Jerusalem-born Israeli-American Yael Luttwak was living in Tel Aviv when politics and weight loss colluded in an inspiration. She had completed her Israeli military service as a tank gunnery instructor and was working for Israeli TV as producer of a teen talk show with Israelis and Palestinians.
“It was 2000, when Sharon and Arafat were both in power and I had this crazy idea,” she says. “Sharon was pretty fat and Arafat was chubby and I had this image of them working out.”
That same year, Luttwak lost 20 pounds in a Tel Aviv Weight Watchers group and the Camp David peace accords collapsed. “I connected the two – losing weight and making peace,” she says. “Maybe this was the solution. Maybe if we all feel better and healthier about ourselves… Out of intense disappointment sprang my idea to use the universal obsession with losing weight as a way of showing the humanity and the humor in the Middle East.”
After graduating from the London Film School, Luttwak returned to Israel and created a weight-loss group of 14 women from a range of backgrounds, led by an Israeli and Palestinian dietician from Hadassah Hospital. Together, Israeli Jews, American-Jewish settlers, Bedouins, and Palestinians navigate the issues of health and body image in their respective cultures, and take on the battle of the bulge together. The result, “A Slim Peace,” came out in 2006.
Luttwak will be the featured speaker at the spring 2011 dinner, hosted by Women’s Philanthropy of United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien, on Thursday, May 19 at Temple Beth El in Stamford.
The documentary is filmed in Jerusalem over six weeks in January and February 2006, in the Cinematheque building in East Jerusalem, against the tumultuous political backdrop of Hamas’s landslide victory and Ariel Sharon’s hospitalization. As the world’s cameras focus on a war zone, “A Slim Peace” brings the viewer into the individual lives of women living on both sides of the conflict, and into the group interactions among the women. The film premiered at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival and went on to the Jerusalem Film Festival and Jewish film festivals throughout the U.S. It has been shown on the Sundance Channel.
“The issues I was interested in exploring were around eating, weight, and women’s bodies and body-image in both Jewish and Muslim cultures,” she says. “I wondered, can two groups of women who live so close to each other, Palestinian and Israeli, who would ordinarily never speak, lower their barriers? The device through which they are encouraged to do this is the intimate and vulnerable arena of a weight-loss group.”
The film isn’t intentionally political, Luttwak says, though it was inevitable that politics would enter into the weekly conversation. “The idea is to share how incredibly inspiring and life-affirming it was to be in the group while war was raging in Gaza,” she says. “The women kept coming because the group was about life and it was the only thing that gave them hope.”
UJF Women’s Philanthropy board member Malerie Yolen Cohen met Luttwak at the International Lion of Judah Conference and General Assembly in New Orleans last November, where the filmmaker presented her project.
“Yael’s session was overflowing with interested women,” Cohen says. “The thought of perceived enemies united over a common cause, weight loss, was very compelling to me. I asked Yael to speak at our annual dinner because I felt that if ‘A Slim Peace’ would also resonate with many women. I was right: we’ve had more sign-ups for this event at this point in the process than in any prior year. I think many of us are tired of all the violence and hate out there. Let’s figure out a way to get to know each other in a neutral setting. Yael’s project is a start.”
The film proved to be only the first step in what has become an ongoing spin-off project, the non-profit Slim Peace Groups. Since 2007, Luttwak and her dietician partner have created and facilitated 18 Israeli-Palestinian groups of women and teenage girls, each facilitated by an Israeli and an Arab woman, who meet to discuss health issues.
“We want to have a social impact by bringing together people who don’t ordinarily get the opportunity to meet so that they can create a better and healthier reality for themselves, without politics,” Luttwak says. “There’s a lot of fear and distance between the participants, but as soon as they meet, after a few hours, the walls come down and everyone’s so curious about each other,” Luttwak says.
Yael Luttwak will speak at the Women’s Philanthropy of United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien 2011 Annual Spring Dinner on Thursday, May 19, 6:30 p.m., at Temple Beth El, 350 Roxbury Road in Stamford. For more information call (203) 321-1373, ext. 108.