TORONTO — Ethy Lebow was born Esther Anavy in Egypt in 1948.
When she was nine, her family was forced to leave Egypt and flee to Israel.
“The consequences of my life are due to a decision taken by my great-grandfather. At the end of the 19th century my great-grandparents, who were Sephardic Jews, lived in Bulgaria, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” Lebow said.
“My great-grandfather got an attractive job offer in an Egyptian sugar plant. The whole family moved to Hawamdiyya, a small community near Giza, and lived there for over half of a century.”
Lebow describes her childhood in Egypt as pleasant and abundant. The men in the community worked for most of the day in the sugar plant, and the women were housewives who employed servants for housework. It was like living in a British colony, she said.
“We spent the afternoons in the community’s country club and also enjoyed other luxurious comforts.”
In the village where she was born and raised, there were only five Jewish families, so there was no real Jewish community life, though she remembers celebrating Chanukah and Passover at her grandfather’s house.
“Pesach was a paradox to me,” Lebow said. “We were celebrating the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt in ancient times, while in modern times my family returned to Egypt of its free will.”
By the time Lebow was eight, the impending exodus of her family finally came.
In 1956, the United Kingdom, France and Israel attacked Egypt. As a result, the relatively peaceful life of Egyptian Jewry was changed forever.
“I remember that my father was called to the police station. He was told that we had one week to leave Egypt,” Lebow recalled.
“Eventually, our family left the village and moved to Cairo and stayed there for a few months. During one of the bombings over the city, I remember hearing one Egyptian threatening to kill every Jew he [saw]. It was scary.”
In February 1957, leaving property and memories behind them, the family left Egypt and moved to Israel. They settled in Ashdod, and for the first two months, the family lived in a tin barrack with outhouses. Then they were moved to structures that reminded Lebow of townhouses.
“Don’t get me wrong, the so-called townhouses were nothing but a simple structure made of pressed wood. There was running water, washrooms, but no electricity.”
“It was quite shocking to leave the comfortable life in Egypt and live in Israel like a refugee. Exactly like the Israelites left Egypt in ancient times and then were refugees in the desert for 40 years. We lived like that for three years until we finally moved to a normal building in 1960,” Lebow said.
Lebow joined the Israel Defence Forces in 1966. She served in the armoured corps and was in active service during the Six Day War in June 1967. Afterward, she met Barry, a young Canadian Jew who was a volunteer with the IDF after the war.
“It was very quick and sudden. We fell in love, got married and moved to Canada in 1968. We lived in Toronto near Bathurst and Lawrence,” Lebow said. “By the age of 22, I had lived in three different countries and was a mother of a boy and a girl, Ronnie and Stacey. After 27 years of marriage, Barry and I separated and moved [our] own ways.” Later in her life, she met Gaston Marks. They were life partners for 12 years. Marks died in 2009.
“I never considered myself as an Egyptian,” Lebow said. “Even though I am 43 years in Canada, I see myself as an Israeli. However, when I visit Israel, I say I am Canadian. But above all, I am Jewish, and I’m taking that identity with me anywhere.”
Lebow speaks four languages: French, as her mother tongue; Ladino, which was spoken by her grandparents; Hebrew and English. The Arabic she knew as a child is now forgotten.
Since coming to Canada, Lebow has been active in several Jewish organizations, among them the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, ORT and Israel Bonds. In 1976, she joined the Jewish Women International Canada (JWIC) French-speaking chapter, Soleil. She was president of JWIC Toronto in 1994-95.
Her current volunteer activities include raising funds for the Jerusalem Hills Children’s Home, an institution in Israel that cares for children who are emotionally disturbed. In Canada, Lebow advocates against domestic violence.