Surfs Up

While for this writer, the Israeli coastline may not conjure the majestic swells found off his native South Africa, an increasing sight  in Tel-Aviv’s ever-increasing traffic are surf-boards on the side of a moped as its rider nips through the city traffic to the beach.

By David E. Kaplan

January 2019 kicked off with a swell time off the coast of Netanya in Israel when surfers from 26 countries came to compete in the 2019 Seat Pro Netanya, a QS 3000 event on Kontiki Beach. Following five exciting days of action, Eithan Osborne of California claimed victory in the final bout against Tristan Guilbaud of France.

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Spectacular In The Swell. American surfer Eithan Osborne winning the 2019 SEAT Pro Netanya surfing competition in Israel in January 2019. (Photo by Flash90)

Should he get the call up to the 2020 Olympics, the Californian from Ventura may well be competing for Israel.

Why the switch, Osborne told the Huntington Beach online magazine, Surfline, “Well, the Olympics was one motivation, but I wouldn’t say it was the primary motivation. I have family who live in Israel and being Jewish, I have a special connection. Under the Law of Return, which gives every Jewish person the right to make what we call ‘Aliyah’, I am moving to Israel and becoming a citizen. I am super happy about making that decision. It connects me to my roots and my heritage even more.”

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Coasting Along. One of Tel Aviv’s 13 beaches.

Besides he says “Surfers in Israel are just the same as anywhere. They’re enthusiastic and so stoked on surfing. It’s crazy, and the surf scene is on the rise for sure. They have festivals, movie showings, and bunch of surfs schools.”

So, while the beaches might not have the high waves of South Africa’s famous Cape St. Francis of Jeffries Bay beaches, when the wind is right and the swell up, the allure of the crested curve off Tel Aviv and Herzliya’s beaches invites surfers of all ages. I am one of them.

How did it all begin?

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We Have A Liftoff! A tense moment in the 2019 SEAT Pro Netanya surfing competition, January 18, 2019, where surfers from 26 countries competed. (Photo by Flash90)

What’s Up, Doc?

It all started in 1954 when a young Jewish doctor from California named Dorian Paskowitz, nicknamed ‘Doc’ arrived in Israel bringing with him six balsa-wood longboards, all adorned with the Magen David (Star of David). His mission was to introduce surfing to young Israelis. At Frishman Beach in Tel Aviv, he ran into a local lifeguard, Shamai ‘Topsy’ Kanzapolski, who would eventually establish Israel’s first surf club. “Before bumping into my dad, Doc cruised up and down the coast hoping to find someone who would take responsibility for the project,” Nir Almog, Topsy’s eldest son, told me.

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All In The Family. Shamai ‘Topsy’ Kanzapolski with family on Tel Aviv beach.

“In my dad, he found that person, who, like himself, was passionate about the beach. Abba (dad) was interested at one time in law and even studied it, but for him, the beach and surfing was his life.” It was the same with ‘Doc’, who gave up the practice of medicine to focus on surfing.

Swell Time. Topsy (right) with Arie a beach lifeguard in the 1960s.

Topsy, who passed away some twenty years ago, passed his passion onto his sons. Nir, who has his own business in Jaffa manufacturing surfboards, continues: “At the time Dorian met my dad, lifeguards only caught waves with the ‘Hasake’ – a flat, wide board that had been designed for close-to-shore fishing by Arabs and later adopted as swift lifesaving equipment for lifeguards. Then Dorian came along with these narrow boards and interest perked. He started giving surfing lessons on his boards and soon the locals who hung out by the lifeguard station started to surf.”


Nir, who was a youngster at the time, recalls the waves were different in the early days. “They were high by today’s standards and used to break right on the beach. The reason for this,” explains Nir “was that the beaches were open shores with no piers and the golden sand that came drifting from the Nile helped shape the sea floor. The waves broke in sections, the first being right on the beach, the second some 500m away. To surf in those days, you were considered crazy.”

A Chip off the old board

“My father decided that I, his first born, should learn to surf,” continues Nir, “and so he put me on the board’s nose with him, while the surf was up. He told me to stand up…I did, and that was the moment I caught the bug.”

Wanting to spend most of his time at the beach, the younger Kanzapolski, who would later change his surname to Almog, began to partner Shaul, the lifeguard who worked with his father at the same beach tower. “Shaul emerged as the best surfer at the time and used to take me out to the second break. The huge waves looked so huge, maybe,” concedes Nir, “because I was so tiny. We used to rip the waves all the way to the beach.”

The techniques in vogue on the longboard were “to Hang 5 or Hang 10, depending on whether you had five or ten toes hanging over the front of the board.”

After a few years “the local gang gained experience but no team yet had been established to represent Israel overseas. Excited for the sport to grow, ‘Doc” Paskowitz returned to Israel bringing more boards that were distributed to local surfers.”

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Special Breed. Topsy’s son Ariel (left) with the legendry Dorian ‘Doc’ Paskowitz

Making boards and history

During the 1960s, says Nir, “A giant storm brought terrible flooding and all the surfboards in Dad’s storehouse on Frishman Beach were badly damaged. In trying to fix one, he cut it down to 1.80m and so the first short board in Israel was born. I was the first to use it.”

With the surfing scene throughout the sixties confined to a small devoted group, “It was not until 1970,” says Nir “that we were joined by surfers from all over the country, many of them with colourful surfboards bought overseas.” The surf scene was about to change, and it was not only the arrival of new, innovated boards that upped the pace of popularity of the sport but also the influence of music from such bands as The Beach Boys who brought out albums under titles like ‘Surfin USA’.

