Postville When Cultures Collide Essay

The United States Census Bureau reports that the American population topped 281 million in the year 2000, a ten-year gain of about 13 percent in a country that is more pluralistic—ethnically, culturally, religiously—than ever before. A tiny fraction of those people inhabit Postville, Iowa. Its less than 1,500 rural residents live in the northeastern part of the state, not far from the Mississippi River and the state’s Wisconsin-Minnesota line, where 90 percent of the people have Lutheran roots. Iowa’s population of 2.8 million gets its largest income from manufacturing, but this Midwestern heartland remains best known for agriculture. In pork, corn, and soybean production, 97,000 farms put Iowa first in the nation. Meanwhile, although the latest census found that 28.3 million—about 10 percent—of the U.S. population is foreign-born, Iowa added relatively little to those figures. Its people are more homogeneous and white (96 percent) than the country as a whole. Largely for that reason, the journalist Stephen Bloom found that an obscure Iowa hamlet contained an unexpected story, which the author tells with sensitivity and skill. Postville, a cautionary tale, deserves attention. Its fascinating description and thoughtful appraisal of a cultural clash in small-town America provides instructive preparation, personal and public, for a twenty-first century life that keeps the nation coping with tensions between unity and diversity.

In 1993, Bloom became a professor of journalism at the University of Iowa. Climbing into a packed 1979 Volvo, leaving behind his fast-paced career as a writer in San Francisco, one of the most culturally varied cities in the United States, Bloom and his family headed east, scarcely imagining how dissimilar their Iowa City surroundings would be. Houses with big yards and large front porches, a culture that takes hunting seriously, extremes of climate, and a basic honesty that still keeps homes unlocked and gas pumped before paying—these were examples that only began to illustrate how Iowa’s sameness made it different. As Stephen and Iris Bloom watched Mikey, their young son, becoming “less and less an urban kid,” they missed San Francisco from time to time, but on the whole they liked Iowa. Loneliness, however, created an exception to that rule, and it would be a factor in Bloom’s discovery of Postville.

In Iowa, Bloom found, being lonely and being Jewish went together. About 4.5 million of the world’s estimated 14 million Jews live in the United States. The Blooms were among the handful in Iowa, where culture, if not commitment, was steeped so thoroughly in the traditions of Christianity as to make it commonplace that the Easter edition of the Cedar Rapids Gazette would feature a banner headline announcing, “HE HAS RISEN.” Such a culture, Bloom observed, could lead people to say, “We know, we’ve been praying for you,” when a co-worker responded to their “Merry Christmas” by saying, “Thanks for the good wishes, but you know I’m Jewish.” Blatant anti-Semitism was not what Bloom confronted, but the question was how best to “nurture our Jewish souls” in a culture where being Jewish kept one “outside” and without many options for support, especially if one’s Jewish identity, like Bloom’s, ran deep but not in the conventional channels of organized religion and Jewish agencies.

One morning, feeling “landlocked, stranded in this vast middleland, surrounded by people whose multitudinous farm families went back for generations,” Bloom happened to read a magazine that introduced Postville to him. He learned about the ultra-orthodox Lubavitcher Jews who had moved there from Brooklyn, where the Crown Heights section is headquarters for the movement’s world population of 200,000, about 25,000 of whom live in that New York area. Contemporary American Lubavitchers trace their roots to Eastern Europe’s eighteenth-century Jewish villages (shtetlach) and the passionate expression of Jewish faith known as Hasidism that sprang from those places. Led by charismatic rabbis (rebbes), these people developed a spirituality informed by belief in the Messiah’s coming, a rich heritage of Yiddish storytelling, strict observance of religious and cultural traditions, and hard work.

By 1987 only three Lubavitcher families had arrived in Postville, but the community soon grew to 150, including three dozen rabbis, which gave the Iowa town more rabbis per capita than any other place in America. The answer to Bloom’s question—Why had they come?—was largely answered by economics and religion, two factors that historically motivated immigrants to pull up their eastern stakes, within America as well as abroad, and head west for better times and places.

The Lubavitchers had taken over a run-down slaughterhouse on Postville’s unincorporated outskirts. They had revived its fortunes by converting...

(The entire section is 2005 words.)

Fearful Symmetries

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28 March, 2011

Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America by Stephen Bloom





Culture shock is at the root of Stephen Bloom's Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America. In 1993 Bloom, a journalist, and his family (wife Iris and son Mikey) packed up their belongings and made the move from San Francisco to Iowa City where he took up a teaching position at the U of I. Unsurprisingly, a small Iowa city held little in Jewish culture. But then Bloom heard about a large group of Lubavitcher Jews (ultra-orthodox) that had settled in Postville, a town of some 1,400 people about 100 miles from Iowa City. Bloom went there seeking the company of fellow Jews but ended up exploring a fractured corner of flyover country.

Aaron Rubashkin, Lubavitcher butcher in New York, bought a disused slaughterhouse just outside of Postville in 1987 and turned it into the largest such kosher meat plant in the whole of America. The economic prosperity it brought to the decaying Iowa town was enormous and heartily welcomed. However, the numerous Jews of an ultra-Orthodox sect were the diametric opposites of Postville's small town folk. At first it was just a matter of them dressing differently with the black woolen zizits, a variety of similarly colored hats, and long dresses. But, as the people of Postville were to find out, the Lubavitcher's religious beliefs threw small town hospitality out the window as the Jews wanted nothing to do with the Postvillians outside of commerce.

Bloom notes that Postville's inhabitants were largely of German extraction with Lutherans and Catholics making up the majority of them. They found the attempts of the Jews to haggle insulting and were offended at the way the Jews ignored them when they attempted a simple neighborly gesture such as saying hello when passing on the street. A whole litany of complaints arose which essentially boiled down to the newcomers not making any attempt to fit into their adopted community.

