At 85, Israeli Art Patron Builds a Place Where Dreams Can Come True

Shany Littman
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The refurbished Alma Hotel in Zichron Yaakov.Credit: Itai SIkulski
Shany Littman

Opposite the entrance to the new Alma Hotel in Zichron Yaakov, in a patio that is visible from the lobby, stands a huge marble sculpture by artist Sigalit Landau. The sculpture shows a man and a woman pushing a rock, in a kind of paraphrase of the Sisyphus myth.

Both the hotel and the arts center inside it occupy an iconic building by architect Yaakov Rechter, which was once the Histadrut labor federation inn belonging to the Mivtachim Fund.

Lili Elstein, owner of both the hotel and the arts center — and one of Landau’s main patrons — commissioned the sculpture for the center, which opened at the beginning of the month. The location of the sculpture is symbolic in many ways.

For Elstein, who is 85, the experience of purchasing, renovating and reopening the hotel was similar to pushing a rock up the hill, since she was forced to deal with considerable opposition to her project. At the same time, the connection between Landau’s contemporary art and the classical technique of sculpting in marble reflects Elstein’s attempt to connect old and new in the reopening of the building on Mount Carmel.

Rechter was awarded the Israel Prize for Architecture in 1972 for his design of the Mivtachim Inn, which was dedicated in 1968. The inn served its original purpose for several decades under different managements, before returning to the Mivtachim pension fund in the 1990s. Elstein purchased it for $20 million in 2006, after a deal with the Raso housing company to demolish it and replace it with a residential neighborhood fell through.

Elstein claims that she in effect rescued the building, which, despite its importance and unique architecture qualities, was not included on any preservation list. But neither that nor the appointment of Amnon Rechter, son of the building’s designer, as one of the two architects for the redesign, convinced the opponents of the plan.

Now, several weeks before the official opening of the Alma Hotel, Elstein proudly walks the corridors of the hotel and arts center, enthusiatically describing its wonders. It is clear that a great deal of thought and money were invested in every detail: from the stylized floor that recreates Rechter’s original design, to the modernistic wooden furniture in the lobby and the blue-green colors of the rooms that blend with the view of the sea and the fields through the windows. Architect Ranni Ziss designed the new hotel, together with Amnon Rechter.

Elstein was pleased with the results of the renovation, but it is evident that she is still licking the wounds inflicted by the opposition to her initial, more grandiose plan.

The original inn. Credit: Amnon Rechter Archive

Preserving something valuable

In an interview in her Tel Aviv home, just before the move to Zichron Yaakov, she says: “They were going to destroy the place, to put up 160 Rasco cottages. Nobody, not even the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, said a word. Until I came and said ‘This is something for preservation! I’m going to preserve it.’ And then everyone started to come to me.”

She repeatedly mentions her commitment to Israeli culture and artists and the importance she attributes to supporting and promoting them. Her intention in opening the hotel she says, was to derive sufficient revenue to operate the arts center, which will host concerts, exhibitions, theater and dance performances, and more. She considers it a supreme act of Zionism.

Elstein was born as Leah Bonstein in Tel Aviv in the early 1930s, to parents who were natives of Zichron Yaakov. Her grandfather, Mordechai Bonstein, came from Odessa in the late 19th century and settled in Rosh Pina.

He moved his family to Tantura, on the coast near Zichron Yaakov, after officials of Baron Rothschild suggested that he build a glass bottle factory for the local wine industry there. They subsequently moved to Zichron Yaakov, after his children contracted malaria. Elstein’s father was born on the moshav, while her mother’s parents became farmers there after arriving from Romania.

Elstein spent vacations in Zichron Yaakov during her childhood. “All my cousins and aunts and grandparents lived in Zichron. I have 50 cousins. Both my mother and my father grew up in Zichron. The farmers’ families came from a world of culture. They would walk around in furs, they sewed underpants with lace from cotton fabrics.”