Lyrics like:

“Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world

Don’t be afraid to try the greatest sport around…..”

began to resonate with the new generation of Israelis in the seventies. The new era was all too evident when local surfers Eilam Bale and Ofer Zaramaty were the first Israelis mentioned in ‘Surfer Magazine’.

Shaping Up

In the early 70’s, a young IDF paratrooper and officer called Yair, told Topsy that the army was using a plastic foam called polioritan, produced in Haifa, that was like the material used for making surfboards. Topsy contacted the company and ordered the material “and I went into business with my dad manufacturing boards. It was difficult at first with a lot going to waste. Eventually,” says Nir, “we succeeded in shaping designs that looked like surfboards.”

And so, began a small industry of surfboard production. Most of the boards were used for hire and a new generation of surfers entered the local Israeli surfing scene. Topsy ran the small factory at his new storehouse at the Hilton Beach and between renting ‘Hasakes’, he shaped surfboards for the local youngsters.

Meanwhile, back in the USA, Dorian ‘Doc’ Paskowitz, who had brought the first boards to Israel in 1954, was trailblazing the sport in his home country. The Paskowitz Surf Camp, founded in 1972, became a major feature in southern California. One of the most famous names in surfing history, 86-year-old Paskowitz surfed six to eight-foot waves in Waimea Bay, Hawaii – “albeit on my knees because of an injury – virtually until he died five years ago. Most of ‘Docs’ nine children are steeped in Judaism and spent time in Israel, especially Jonathan, David, Joshua and Abraham, who helped form the Israeli Surfing Association.

“David Paskowitz,” says Offer Zaramati “gave us a few valuable tips. Up until then our style was simple – catching the wave in a straight line – from the peak to the shore, like we did with the ‘Hasake’. David taught us some new tricks which today are the basics of every surfer – “off the lip” and “cutback”.

‘Doc’s son Issy went on to become one of the best longboard surfers in the 1980s, winning his first contest in 1983. Today he runs the Paskowitz Surf Camp as well as Surfers Healing, a non-profit camp that teaches autistic children how to surf. “Israel is such a magic place to me,” expressed Issy in a recent interview. “My father took us there many times and I lived there for a year before I married Danielle,” who is the executive administrator of the Surf Camp. “We have many Israeli surfers that visit us here in San Diego,” says Issy, who also plans to conduct surf camps for autistic children in Israel.

Swell Place

Topsy’s younger son, Orian Kancepolsky runs a surfing camp and surfing center at Atarim Square opposite the Tel Aviv marina. Not surprisingly he calls it ‘Topsea’ – a play on words, named after his father ‘Topsy’.

“My father was such an influence on my life. I started surfing the same time I started walking and while it’s always been my sport, today it’s also my business,” he says.

While the Tel Aviv coast boasts several choice spots, Orian says he surfs mainly at Hilton Beach, “Undoubtedly the best surf in Israel, ask any of the pros.”

Why is that?

“Because it has a natural reef. It’s probably the only beach in Israel where the waves break on the reef and not the sand. This creates a wave that’s hollow, allowing the surfer to ride what we call ‘the tube’.”

Are the waves bigger?

“No, the size is average but it’s the quality of the wave. Also, it caters for all types of surfers. It’s a long wave where the center is excellent for the professionals while either ends, because of the jetties, impedes the pace of the wave and so is ideal for beginners.”

A regular at Hilton Beach is former lifesaver Amir, the son of the late legendary Israeli songwriter and singer Arik Einstein. “I grew up in the area and have been surfing here since the age of twelve”.

In his opinion “it’s the finest surfing beach along the entire coastline of Israel.” He offers the same explanation as Orian that “the reef creates the best swell and hence the best rides.”

“Did your father surf?”

Nope, but then I don’t sing and play guitar.”

Same Wave’length In Gaza

“At Basle,” Theodore Herzl wrote in 1897, “I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. If not in 5 years, certainly in 50, everyone will know it.” Well, some 50 years later there would not only be a Jewish state, but young Israelis would start surfing off Tel Aviv beach with the Star of David on Dorian ‘Doc’ Paskowitz’s surfboards. Zionism was quite literally riding the crest of a wave.

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Surfing in Gaza. Palestinian colours adorn this surfboard off the coast of Gaza.

A little over another half century later, Doc would again find the need to bring surfboards to this neck of the coast. Except this time not for Israelis but for Palestinians!

In August 2007, he delivered twelve surfboards to Gaza after watching a television program in the United States which showed Gazans using broken surf boards because they were unable to buy new ones.

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Common Ground On The Water. At the Gaza Surf Club, a group of young Palestinians together with older Israelis are defying stereotypes and finding common ground through surfing. Many of the boards used were originally donated by Israelis who believe that surfing transcends national and religious barriers. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Paskowitz launched the “Surfing for Peace” project together with the “One Voice” organization which aimed to help Israelis and Palestinians promote peace. “Surfers are ambassadors of health and well-being and they are also men of peace,” Paskowitz said.

Palestinian surfer Ahmad Abu Hussaili and others managed to meet Paskowitz, his son David, and other delegation members inside the Erez Crossing terminal building, where they had a chance to thank them for the boards. The Paskowitzes emerged from the meeting at the main civilian crossing point between the two territories bare-chested, after also presenting their T-shirts to the Gazan surfers. One Voice’s Gaza representative, Moffak Alami, said surfing was “a way to build bridges between people who speak the same language.”

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New Wave. Swell off Gaza’s coast augers well for the growth of surfing.

After all, however dire the situation, in the words of The Beach Boys,

“Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world”




*Title picture: Roni Eshel (Courtesy)

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