It took an adroit grasp of Hebrew to come up with a term for what David Azrieli was building in Israel. Like earlier pioneers of the revived tongue who had to create words for “airplane” and “automobile” for use in the modern Jewish state, Mr. Azrieli pondered a name for his gleaming creation, the country’s first enclosed, American-style shopping mall. Israelis were more used to shopping at small, stand-alone stores or chains; a sprawling, air-conditioned mall complete with cinemas, banks, restaurants and piped-in Muzak was a foreign concept. So when it opened in the city of Ramat Gan in 1985, Mr. Azrieli, a one-time Hebrew teacher, dubbed his 25,000-square-metre edifice “Canion Ayalon.” Ayalon was the name of a nearby valley, and canion was a word he coined by clumping together two Hebrew words: koneh, to buy, and chanayah, to park.
“I felt strongly that we should have a Hebrew word,” Mr. Azrieli explained in a biography prepared by his family for his 85th birthday. “Perhaps this is part of my attention to detail.” He compared his insistence on using the vernacular with Quebec’s zeal to protect French, though he felt that campaign had been “carried to extremes.”
The mall was a roaring success and transformed retailing in Israel (for the worse, charged those who rued the shift to Western consumerism). Mr. Azrieli went on to build 12 more enclosed malls in the country in the ensuing years, with yet more to come. To this day, Israeli teens hang out at the kenyon (a version of Mr. Azrieli’s canion).
A hard-charging, soft-spoken real-estate tycoon who fought for the fledging Jewish state and gave away millions in philanthropic endeavours, Mr. Azrieli died at his country home in Quebec’s Laurentians on July 9 at the age of 92. After building office towers, high-rise residences, hotels and shopping centres in Canada, the United States and Israel, he remained chairman of Tel Aviv-based Azrieli Group Ltd., one of the largest commercial and office real-estate companies in Israel, until a week before his death, when he stepped down.
“I have always wanted to be a builder,” he said in a 1988 magazine profile. “I was always drawing and sketching. Of all the arts, architecture influences people every day. It’s very humanistic.”
The self-made billionaire was a “Donald Trump-type developer with Trump’s splash and vision tempered by Jewish values and Zionist altruism,” blogged his friend, McGill University professor Gil Troy. “His story is Israel’s story, a redemptive tale of building an old-new land as sleek and modern as many but uniquely soulful and traditional.”
Among those is Azrieli Center in Tel Aviv, which was the largest shopping centre and business complex in Tel Aviv when it opened in 1988. Its three sleek office towers dominate the city’s skyline but retain a whimsical, almost childlike character, as one structure is a cylinder, one is triangular and one square.
Known widely in Israel as the Mall Man from Montreal, Mr. Azrieli also held interests in the energy, water, banking and environment sectors, through his company. With a net worth of $3.1-billion, he was ranked the 12th-wealthiest Canadian by Forbes this year.
“David was very sharp. He always loved to talk business,” Mitch Goldhar, owner of Toronto-based shopping-centre developer SmartCentres, told The Globe’s Bertrand Marotte. “He had good radar, predicting where things were going. He stepped up on many investments where others were going the other way.”
On May 10, 1922, he was born David Joshua Azrylewicz in the Polish town of Makow-Mazowiecki, the second of four children. His father was a prosperous clothing designer and manufacturer, and both parents were ardent Zionists. Three days after the Nazis invaded Poland in September, 1939, Mr. Azrieli and a younger brother fled eastward, hoping to escape the fate of an older brother who had been forced to join a work brigade. The train Mr. Azrieli was riding was strafed by German planes four times; a bullet travelled through his arm and killed the man huddled next to him.
Follow us on Twitter: