The cuteness of the Yellow Deli is literally irresistible. The benches and tables are carved from huge slabs of reclaimed wood and situated in nooks which bestow you with a cozy, secluded sanctuary; the lighting is soft and flattering; the décor is rustic and homey. And the food. Dear God the food. Fresh, organic, rich, comforting, and prepared with obvious love. It takes a few blinks to notice the odd garb of the staff, because they blend right into the ambience. The men wear hearty beards and ponytails and the women are fascinatingly modest, with no face paint and hair as plain as you can imagine, all in clothing one step shy of burlap sacks. Is this a coincidence of flower children all happening to accumulate in one establishment?
Nope. This is a cult.
I use such a label with hesitance, because it brings to mind thoughts of Kool-Aid and mass suicide and sex scandals. This is a cult more like the Amish.
It was in Rutledge, Vermont that Kurt and I first made acquaintance with the Twelve Tribes, drawn to their cheery, yellow restaurant façade like moths to a search light. The food was a culinary orgasm and the people were as pleasant and generous and patient and warm as any human is capable. We were eager to learn more. They showed us the adjoining hostel (equally adorable), where weary or impoverished travelers (many walking the Appalachian Trail), could exchange labor for room and board. They spoke of their faith and their disillusionment with modern religions and warmed the cockles of my cold, cold heart.
Imagine the direction of my travel when I discovered a Yellow Deli listing in Australia.
Kurt had climbed aboard a plane to go land his dream job Stateside, so I departed Sydney solo and headed for the hills. After a long drive into the Blue Mountains and a heart-racing decent and climb up the Giant’s Stair alongside the renown and far-too-photographed Three Sisters pinnacles, I headed into the town of Katoomba for my one splurge meal of the month at a restaurant I was certain would be worth it. You might as well have picked up Vermont’s Yellow Deli and plunked it directly into the mountains of Australia. Identical ambience, identical staff, identical menu. Absolutely no complaint from me.
The wait staff gave me pick of any bench in the establishment, an awkward choice because of my solo nature and the availability only of huge tables. Pragmatism dictated I choose a 4-top, but the presence of two interesting looking backpackers induced me to claim the 10-seat slab near to them. Conversation came easy, both with them (two French chaps, Lucas and Marc, just beginning their world trip) and the wait staff. It was a night of smiles and insight and pure deliciousness. The backpackers could only afford beverages here, and were keen to go heat up a ramen dinner, but invited me to join them for the night in their parking lot, as we were all sleeping in our cars and eager for some company.
My huge and hearty dinner arrived after their departure and I expected a solo consumption, but was joined by a rotating company of the wait staff on their own dinner breaks. We spoke of philosophy and the failure of modern religions, what exactly they believed and how that manifest itself in their everyday living. Their way of life was firing on all levels for me – organic, simple, devoid of selfishness and brimming with love and care. Until, somehow they drifted the topic toward evolution.
There are few “beliefs” I hold near and dear, as I am willing to change my opinion about nearly anything provided you have convincing evidence to do so. The scientific method is one of these beliefs because its entire concept is that evidence perpetually creates and recreates truth. Evolution is one such truth, backed by so much evidence it is impossible to refute by a person of actual reason.
Right here was our topic of impasse. I coughed up their metaphorical kool-aid and started probing for the cracks in their beliefs. Just a drop of doubt introduced in the right place and an entire structure of faith can be compromised.
But they killed my desire to break them with pure kindness.
The boys and I returned for beverages the following night and, when the wait staff learned I had blown my budget on dinner with them the night before, they brought forth piles of food and beverage, completely free of charge, because they are really, truly that generous. They had already eagerly invited me to join them at the organic farm in the lowlands for a bit of WOOFing, and I now jumped at the chance – I wanted a sneaky beak inside this beast.
Unexpectedly, Lucas and Marc joined me. They needed to work on their fixer-upper of a jeep sorta thing (a 4wd Jackaroo), and thought the community might be willing to lend some tools. What happened is that my new French friends rear-ended an SUV in heavy traffic en route and wound up needing to borrow a lot more tools. The trauma of the situation bound us into a tight friendship, and we became inseparable companions, though the community constantly raised eyebrows at our easy banter and tried their damnedest to keep us distanced (conversion by isolation perhaps? Or just weirded out that girls and guys can get on so well without the necessity of procreation inspiring it?).
The farm sits on some hefty acreage a short drive from its companion restaurant near Picton, Oz. We arrived, a little shaken, to a meal of whatever we wanted from the salivation-inducing menu and another illuminating conversation with our favorite tribe member (who invited us to call him Ken, because remembering everyone’s Hebrew names was proving pretty difficult).
Work would begin the following day, thus the boys were shepherded off to the single males’ dorm (hot water bottles already warming the sheets), and I was returned to the farm to a camper trailer of exquisite luxury about 300 yards from anybody’s company. Morning prayer was at 7, but I awoke so early in anticipation of a real shower (I had been bathing in a waterfall for days) that I sadly avoided being lulled out of sleep by an exclusive performance of recorder and vocals by the young women.
Is this seriously for real?
Shit got real at that morning prayer.
It was the very definition of soul-sucking, even for this native English speaker who is fascinated by religion (I truly pitied the Frenchies and their inevitable incomprehension). This was a total overdose of meandering thoughts and impractical lessons. Passages are read from the Bible (they use several versions to compare the translations), and a multitude of contemplations are shared. Even the children are asked to ruminate. What widened my eyes was when the Bible study leader didn’t know, within a passage he was preaching, what a key noun meant. He was honestly asking the community. To wrap up, everybody (and I mean EVERYBODY) takes several minutes to reflect on the topic of the day. Or really anything else they want. It is filled with raising of hands to Jesus, love and selflessness and these people are serious rockstars at compassion but, OMG, shut up.
