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Shmoozin' with Makua Kai Rothman A Jewish-Hawaiian Professional Surfer

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of JVibe, the magazine for Jewish teens. Reprinted by permission.

Makua shows us you can be anything you set your mind to. Even a Jewish-Hawaiian pro surfer.

Twenty-three-year-old surfer Makua Kai Rothman was one of the most challenging people ever with whom to procure an interview. And not because he's too cool. I was warned that he's shy and doesn't enjoy the spotlight, but after being prepped by his dad--legendary founder of Da Hui surf club--I spoke to Makua, who seemed glad for the distraction. So why did I call him at 8 a.m. on a Sunday? Where he was, it was already afternoon, and he was just getting off the water. While Makua kicked back before his competition, we talked about his unconventional childhood on Hawaii's North Shore of Oahu, his parents and living up to the title of the best Jewish surfer in the world.

Behind The Scenes

Where are you right now?

I'm in Scotland for the O'Neill Highland Open.

Are you on the beach at this very moment?

No, I just got back to my place.

I spoke to your dad before I spoke to you. Normally we go through publicists and agents, but you were pretty hard to track down. Why is it that you're not trying to get in the spotlight?

On the islands, we like to be low-key. I don't like to be in front of advertisers. I'll just be the guy behind the scenes, pulling the strings.

Makua Kai Rothman
Makua is propelled through the air by a wave. Ho New/Reuters.

How does it feel to be considered the best Jewish surfer in the world?

It's good, but I don't know if I really am. I finally got to go to Israel [recently] to experience where my people came from. I got to see Jerusalem. It was a pretty good feeling. I really want to go back and spend more time there.

I read that you were there with some of the Paskowitz family to donate surfboards to Palestinian surfers.

Actually, they went over there before me, and I came over for Surfing for Peace. We took all the kids, Jewish kids and Palestinian kids, and we brought them together and took them surfing. When we were surfing, they kind of forgot about the whole weird vibe between them. They were just so happy--high-fiving and having such a good time. When they first got there, they were tripping like, "What are we really doing here?"

Is it true that you wrote a song and performed it in Tel Aviv?

Yeah, I wrote a song. Actually, me and David Paskowitz [co-founder of Surfing for Peace]--he helped me write a song and record it and everything. And we went to Israel and played it onstage with all these people.

So how was the surfing in Israel compared to the other places you've surfed?

It wasn't really the time of year for waves there, so they were kind of small, but I could see that it has the potential to have some of the best waves around.

Island Time

Your mom is Hawaiian and your dad is Jewish. What was that like growing up in Hawaii?

It was fine. My dad was [in Hawaii] for a long time, and my mom's been there her whole life, so it wasn't really hard growing up there. There are a lot of people who don't have brown skin that had a little harder time than I did, but it was a dream come true. I couldn't ask to grow up in a better place, that's for sure.

Was there a favorite holiday that you celebrated when you were younger? Did you have any Jewish rituals?

Yeah, Hanukkah. I didn't really get to do all that Jewish stuff when I was young. It was kind of a bummer until now, when I can go [to Israel] and experience it. I've got one of those things on my door outside my house.

A mezuzah?

Yup.

Were there any other Jewish people around growing up? Are there many Jews in Hawaii?

There are a few. Our friends would come over--a bunch of people who are all surfers from Israel. But as for people who live there, I don't think there are too many. It's kind of unusual for Jews to be in Hawaii. We're kind of the only ones on the North Shore.

Your father was one of the founders of Da Hui surf club. What was it like to grow up with a dad who's so respected in the surfing world?

It was good. Like I said, it was a little easier for me than it was for everybody else.

Carving A Path

Who were your role models in surfing growing up?

There's Johnny Boy Gomes, Sunny Garcia, Dane Kealoha, Kealoha Kaeo, the first guy to do a bottom turn at Sunset Beach. My dad, of course, and my uncles. I looked up to pretty much everybody around me. I try to take a little from each of them and put it into my own style.

It seems like you were surfing bigger waves than anybody else your age when you were only 12. How did you get the courage to do that?

To tell you the truth, when I was younger I was fat, so I didn't really go too fast on smaller waves. I always surfed just a little bit bigger waves so they could push me and I could get more speed and have more fun, so it just kind of went from there. I was always seeing the guys on the biggest waves. I just took a few steps in that direction and ended up at the top at a young age. It felt pretty good to do that.

Do you have any advice for teens who want to surf competitively or do any sport competitively?

Don't get discouraged by anything. Anything is possible if you put your mind, heart and soul into it. Don't let them tell you that you can't. Just try your best--you'll know if you're giving 110 percent. Don't give 80 and say you're doing 100, because that's not going to work. Just have the best time you can because that's what life's all about.

In 2002, you surfed the biggest wave of the year. How big was it?

It was 66 feet, but some people say it was bigger and that I should have gotten more money, but whatever. I took what I got--$66,000--and that was good enough for me in high school.

I would say so. You have asthma, so have you ever had a scary experience with that?

Just the other day, I thought I was going to drown in a two-foot wave because I couldn't breathe. I was just trying to tell myself, "Breathe, breathe, breathe. Keep going. You know how to do it. Even if it feels like those breaths aren't getting anywhere, just breathe because they're working."

That's pretty scary.

Yeah, I was hurting.

So what inspires you to go out there every time and give it your all?

Just my love for surfing. I just love to surf! And the waves over here the last few days are freezing cold, but somehow I've still got that itch to be like, "Wow, I want to go surfing."

Where else have you been recently?

Well, I came from Hawaii, went to Australia for a contest and then to South Africa and Scotland. Then I go to Las Vegas for the Monster Energy-SuperCross party at the Palms. And then I go home.

How much time are you spending at home versus traveling and working?

I'd say probably 60/40. Sixty percent at home and 40 traveling.

Work Hard, Play Hard

Do you ever get to take time to be a normal 23-year-old?

I don't know what a normal 23-year-old does, but I have a lot of fun. Right now, I'm just kicking back with friends, having a good time. That's what it's about.

Work hard, play hard.

Work hard, play hard. Don't spend too much money.

This interview is going into our Love/Sex issue, so I have to ask some questions…

Yeah, I need some Jewish love.

What are the pros of dating a Jewish girl?

I have no idea. I never have. I'm waiting to find out!

Does being a successful surfer help your dating life?

I guess a little bit.

Our female readers are waiting for this one--do you have a girlfriend?

I had one. It's kind of on the rocks right now. If you're not having a good time and enjoying each other, then there's no sense wasting time. Go and find somebody who's going to make you happy.

Home Turf

I just saw the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall. They filmed it all in Hawaii.

My uncles must have done all the production because they're the ones who do all the movies that come to Hawaii. They do all the water safety and stunt coordinating. I was in a movie once when I was like 4 years old. It was the movie North Shore.

I was there once, but I didn't surf.

Why not? You can't come here and not surf!

It's scary out there! Those waves are big.

My uncle Brian runs the best surf school ever. Tell everybody in this magazine. If you come to Hawaii, look up Sunset Sarath Surf School, and he'll take care of you.

Next time.

For sure. I need to go back to Israel. I need to go back for the launch of this magazine issue! You guys can throw a party for it.

Sounds good.

You guys have to make it happen. I just have to show up.

We'll see what we can do!

LINDSEY is planning a JVibe issue release party in Israel for Makua. It may not happen until 2015. In the meantime, she'd like to profusely thank those who made this interview possible: Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, Izzy Paskowitz, Eddie Rothman and Isaiah Truyman.

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "doorpost," it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed.
Lindsey Silken

Lindsey Silken is the editorial director of InterfaithFamily and lives in Brookline, MA, with her fiancé.

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