Kowabunga! Chosen People Also Ride Waves

You probably don't think of surfing as a Jewish sport, but Members of the Tribe have been involved in winning the world championship, designing the boards, and of course writing about it.

Every so often, passersby shoot Shaun Tomson a sideways glance. It’s a foggy, Santa Monica weekday morning, and Tomson – about six feet tall with tousled dark hair and a deep tan – walks down the street in jeans and a casual button-down shirt. You could be forgiven for thinking the 58-year-old is another tech entrepreneur, Hollywood producer or actor. As it turns out, he is all of those things, to one degree or another, but that’s not why people stop to look. They look because Tomson is one of the most influential surfers of all time.

In the early 1970s, there was really no such thing as a pro surfer. By the end of that decade, not only was there an organized, international pro tour and it was possible to make a living from surfing, but the basis of what would become today’s multibillion-dollar surfing industry had been fully formed. It was the talent, bravado, resolve and vision of a group of South African and Australian surfers who first traveled to Hawaii in 1974 that changed the sport during those years. One of them was Shaun Tomson, who would go on to become world champion in 1977.

He does not constantly use the word “dude,” he is not flaky, and he was not wearing board shorts when he gave Haaretz an interview at a cafe four blocks from the ocean, yet Tomson was the face of surfing during those crucial, formative years, with aggressive maneuvers in the water and a professional, media-friendly presence on the beach. Tomson’s career in the water was always about challenging expectations of what it means to be a surfer, and not just because he is Jewish.

Tomson, who has been inducted into the international Surfers Hall of Fame, the South African Sports Hall of Fame and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, learned to ride waves off the coast of his hometown, Durban, South Africa. His father was an Olympic-level swimmer before a vicious shark attack caused irreparable damage to his arm. Still, Tomson said, his father never lost his love for the ocean. Besides teaching him how to swim and love the ocean, Tomson’s father was also to provide him with an example of how to confront tragedy – something Shaun was to face later in his life.

Anat Leilor. Photo by Roi Kopler

Not that it was ever easy. In 1974, Tomson and his crew, which included his cousin Michael Tomson and Aussies Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, Mark Richards, Peter Townend and Ian Cairns, had to battle Hawaiian waves of consequence while scrapping to get invited to the local prestigious tournaments, in the hope of getting some kind of recognition. By the following year, once their aggressive brand of surfing had gotten them noticed, the invites and wins came easier, as did the media coverage.

Seeking to make names for themselves and bring awareness to their sport, many of Tomson’s comrades made brash, attention-seeking statements in the media, elevating themselves at the expense of local Hawaiians. Things came to a head the following winter when the Aussies and South Africans faced beatings and even fatwa-esque death threats. It took a highly respected local waterman, Eddie Aikau, to broker a peace deal.

Razor-sharp reefs

Recounting the time, and the people involved, Tomson’s relaxed South African accent contrasts with the evident intensity he has when it comes to surfing or any of the subsequent business ventures he has undertaken. It is the kind of intensity and conviction that drives a man to make the multi-story, almost vertical drop into waves that break over the shallow, razor-sharp reefs where Tomson initially made his name. More than that, it is contagious. This author, in fact, has been convinced to paddle into sizable California waves that he otherwise would not have, under the sway of Tomson’s contagious enthusiasm.

“As a professional surfer and later in life with other projects, I always felt that one of my fundamental purposes was to inspire people, about surfing, about the passion that I had for the ocean. I loved what I was doing and I just thought I could inspire others to do the same. Maybe their passion wouldn’t be the ocean – but to live a life of passion,” Tomson said.

This outlook has led to his continued influence in the surfing community as well as in fields as diverse as entertainment, apparel and public speaking. Yet, the direction and purpose in his life all shifted one day in 2006. It was then that his 15-year-old son Mathew lost his life in an accident while at school in South Africa. Though Tomson was not raised in an especially observant family, one of the ways he sought healing was through Judaism.

Anat Leilor. Photo by Roi Kopler

“Especially when my son died, I would sit in shul and look at the ner tamid [eternal flame] above the Torah. It’s like the light of your heart and the light of your soul, which will never go out. That gave me the courage and hope to continue with my life. To me, Judaism has always represented that fire, that light and hope,” he said. “To always have hope, no matter what.”