Alma Hotel in Zichron Yaakov.Credit: Yael Engelhart

Her father studied at the French university in Beirut, while her mother was a student at the Gymnasia Herzliya high school in Tel Aviv from the age of 14. They lived in Tel Aviv after they married.

Elstein remembers her childhood as a medley of strong values and meticulous style, a combination in which she apparently believes to this day. Her father was a senior official of the British administration, in charge of postal services, telephones and the broadcasting authority. Her mother was a nurse.

Founding Teva

She met her future husband, Moshe Elstein, in Tel Aviv. He also belonged to the Zionist elite: His maternal grandfather was Yoel Moshe Solomon, one of the founders of Petah Tikva and the scion of a family that had lived in Jerusalem for seven generations. Elstein’s father had founded a pharmaceutical trading company in Jerusalem in 1901, together with two cousins. The company began manufacturing pharmaceuticals in 1935, eventually transforming into Teva Pharmaceuticals.

The family’s investment in Teva, or what Elstein calls “the inheritance my husband left me,” is what enabled her to invest 350 million shekels in the renovation of the Mivtachim Inn and to turn it into Alma, the acronym, in Hebrew, of Amir, Lili, Moshe and Orna — the names of her family members (Orna and Amir are her daughter and son.) Elstein’s love of art began in childhood, when she went with her brother to concerts and museums. After the army, she studied art history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at the same time worked in the foreign relations department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Over the years, she collected many works of art. Some decorated the walls of her home during our first meeting, but were gone by the time we met again — all had been sent to Alma. Only one work from the collection remained in her Tel Aviv apartment, a sculpted figure of a woman by Sigalit Landau.

Receiving straight from the artists

Elstein met Landau while serving on the board of trustees of the Tel Aviv Museum. She describes Landau as “very close to my heart,” along with artists Yehudit Sasportas and Ilit Azoulay She has been supporting all three of them financially for a long time. When she talks about the artists she supports, her eyes well up and she seems full of enthusiasm and warmth towards them, happy about her closeness to them. She feels that artists are in need of constant help, and she hopes that her new center will be able to solve the problem of the connection she sees between the audience and the artists.

“Everything I have built there comes from thinking about the artist who will come, so it will be comfortable for him to create. The artists don’t come only to perform. Anyone who comes performs and sleeps over, and can go up to our restaurant. I want the artists not to be disconnected from the audience that comes to experience them. Because at the moment there’s a disconnect and both sides have problems.”

The original inn. Credit: Amnon Rechter Archive

What problems?

“Life problems. A financial matter, a family matter. Artists are a group who need help.”

The closeness to the artists that she nurtures is a unique experience for Elstein. For example, she accompanied Landau on her trips to Italy, to choose the marble from which she created the huge sculpture at the entrance to Alma.

What kinds of ties develop between you?

Sigalit Landau, for example, is great and I’ve known her for years. And she also confides in me about her problems. When she creates something, I encourage her and even buy it in advance. She had a big and important exhibition at the KW [Institute for Contemporary Art] in Berlin. I was at her side and I supported her with a large sum so she could do that. During the course of the work she changes the idea, that’s what’s so much fun about her. To be at the side of a talented person who is honest with his art, what could be better?”

Her choices as to whom to support stem from her personal taste. “If I don’t like it I don’t take it. The artist creates, I’m entirely on the sidelines.” Elstein herself will curate the exhibition in the galleries, together with Sarit Shapira. Gil Bonstein and Tibi Zeiger are in charge of the musical programs.

Do you see enough people of means around you who support culture?

I meet people who try to help, but not on the scale that I do. It’s also a financial issue for them. For me it’s not a business matter. I don’t sell my works, it’s collecting for love. This craziness of mine — I haven’t seen it in anyone. I went as hard and as high as a person can allow himself. I’ve left that society to some extent, even though I belong to it. I really am bourgeois but it’s impossible to become what I am by being bourgeois.”

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