Wife of a poor accountant never dreamed she'd have title


BORN Gilda Altbach in London in 1946, Lady Levy has come quite a way since her humble upbringing as the daughter of European immigrants.

Her 47-year marriage to Tony Blair's former Middle East special envoy Lord Levy has seen the couple strike up a close friendship with the ex-prime minister and wife Cherie.

Such high-profile company, was, Lady Levy admits, a little strange at first.

"There were quite a number of times where I used to think 'What am I doing here?' or 'How did I get here?'," Lady Levy told me.

"I married a poor Jewish accountant and didn't think I'd end up as the wife of a lord.

"But when you actually get to meet people, we're all just human beings and there is no hierarchy."

It was her background and upbringing that, in 2003, inspired the creation of the Women's Interfaith Network (WIN) with her long-time friend Pinky Lilani.

"My parents arrived in England as refugees from Vienna in 1938," Lady Levy recalled.

"My mother had lost most of her family in Auschwitz so I very much grew up under the shadow of the Holocaust and I understood what that sort of prejudice could do.

"It made me very conscious of mindless hatred and what a huge evil that is.

"Pinky is an Indian-Muslim and we were having lunch after the 9/11 terror attacks and talking about how horrible the situation was.

"At that time, the Muslim community were feeling the brunt of it.

"There we were, two women from totally different backgrounds, yet we got along so well.

"We felt there was a challenge to replicate this on a greater level.

"How can we promote understanding and a sustainable dialogue between women of different faiths and cultures?"

As such, WIN is made up of women's groups from different religions, who have come together to engage in "meaningful dialogue with other women from all faith communities" and are "committed to building a more tolerant society".

And to mark their 10th anniversary, as well as International Women's Day, a Spirit of Womanhood exhibition will open in London next month that gives emerging artists the chance to showcase their work alongside established artists.

"We are very grassroots and we have lots of small groups," Lady Levy explained.

"At the moment we are just in London, but we are looking to spread throughout the country, and start local groups.

"Those groups get together and they do things that are of interest, and they have meetings and events.

"We're the umbrella organisation and we don't tell them what to do.

"And the women get together, get to know one another, build bridges and change some of the huge misconceptions or misunderstandings that we have about each other and break down stereotypes.

"On many levels, women, regardless of ethnicity or where they come from, they have things that connect them in more ways than men do.

"You get a group of women together and eventually they'll talk about kids, families, home life or food. They really do connect and it was our idea to bring women together.

"And that's how the network was born."

Lady Levy remains adamant that the role of women in modern-day society has been negatively impacted by faith and she lamented a "male-led and male-orientated theme in many faiths".

She added: "There will always be strands of Judaism that will never accept women.

"Maybe they'll accept us as equals in some way, but they'll never accept us as equals as far as the religion is concerned. And it probably is the same in Islam and Christianity as well.

"Every time I go to shul and sit upstairs, I feel I'm not wanted. That resonates with me, but I know a lot of women don't have a problem with it.

"The role of women in Judaism is changing, certainly within the Orthodox community.

"Women are becoming more vocal and they are demanding more to be heard.

"That can only be a good thing because women's presence is important.

"Women can be very pragmatic so I think it is changing, although we still have a way to go, but I definitely think it is changing.

"Women are becoming much more assertive as far as the religious side is concerned."

It was in 1994 that Mr Blair met Lord Levy at a dinner in the Israeli embassy.

The pair became friendly and the Blairs soon became regulars at the Levys for Friday night dinner.

"It was a very exciting period of my life and very stimulating," Lady Levy revealed.

"I met some totally amazing people and it's great, as long as you don't take it too seriously or get caught up in it too much.

"It was a very exciting time to be at the heart of what was going on."

And she is under no illusion that such relationships helped lift the network off the ground.

The mother-of-two remarked: "Cherie Blair was at our launch as keynote speaker and these things do help. Personally, it's been very nice.

"It was great fun while it was happening."

In March 2006, the House of Lords Appointments Commission rejected several men nominated for life peerages by Mr Blair.

It was later revealed that they had loaned large amounts of money to the governing Labour Party at the suggestion of Labour fundraiser Lord Levy.

"Obviously the last couple of years were very stressful and very difficult. Now that we are out of the limelight, it's made life a little easier and more relaxed.

"For instance, my husband doesn't have the security walking to shul on Shabbat morning that he used to have. From that point of view things have relaxed a lot."

Yet, her husband's work had some extremely positive repercussions.

"I visited South America twice and the things that stood out were not the famous people who I met, but the ordinary people in places like Ecuador and Bolivia," Lady Levy recounted.

"These were people struggling to make a living.

"I visited a favela in Ecuador and saw a group of young men who were being trained to make book covers and decorative paper and these were the things that really touched me.

"I visited Jordan as well, but didn't do much other travelling in the Middle East."

But one place Lady Levy won't visit is Auschwitz.

She said: "My husband and son Daniel have been, but I don't think I could take it.

"I've been to Theresienstadt, where my mother's family were before Auschwitz, and that was difficult enough.

"My early years were spent with my mother trying to find out what happened to my family."

When it comes to her current work, Lady Levy has challenged British Jewry to pull together and she felt there is a growing disengagement on one side of the spectrum, but also a fanatical engagement on the other.

"One of the interesting things I've noticed in dealing with the women I work with, is that quite a number of Muslim women, who are religious, but not fanatically religious, are telling me that their daughters or nieces are choosing to cover up more," Lady Levy said.

"And, like in Judaism, there is an element that is going more religious.

"To some extent the women coming to us have already opened their minds to the idea of interacting with women from other faiths.

"Our challenge is to get to the ones who aren't.

"The late Lady Jakobovits was a big supporter of ours and she was one of the founding members of our organisation.

"And we have had some support from the Orthodox community, but not as much as I would like."

"We are now, after 10 years, reassessing what we are doing and beginning an outreach programme that will see women go out into communities and make contact with different organisations to bring them together."

The upcoming exhibition, Lady Levy said, is the first time the voluntary-aided organisation has "really pushed the boat out".

"We have really gone to town on it because we want people to get to know us," she said.

"We had more than 1,500 submissions for the exhibition and people logging onto our website from all over the world.

"And it's another way of promoting female issues.

"People don't often associate Jewish women with creativity and art.

"We have one paid employee and we are a voluntary organisation. We work on a shoestring."

The Spirit of Womanhood exhibition will run from March 25 to 30 at the Coin Street Galleries, Oxo Tower, London SE1. Details:

© 2014 Jewish Telegraph