Thank the heavens that, for the evening prayer, snacks, music and dance are welcomed into the mix. It is happy and heart-warming, and the live music of guitar and recorders is pretty respectable, but the dancing (based on Hebrew group movement) is sloppy at best (and they occasionally do this in public to attract new members). I long to join in, but it takes an entire song just to make sense of the footwork.
After an insanely delicious breakfast, we head to work – Lucas off to construct a house 12-years in the making (it has a long way to go, but will eventually house the full community), Marc to the bakery (it’s ‘men’s work’ here because of the crazy hours) and me to the place where all women belong (the kitchen). It felt phenomenal to be working again, and one of the members remarked at how at home I looked. As long as you don’t scratch too deep past the surface, this place really did feel like home.
Marc, for better and worse, was laboring alongside some French-speaking members, and his expression morphed from a smiling befuddlement in the morning to sheer aversion come dinnertime. He was just now coming to comprehend what they believe and was as horrified as I, minus the insatiable curiosity.
What concerned us most were the children. The adults had all come to the community by choice, sacrificing their independence and possessions willingly, but these youth would be confined to their parents’ choice for likely their whole lives. They are the nicest damned cherubs you shall ever meet, infused with respect and personal responsibility and empathy, but their role in society was carved in stone the moment their gender was determined.
The men shall bake and build, and the women shall cook and bear children. Their understanding of science will not extend beyond compost tea and soil composition. They will not have the skills with money or human nature to survive outside the community should they come to give it a try. And they certainly shan’t gift the world with their skills as a doctor or astronaut or even enjoy personal hobbies like mountaineering or travel. I enquired of this, and it was explained that aspirations of this nature are contrary to their beliefs of selflessness. They don’t even ‘own’ their own clothing, as it all comes from a community closet (though you are allowed to express preferences in color or style, not that I saw evidence of it).
I inquired too if a women might have the option to build or bake, but was greeted with a puzzled response. Why would a woman want such back-breaking work or such terrible hours? She has children to tend in the early mornings and her womb will be damaged with heavy lifting. And, I ask, what if this woman has no inclination to produce babies? The unhesitated response is that there is no such woman. This is a tribe that values family above all else. But, in fact, they are desperate for women of child-bearing years.
Following the evening lesson, dance, and group dinner (nachos heaped with actual sour cream and guacamole, both prohibitively expensive for my personal finances), I sought to freshen up my utterly spent laundry for the next day’s departure toward Melbourne. What I came to learn is that you can cook and use electricity and dance and wash dishes on the Sabbath, but you sure as hell cannot have a machine do your laundry.
How does a tribe come to decide what they believe and what Biblical rules to follow or ignore? For them, a question arises, they ruminate for a time, and wait for a spirit to guide them. The spirit said no to laundry.
And if some members believe the spirit is speaking one way, and others say another? Well, as explained by my laundry-denying new teacher, if you find yourself speaking alone, you are listening to a false, lying spirit. You can’t even argue with this kind of crazy. Just smile and nod.
Within a year or two this community will embark on a crazy experiment of faith. The Old Testament requires of the Hebrews that every seven years they and their fields rest. There will be no commerce and no agriculture. In the decades this group has existed, this schmita has never been attempted (it seems pretty rare that the Hebrews even tried it). They are deep into the ponderings of the logistics and awaiting spiritual guidance. I long to be a fly on the wall to watch it all unfold. Good thing we are here now, eating like kings, and not when they are starving come next winter.While Marc’s jaw and spirit progressively dropped over the day, Lucas experienced a fabulous diurnal of work and made good progress on Jackaroo repair. Hilarious to me to see such dichotomy of experience between two best friends. Despite Marc’s heavy protest, they would remain two more nights to savor the comfort of this community while nursing their wounds. I would leave that next morning. And that next morning has affected my sleep ever since.
Sometimes your alarm does not go off because you set it when you are already half asleep. This was one such morning, and I was 300 yards removed from anything that would wake me up, save for the eventual sun . . . oh shit. The slightest hint of sunlight thru the camper window means I am already late for the morning prayer. No choral wakeup today – most of the group have departed for a festival up in Katoomba. I stagger into the meeting sleep-drunk and am reasonably certain what happened next is that they, despite their façade of pure compassion, cursed me for all eternity to wake up with the sun. I haven’t been able to sleep past dawn since.
I suppose this lengthy rumination needs a wrap-up, but I fear I cannot tie it into a tidy bow. It also lacks good photographic evidence of these people, because I didn’t want to come off as voyeuristic, even if I am. I am in love with them and adore their place in the world; they seem excellent stewards of the land and show the rest of us it is possible to live a selfless, simple life and to be happy doing it. But I also abhor much of what they believe and I remain conflicted on some values they bestow onto their children. Is your biggest aspiration as a young girl truly limited to exceptional motherhood?
Would the world would be a better place if filled with these folks? Possibly. It certainly would taste better. Are they hypocrites to embrace the science of soil ecology and the technology of electricity and credit card machines, but reject modern medicine (save for extreme cases) and the inconvenient truths science also offers, like evolution? I can’t even imagine what a homosexual child born into this world would experience. The depths of woe I suppose.
What I do know, with certainty, is that the Twelve Tribes and I get on famously, provided nobody mentions dinosaurs or monkeys, and that I will be back, be it in Oz or Stateside (or in their castle in Germany) because I long to mimic their lifestyle, just minus one very overreaching Book.