Slim Peace started with a simple idea. Could women in Israel from different backgrounds and religions come together to lose weight — and perhaps find peace?
In 2001, filmmaker Yael Luttwak, now in her early 40s, set off for Israel to find out.
She gathered a select group of women — Jewish, Muslim, and Christian; Arab, Israeli, and Bedouin; religious and secular — to get together in Jerusalem for a weight loss class. They spent 10 weeks together speaking English (a neutral language), learning about healthy eating and nutrition from a Jewish dietician with a Muslim facilitator, and sharing information about themselves.
Eventually, if not predictably, the women began to open up to one another and formed deep relationships which, in some cases, lasted through two Gaza wars, according to Luttwak.
All the while, Luttwak filmed. She had developed a 10-week curriculum for the group, and she finished her documentary in 2006. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival a year later.
So why, nearly a decade later, was she still talking about it with 110 women who had gathered for Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s Ladies’ Night Out on Feb. 17 at Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains?
Because, as she explained, the project took on a life of its own when a “dame” from England got involved.
Luttwak, born in Israel and raised in Chevy Chase, Md., trained as a filmmaker at the London Film School. After Slim Peace, her first film, had its premiere, she said, she set about determining what her next project would be. But she got diverted by royalty. “I was approached by a fantastic woman in England, Dame Hillary Bloom. She said, ‘It’s your destiny. You have to go and create more groups!’” As Luttwak pointed out, “She’s a dame — I’m not going to say no to royalty!”
Bloom provided the seed money, and Luttwak created 20 similar groups in Jerusalem and in Acco, in northern Israel, before bringing the model to the United States, where she tweaked it and set up groups at schools in four cities (Boston, Chicago, Portland, Me., and Washington, DC). Among the groups in both countries are several for teens.
“I didn’t know how it would go, and I cannot believe what has happened,” she said. In Boston, for example, 10 women — half of them Jewish, the rest Muslim — met once a week for 10 weeks at a local high school. After the Boston Marathon bombing, allegedly carried out by Muslim brothers, members reached out and made an effort to spend more time together, carpooled to memorial vigils, and registered as a team in a commemorative “Walk for Peace.”
At the meeting on Feb. 17, Luttwak shared the first 10 minutes of the film with the group. It’s a clip that sets up the group-based hostility the women featured feel toward one another.
Asked about her feelings about settlers, an Arab woman in the film acknowledges, “I don’t like them. They are bastards, thieves. We are living in misery because of them.”
And when asked how she feels about meeting with Arab women, a settler replies, “That’s very intense. I live in Bat Ayin. Bat Ayin is extreme when it comes to Arabs. Arabs are not allowed to come into Bat Ayin.”
A Bedouin woman says, “I feel like I am living in between two cultures.” The same woman does not entirely swallow the idea that the project is “nonpolitical,” as described by Luttwak. “You say it’s not political, but this is really political,” says the Bedouin.
“In Israel I heard time and again that Jewish women had never met Arabs and thought all Arabs wanted to kill them, and Arabs had never met a Jew who was not a soldier,” Luttwak said to the group in Scotch Plains last week. “Put them in a room together for 10 weeks, and what happens is extraordinary. Intimacy happens. Women share all of themselves. Something about health and weight and body image connects up. They share who their partner is, who their husband is, or maybe that they’re divorced, their kids. They cannot leave the process the same, because they are, of course, humanized. They go from never having met a Muslim to saying, ‘I can’t believe I’m saying this to a Muslim.’”