Surf, suits and sailing — Jews making waves on the waterfront


As the summer heats up and we head for the beach to tan, swim or just cool off, we might ask: Has the Pacific coastline always been such a splashy draw for Los Angeles Jews?

In Venice, Jews have worshipped at Mishkon Tephilo since its formal founding in 1918, and on Ocean Front Walk at Temple Beth Yehuda (built in 1940), which closed in the early 1970s. But for the rest of us, aside from using the shore on Rosh Hashanah as a place to toss our sins away at tashlich, how have we given a Jewish touch to all that vaser?

For starters, let’s give the swimsuit a try-on.

Frederick (Fred) Cole (1901-1964), who changed his name from Cohn, was an actor in such silent films as “The Dangerous Blond” and “Two-Fisted Jones.” Nudged by family members to get into something more stable, he didn’t have to look far.

In the 1890s, his father, Morris Cohn, and mother, Edith, had established in downtown Los Angeles one of the city’s first clothing manufacturing firms, West Coast Manchester Knitting Mills, which was a maker of men’s long knit underwear.

In 1925, Fred convinced them to start making swimsuits as well. Capitalizing on the allure of Hollywood glamour — one of his first suits was called the “prohibition suit” because it was so revealing — by 1941 the line had become so successful that Cole changed the name of the company to Cole of California.

Cole of California magazine ad, April 1948 (Michael and Benjamin Levin)

According to Elizabeth A. Greenburg, the author of the entry on fashion in the Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture, Cole’s company, which reflected the Southern California lifestyle, “transformed women’s swimwear through important innovations,” including in the 1920s “the lower back and defined bust”; in the 1930s, Matletex, “Cole’s exclusive process of stitching rubberized thread through fabric” (which helped achieve a close fit); and, the 1940s, the two-piece “Swoon suit.”  The latter “laced up the sides of the trunk and featured a tie-bra,” wrote Greenburg, who was one of the curators for the Yeshiva University Museum show “A Perfect Fit: The Garment Industry and American Jewry, 1860-1960.”

Less famous, but creating his own wave in swimwear, was Harvey Cooper (1907-2004), whose company Maxine of Hollywood, after World War II, produced suits that fit the average woman and were sold nationally at Sears, Montgomery Wards and Macy’s.

“He followed the trends,” said Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Association.

“He had a devoted group of employees,” Metchek recalled. “He was a bon vivant, a joy to be around, unless you crossed him,” she added. “Also a good dancer,” said Metchek, who, beginning in the early 1960s, worked for Catalina, a leading Los Angeles swimwear and sportswear company.

So now that you are stylishly attired, it’s time to set sail.

In 1952, “five Jewish men,” Louis J. Rosenkranz, Charles E. Leveson, John R. Sahanow, Joseph Weiss and William C. Stein, “got together and said we’re going to make a yacht club,” said Susan Artof, who has been a member of the Del Rey Yacht Club in Marina del Rey since the mid-1970s.

Jason and Veronica Artof – May 6, 2007

“They were not allowed to join any other yacht clubs,” said Artof, who, along with her husband, Paul, owns a 42-foot sailboat. “Joe Weiss wanted to enter the Ensenada [sailboat] race and was told that he couldn’t. He needed to belong to a recognized club, and it seems no one would take him,” Artof said.

By 1953, Weiss and the other four founders had signed up enough additional members to satisfy the Southern California Yachting Association membership requirement of 25 and were able to enter the race.

After meeting in “people’s living rooms and restaurants,” they opened their first club building in Marina del Rey in 1964, said Artof, who confided that the only boat her grandparents were on “was the one coming over from Europe.”

In its early years, the club’s membership was 80 to 95 percent Jewish. Today, “it’s more like over 60 percent,” said Artof, whose son had his wedding at the club and used his boat instead of a car to make his reception getaway.

Over the course of the club’s history, the members have shared seders, Rosh Hashanah dinners, and hosted an annual Federation fundraiser, as well as bar and bat mitzvahs. Some club members have a mezuzah on their boat, and there’s even a weekly Yiddish class.

Not all their sea-faring neighbors have been happy about the presence of a Jewish yacht club, however.

According to Artof, it was not until 1990 that the Newport Harbor Yacht Club, established in 1916, granted reciprocal privileges with them, something other clubs, including the California Yacht Club (their neighbor) had done earlier, said Artof.

On other occasions, she also has heard that the phrase “bagel bay” has been used in reference to her club.

“We’re haimish, there’s a friendly, open Jewish flavor,” said Artof. “There’s not as much drinking here. At the bar, we sell a lot of seltzer,” she added.

 Finally, for Jews not content to sail the waves, there is surfing.

According to author and surf journalist Paul Holmes, several Jews have figured prominently in California’s surfing scene, including Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz (born in 1921), a doctor who left his practice and founded California’s first surfing school in the early 1970s, and Nachum Shifren (born in 1951), who grew up in the San Fernando Valley to become a Chasidic surfing rabbi. Then, there’s Gidget.

