Slimming for peace

Now, you can promote both dieting and coexistence at the same time.

Slim 1 224.88 (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
Slim 1 224.88
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
'It's very important to write down everything that you eat, sit at a table for meals and even to use smaller plates," says Dr. Dorit Adler, head of nutrition at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem, as she addresses the group of women sitting in front of her. "As women, our metabolism goes down as we age and, at the same time, our weight goes up." Some of the women raise their hands to ask the creator of the method "Healthy Nutrition and Weight Way" some questions more specific to their own lives, others offer out their own tips, while the rest just exchange ideas and comments among themselves. "It's a way of eating and not necessarily a diet," explains Adler following the session. "It is a humane way to adopt the healthy lifestyle that the body needs and move away from what we believe is food today but is not really the mazon [basic necessities] that we need to survive." Just as Adler's weight-loss method is not exactly a diet in the classic sense, so the Jerusalem-based group that she meets with once a week is not exactly your average slimming club. Meeting in the Anglican International School, the women - who share the same goals of taking control of their eating habits, becoming healthier and perhaps, along the way, losing some weight - have another agenda: peace. Called "Slim Peace," Adler's group, which she leads jointly with Palestinian dietician Suha Khoury, brings together in equal numbers Jewish women - both secular and haredi, with Arab-Israeli and Palestinian women interested in losing weight and eating right. "It's a group like any other group," says Khoury, who is registered with the American Dietetic Association and licensed by the Israeli Health Ministry. "People come here as individuals and bring with them their own life details." "At first there was a bigger distance [between all the participants]," she says of the group that began its 10-meeting run in October but due to continual Jewish, Muslim and Christian festivals has gone on through to mid-January. "But with time people have started to feel more connected to each other and some are even talking about staying in touch after the course." Even with such a diverse or conflicting group of people from such a sensitive and emotive city as Jerusalem, Khoury says that the main challenge in bringing the women together was language (instruction and discussions are held in English) not politics. Miri, for example, is a haredi mother of six who struggled to understand the English and needed a translator. Even though most of the women managed with the language, some found expressing themselves fairly hard. On a more positive note, however, Khoury points out: "It is a perfect example of Palestinians and Jews coming together. This kind of initiative has not happened before not due to lack of willingness but more because of lack of opportunity. Diversity broadens horizons and now we have the chance to meet each other in a safe environment and on equal terms. That means, that the end result is a group coming together just like any other." Although the core issues raised by each participant are similar regardless of whether they are Arab or Jew, Khoury does point out that she and Adler have no choice but to address some of the cultural differences. "We talk about eating habits for each of the various [religious] festivals but, really, the main issues are similar," she says. FOR SONIA Martin-Khoury, assistant manager of the American Colony Hotel, joining Slim Peace was beneficial on two levels. "I got to learn more about nutrition, and it was also a peace group with Arabs and Israelis together," says the Ramle-born mother of two, who now lives in Beit Hanina. "It is like hitting two birds with one stone. "It was very interesting to hear such different opinions and ideas with each one of us coming from such a different background. It has also helped me feel in control of my eating habits, teaching me to eat much, much healthier." Martin-Khoury says she was not fazed by joining a group with Jewish women because of her upbringing in an Arab-Israeli community, but she did add that it was an unusual opportunity to learn about real people in more depth. Miri, who preferred not to use her full name for modesty reasons, also says that joining together with women of such different backgrounds has not really changed her life. However, she jokes, "it has changed what kind of food I put on my Shabbat dinner table." "At first being in a group with women so different from me was worrying," admits Miri, whose grown daughter also participated. "In fact, it really bothered me because, growing up haredi, I had never even met secular Jews before this, let alone Arab women, but, at the end of the day, we are all women and we all want to eat correctly, slim down and be happy and healthy." "I guess my fear was simply not knowing who they were," she says of the Arab participants. "I thought they might be verbally aggressive but it was nice to meet them