A version of this post appeared on the Sisterhood blog of The Forward. Click here to read it.
Knowing Navah Paskowitz-Walther today as a San Fernando Valley stay-at-home mom active in her synagogue and children’s Jewish day school, it is hard to believe that as a child she lived a peripatetic existence in a 24-ft. camper. Growing up as the only girl in a Jewish family of nine children, she surfed every day, never went to school, and bowed to her father Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz’s heavy-handed and idiosyncratic approach to parenting. Her story sounds like something in a movie, which it actually has been and will be. The highly unconventional Paskowitzes, the largest and best known family in surfing, are the subject of the 2007 documentary, Surfwise, and a feature film about them is currently in pre-production.
While the focus of these films is on all the Paskowitzes, Navah’s story deserves special attention – not only because she is the sole daughter, but also because of the particularly Jewish role she has played and continues to play in the family. Despite the preponderance of males in the Paskowitz household and her father’s partriarchic chauvinism, it is Navah who has taken the responsibility for passing Judaism on to the next generation most to heart. While Navah, like all her siblings, has intermarried, she is the only one raising her children exclusively in the Jewish faith. Even more so, she, with the full support and participation of her husband of German-Quaker background (whom Doc ironically and affectionately refers to as “the most Jewish son I have”), is making sure that her daughter and three sons receive the serious Jewish education she never had.
Under the direction of her father and with the compliance of her mother (a convert to Judaism of Mexican Indian descent), Navah and her siblings practiced their “own version of Judaism,” as she describes it. Her father insisted that they observe holidays and the laws of kashrut. The family’s weekly kabbalat Shabbat celebration and festive meal was a highly anticipated change from the usually austere fare on which they otherwise subsisted. However, the Paskowitzes never did any of this within a community beyond themselves. Moving from place to place at a moment’s notice, Navah and her brothers never had a regular set of friends or stable social environment, let alone a Jewish peer group. In fact, she recalls being surrounded by born again Christians in Orange County, where the family spent a lot of time. As a result, Navah has worked hard as a mother, making personal and economic sacrifices, to ensure that her own children accumulate a high level of Jewish social capital.
On her own from the age of 15 and without any formal education, Navah supported herself by singing in a band with her brother Adam (now the lead singer of The Flys and Jetliner), modeling swimsuits, designing a women’s wetsuit line, and working summers at her family’s surf camp on a beach near San Clemente, CA. But the job that Navah, now 40, has had the longest and which she considers to be the most important, is that of Jewish mother. It involves “forcing the kids to do the traditional stuff” and making sure they learn Hebrew, which Navah herself failed to master despite living in Israel at one point for a year and half and studying in an ulpan. “I was hopeless from the get-go,” she pokes fun at herself.
Without any immediate and concrete Jewish connections, it was the more historical and abstract notions that played a role in Navah’s own upbringing. The Holocaust figures prominently in her sense of Jewish identity and in the one she wants to impart to her children. She recalls her father putting on tefillin every morning and, while not exactly reciting the traditional Shacharit prayers, speaking to the victims of the Holocaust. “Our exposure to Judaism was very similar to that of the children of Holocaust survivors. My dad was so affected by the horror of the Holocaust, that it was a daily reminder in our home.” Dorian Paskowitz’s bid to repopulate the world with Jews was self-evident. There was never any question as to why he fathered so many children, gave them all biblical names, and insisted on raising them as Jews, notwithstanding his otherwise untraditional ways.
Israel, too, has been very important to Navah. In fact, it was when she visited Yad Vashem during a six-month stay in Israel with her parents and her younger brother when she was 14 that she realized that “it was my life’s mission – to live a Jewish life. To remember those lost. To live for them, really.” Beyond the connection to the Holocaust, she wants her children to hold Israel dear. “I want them to feel they have a homeland that’s theirs as Jews, and for them to love and support Israel going forward. We are extremely lucky to have found a Jewish day school that promotes and fosters love of Israel as a basic part of the curriculum and has many Israeli teachers and students,” she says. As someone who personally experienced anti-Semitism while growing up, “I always vowed that my children would be surrounded by ‘their’ people…and feel proud of being Jews.” Not surprisingly, Navah is planning to hold her daughter’s bat mitzvah in Israel next year.
“A chaotic lifestyle leads to a chaotic mind,” Navah frankly admits. She has endured personal struggles as an adult, and it has been a long journey for her toward reconciliation with her parents – her father, in particular. It has been Judaism that has played a key role in her ultimately making peace with her past and mending familial relationships. Navah relishes being “The Jew” of the Paskowitz family, the one to whose home everyone comes for Passover and Hanukkah.
Navah freely admits to having resentments about her childhood, but she says she would “never in the world change the experiences” that she and her brothers had together. But not wishing to change the past is not the same as wanting it to be your present or future. Navah still surfs (though not as regularly as she would like) and has taught her children to, as well. It is thanks to what their grandfather taught their mother that the kids can stand on their boards, but they are going to ride a different wave.
© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.
Update: The version of this article appearing in the Sisterhood blog of The Forward was cross-posted on Jewesses With Attitude, the Jewish Women’s Archive blog. Click here to read it.
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