A Slim Peace in the Middle East by Judy Bolton-Fasman

 

Yael Luttwak is a young American filmmaker whose heart and soul live 5000 miles away in the east. After graduating from the University of Rochester, Luttwak moved to Israel, serving in the Israeli Defense Forces until 2000. In 2007 she premiered “A Slim Peace,” a documentary she made featuring 14 women from Israel and the Palestinian territories who come together to participate in a weight loss support group. Luttwak was in Boston last week to screen her remarkable film and talk about the eponymous non-profit that arose from her initial production.

Luttwak initially connected weight loss to peace efforts when she went to Weight Watchers meetings in 2000. She was living in Israel when talks between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat broke down at Camp David that same year. As she lost weight she thought that if people were healthier and happier in their own bodies, positive self-images might be a unique inroad to peace.

The women in the documentary—Palestinians, Bedouins, Jewish-American settlers and secular Israelis—are a seemingly disparate group. Two dieticians—one Israeli and one Palestinian—facilitate the meetings. Throughout the film, weight becomes a metaphor used in fresh, surprising ways—the weight of the stalled peace process, the weight of the future.

This is also a film that is fundamentally about the salutary effects of one-to-one encounters with stereotypes and perceived enemies. One woman compares attending the weigh-ins to going on a blind date—no one knows if and when a bond will establish. Early on in the program the women are supplied with a pedometer to keep count of their steps. The goal is to take 10,000 steps a day—a daunting yet achievable number.

Luttwak captures the pervasive tension during the women’s weekly meetings at the Jerusalem Cinemateque in East Jerusalem. Ichsan, a fiery Palestinian woman and Dassie, a secular Israeli and dedicated Zionist, forge a close relationship during group meetings. When Ichsan learns that Dassie’s father-in-law was one of the leaders of the Stern Gang during Israel’s War of Independence she jokingly exclaims he’s a terrorist, “He’s one of us!”

The three religious Jews from the Bat Ayin and Gush Etzion settlements are transplanted Americans who are awkwardly polite in meetings until Hamas wins an election in 2008. One of these women says that although the Arab women in the group haven’t personally harmed her, she nevertheless feels threatened by them. The women sideline weight loss altogether as they argue over whether Hamas’ victory was an act of hostility or desperation on the part of voters. Coincidentally, the pedometers stop working accurately in the middle of the fracas.

Relationships are both painfully fragile and surprisingly sturdy in the group. Ichsan visits Dassie’s home in a posh part of Jerusalem and the two end up in a heated argument. Luttwak honors their request and turns off her camera. But it’s obvious that things didn’t end well and Ichsan is filmed sitting alone in Dassie’s living room.

One of the deeper friendships occurs between Amal, a Bedouin woman who runs a Jewish-Arab cooperative that builds playgrounds in Bedouin villages, and Sara, a settler who believes that she has the G-d-given right to settle anywhere in Palestine. Amal wears a jihab and Sara covers her head with a scarf. That superficial commonality transforms into an abiding camaraderie. One of the more remarkable moments in the film occurs when Sara says that she can imagine visiting Amal in Beersheba.

After the film was released, a charity in Britain provided seed money for satellite Slim Peace groups. Despite her experience working in television, Luttwak resisted turning the project into a reality series. The groups were determinedly sacred spaces to cultivate hopes for peace.

Luttwak relates that throughout the Gaza crisis, Arab and Jewish women continued Slim Peace meetings in Jerusalem. By then their permanent venue was the YWCA near the King David Hotel. Another time, a Palestinian woman in the Jerusalem group went to her Slim Peace meeting as her house was being demolished on the West Bank. She said her commitment to her sister weight-watchers was the only way she knew to move forward.

A couple of years ago Slim Peace further invested in Israel’s future prospects for peace by establishing groups for adolescent girls. These groups were intended to provide safe refuges for girls to talk about body image and self-esteem. As Israeli and Arab girls became better acquainted it was blessedly obvious that Slim Peace was not about trying to be a size 4; rather its main goal was to help these girls from both sides of the Green Line to feel comfortable with one another.

Today there are 18 Slim Peace groups throughout Israel. Plans are in the works to bring the curriculum to Bosnia, Kosovo and the United States to facilitate similar relationships among Muslims, Jews and Christian women—women like Amal and Sara who would otherwise never have met one another.

