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Ruth (Babs) Asper

Izzy and Babs Asper

Gail with parents Babs and Izzy Asper, and brothers David and Leonard


by Rhonda J. Prepes and Rhonda Spivak, August 2, 2011

Ruth Miriam Asper, affectionately known as “Babs” since childhood, who was a matriarch of our Jewish community and a well-known philanthropist in the general community was laid to rest on Tuesday, August 2, 2011 at the age of 78. Babs passed away suddenly of an aortic rupture. She was in hospital being tested for chest pains, and seemed to have been OK and was looking forward to spending the weekend at the lake.

Babs and her late husband Israel “Izzy” Asper--media mogul, politician, and founder of the Canadian Human Rights Museum-- whom she met in high-school, profoundly affected our community through their philanthropic activity and leadership that touched virtually every aspect of Jewish communal life.

Over 1000 people attended the packed Shaarey Zedek Synagogue for Babs’s funeral which was also broadcast on the internet. Dignitaries who attended included Manitoba Lieutenant Governor Philip S. Lee, Premier of Manitoba Greg Selinger, Canada’s Minister for Public Safety Vic Toews, former MP Anita Neville, former Premier Gary Filmon, and Mayor Sam Katz.
Babs, who was the younger sister of Mark Bernstein, was born on May 24, 1933 in the north end of Winnipeg to Sara (Churchill) and Maurice Bernstein, immigrants from Russia.  Babs’s father spent most of his career as a salesman in various fields, ultimately becoming a partner in Phillips Paint with his brother-in-law, Phil Sheps.
Babs’s home environment was very Zionist oriented. Her grandmother, Tema Churchill, was one of the founders of Na’amat in Western Canada, and was on the executive of Hadassah and Mogen David Adom. Her father, Maurice, served a term as president of the Sharon Zionist club. Her grandmother was a longtime active Zionist and went to Palestine for two years around 1930, where she worked for the establishment of kibbutzim with her friend Golda Meir.
In her Endowment Book of Life story recorded with the Jewish Foundation, Babs wrote of her early years: “I attended I.L. Peretz Folk Shul for kindergarten and Grosvenor School for Grades 1 to 6. My junior high years were spent at Robert H. Smith, and my high school years at Kelvin. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Manitoba in 1954.”

“As a young person, I was involved in Young Judea and the YMHA, where I particularly enjoyed the "Chicklets" club. I also have fond memories of the old Shaarey Zedek Synagogue on Dagmar Street, and Rabbi Frank's influence. At University, I belonged to Hillel, and as an adult I was active with Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University and had served on the boards of the Winnipeg Jewish Community Council and the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre.”

“I met Israel Asper while we were both at Robert H. Smith School, and we married on May 27, 1956 in Winnipeg.”

In his Jewish Foundation Endowment Book of Life story, Babs’s youngest son Leonard wrote: “My mother worked hard to support my father through law school. She was a very active and hands-on community volunteer... When I was a kid, she made the best school lunches around, and she always supported my father’s career while being a wonderful and involved parent, attending piano recitals, hockey games and all of our activities.”
At her funeral, officiated by Rabbi Green, Babs’s children David, Gail and Leonard spoke as did her grandchildren.

“There was hardly any aspect of the life of the Jewish community or the Winnipeg community at large that wasn’t sustained in some way by the generous heart and spirit of Babs Asper… It included the various theatres, the ballet, the symphony, United Way, St. Boniface Hospital, the Asper Campus, the University of Manitoba, Hebrew University, and of course, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights,”  Rabbi Green noted.
Babs’s son David said, “This sucks. We shouldn’t be here today. This just makes no sense at all. Mom was a saint who had a lot of living yet to do… She was the giver of unconditional love.”
He recalled that when he was a university student driving his dad's new convertible, a truck ran a light on Route 90 and dragged the sports car from Tuxedo Boulevard to Corydon Avenue. David was all right but lying dazed on the median, with Izzy's car smashed and emergency vehicle lights flashing. His mother appeared, like a scene from a movie.

“She stood above me, looking down and said, 'Oh, David, your father is going to kill you.'”

He recounted other humourous stories of his mother’s love and blunt remarks. He remembered the times that his mother was happy: at a party at their Falcon Lake cottage after Neil Armstrong had landed on the moon, swimming, exploring the beaches with her grandchildren, watching sunsets over the Atlantic Ocean, and at her 70th birthday party. 

David remembered Babs's sweetness:  
“When it was announced that the Winnipeg Jets were coming back to Winnipeg, I put on my FaceBook page … that the euphoria felt like when my mother baked a banana cake with white icing. And Sandra Bernstein told mom that I had done this and sure enough, the next day mom’s banana cake arrived at my house.”

