Israel’s ‘greatest art collector’ dies at age 99

Jerusalem-born Ayala Zacks Abramov bequeaths works to both Israel Museum and Tel Aviv Museum.

Ayala Zacks Abramov 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ayala Zacks Abramov 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ayala Zacks Abramov was a high-society lady of the old school – not pretentious, but definitely a lady – whose passing on Monday at age 99 marked the end of an era. She was arguably Israel’s greatest art collector and an extraordinarily generous philanthropist who, on her own and together with two of her husbands, left an indelible imprint on museums, art galleries and educational institutions across the world.
Abramov, whose maiden name was Ben-Tovim, was born in Jerusalem in 1912 and came from one of the well-known and well-to-do families of the Yishuv. She was widowed three times.
As a young woman, she was sent to study in London and Paris. It was in Paris that she met her first husband Maurice Fleg, whom she married in 1938. When war broke out, Maurice joined the army and was killed in action in 1940.
The most significant thing the grieving young widow thought she could do in his memory was to join the resistance movement in France - Fleg’s home country - and subsequently served there during World War II.
A fervent Zionist, she became immersed in Zionist activity after the war, and while in Switzerland, met an equally fervent Canadian-born Zionist by the name of Samuel J. Zacks, who was also a financier and an art collector. They married in 1947 and began collecting 19th and 20th century art, focusing primarily on works by French, Canadian and Israeli artists. They also collected antiquities and African tribal art.
Not only did they collect art, but they cultivated and sponsored artists, and sat on executive committees of universities and museums.
They were such avid collectors that their collection outgrew their spacious home in Toronto, and they gave many items from their impressive collection to museums, art galleries and universities in Canada and Israel.
Samuel Zacks died in 1970 in Toronto.
Ayala Zacks continued to live in Canada and to be active in the art world, earning several honors along the way and commuting frequently between Canada and Israel.
In 1976, she married Minsk-born Zalman Abramov, who had come as an adolescent to Israel and had subsequently studied in the United States. Abramov was an international lawyer and a politician, serving as a Member of Knesset from 1959 to 1977.
As a Likud MK in the 8th Knesset, he was also deputy speaker and a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. He had also been a Knesset representative at the Council of Europe and before that a member of the Israeli Delegation to the United Nations.
He was in the forefront of activities in the struggle for Soviet Jewry and he was a champion of liberal Judaism in Israel.
Following her third marriage, Ayala Zacks Abramov moved back to Israel and lived with her husband in Tel Aviv, and following his death in 1997, for a few years in Jerusalem, before moving back to Tel Aviv.
Together, they established the Abramov Library at the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College.
In 1982, Ayala established a trust fund in memory of her second husband at Strong College on the campus of Canada’s York University, which had already benefited from the couple’s extensive art collection.
The trust fund was designed to help young students of the arts.
In Israel, Ayala Zacks Abramov became intensely involved with both the Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Museum, each of which have galleries with valuable works from her collection. Each of the museums has been named as a beneficiary in her will and their collections will be considerably enhanced by what she has bequeathed them.
She was also actively engaged with various cultural and educational institutions such as the Weizmann Institute, which she had supported while still in Canada and with which she became more closely affiliated after returning to Israel.