Tomson now regards his main purpose in life as using the lessons he has learned through his suffering to help others – through speaking tours and books. He takes his message of passion, hope and the importance of making good choices to approximately 100,000 kids a year around the world, as well as to some of the largest corporations, including General Motors, Cisco and The Gap. Concurrent with this mission, he is also planning a re-launch of Solitude, the clothing label he started, sold in a multimillion-dollar deal and recently bought back.

A few hours before his unexpected death, Mathew called his father and shared a story he wrote. In it, he reflected on what it is like to be “inside the tube,” under the lip of a wave, which is what Shaun Tomson was known for as a surfer. “The light shines ahead,” wrote Mathew Tomson.

The elder Tomson recounts this story, noting that what his son described “is not just a reflection on the journey one has inside the tube, but also on life... ‘the light shines ahead.’ Hope. That’s become a touchstone for me in my life... It connects back to the essence of Judaism, of hope.”

Tomson’s most recent book, “The Code,” is an attempt to connect with youth and inspire them to recognize the importance of the choices they make. “What we choose defines us,” he said.

Tomson’s influence in the surfing community extends to Israel as well. In 1983, he was invited as a guest of honor to a competition held at Tel Aviv’s Hilton beach.

Anat Leilor. Photo by Roi Kopler

“It was one of the great experiences of my life, being part of the first surf contest ever in Israel,” he said, vividly recalling his performance during an exhibition. “I remember on the last wave doing a backhand 360,” he says, referring to a particularly challenging maneuver, “and just jamming it and the crowd went crazy. I felt like a rock star. They were so wonderful to me, that spirit and commonality.”

Three decades later, Israel has developed its own distinct surfing culture as well as native surfing stars. At 14, Anat Lelior of Tel Aviv is one of the most promising. She has managed to hone her skills to an internationally competitive level, despite the challenge of training under less-than-ideal surfing conditions. “We don’t have many waves in Israel,” she noted.

Her training ground, the Mediterranean, has too small a surface area to produce waves with the power and shape that characterize the waves of other ocean coasts. Lelior, who won the Red Bull Coco Nogales (Mexico) Surf Challenge in 2013, as well as the 2012 Israeli championship for women, calls the sea “the best school there is in the world,” since it teaches patience, perseverance and confidence.

Historical oddity

In an oddity of surfing history, the first mainstream surfing celebrity was probably a fictional character: Gidget. That was the name of the 1957 novel that led to sequels, multiple movies and a TV series starring Sally Field, all of them about the adventures of a teenage girl and her surfing friends, on the beach in Malibu. It was “Gidget,” in its various forms, that introduced the Southern California surf culture to the world.

The book was written by an Austro-Hungarian Jewish refugee, the novelist and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Frederick Kohner, who based the story on the real-life experiences and diary of his own teenage daughter, Kathy.

Roni Eshel. Photo courtesy of Roni Eshel

“In 1956, when I started surfing I was the only girl who surfed in my high school. One guy wrote in my yearbook, ‘Good luck with your waterskiing.’ They didn’t even know what it was,” recalled Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, now 73, in a recent interview in her Los Angeles home.

Zuckerman got into surfing after spending time with her family in Europe, where, ironically, her father found work after World War II. Upon her return, she did not fit in with the cliques in her school and instead spent her spare time in the ocean.

“I didn’t relate anymore to my peer group, because I’d been out in the ‘big world,’ so I think the surfing thing perhaps was an extension of wanting to continue being that outsider,” she said. “I had to conquer the waves, I didn’t have to conquer the chitchat among the other girls. Malibu was an escape from troubles,” she recalled.

Spending her summer weekends in Malibu during the emergence of what would become the epicenter of surf culture, Zuckerman was part of a new lifestyle that came complete with its own slang and included words like “stoked,” “jazzed” and “fiasco.”

“It was my idea to write the story. I was 15 and saw an unusual community, way off dead center. What were they doing? They were riding waves. Surf culture to me was a new thing,” she said.

