Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America

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9780156013369: Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America
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In 1987, a group of Lubavitchers, one of the most orthodox and zealous of the Jewish sects, opened a kosher slaughterhouse just outside tiny Postville, Iowa (pop. 1,465). When the business became a worldwide success, Postville found itself both revived and divided. The town's initial welcome of the Jews turned into confusion, dismay, and even disgust. By 1997, the town had engineered a vote on what everyone agreed was actually a referendum: whether or not these Jews should stay.

The quiet, restrained Iowans were astonished at these brash, assertive Hasidic Jews, who ignored the unwritten laws of Iowa behavior in almost every respect. The Lubavitchers, on the other hand, could not compromise with the world of Postville; their religion and their tradition quite literally forbade it. Were the Iowans prejudiced, or were the Lubavitchers simply unbearable?

Award-winning journalist Stephen G. Bloom found himself with a bird's-eye view of this battle and gained a new perspective on questions that haunt America nationwide. What makes a community? How does one accept new and powerfully different traditions? Is money more important than history? In the dramatic and often poignant stories of the people of Postville - Jew and gentile, puzzled and puzzling, unyielding and unstoppable - lies a great swath of America today.

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Postville, Iowa (population 1,478), seems an unlikely place to find a sizable Jewish population, let alone an ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher population. It is, after all, in the heart of pork country, and the world headquarters of the Lubavitchers is far away in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. But when the Hygrade meat processing plant, just outside Postville, went belly-up, threatening the town with decline, Sholom Rubashkin bought it and turned it into a glatt kosher processing plant, complete with shochtim and a rabbinical inspectorate. By the late 1980s, "Postville had more rabbis per capita than any other city in the United States, perhaps the world."

The enterprise was a huge international success, with its kosher meats exported even to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The Jewish population grew to 150, and they were rich. The town was saved, and the people were grateful. All's well that ends well? Not quite. The Hasidim kept to themselves, did things their own way, and basically had no interest in integrating into Postville. And why would they? Their laws are strict, their mission clear, their community defined by race and religion. They are not interested in watermelon socials or coffee klatches at the diner. Their little boys do not swim with their little girls, are not educated together, and do not go on play dates with goyim. Small-town Iowans, on the other hand, are very friendly. They know each other's news, they support each other's businesses, they wish each other Merry Christmas, they want you to feel at home. They don't like that the new townspeople stomp up the street hunched over, talking in a foreign language and looking straight through them when greeted. They really don't like it when one of the newcomers drives around town with a 10-foot candelabra strapped to his car playing music at full volume for eight consecutive winter nights. They don't actually know about menorahs or Hanukkah.

Into this comes secular Jew Stephen Bloom, a professor at the University of Iowa. By the time he arrived in Postville, the town was riven along religious lines. One of the townspeople was running for mayor on the sole platform of annexation of the land on which the plant stood. Rubashkin was threatening that he'd shut the plant and leave if that came to pass. Bloom closely considers both sides, and the result is a wonderful book. It is a fascinating tale of culture clash in the American heartland: the John Deere cap meets the black fur hat. It is a book about identity and community and what it means to be American. It covers all the things you aren't supposed to talk about at the dinner table--religion, politics, and even sex. It is full of suspense: Will the plant be annexed? Will the Jews leave? And it is also Bloom's exploration of his own sense of belonging. --J. Riches

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Published in hardcover by Harcourt, 2000, 0-15-100652-0

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