“Mom was truly our compass and our soul,” he concluded.
Babs’s daughter Gail said, “No one could ask for a better mom. But I’ve also lost a dear irreplaceable friend and this really hurts.”  

She recalled that her father Izzy would say, “'Oh, Babs, the (prime minister) and his entourage are coming for dinner. Can you rustle something up?' and she would.”
Gail noted that Babs was full of “energy” and had a “zest for life.”
“Clearly my mom lived life to the fullest, sharing wonderful times with her family… and taking a passionate interest in the lives of her eight busy grandchildren and her impossibly large massive group of eclectic friends whom she valued dearly.”

“After dad died (in October 2003 at the age of 71), we got to become much closer and I got to experience this incredible woman not just as a mother, but as a colleague, a friend and a mentor. And boy was I ever lucky because she has taught me so much.”

After Izzy died Babs devoted herself to others, chaired the Asper Foundation, and raised millions of dollars for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

Gail spoke of her mother’s wisdom, generous philanthropy, volunteerism and hard work and commitment to our community and projects like the museum; her mother’s accident proneness; her toughness; her thriftiness; her love of jazz and desserts; her passion for wine, her BMW convertible, cute tennis players, adventure travel, Hawkins cheezies, golf at Glendale, bridge, and Falcon Lake.
Big bad beetle bit Babs on bum," said one postcard Gail’s parents sent from Tahiti. Gail also fondly remembered her mother’s thriftiness. 

"Light bulbs left on are an abomination," Gail said.

Babs would say, "Why dine out when there are leftovers in the back of the fridge?"

"A necklace made from macaroni by one of the grandchildren would've pleased her more than any diamonds," Gail added.

“I don’t just miss my mom – I need my mom. Her death leaves a gaping hole in my heart that will never heal. But I am grateful for our time together and I know that I was incredibly blessed to have her in my life,” Gail concluded.
Babs’s son Leonard said that he had spent a lot of time with his mother over the last couple of years, months, weeks and days just talking. “I am more than grateful… for the time I spent with my mother.”
He also spoke of her being thrifty. “I didn’t understand why she spent so much time ensuring that she got the lowest price. We would go to Tom Boy, and then we’d go to 5 other stores so she could save 18 cents on cereal or detergent or Kleenex. I would say, “Mom, we live in this rather large house… we can do this.” She said, “No Leonard, that’s why we live in this house.”
Leonard referred to his mom as "the glue" of the family, but also "the whip" and "the General." He said he learned this as a child when a shop owner called Babs to say he had caught a young Leonard taking something. Leonard remembered going home to his mother.
"She was half a kilometre away wearing an apron with hands on her hips standing in the middle of the street... Lasers were coming out of her eyes and burning through my clothing," he joked. She told him to wait until his dad got home. When he did, Leonard overheard his mom talking to him. "No, Izzy -- don't go easy on him. He'll never learn."

He spoke of his mother’s already felt absence “The clear sign that she really is gone is when we set out to plan this funeral because that is the time that you say “Egg salad? Turkey? Which flowers? Where do they go?  What time should we start?” all these things. Usually, she’s the director of protocol. She could plan a Royal wedding.  It’s usually just… ask mom.”
“…she was the best mother you could ever hope for… She was so open. You could talk to her about anything. She was an unwavering rock of consistency and her support and guidance and her justice towards us was tough, but irrefutably logical.  But her love clearly was unconditional. She was our source of comfort in any hard times,” Leonard closed.
While her eight grandchildren stood together on the stage, three of them spoke about their love for their Baba and their Baba’s love for them.

Rebecca Asper eloquently said, “There was never a doubt in our minds that whatever Baba said was golden… We all feel so lucky to have such special relationships with Baba and I know how much she appreciated everything that made us who we are. My brothers and I truly find comfort in remembering the way she made us feel and knowing that she is truly proud of us… Today we say our goodbyes to you, but are comforted by the fact that you are always with us.”
Hester Kroft, the only non-family member to speak at the funeral, talked about her love for her good friend and recounted many fond memories of a lifetime of experiences with Babs.
She recalled a comical story when they were playing cards on a Saturday afternoon and Hester’s father arrived home early. 

"He said, ‘Oh, you girls have time to play cards? I guess you’ve already read all the books in the library.’ "I was so embarrassed," Hester recalled. "But Babs said: ‘Oh, no, Mr. Israels, but we’re going to start that as soon as we’re finished.’ "

“Babs had an instinct for friendship that I played on really as an inner elegance… In 74 years, I have never known her to be jealous, vindictive, or mean. She understood the humanness of people and this gave her the rare ability to be able to forgive and to allow for second chances. She had tenacity of spirit. I loved Babs because she knew how to rejoice and how to endure when things got tough. She had the courage of a lioness.”

Hester concluded, “We have lost a treasure, but she leaves us with the richness of her memory which I will nurture as long as I live.”

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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