Her father evidently agreed, and completed the novel “Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas” (the name was a portmanteau of girl and midget, and Kathy’s real nickname) within a few weeks.

Shaun Tomson. Photo by Dan Merkel

Jews have also shaped the sport in other ways – in the case of Mark Price, literally, through innovations in the form of surfboards. As CEO of Firewire Surfboards, Price, a former pro surfer, helped create boards that have the ability to flex and bend more than most previous models. Once, surfers had to decide between a sharp turning radius and speed, but with the advent of Firewire boards, they no longer have to make such a stark compromise. The boards are used in top competitions by some of the world’s highest-ranked professional surfers, such as Aussie Sally Fitzgibbons and Tahitian Michel Bourez. “The shape of the modern surfboard has changed dramatically and performance has improved as a result,” said Price, a native of Durban.

Online presence

Other Jewish entrepreneurs have found ways to combine both worlds of surfing – the tangible and the digital.

Zach Weisberg, a native of Virginia, grew up surfing during summers in North Carolina, where, he said, he was “pretty sure my brother and I were the only Jewish surfers around.” He went on to study and wrestle at Duke University, before becoming a writer for leading surfing and general publications, including Surfer Magazine, The New York Times and Esquire magazine.

After recognizing the opportunity inherent in online content, and with a freshly minted University of Southern California MBA, Weisberg launched a surfing website, The Inertia (http://www.theinertia.com/).

He made this move after recognizing that major surf publications were neglecting their online presence, thus creating an opportunity for a new website to enter the scene and shake it up, with a more diverse array of voices and opinions.

“The Inertia started out as a voice for the disenfranchised. I started it angry. It was my chance to write about anything I wanted, and encourage others to do it also, to give a voice to them,” said Weisberg, 29, at a cafe near his website’s headquarters in Venice, California.

His decision to start The Inertia was further validated after a 2009 incident in which Australian surfer Mick Fanning, then the reigning world champion, called a (non-Jewish) reporter a “f-----g Jew,” in a comment that he later explained was meant to be ironic. He issued a formal apology.

In the wake of this, Weisberg wrote an editorial for Surfer Magazine condemning the statement and calling for more diversity in surfing. His piece spurred a flurry of comments and discussions, but his editors forced him to take it down, he says, in the face of pressure from unnamed outside sources.

Shaun Tomson, in recalling this incident, sees it as part of a larger problem in surf media, which he called “gutless” for its failure to cover this and other controversial issues, presumably due to the considerations of advertisers and large surf industry companies.

“My site is a more accurate composite of what is going on in the world of surfing, and it’s not exclusively representative of the surf industry in Orange County [California], because that’s a different thing than the world of people who surf,” said Weisberg.

His site has over 1,000 contributors, and features content from some of surfing’s leading talents, as well as from amateur surfers throughout the world. Weisberg hopes to eventually extend his model to other action sports, such as skateboarding, snowboarding, mountain climbing and mountain biking as well.

From ballet to boards

Roni Eshel, a former Israeli female surf champion, is also making headway within the digital world of surfing, with an app called goFlow, which enables surfers to share surf conditions with one another. Eshel, 30, first learned how to surf at the beaches near her hometown of Herzliya.

“I had a background in ballet, but all of the guys were surfing. The second I got a board, which was a very old board... I started to surf. I didn’t know the rules or how to do it, but instead of going to school I told the bus driver, ‘take me to the beach,’” she said.

“‘Girls don’t surf,’” Eshel recalls being told. “So I said, ‘Well I’m going to surf.’” She largely taught herself.

After serving in the Israel Air Force and surfing in competitions throughout the world, Eshel moved to Los Angeles about two years ago and started goFlow in partnership with Ian Walsh, a top big wave surfer. Having just closed their first round of seed financing, Eshel is optimistic about the future and hopes to revolutionize the way surfers learn about surf conditions.

Despite Eshel’s experiences at choice surf breaks throughout the world, she still has a special connection to Israel’s (frequently blown-out and small) waves.

“Nothing beats the feeling when you surf your home break in Israel,” she said. “You step into the water and you feel it’s yours, you own it. It’s such a strong feeling, it’s very spiritual.”