Israel Agasi

My Story...

When I was a young man in Israel, I had never even heard of Winnipeg. Today, I consider myself to be a great ambassador of the city. It is a good place to live and we are fortunate to have such a wonderful Jewish community.

I was born in 1940 in Ramat Gan, before Israel’s statehood was declared. My parents came in the 1920s to help build the land and fulfill the Zionist dream. My father, Pinchas, came from Russia; my mother, Sarah Landau, came from Poland. I suspect that my parents’ marriage was an arranged one, as my grandparents on both sides were very traditional people.

My parents were among the founders of Ramat Gan and my brother Zev still lives there. I also had a sister, Chava, who passed away in 2005. My parents were resourceful, wonderful people and my father worked at a local slaughterhouse.

I have many memories from early childhood. I remember throwing oranges and tomatoes at the British tanks that patrolled the towns before 1948. My friends and I would laugh as the soldiers had trouble manoeuvring their huge tanks through the narrow streets. We had many Arab neighbours and got along very well with them.

In May of 1948, when the State of Israel was declared, I recall joyous singing and dancing in the streets and remember watching a military parade with a very sparse array of equipment. And I vividly recall hearing groups of soldiers of the new Israel speaking in a variety of languages. It’s a memory that still makes me proud.

Upon the declaration of statehood, the neighbouring Arab countries attacked. The War of Independence brought great fear. We spent a great deal of time in bomb shelters and in the dark. Our apartment building and our school were heavily fortified with sandbags. I remember one incident where the Egyptian army targeted our school, mistaking the flagpole on the building for a cannon. Fortunately, they missed.

As the war ended, the job of building the country resumed, and my childhood became more normal and peaceful. It was a simple and beautiful life. I went to school, played with my friends, joined the Tzofeem (Boy Scouts), and developed a passion for basketball. In fact, I played on Israel’s national team from 1958 to 1964. We did not travel much, but we hosted teams from Europe.

I served in the Israel Defense Forces for two-and-a-half years and then went to trade school to learn diesel mechanics. It was honourable work because we were building a country. We needed people who could build things, fix things, and move things as a desert landscape took shape as a modern, successful country.

At one point, I took a job as driver with a travel agency affiliated with the Histadrut. It was then that I met a young Canadian working at the agency. I asked Audrey Weinstein to join me as I drove the Givatron singing group from Kibbutz Geva to Tel Aviv. We took a romantic side trip to Sachne, a gorgeous natural water park. It was our first date and several months later we were married.

We married on Diezengoff Street in Tel Aviv in 1965. More than 300 guests danced and celebrated with us.

We came to Winnipeg a few months later for a celebration with Audrey’s family and friends. Audrey decided to stay in Winnipeg while I returned to Israel to try to get established in a job with the Egged bus company. The Israeli economy was in severe recession, so we decided that I would return to Winnipeg and we would start our family here. I was nervous at first, but grew to love the city; our children, David, Tamara, and Elana were born here.

I started working in Winnipeg as a mechanic, but my father-in-law, Oscar Weinstein, eventually invited me to run Garry Lanes, the bowling alley that he owned. I knew nothing about bowling (in fact, in 42 years of running the business, I never rolled a ball!). Still, I enjoyed the challenge and I worked very hard—usually seven days a week. I loved talking to my customers and learning from them how to run the business. I also liked to talk to them about Jews, Judaism, and Israel. I like to think I discouraged some anti-Semitism over the years from my seat behind the counter at Garry Lanes. Hate comes from not knowing enough about each other.

I sold the bowling alley a few years ago and am enjoying my retirement, although I still have a few business interests. Audrey and I love to visit Tamara, her family, and Elana in Calgary; and David and his family in Phoenix.

Now that I have some time on my hands, Audrey and I like to attend cultural and community events together, and in the past few years I have started to volunteer with the Israel Pavilion at Folklorama. It’s an amazing experience to celebrate Israel in such a colourful and exciting way, right here in Winnipeg!

It is a great pleasure to participate in the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba’s Endowment Book of Life program. A successful Foundation is the future of our community. I hope that this program inspires others to be generous so that we can help newcomers, advance Jewish education in the city, and sustain our institutions.