 

 

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My Judaism by Judy Bolton-Fasman


Six years ago, when I was asked to give a talk on Yom Kippur, I decided to state some of my core beliefs with the simple declarative: I believe. Among my pronouncements about family, prayer and Israel I said that:

I believe that putting women on a pedestal distracts them from the fact that they do not have full and equal access to Jewish life and ritual. And relegating them behind a divider in the synagogue is the historical equivalent of having forced African-Americans to move to the back of the bus.

A few people pointed out that I was wrong when I compared the civil rights movement to gender separation in the synagogue. I thought long and hard about what my critics were saying. One in particular gave me pause. “I don’t agree that a mechitzah – a divider – is the equivalent of having African Americans in the back of the bus,” he wrote. “I don’t personally like a mechitzah and would not choose to pray with one, but it is not sexist in the way that the bus rules were racist.”

Over the years, I’ve reflected on that comment in the context of understanding my Judaism. I’ve come to learn that the Judaism I want to cultivate is powerful because it is unassuming and respectful. My Judaism doesn’t move someone to picket in front of Planned Parenthood to harass young women. My Judaism does not proselytize, because no one has the last word or the best take on G-d. I was born a Jew. But I continue to be a Jew because that’s the best way, the most meaningful way for me to navigate the world. I want my children to be Jews because if they stick with it, they’ll come to feel that their religion is vital and enriching.

My Judaism is the Judaism of Sara Schnerir, Joseph Solevetchik and Solomon Schechter – pioneers in Jewish education who believed that girls had the same rights as boys in a classroom.

I believe that a Jewish girl should have the same opportunities as a Jewish boy. I believe a Jewish girl should be in control of her spiritual life. I believe that Naama Margoles should never have been afraid to go to school.

Naama Margoles, a cherub-faced 8- year-old who lives due west of Jerusalem in Beit Shemesh, was cursed and spat upon by ultra-Orthodox men, a group of haredi fanatics, for going to school. Haredi translates as those who fear G-d, who tremble before G-d. Members of this extremist faction, which has been condemned by other haredim, believe their anger toward women is justified on behalf of G-d. This is not my G-d, nor is this the G-d of my Judaism.

Naama’s parents – Modern Orthodox Jews originally from Chicago – settled in Beit Shemesh, but their presence was too close for the comfort of some of their haredi neighbors. The haredi thought the length of Naama’s sleeves was immodest. Her destination – a single sex religious school – inappropriate. The women these haredi men placed on pedestals must have wept as Naama did when she walked through a daily gauntlet of hate. Those images of Naama reminded me of Ruby Bridges, who was also surrounded by faces twisted by prejudice and ignorance when she went to elementary school in 1960 New Orleans. Yes, she was cursed and spat upon too. Were the reasons really so different? Am I sidling up to a misguided historical equivalency?

Some haredi want pictures of women on bus stop advertisements and in newspapers to disappear across Israel. They must be so weak if they’re driven to distraction by the sight of a woman, shamelessly corrupted when she sings. There is a sign outside a synagogue in Beit Shemesh telling women to cross the street as if they somehow could taint the place. I have brilliant, forward thinking women friends who like the gender separation in their synagogues. For some, it takes them back to childhood. For others, they like the solidarity of praying close to other women. I have never heard one of them express concern that they feel relegated to the women’s section to spare men the temptation of thinking about them instead of G-d.

I worry about what will happen to Jews everywhere. Will my granddaughters cross a street in Jerusalem because there’s an unavoidable sign forcing them to do so. Will those same children look back on my generation, shaking their heads in disgust that we didn’t do more to protect our girls. Where is my Judaism? I need it to articulate my outrage.

I believe that world Jewry must acknowledge that we are engaged in a battle for the dignity of Jewish women. What does life mean without self-respect?

An editorial in Haaretz warned that when the dust settles in Beit Shemesh, “we’ll find out if we have a secular or religious society here; democratic, theocratic or fascist; Western or other.”

When the dust settles, we’ll see if a little girl in Beit Shemesh can go to school without making headlines, feeling sick to her stomach or stirring up more violence on behalf of the false G-d of extremists.