Bloom dives into the milieu headfirst. As a secular Jew he straddles the line drawn in Postville. It takes a while but eventually he is able to enter both camps and hear the many sides to the story. First we get multiple takes on the situation from the original Postvillians. At first there are minor complaints such as the Jews not caring for their lawns – something that was not an issue in New York City. But as Bloom gains the confidence of the people, or perhaps takes advantage of their ignorance, he hears more and more anti-Semitism. I say take advantage of their ignorance because it sure seemed like many in the town only knew Jews from the Lubavitchers and had no idea that the clean shaven guy with the curly hair and olive complexion could be Jewish. Bloom meets with some locals at a one of the cafes in town and eventually one man opines that Jews are out to fleece everyone. Later, a maintenance man by the name of Sonny describes the name-calling he received when word got around that he was working for the Jews by painting the slaughterhouse. People called him a "Jew lover" and asked how he could find it in himself to work for Jews. Cliff Olson was given the name "Jews' errand boy" because he acted as chauffeur for them, whisking people to and from the La Crosse airport. Curiously enough, Cliff's wife, Ida Mae took over his duties once to drive a Jewish woman to a mikveh here in Madison. (Lubavitcher women cannot be alone with men to whom they're not married.)

Not everyone in Postville held animosity toward the newcomers. Forest Kelly, a real estate broker, found that business was good. Not only did the Jews moving to Postville need homes, but established members often bought multiple houses. Glenda Bodensteiner of the local shoe store said that the Jews really pumped some much needed cash into her store. The manager of the local bank at which the Jews did business was similarly happy with his new clients. All of these people were given bad looks by their neighbors who questioned why they would do business with the Jews and each of them conceded that racism, ignorance, jealousy, etc. all play a role in the collective animosity towards the Jews. They were above all that, in a sense, and took the Lubavitchers for what they were. We'll do business with them and then we all go our separate ways. Still, I did get the feeling that, if these people weren't turning a profit because of the men with long beards and payots, they too would be rationing out the opprobrium. They seem content as long as the cash keeps flowing into their pockets, though they do raise the legitimate point that, had it not been for the Jews, Postville would be well on its way to oblivion.

The showdown would come with a referendum to be voted upon in which Postville would annex a large stretch of land that included the meat packing plant. This would mean the town would be able to tax the Jews and get some semblance of revenge for the way they've treated the Postvillians.

It would be a mistake to assume that the book is purely about the clash between the Teutonic old-timers and Semitic newcomers. That is the center of gravity here but Postville is also about Bloom trying to find a place in Iowa. He fits into neither side in Postville. There are parts where he describes the amazement of driving out in the country and the quaint (from a city slicker's perspective) parades of small towns. And then there's the "dark" side of Iowa where everyone basically assumes you to be a Christian of some type or other. Mikey's Cub Scout leader invokes Jesus and the Cedar Rapids Gazette plasters "He Has Risen" on the front page of their Easter paper. There's no Jewish food to be had except poor excuses for corned beef and bagels. Bloom feels compelled to engage his Jewishness as if it were a struggle against becoming homogenized in Christian Iowa and he also wants to impart his Jewish heritage to his son.

He finally gets his chance when he is invited to a Shabbos (Sabbath) dinner at the home of Lazar Kamzoil. Bloom brings Mikey along and they immediately find out that they must use their Hebrew names in Lazar's home. Moishe and Shlomo it is. Furthermore, they must also sear their yarmulkes at all times. Bloom does a good job to this gentile's mind of explaining Jewish culture, traditions, foods, etc. I think the really enjoyed much of his time with Lazar even he couldn't subscribe to many of the religious orthodoxies. Especially the food: gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, kugel. I got really hungry reading about the feast. He noted some gestures and sayings he witnessed in Lazar's home that his grandparents used when he was a boy.

But he was clearly repelled by some comments Lazar made. For instance, he referred to blacks as shvartzers or "niggers". He boasted about not paying his bills on time as a way of essentially just fucking with the people of Postville. It wasn't simply that the Lubavitchers wanted to remain separate, there were some who got pleasure in antagonizing their new neighbors.

As someone who moved from Chicago to rural Wisconsin I found myself nodding when reading passages where Bloom describes his own experiences regarding big city vs. small town. The latter are insular and most people in them are very suspicious of newcomers. I think Bloom went a little overboard in romanticizing small town life. It's not that his positive impressions of rural folk were wrong, but rather I think that he underemphasized the xenophobia. From my experience, it needn't be racism. My long hair was enough for people to ostracize, fear, and spread rumours about me.

As a gentile I couldn't relate to the Jew in a strange land theme. Still, I appreciated Bloom's explanations of a culture with which I am quite ignorant. While the Jew-Gentile dynamic is the focus of the book, I did feel a bit cheated that he didn't engage the other immigrants more. Eastern Europeans and Mexicans too were drawn to Postville. The $6/hour wasn't good pay for your average American but for these foreigners it was good enough and a place to start lives. I wish Bloom had explored Postville not just as a confluence of Jews from NYC coming to the Heartland, but also as a place where immigrants from another country are seeking out their fortunes. What happened in Postville was and is the future of America. Small town homogeneity is going the way of the dodo and I wish that Bloom had addressed some of the larger implications of what he was witnessing.

Sometime after this book was published a documentary about Postville was made called Postville: When Cultures Collide. It's a nice complement to the book and I'm posting part 1 below. It addresses the arrival of Mexicans which adds to the picture. Plus you get to see and hear some of the people in the book. My only criticism is that it downplays the animosity and basically writes most of it off as misunderstanding whereas Bloom tends to see more of it and of it being a more severe problem.

|| Palmer, 4:21 PM

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