Monday, April 10, 2006

Book Review: Postville - A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America

What happens when Brooklyn Lubavitchers move to rural Iowa to open America's largest kosher slaughterhouse? That's the premise of Stephan Bloom's 2000 account of how the Hasidim took over the tiny Iowa town of Postville and how the locals responded. The slaughterhouse turns out to be a financial windfall to the town, employing hundreds of workers and increasing the town's population by more than a third. But it isn't enough to placate the local residents, who resent the Lubavitchers' insularity and their outright refusal to take on the local customs. Not long after the Hasidim arrive, battle lines begin to form throughout Postville.

To call it a clash of cultures is to put it mildly: the two groups could not have been more different. Bloom spends most of the book talking to people on both sides of the divide and finds each side simmering with hatred for the other.

The book opens with the local residents preparing to vote on whether to annex the land occupied by the slaughterhouse in order to levy taxes on the property. The Hasidic owners of the plant oppose the move and threaten to move out of town if the measure passes, taking the town's economy with them. Both sides call the vote a referendum on whether the Hasidim should stay or go. The locals have to decide if the financial benefits are worth the aggravations they face daily from the Hasidim, most of whom treat the goyim with complete disdain - if they acknowledge them at all.

Embedded in the story is a second, more interesting story of the author's own Jewish identity and how it is challenged by both the Lutheran locals and the Jewish outsiders. Shortly before the story begins, Bloom accepts a job teaching journalism at a university in Iowa City and moves his wife and son to the country after spending his entire life in the city. Although a thoroughly assimilated Jew, Bloom finds that the culture shock and isolation he experiences brings out a longing to connect to his people. He sets out looking for Jews, eventually finding the Postville Hasidim.

For Bloom, writing about the clash between the Postville residents and the Lubavitchers is an opportunity to gauge how he feels about both. In the early parts of the book, he clearly wants to side with the Hasidim. He strongly suspects the locals opposition to the Jews is simple anti-Semitism. Several locals confirm his suspicions, referring to the Jews as "users" looking to fleece the town every chance they get. One man tells the author he knew trouble was coming when he saw the Jews moving in. "I thought, well, now we're going to be Israel in Postville," the man says. "And that's what Postville has become! Little Israel."

But the more Bloom interacts with the locals, the more their simple ways win him over. And as he spends more time with the Hasidim, he sees why they engender so much opposition. The Hasidim he meets are inconsiderate, overbearing, and petty. They proudly proclaim their racism toward non-Jews. They treat the author as a kiruv project but it's hard to believe they understand what sort of impression they are making on the modern, assimilated Jew. He spends Shabbat with an "exemplary" Lubavitcher, but is shocked to hear him talk of breaking promises to non-Jewish business partners. Every interaction he has with the Hasidim leave him wondering what he has in common with his co-religionists.

Those interactions - a clash of cultures between the modern Jew and the Hasid - are often fascinating. They reveal an almost unbridgable gap between two types of Jews. Bloom sees Judaism as a religion, not a culture or a nationality; the Hasidim view it as an all-encompassing lifestyle. Bloom strives for universalism; the Hasidim frustrate him with their dogged particularism.

By the end, Bloom has drawn a vivid portrait of today's assimilated Jew. He also makes it clear why the Lubavitchers will never reach him. To his credit, Bloom seems to approach the Hasidim with an open mind. But no one would stand these people very long. There is hardly anything about them that isn't off-putting. It's no wonder they clashed with the Iowa locals. But the locals don't come off much better. They demand things the Hasidim can't do, and make little effort to understand the differences between them.

Early in the book, Bloom says he was interested in the story as a test of tolerance. Unfortunately, there isn't much tolorence on display in Postville, a small town but big enough to support the weight of two distinct cultures.


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