Soul Food: The African Hebrew Israelites serve up vegan cuisine and vibrant culture

Soul Vegetarian East; photo by Katie Buitrago

Soul Vegetarian East; photo by Katie Buitrago

Since I’ve always had a peculiar aversion to the idea of reheated food, I had never eaten any of the pre-packaged food that various Chicago restaurants sell at University of Chicago coffee shops. However, I recently had the good fortune of traveling to one of them: Soul Vegetarian East. “Soul Veg” is a strictly vegan restaurant, serving dishes such as the “Jerusalem (Protein) Steak” and the “Jerkfu Wrap.” Of course, as with all good vegan restaurants, even the most avid consumers of meat hardly care about, or even notice, the absence of so wonderful an ingredient. I had the “BBQ Protein Tidbits” as my appetizer: little bite-sized, malformed cubes of wonder. For my entrée I had the “BBQ Twist” which was, perhaps, a bit too much “BBQ” for one meal, but it all turned out well. My only complaint was that the portions were too large, and for the first time in quite a while, I took home food that I had not eaten for want of more space in my stomach.

But the most interesting things about Soul Vegetarian East are not the restaurant itself, however tastefully decorated, or even the food, however tastefully seasoned, but the people and the ideas behind it.

Soul Vegetarian East is not merely a vegan restaurant in south Chicago. It is not merely a place where people come to eat good food. It is not merely a business. It is, in the words of manager Arel Israel, “a community operation.” The restaurant has not existed for the past twenty-nine or so years with only profit in mind, he said. Particularly for the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, this restaurant is deeply entrenched in the community’s identity. About 150 families who practice this faith live in the area around the restaurant and, for them, this is a restaurant where they can sit, eat, read a newspaper and chat with friends.

Israel, despite being in his mid-20s, wears a serene yet stern expression much more appropriate to an accomplished political leader at least twice his age. I waited for him to serve a seemingly unending line of customers whom always seemed to arrive just as the one before was leaving. Finally, the flood of customers ceased and I was able to catch a few words with Israel. Animated and passionate, he gave me the history of the restaurant and religion.

The story begins in 70 CE, when the ancient Hebrew Israelites were dispersed from the Holy Land and held captive by a number of ancient civilizations. In 1966, Ben Ammi, the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem’s spiritual leader, decided, based on his belief that African-Americans are the descendants of the ancient Hebrew Israelites, that the time had come for the Children of Israel to return to the Holy Land. A year later, 400 Hebrew Israelites moved to Liberia to “purge themselves of the negative attributes they had acquired.”

Over the past forty years, they have grown to 4,000 in number, spread throughout Africa, the Caribbean, the United States, and Israel, which is home to half of them. This half resides within three towns in the southern part of the country: Dimona, Arad and Mitzpe Ramon. In 2004, after many years of debate with the Israeli government about whether they should be allowed to live there, the African Hebrew Israelites were granted resident status. Israel was born in Israel and moved to the United States to help run Soul Vegetarian East, which, about thirty years ago, was started to give the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem who resided in Chicago a place to eat, given their strictly vegan diet. There are versions of Soul Veg in many other parts of the United States, indeed, even in many other parts of the world. The organization boasts nine other restaurants in America, all in the South. They also have two locations in Israel, two in Ghana, and one in the Caribbean.

Their vegan custom is based, in particular, on Genesis 1:29, which states that God said, “Behold I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you.” Israel told me that it was not that they believe God said that they could never eat meat, but rather that meat was to be eaten at a later stage. And since the African Hebrew Israelites want to go back to the basic way of life, and shake off the state modernity has placed them in, a vegan lifestyle is the most pious choice.

Arel’s father, Asiel Israel, is the International Ambassador of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. He has a long history of humanitarian aid in African affairs. He is the president and CEO of Bold Spiritual Initiative, which helps African-Americans reconnect with Africa, and helped provide potable water to eight villages in Ghana. In the Eternity Juice Bar next door (which is run by the same management), there is a wonderful, brightly colored poster dedicated to the former Ghanan president, John Kufuor. Israel points to a man in a picture on the top. “This is my father,” he states.

The religion itself seems to be highly involved in African identity and pride: Ben Ammi rejected the oppressive bonds that African-Americans labored under in America, and proclaimed them a chosen, holy people, descended from the ancient Hebrew Israelites. However, there was a point in our conversation in which Israel pulled on the skin on his wrist. “It’s not about this,” he explains. It is deeper than both race and the delicious food that Soul Veg offers: it is a culture and, for the African Hebrew Israelites, a way of life.