and even better that we did not talk about politics at all. It was not what I had expected." Asked whether they will stay in touch after the 10 weeks, Miri says that she has already exchanged details with two of the secular Jewish women but did not see that she would continue relations with the Arab women. Martin-Khoury says she intends to ask the organizers for a contact list. All the women pledged to exchange recipes at the end of the next meeting, which was scheduled to be their last time together. SLIM PEACE is the brainchild of US-Israeli filmmaker Yael Luttwak, who claims that two big events in her life in 2000 - coupled with the theory that all women want to be healthy and lose weight - inspired her to make a documentary about Jewish and Arab women trying to lose weight together. A TV producer by training, Luttwak had been working on a Peres Center for Peace-funded talk show aimed at Palestinian and Israeli teens when the conflict in the region reignited on a large scale. "We had been able to do some far-reaching programs and I was traveling to Ramallah every week at that time," recalls the 35-year-old who studied at the London Film School and has assisted renowned British director Mike Leigh. "Even those who were the biggest cynics believed that there was a possibility for real peace, but then it all exploded." At the same time, Luttwak had also succeeding in losing more than 10 kilos on a Weight Watchers program. "I don't know why, but when the peace process broke down, those two things connected in my head," she continues, adding that perhaps losing so much weight was what spurred her to try and help others do the same. "I knew that most women had to work very hard to feel good about themselves. But I was not really interested in making a film about slimming, I really did not want a Biggest Loser-type show. I was more passionate about making a film about the people that live all around us, people that live so close to each other but do not talk. It is hard for people to break out of their shells here and that makes sense because people don't want to change but I just had to do something that would make a difference." Those featured in the documentary include American Jewish immigrants now living in the West Bank, secular Israelis from Jerusalem, one Beduin woman from the Negev and several Muslim women from Ramallah. While they were originally told that the slimming venture would remain apolitical, it seemed almost impossible for them to steer clear of political discussions or expressing their sometimes offensive beliefs. In what is perhaps the most memorable scene in the film, Ichsan Turkich, a producer from Ramallah, who often mentions her "patriotic husband shot dead for his country" is forced to walk for miles on foot to get through a checkpoint and make to one of the meetings on time. At another point, Letty Zander, a US-born resident of Ma'aleh Hever, south of Hebron, openly refers to the Ramallah lynching. "When I think of Ramallah, I think of the soldier who was torn apart with people's bare hands," she says. "As far as I know, those are the kinds of people that live in Ramallah." Despite the obvious hostility, Luttwak does succeed in refocusing the obvious differences to the obvious similarities between women of any culture and their obsessions with food and losing weight. And while the women admitted at the Jerusalem screening several months ago they have no intention of staying in touch, there is one scene in which Turkich visits the home of Dasi Stern, a secular Jewish participant, even after learning that her father-in-law had been a member of Lehi (the Stern Gang). Since its debut at last spring's Tribeca Film Festival, A Slim Peace the documentary (www.aslimpeace.com) has gone on to appear in numerous other film festivals, both Jewish and not, as well as recently being purchased by the Sundance Film Channel in the US for screening sometime next year. In the meantime, the UK's Charities Advisory Trust was so inspired by her concept that it not only funded the final stages of the filmmaking process, it also offered her seed money to set up further Slim Peace groups here as a model for conflict resolution. "I was really nervous because I did not know if [creating a group off camera] would really work," admits Luttwak, who had interviewed more than 100 women to carefully assemble the colorful cast of extreme characters that make up her documentary film. "However, it seems to be working because all the women are coming back for more, week after week." Luttwak also says that, thanks to the initial sum there is enough to cover three more groups that will meet in Jerusalem through to this summer. "The funding is covering our basic costs to hire a project coordinator and the salaries of the two dietitians," explains Luttwak. "I definitely did not expect this attention. I am just happy that I made the film." Asked whether she has given up her filmmaking career to pursue the Slim Peace project further, Luttwak responds: "I am certainly not a dietitian or Middle East expert; my skills are in filmmaking and that is where I intend to stay." For information about joining one of the groups, contact [email protected]