When I meet Arel Brown, he is in his hairnet and apron, sporting the neon green T-shirt that is the uniform of Eternity Juice Bar & Deli. He is in the middle of preparing food, and shows me the pieces of raw kale stuck to his hand when I reach out to shake it. “My hands are a bit dirty right now,” he apologizes.
Brown is the owner and manager of Greater Grand Crossing’s Soul Vegetarian East restaurant and its juice bar and deli extension. He takes off his apron and leads me to the main dining area, where, even at 4pm, most of the tables are full. An older man, lean and well-dressed in a tightly tailored black suit and tie, greets Brown and walks with us into the next room, an unoccupied, more formal dining area. He sits down and introduces himself. “My name is Prince Asiel Ben Israel,” he says, each of his names a carefully enunciated burst of sound punctuated by a short pause.
I am surprised and delighted to hear this, because I know who Prince Asiel Ben Israel is, though I have been unable to find out much about him. Ben Israel and his wife, Yohanna Brown, started Soul Vegetarian East in 1982; the birth of their son Arel and the addition of the Eternity Juice Bar and Deli followed soon after.
Ben Israel is a charismatic figure, and he speaks in an even, amiable tone–except, as when he introduced himself, when he wants to make sure he is heard clearly. Given the recent controversy to hit Soul Vegetarian, this instinct to guard against potential misunderstandings makes sense: a November interview in the A.V. Club Chicago quoted Yohanna Brown as saying, “Women don’t wear men’s clothing, and men don’t wear women’s. If you look at present culture, you can see how breaking these guidelines has led to things like homosexuality.”
Brown and Ben Israel are both Hebrew Israelites, and this identity is the basis of their vegan offerings. Based on an interpretation of Old Testament dietary prescriptions, they support a vegan diet as the source of both spiritual and physical health and believe that being mindful of one’s diet is the first step to living a healthy lifestyle. While this belief is in and of itself unproblematic for most, some have voiced concern that the source of these beliefs is also the source of Brown’s homophobic remarks.
In face of accusations of poor journalism for not pressing the statement in the interview with Brown, the A.V. Club quickly ran a follow-up article and a response from Brown herself, which is worth quoting in full:
“First, let me apologize to the people, customers, Soul Vegetarian Restaurant, and its staff. I do not, nor have I ever discriminated, against anyone based upon race, gender, or lifestyle. Certainly, Soul Vegetarian does not discriminate on any level and to those whom I have offended, I am deeply apologetic, for giving the impression that I am homophobic, because I am not.
“In retrospect, I should have maintained my focus around food, veganism, and the nutritional value it adds to life and longevity. Again, my most sincere apologies for the miscommunication which has caused A.V. Chicago readers and Soul Vegetarian patrons to become offended. I, along with the Soul Vegetarian staff, have worked since the opening of the restaurant to create and maintain an environment that offers a warm, welcoming and enjoyable dining experience for everyone. I am open and willing to communicate further and invite anyone who has taken offense to join me at Soul Vegetarian.”
Ben Israel eats a cup of soup with a piece of cornbread on the side as we speak. When I broach the subject of the A.V. Club interview, he says, “It was truly a misunderstanding. That was my wife, and she doesn’t have a biased bone in her body. We’re not anti any of those things you may have read about. I’m comfortable with you asking any questions about it.” He attributes his wife’s remarks to old habits from growing up in the South, where a lack of lifestyle sensitivity is treated as common sense by many. “Our customers are completely diverse. And we welcome it.”
I, too, was raised in the South and became accustomed to the savory and inevitably meaty delights of soul food before crossing the Mason-Dixon line and becoming a vegetarian. To me, the allure of Soul Veg was undeniable–their vegan mac and cheese is beyond words–and it was also a South Side establishment I was proud to support. But I happen to reside in the space where vegetarianism and non-heterosexuality overlap. So the controversy surrounding Soul Veg resonated with me on a very personal level, and I found myself unsure about what to make of Brown and her statements. While well-meaning and not intentionally hateful, they clearly bear a sharp, homophobic edge.
One may detect a sense of irony in a vegetarian restaurant being accused of homophobia. But, regardless of the quality of the food, making the decision to discontinue patronage requires nuanced thinking. Any account of the restaurant, its founders, and their beliefs requires precisely the kind of discernment that attitudes like homophobia lack, or else those who accuse become no better than those they accuse.
One question that many people rightly turn to is the experience of being in the restaurant itself. One A.V. Club commenter writes, “It’s not just one person’s opinion, it’s the policy at the restaurant. They ask same-sex couples to not show affection and then lecture them about it.” Another said, “SV is a very strict cult and you feel it when you dine there.”
Scanning through Soul Veg’s Yelp page, besides occaisonal ambivalence toward the food, the only complaint that surfaces regularly is the slow service. From my own personal experience, I’ve never detected any air of exclusivity or hostility, not accounting for one waitress who seemed to be particlarly unhappy to be at work that day.
Certainly, the restaurant has been very attentive to the criticism it has faced. Aside from the apologies that Soul Vegetarian has issued both on the A.V. Club site and on their own Facebook page, the restaurant has also made a gesture toward the gay community by advertising with gayborhood.com, a site that purports itself to be “the yellow pages for the LGBTQ community.”
