“I hung out with the Yellow Deli People”: One woman’s story

The July 18th 2010 TAT story from Ben and Elizabeth about the Yellow Deli People sounded eerily familiar. I knew the name of the group before it was ever mentioned in the article: The Twelve Tribes Commonwealth of Israel. Three summers ago, I stayed with the same group for a few days in Rutland, Vermont while in the process of completing a 5-month Appalachian Trail thru-hike.  They run an adorable hostel upstairs from their business, The Back Home Again Café and Juice Bar, and offer a “work for stay” option. This means that for perhaps 1-2 hours of work (washing dishes, sweeping, peeling potatoes, whatever), we are able to have a roof over our heads and eat well without paying a dime. These deals are highly attractive to the thru-hiking community, who would do just about anything for the promise of a hot meal, a shower, and a real mattress.

From http://www.backhomeagaincafe.com

The weather during the first half of Vermont had oscillated between cold drizzle and oppressive heat, and after one of our more interesting hitchhiking experiences, my hiking partner and I arrived at the café exhausted and hungry. Upon entering, we were struck by the atmosphere of the place: intricate, hand-carved wooden beams, exposed brick, cozy lighting and with hanging plants everywhere…definitely an other-worldly Middle Earth sort of vibe, with the elfin community members happily running around with serving trays. We were greeted with warm smiles, and promptly led toward the showers (stocked with intoxicating homemade lavender and tea tree soap). The men and women were conservatively dressed, and I immediately felt self-conscious in my clingy, sweaty tank top. I knew we must’ve reeked, and yet they invited us to join their family for dinner. They were amazingly nice people, but I’ll admit I was a little unnerved by their serenity. What is their deal?

From http://www.backhomeagaincafe.com

There was a variety of reading material in the bunkrooms for our perusal: things about the homemade soap, menu choices for the café below, and…what’s this?…pamphlets about following Yahshua with all of one’s being? Ah, the light bulb went off in my head. The Twelve Tribes Community, it seems, is a branch of fundamental Christianity trying to return to as close to a traditional Jewish lifestyle as possible. This includes, but is not limited to, communal living, strict gender roles, homeschooling and labor for the children, shared finances and possessions, Hebrew names given for all community members, and universal hairstyles and clothing. After a few hours of working side-by-side, we were on a first name basis with several of the community members and our interactions felt comfortable enough to ask them some questions about their path: why the traditional, regimented dress code? Why did you join the group and how does your family feel about this? They responded patiently and smiling sweetly. They seemed acutely aware of cult-like perceptions outsiders have of the group. Whatever their reasons, they seemed really happy. I know I couldn’t handle it, but to each their own, I guess.

From http://www.backhomeagaincafe.com

Travelers take note, the people here are interesting, welcoming, and open to questions, and the food is delicious and wholesome. We were told that we should look up other community locations if we were ever in need of a place to stay. Just be prepared to volunteer in the kitchen (or wherever they need help), in addition to experiencing the magnetic pull of that peace-and-love feeling…which may creep you out a bit upon escaping the place.

By: Maribeth Latvis

The Yellow Deli People – Great Deli, Controversial Religious Practices

After Bonnaroo, we were tired, footsore, and hungry. Chugging around in Chattanooga, Tennessee, late afternoon, right after we checked out Ruby Falls, we just wanted something relatively healthy to eat. I was sick of our makeshift peanut butter on dry rolls and banana chips, supplemented with my one or two Bonnaroo food stand foods I allowed myself each day. I just wanted something fresh, tasty, organic, if possible, and unaffiliated with any cult. Is that too much to ask?

“Go by the university, where the yuppies and foodies are,” offered my companion. Signs pointed uphill. I made a right and a left and another few rights and then an attractive building flashed by and a sign, The Yellow Deli. It seemed like the kind of place you’d find near a university, with branded organic foods and teas on the shelves, track lighting, varnished wooden tables, a hand-drawn menu covered in soy products. We walked upstairs to the mezzanine and were seated at a table near a tastefully lit lounge section with couches, lamps and a fireplace. I joked with Elizabeth about some spelling mistakes on the menu, trying to impress her with my overly pedantic sense of humor, but the waitress overheard me say “‘jalapeño’ is j-a-l-a, not j-a-l-e”.

“Oh, sorry” she laughed nervously. “There might be some typos in there.” I felt guilty about returning their politeness with criticism. Elizabeth said good-naturedly “You can ignore him, he’s an editor.” Everyone laughed politely. I felt like some pretentious New York asshole, sensitive to things like grammar but I couldn’t help but mutter “you can’t make ‘typos’ in something handwritten” to Elizabeth, who rolled her eyes. I turned my eyes to the pamphlet they pushed on me as I walked in the door, unnoticed till now. It was some editorial missive on the hippie, organic lifestyle, a similar agenda as many food coops and organic cafes.

We had chili and a salad, and while we ate we studied the elaborate wall mural. There was a kind of Christ figure or an Elijah, some prophet, leading a group of people. Written over the mural was the story and philosophical declaration of the flower children of the ’60s, and about their disillusionment with our vain earthly pursuit of peace. There was some more stuff about Timothy Leary, which is to be expected, but there was a distinctly Christian-ish bent. We began to feel slightly disquieted; usually the organic movement and the flower children are maligned by the religious as fanciful hippies, dedicated liberals who embrace lives of promiscuity. This oil/water mixture shouldn’t be allowed, I thought. And what’s this? Scripture on the check…I started reading the pamphlet they gave us upon walking in, skipping past the friendly, familiar hippy declarations at the beginning and getting to the part about some version of Christ and some leader we all should follow. Still, it was decent food and it’s tough to feel alarmed by those who feed you. To me, people take on a definite maternal quality as soon as they hand me a plate, which is as a proffered breast to my trusting, infantile eyes. And they were all so nice.

Each step on the varnished staircase was inscribed with the name of a tribe of Israel, written in transliterated Hebrew or Aramaic or something. “Maybe this is some kind of Jewish place,” I conjectured aloud to Elizabeth. A woman at the counter smiled.

Back in the car we did our research. It turns out The Yellow Deli People, or The Twelve Tribes, is a fundamentalist religious group with arcane practices and rigid, draconian rules—and a great deli. They also proselytize and compel each of their converts to give up their possessions to the community, including their children, who are raised communally and according to their strict religious practices. In other words, a cult!

“Oh my god we ate at a cult!” screamed Elizabeth, and we made the usual jokes about suicide kool-aid and sexual initiation rites, tantalizing to our overactive, alarmist imaginations.  She read an article about a former Yellow Deli member who escaped, and we loved the creepiness and the chills down our spines. You might too? For a good time, eat at the Yellow Deli in Chattanooga! The food is good, don’t drink the kool-aid, skip the pamphlets, enjoy the feeling of being stared at.

By: Ben Britz

Photos by: Ben Britz and Elizabeth Seward

Read about how one of our writers came to stay with them for a while!