Cowabunga!

The fictional character Gidget (short for “girl midget”) was based on Kathy Kohner, a Jewish 15-year-old, the daughter of a Czech-born Jewish refugee screenwriter, Frederick Kohner, who lived in Brentwood.  As reported in the Jewish Journal, in 1956 Kohner’s daughter was hanging out with a bunch of Malibu surfers and came home speaking their lingo. Seeing an opportunity, her father converted his daughter’s name to Francis Lawrence and wrote a novel titled “Gidget.” Thus, an American surfing fad was born.

A more recent legend on the Southern California surfing scene is Joseph Wolfson. Known especially in Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach as “Dr. 360,” for his ability to completely spin around while riding a big wave, Wolfson was one of the pioneers of body boarding and a winner in national and international competitions both in that sport and body surfing.

Wolfson, who lived in Manhattan Beach and was known simply as “Wolfie,” would get up by 6 a.m. and “howl his way to the surf at Marine [Avenue],” his sister, Paula Ethel Wolfson wrote in an email. “He would also howl his way back.”

“He began body surfing and fell in love with belly boarding before the invention of the modern-day boogie boards,” she added. “He and friends split surf boards in half,” she wrote.

At 13, Wolfson, who was born in Brooklyn in 1949, had a “cultural” bar mitzvah at the Long Beach Jewish Community Center,” Wolfson recalled.

“He worked full time” as the parks and recreational director of the City of Carson, and “was in the water most every day.”

“He would sit on a board and spin three, four or five times across the face of a wave,” Kevin Cody wrote in the South Bay’s Easy Reader.

In 1998, Wolfson was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and quietly began giving away his savings as well as his car and home in Mexico, “Casa de 360,” to those who could use them.

One night, according to reports, Wolfson, intending to end things, left behind a note and $5,000 for a party, then paddled out and tied himself to a buoy and went to sleep. Found the next morning by a lifeguard, he was just barely alive. Three days later, when he was released from the hospital, he grew concerned about the impression his suicide attempt might make on children. He had been a teacher of water safety, and after the attempt, many children had sent him letters, writing of his positive influence. Wolfson decided to live on and catch a few more waves.

The incident received national attention on TV’s “20/20” and “Prime Time Live,” and his legend grew. However, in 2000, he died at age 50, when his car veered off the Marina Freeway, went down an embankment and hit a tree.

He called himself the “Aquatics Peter Pan,” his sister said.

A plaque placed by Wolfson’s friends in front of the lifeguard station at Marine Avenue in Hermosa Beach reads, “Married to the Sea. A true Waterman. AAAHHOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!”

Actress Bonnie Franklin dies of pancreatic cancer at 69


Actress and humanitarian Bonnie Franklin, died at her home on March 1 due to complications from pancreatic cancer. She was 69.

Best known for her role as Ann Romano on the long-running hit CBS series “One Day at a Time,” Franklin helped define the role of single working mothers on television at a time when divorce rates were climbing.

Born Jan. 6, 1944, in Santa Monica, Franklin’s career spanned more than 60 years, making her television debut at 9 on the “Colgate Comedy Hour” and continuing as a young teen on such television shows as “Gidget,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and “The Munsters,” among others.

Franklin graduated from Beverly Hills High School and briefly attended Smith College before transferring to UCLA, where she graduated with a bachelor’s in English in 1966. Franklin married playwright Ronald Sossi in 1967, but the couple divorced in 1970. Franklin returned to acting that same year, making her Broadway debut in the musical “Applause,” in which she sang the title song and received a Tony Award nomination.

Her career flourished after landing the starring role in Normal Lear’s “One Day at a Time,” earning multiple Golden Globe and Emmy Award nominations during its nine-season run from 1975 to 1984.

While working on the series, Franklin found time for other projects, including returning to the stage and touring with an autobiographical cabaret act in the early 1980s. She also starred in several television movies, most notably as the women’s health advocate Margaret Sanger in the 1980 telefilm, “Portrait of a Rebel: The Remarkable Mrs. Sanger,” which was produced by Marvin Minoff. Franklin married Minoff in 1980, and the couple was together for 29 years until his death in November 2009.

Franklin was a devoted and longtime activist for a wide range of charities and civic-oriented issues, among them AIDS care and research and the Stroke Association of Southern California. In 2001, along with her sister Judy Bush, she founded the nonprofit organization CCAP (Classic and Contemporary American Plays). Partnering with the Los Angeles Unified School District, CCAP introduces and implements great American plays into inner-city schools’ curriculum.

Franklin is survived by mother Claire; stepdaughter Julie (Glenn Mar) Minoff; stepson Jed (Madoka) Minoff; 2 grandchildren; sisters Victoria (Arnold) Kupetz, Judith (Michael) Bush; brothers Bernard (Judy) Franklin, Richard (Stephanie) Franklin.

