that the Scandinavian complexion fared poorly in the sun. One friend, whose parents happened to dislike Jews, had a perpetually scorched face that turned purple in cold water. Still, blond surfers lived happily with the contradiction between ideal and reality because the benefits—like the attention of pretty girls—were too good to forfeit. I eventually adopted traditional Jewish survival skills—irony and self-deprecation—to deflate some of surfing’s conceits. Yet those strategies could go only so far in a subculture enamored of its own sense of cool. Alvy Singer never went over with the surfing crowd.

If the ideal surfer was supposed to look a certain way, he was also supposed to behave a certain way. According to the ideal, every serious surfer should spend most of his time in the water and practically none working a legitimate job or doing anything socially constructive. Hardcore surfers used to be called “surf Nazis,” a difficult term for Jews to embrace. Surf Nazis lived only to surf, inside or outside the law. The outlaw archetype was embodied by the notorious Miki Dora, whose name is practically synonymous with Malibu’s postwar golden era. An exceptionally graceful wave-rider, Dora lived by petty theft, scams, and fraud, and fled the country in the mid-1970s. I don’t mean to suggest that criminality is typical behavior for gentiles, but rather that the outlaw surfer was an ideal type in a subculture in which gentiles already dominated. Of course, Jews have had their share of ne’er-do-wells, but they’ve never reflected the norm or communal ideals. Most have followed one or two paths in America: reforming society and/or getting ahead in it. Surfing lends itself to neither.

Even Shaun Tomson never felt entirely at home in the surfing world. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Tomson was college-educated, polite, well-groomed, and drug-free. He stood apart as a nice Jewish boy in a sport dominated by wild shkotsim. His sponsors loved him, but peers saw him as an aloof careerist. Whereas many surfing greats wound up addicted, incarcerated, or dead, Tomson founded a successful surfwear company and was a model for Calvin Klein. His cousin Michael also flourished in the shmatte trade, which makes me wonder if the Tomsons aren’t so different from the Himmelfarbs after all.

Not everyone might agree with my take on Jews and surfing. Nachum Shifren, the so-called “Surfing Rabbi,” believes the sport “represents an absolute unity with the divine” and quotes medieval Jewish mystics to prove it. I’m not qualified to judge Rabbi Shifren’s knowledge of kabbalah, but surely most Orthodox Jews would regard surfing as a bitl zman, wasted time better spent on studying Torah. (In fact, one Orthodox reader of Shifren’s online newsletter, Surf and Soul, complained about precisely that attitude.) In any case, even Shifren—who now lives in Israel—hasn’t been able to harmonize surfing and spirituality. By making aliyah, he abandoned California’s consistently good surf for the Mediterranean’s painfully long flat spells. He has traded one imperfect homeland for another.

I haven’t found the right balance either. Eight years ago, I landed a job at the University of Wisconsin, Madison—in “deep exile,” as the Yiddish expression would have it. As often as possible, I revisit the 50-mile stretch of coast between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay where I grew up, and try to regain lost ground. I’m there now. Tonight I’ll have dinner with a childhood friend who, after an extended bout with drugs, now works as a photographer for TransWorld Surf. Nearly every day, he bobs in the ocean and takes pictures of famous surfers as they speed toward his head. At the end of summer, he’ll travel to Sumatra, the Mentawi Islands, or some other exotic locale. And I’ll return to Madison, where I’ll spend most of my time thinking and writing about Jews.