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.


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!!”