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April 6, 2012 12:03 pm

An Israeli Oasis in a South Boston Garage

avatar by Stephen Whitfield /

Gideon Oknin. Photo: Susie Davidson.

Long a bastion of working-class Irish Americans, hometown of organized crime mobster James “Whitey” Bulger and several of his cronies, and known for taverns and some of the oldest housing projects in America, the rough-and-tumble area of South Boston was popularized in films including Mystic River, Good Will Hunting, and The Departed.

And it’s here, improbably, that you’ll find Israeli-born Gideon Oknin and his South Boston Auto & Heavy Truck Repair emporium. Within its confines, a fleet of the Original Party Trolley of Boston buses also reside, awaiting the next tour.

In 1995, Oknin founded and began operating Discover Boston Multilingual Trolley on Boston’s Long Wharf, which utilized translation software from Espro Acoustiguide, an Israeli company that manufactures multi-lingual audio, multimedia content and interpretive systems utilized by museums, historic sites, the tourism industry, and trade shows.

Oknin sold the business in 2006 and started up his “nightclub on wheels” party buses, complete with wall-to-wall plasma TVs, DJs, dancing poles and strobe lights. The Original Party Trolley offers seven different options, including limo party buses and varied, retro-look party trollies.

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“It’s the first, and the only, Party Trolley and Party Bus service in Boston and New England that runs the vehicles year-round and throughout all six New England states,” Oknin tells JointMedia News Service.

Though it may sound a bit cringe-worthy, think again: we’re talking 82-passenger capacity, hardwood dance floor, six mirror balls, laser lights, 360 degree panoramic view, bubble machine, fog machine, two floors, iPod hook-ups, and, yes, lavatories. Oknin’s buses can serve two purposes: either a site for the actual party, or an entertaining mode of transportation to a party at a different site.

Oknin’s business partners are his family members: wife Beth, and children Jessica, Shira, Danielle and Jacob. They do weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, bachelor and bachelorette parties, corporate functions, children’s parties, and the quintessential college bar hops. Judging by myriad glowing Yelp reviews and an A+ Better Business Bureau rating, they do them well.

“The Original Party Trolley was the best form of transportation for the kids to attend their prom, not to mention the most economical,” says client Elisa S. of Newton, Mass.

“They had a blast, and the kids that were not on the trolley were definitely jealous,” she says.

Customer Nahomi C. says, “We greatly enjoyed The Original Party Trolley and the team. Our driver was excellent—he was on time, courteous and very professional. I’ll be back!”

But perhaps the best endorsement comes from the most discerning clientele, Oknin’s own children. “We had both our daughters use the trolleys for their bat mitzvahs,” says Beth Oknin. “One was a Havdalah, and the other was a Sunday Rosh Chodesh.”

The groups went straight from the synagogue to the reception via the party bus. “The kids said that the ride was as fun as the party itself!” Beth says.

Gideon Oknin emigrated to the U.S. 26 years ago and maintains a strong connection to his native Haifa, where his relatives still live. “We travel to Israel three times per year,” he says, recalling that he met his wife, a Brockton, Mass. native, at a JCC gym in Newton. The couple, said wife Beth, met and married in six months. “We had an instant, strong connection, as we both wanted a lot of children, were kosher, and had an ‘enjoy the moment’ type of mentality,” Beth says.

Gideon had just finished his Israeli army service. Beth was attending Boston University School of Law, where she and Gideon would spend Shabbat. He volunteered there as well, setting up Hillel events.

Beth worked for many years as an attorney at the Massachusetts State Department of Children and Families before leaving to help Gideon in the business, and of course, to raise their four children.

A Likudnik and huge fan of Netanyahu, Gideon nonetheless “absolutely believes in a two-state solution.” The family lives in Sharon, Mass. Daughters Shira and Jessica both attended Solomon Schechter Day School, while third daughter Danielle and son Jacob both attend religious school.

The kids’ tributes to their father fill the walls at the South Boston site, which came about when Gideon began to garage and maintain the buses there. “When Comcast moved across the street, they asked me if I would service their vehicles,” he says. Pretty soon, he was hiring mechanics to tend to the neighboring businesses’ vehicles as well. Beth explains that the mechanic shop is a large portion of their business, but the party trolleys that operate out of the garage are the largest piece. “And it is the part that Gideon is most proud of,” she says. “He loves making people happy, and helping them to celebrate life simchas.”

It wasn’t always easy, as Gideon alluded to some problems in the past that may have been anti-Semitic in origin. But overall, he praised the neighborhood and his years there. “There has been no crime, no break-ins,” he says. “And I’m here about 100 hours a week, at least.”

Beth calls her husband “a remarkable individual.”

“It always amazes me that he came to this country without speaking a word of English, and was able to be so successful in both business and family,” she says.

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