Donations can be made to CCAP (c-c-a-p.org), 11684 Ventura Blvd., Suite 437, Studio City, CA 91604

Jew at the ‘Bu


In June 1956, Kathy Kohner, a Jewish girl from Brentwood, began tagging along with some of the neighborhood boys driving out to Malibu. The new sport of surfing intrigued her, and she convinced the boys to teach her. Because she was young, slight and a girl, the surfers took to calling her “Gidget,” short for girl midget.

The story is true. Gidget is real, and she’s Jewish.

The Laguna Art Museum’s current exhibit, “Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing,” examines the impact of the culture that developed on those beaches with the works of artists who surf and surfers who make art. As with their 1993 hot rod exhibit, “Kustom Kulture,” the Laguna Art Museum takes a serious look at the art and the impact of Southern California surf culture; a wave that swelled and broke over America in the ’60s when Gidget hit the screen.

Whether they admit it — or like it — surfers and artists have been influenced by Kathy Kohner (now Kathy Kohner Zuckerman). Gidget not only learned to surf, but she also talked all about the goings-on at “the ‘Bu” to her screenwriter father, Frederick Kohner, a Czech-born Nazi refugee who came to Los Angeles in 1933. Frederick Kohner, who co-wrote the 1938 Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Mad About Music,” wrote the novel “Gidget” in 1957 based on his daughter’s experiences and the new surfer lingo she brought home from the beach. That book inspired the first of many Gidget movies in 1959, starring decidedly non-Jewish sweetheart Sandra Dee. Those movies spawned three separate TV series, the first introducing Sally Field as everybody’s favorite little surfer girl.

In 1964, when Kathy Kohner married Yiddish scholar Marvin Zuckerman (who recently retired as Los Angeles Valley College dean of academic affairs), her fictional namesake had already gone to Hawaii and Rome. Now a 61-year-old grandmother, Gidget is an honorary member of the Malibu Surfing Association and still occasionally gets out in the waves.

On Sept. 29, the museum presents “All About Gidget,” a discussion with Kathy Kohner Zuckerman (that’s Gidget to you) and journalist Deanne Stillman.

Stillman, a sometime surfer herself (“I can often be spotted hanging 20,” she jokes), had not realized Gidget was a real person until she took a job writing for the 1986 revival TV series “The New Gidget.” The Laguna Art Museum exhibit is accompanied by a 240-page, full-color book that includes Stillman’s essay “The Real Gidget.”

As surf culture became more heavily commercialized in the 1980s, Stillman discovered that the original “Gidget” book had gone out of print. The journalist and author (“Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave”) campaigned for its re-release; it was published in June 2001 with Stillman’s introduction and has already sold through its initial printing. “I realized what a lost treasure the book is,” Stillman says. “The real Gidget is a cultural treasure, and the book is like a message in a bottle.”

In Laguna, they are taking that message out of the bottle and hanging it on the walls.

“Surf Culture: The Art and History of Surfing” runs
through Oct. 6 at Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. On Sept. 29,
5 p.m., Kathy Kohner Zuckerman and Deanne Stillman talk “All About Gidget” at
the museum. For more information, call (949) 494-6531 or visit www.lagunaartmuseum.org .

The Real Gidget


In June 1956, a Jewish 15-year-old girl named Kathy Kohner began tagging along with some of the neighborhood boys and driving out from her Brentwood home to the beach in Malibu. The sport of surfing intrigued her, and she convinced the boys to teach her. Because she was young, slight and a girl, the surfer dudes took to calling her "Gidget," short for "girl midget."

When she told her screenwriter dad, Frederick Kohner, a Czech-born refugee who fled from the Nazis, about the goings on, he wrote the 1957 novel, "Gidget," featuring the lingo and subculture she brought home from the beach.

The Laguna Art Museum’s current exhibit, "Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing," examines the impact of that subculture; it’s accompanied by a 240-page book that includes an essay, "The Real Gidget," by author Deanne Stillman. Stillman and Gidget (now Kathy Kohner Zuckerman) will appear at the museum Sept. 29 for an "All About Gidget" discussion.

The little Jewish surfer girl is still a pop culture icon. The novel inspired the first of many Gidget movies in 1959, starring Sandra Dee, then spawned two TV series, the first introducing a teenage Sally Field, as well as four TV movies.

When Kohner married Marvin Zuckerman, a Yiddish scholar (now a recently retired Los Angeles Valley College dean) in 1964, her fictional namesake had already gone to Hawaii and Rome. Now a 61-year-old grandmother, Gidget is an honorary member of the Malibu Surfing Association and still occasionally hangs ten.

Stillman, a sometime surfer, didn’t realize Gidget was a real person until she took a job writing for the 1980s TV series, "The New Gidget." As surf culture became more heavily commercialized in the mid-’80s, Stillman discovered the original "Gidget" book was out of print and campaigned for its re-release. In June 2001, the novel again hit bookstores, with an introduction by Stillman. "The real Gidget is a cultural treasure, and the book is like a message in a bottle," she says.

The museum is located at 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. For information about the discussion and the exhibit, which runs through Oct. 6, call (949) 494-6531.