The Hebrew Israelites' Secret to Eternal Life

The Dimona community believes vegans can live forever. But even unbelievers will see a kind of revelation in their divine toffees, wonderful whole wheat pasta, and a whole range of other artisanal food products.

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Boaz Ben Israel and his ice cream.
Boaz Ben Israel and his ice cream.Credit: Dan Peretz
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Yair Israel, like other members of the second generation of the Hebrew Israelites of Dimona, believes he will live forever: “Our parents, who were not born to veganism, but took it upon themselves in midlife, ruined their bodies with meat and therefore can’t expect to live forever. I believe that members of my generation and I will live forever.”

The members of this community began immigrating to Israel in the late 1960s in the wake of their leader, Ben Ammi Ben-Israel (Ben Carter). They believe that they, descendants of African-American slaves, are among the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. The vegan dietary regime they have developed is based on an interpretation of a verse from the book of Genesis: “And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed – to you it shall be for food’” according to Yehoshua Ben Yehudah, one of the community’s doctors.

Dr. Nir Avieli, of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva, has been studying the community’s lifestyle for over a decade, together with Dr. Fran Markowitz. “At the heart of the community’s theology is the idea of a paradise on earth, here and now, and the vegan dietary regime that they have been researching and developing for years is the means of achieving it. They are intelligent and educated people, and when you insist and bring proof of the existence of death, they say – okay, not forever, but what’s wrong with living to the age of 130 in a healthy body? The truth is that I would also agree to that already now.”

The boy who worked for pennies

Every Wednesday, crates of vegetables are distributed to the families of Kfar Shalem, an “urban kibbutz” in Dimona where the Hebrew Israelites live. Rows of crates containing carrots, huge cabbages and cauliflowers fill the square at the entrance to the neighborhood. Soul music blares from the loudspeakers. Some of the vegetables are grown on the community’s collective farm, while others are purchased from other organic growers in the region. Among the low-slung, modest-looking homes are well-kept paths and tiny vegetable gardens for private use.

We can only guess at the crowded conditions inside the houses. Almost 3,000 men and women live in the small area of the urban village. Most of them have not received citizenship or permanent residency status in Israel.

Yair Israel doesn’t conceal some of the difficulties he experienced in his childhood. “I started working at the age of eight. Mom, who gave birth to nine children, was expelled from the country at the time. We stayed here, ostensibly under the custody of the community. I used to work at whatever job they gave me, in return for 1 shekel. To this day many of the city residents remember me, the boy who worked for pennies. My eight siblings, like many others in the community, gave up and went back to the United States. Mom returned only after eight years. And I’m not giving up. Everything I experienced only strengthened me.”

A few years ago Israel launched Otentivee (“authentically natural”), a tiny factory located in the Dimona industrial zone, which produces a selection of tofu and seitan items (seitan is a meat substitute made from wheat gluten). These include burgers made of mushrooms, black lentils and other legumes; vegan quiches made with whole wheat flour; vegan cheeses based on soya and vegan sauces and desserts.

“The present vegan awakening makes me very happy, because we want to spread the word,” says Israel. At first Israel went from house to house in the area trying to sell his wares. “That’s how I met my partner, Kobi Yehezkeli from Be’er Sheva, who has been a vegan from an early age.” Today he sells to a large number of restaurants and private customers in the south and center of the country, and there is also a vegan food truck, an attractive trailer that serves as a mobile snack bar, which they can set up anywhere and cook for special events. Now he is trying to help other small food producers from the community expand beyond its boundaries. All of them produce artisanal food in very small quantities and some have been practicing their craft for decades.

Perpetual energy

We walk toward the communal dining room, where some of the producers of artisanal food products have gathered to display their produce to the guests. On the way we pass the bulletin board that announces the date of the approaching “raw food” week. Four times a year, community members spend a week eating only raw food that is not cooked or processed; every Shabbat, they fast from Friday evening to Saturday night; they consume salt only on alternate days, and there are also weeks when they all refrain from eating sugar.

Celia Bat Israel has always loved sweet things. “In the 1970s, when we came to Israel and changed our diet, we left most of the sweets behind,” says her husband, Avior. “Celia worriedly asked what would happen, and I suggested that she try to prepare sweets from natural and healthful ingredients.” Since then, Celia has specialized in preparing vegan sweets (which are sold under the name Nature’s Sweets). Some of them imitate American favorites like Snickers and Mars candy bars; others are made of a carob substitute for chocolate; and the best ones, like the divine peanut butter toffee candies, are made from a nut paste and sweetened with honey collected by community members.

Yaheli Bat Israel prepares 12 types of pickled vegetables under the brand name Quintessence Foods. Aliram Ben Israel squeezes and prepares delicious fruit and herb juices, with the label Etz Haim: “Jerusalem Sunrise” contains hibiscus, cinnamon, fresh ginger juice and apple juice, and “Perpetual Energy” is a green tea seasoned with cardamom and stevia.

In a tiny workshop in the center of the village, Ilait and Rafaya are preparing and drying pasta made from whole wheat or buckwheat flour. “I took over for my mother, who began by preparing pasta by hand. During the first decade we didn’t even have a pasta machine,” says Ilait. “Her mother, who was my best friend and who was born in Birmingham, Alabama, was a wonderful cook,” adds Rafaya, a professional chef who travels the world to spread the word about vegan cooking, and urges the visitors to taste her No Meat Balls pasta (the brand name is The Pipes of Life).

Next to the tiny atelier of Ilana Simhaya, piles of kale and other vegetables are waiting to be dried. For over a generation she has been preparing a selection of dried fruit and vegetable snacks, seasoned nuts and seeds and a selection of crackers.

Boaz Ben Israel’s ice cream parlor – the shop window displays dozens of flavors of ice cream based on soy milk and organic fruit purees – is one of the most popular places in the village and one of the few visited by people outside the community. “I’ve been making ice cream for 10 years, but only a year ago did I fly to Italy to take a gelato course,” says Boaz. “I’ve been a vegan from birth, so I couldn’t taste a single ice cream they prepare, except for sorbets that I’ll also be making soon.”

According to Avieli, the Hebrew Israelites’ dietary regime is “related to their world view about repairing the injustice caused to the African slaves. The body can be a slave, but the soul will remain free. The basic assumption is that Creation is perfect; all that is needed is to be cleansed of man’s injustices, whether those caused to the black man in Africa or the injustices of mankind in general.”

Otentivee, 16 Hapoalim Street, Dimona, 053-522-5632. (Order products delivered to your home, including those made by other members of the community, or you can come to buy and eat on the premises)

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