Israel’s Black Hebrews are Selling White Substance to Middle-class Homes, but No One’s Complaining
Recently, tofu has gone from food fad to mainstream nosh in the eyes of Israeli consumers. In addition to Tivol’s veggie wieners and Zongloweck’s tofu-based corn schnitzels, supermarket shoppers from Afula to Eilat now find themselves choosing from more than a dozen different types of fresh tofu, as well as a range of soya yogurts, desserts and vegan “cheeses,”? hard and soft. But, what few shoppers realize is that one of the leading brands of locally produced, fresh tofu is manufactured not by Tivol or Zongloweck, but by a small community of African-Americans who live in Isrel’s Hebev desert and claim to be their brethren.
The bulk of Israel’s Black Hebrew community arrived in Israel in the 1070s, claiming to be the descendants of Jews who moved to Africa after the destruction of the second temple and who were later shipped to the United States as slaves. Unlike most Jews, however, the Black Hebrews are strict vegans, interpreting Genesis 29:1 literally, restricting their diet to fruits and vegetables. As far as the Black Hebrews are concerned, chicken soup and kneidlach are as kosher as ham and eggs, and the less said about kishke, the better.
Their return to the Promised Land, however, was met less than enthusiastically. The rabbinate rejected their appeals for citizenship, leaving them vulnerable to deportation under the Law of Return, and their stay in Israel has remained tenuous. Moving to the desert town of Dimona, they quietly established their community near the nuclear power station and remained on the fringes of Israeli society. Until now.
As Israelis have become more accepting of different diets, the Black Hebrews – Israel’s largest vegan community – have begun to feel the benefits, both financially and socially. According to Avraham ben Isrel, the owner and manager of Nature’s Gate tofu factory, the Israeli public’s recent interest in all things soya has increased production by more than 20 percent. The factory, founded in 1985, now produces between 10 and 12 tons of tofu every month and is set to expand.
“I have a list of over 200 products that I’m already making for the community here,”? said ben Israel, who was born Adrian Butler and moved to Israel 34 years ago. “A lot of the products that have been made at Tivol and Zongloweck, I’ve been making for a while now, I just haven’t distributed them. Once we establish ourselves, we’re going to come out strong.”
With a world-class choir and a reputation for natural health care, the community has already gone some way toward establishing a higher profile. But the real push, says ben Israel, came with the outbreak of mad cow disease in Europe and the search for vegetarian alternatives. “Even in Dimona, which is majority Sephardim who have no knowledge – had no knowledge, I could say- of soya products and a healthy diet, they’re coming out of the woodwork and up to the factory to buy products, and that’s been amazing.”
But, while tofu appears to be bringing recognition for Israel’s African-American Jews, even ben Israel admits that his factory and its 17 employees are unlikely to turn the country into a nation of vegans. “They’re still going to have the chickens and the fish and some red meat,” he said of his shawarma-devouring compatriots, “but it’s not going to be so heavy. They’re going to try and put tofu into their diets. But, when you go and buy tofu, you got to know what tofu is,” he warned. “You don’t want to buy one that’s too white.”?