A greater cause for concern seems to be the restaurant’s affiliation with the Hebrew Israelites. The A.V. Club’s follow-up article linked to well known articles in the Village Voice and the Washington City Paper about partiuclar branches of the group. These pieces paint a picture of a highly secretive, delusional, and radical cult with teachings that support black supremacy, homophobia, and misogyny. On this front, Ben Israel distinguishes his family and community from other groups under the Hebrew Israelite heading, and laments the publicly perceived homogeneity.
“They’re trying to make the Hebrew Israelites one people,” he says. “It’s like saying ‘white people’ or ‘Hispanic people.’ That’s the simplicity of using the word ‘Hebrew Israelite.’ The handful of us that left America and went into Israel, we don’t even register on the scale in terms of people. So, yeah we get all of the bad press because we use the same name, but the Hebrew Israelites in New York, Philadelphia, or California, wherever, I have no connection with them.”
Ben Israel is referring to the fact that he and his wife were part of a small group of around 200 African-Americans who left the States to live in Israel during the early 1970s. It was during this time that they transitioned to a strict vegan diet. This group found themselves the subject of a 1998 study conducted by researchers from Waverly Belmont Medical Center, Meharry Medical College, and Vanderbilt University, which sought to untangle the hereditary causes from lifestyle forces driving chronic disease in African-Americans.
By following a vegan diet, encouraging exercise three times a week, and eliminating added salt, the study found that the group had effectively eliminated problems of obesity, hypertension, and high cholesterol. “These changes in lifestyle might prevent chronic disease in American blacks,” the study concluded, “but would be hard to achieve without the unifying power of community and spirituality.”
In many ways, Soul Vegetarian cannot be separated from the community it serves. In the South Side of Chicago, food is intricately intertwined with the socioeconomic status of the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as the aforementioned health problems. Michelle Obama recently took some time off of her husband’s re-election campaign to speak at a South Side Walgreens about the need for healthy food options in poorer urban areas: “In so many neighborhoods, if people want to buy a head of lettuce or salad or some fruit for their kid’s lunch, they have to take two or three buses, maybe pay for a taxicab, in order to do it.”
Whatever the beliefs of whatever branches of the Hebrew Israelites, the realities of the 75th Street restaurant cannot be ignored. It has found incredible success as one of few South Side establishments that not only encourages healthy eating but also turns Obama’s claim on its head. People take buses, cabs, and cars to the South Side to eat their BBQ Twist sandwiches and Protein Tidbits. They come from Oak Park, Lincoln Park, and–if Yelp reviewers can be believed–Toronto. Their products are stocked at Whole Foods, Walgreens, and Treasure Island. You can find it in cafÃ©s at the University of Chicago (where it is not to be confused with “Soul Gourmet,” another supplier of vegetarian packed lunches) as well as at the DePaul Barnes & Noble cafÃ©.
The Chicago restaurant is currently being renamed Original Soul Vegetarian, as it has spawned other locations in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., West Africa, and Israel. Chicago’s Soul Veg is currently owned solely by Ben Isreal and his family, while the others remain affiliated with the Hebrew Israelite community at large.
When I ask Ben Israel how he explains the restaurant’s success, he gives me a wry grin and answers matter-of-factly: “Best food out there.” He continues, “The taste, the love. We really mean it like that. No one prepares the food who’s angry or mad, so that energy doesn’t transfer into the food. I think that gives us the edge over ordinary vegetarians or vegans, that we really have the foundation from a very spiritual place. I didn’t open this to make a profit.”
In a time of “pink slime,” Soul Veg’s edge derives directly from their purpose. Arel Brown was born in the Hebrew Israelite community in Israel, where he was raised on a vegan diet. “A guy like me,” he says, “I’ve been doing it for 30 years. I’m 30 years old, and I’ve never had meat or dairy a day in my life. And my father’s been doing it since before I even got here, he’s been doing it for 45 years. So, that kind of hands-on experience is different from someone feeling they want to do it just in the business aspect. That’s what sets us apart from a lot of other people, we only serve what we eat.”
In its 31st year, Soul Veg is still growing and expanding. They will be participating in this year’s Chicago Green Festival and Chicago’s first Veggie Pride parade in June, and they still remain active in the South Side community. The restaurant is currently working in conjunction with Dr. Terry Mason, Chief Medical Officer of the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, on the Restart4Health program. The aim is to encourage people to become more conscientious of their eating habits by “restarting” their bodies with one month of vegetarianism. Last year they were part of a series of lectures on healthy eating attended by over 4,000 people.
“The African-American community has begun to look towards healthy lifestyle changes, and food is a main part of that. So vegetarianism provides that beacon for them,” says Ben Israel.
Ben Israel and his family, just like their critics, understand that food is anything but just food. And being conscientious of the who, where, what, why, and how of food is exactly what is demanded when taking a stance on Soul Veg. The concern expressed in reaction to the A.V. Club interview did its work by demanding that Brown’s statements be accounted for.
In my conversation with Ben Israel and his son, it was clear that they felt the need to provide such an account and that they were open to discuss it with anyone. “If anyone has questions like you did, tell them to feel comfortable to come here and talk to us, because we’re here, we’re here for you. We dedicate ourselves not just to business but to community also,” said Brown.
After Ben Israel has finished his soup, and the interview begins to wrap up, I ask father and son if they have anything else they’d like to tell me.
They smile and say, “We’re clear. All clear.”
205 75th Street. Monday-Thursday 11am-9pm; Friday 11am-10pm; Saturday 8:30am-10pm. (773)224-0104.