Stephen G. Bloom - Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America

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Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America

Sep 13, 2002 (Updated Jan 13, 2006)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Measure of one man's cultural choices, reflected by a Middle-American clash of cultures.

Cons:Occasionally 'off-topic'. Needs glossary of Yiddish/Hebrew words for the goyim*. 'Tricked up' cover picture.

The Bottom Line: Is one's life ruled by genetics or choices made? Author explores the pull of his Jewish heritage. And the battle of two cultures for control of a small Iowa town.

"With little fanfare, a hardy band of Hasidic Jews had transformed Postville, a stagnant community that had held little future for its next generation, into what at first seemed like a Promised Land. In 1987, a Brooklyn butcher by the name of Aaron Rubashkin...bought the town's abandoned slaughterhouse and turned it into a kosher meatpacking plant. By 1996, the packinghouse had become the world's largest owned and operated by the Hasidic Jews known as Lubavitchers. Each week, 1,300 cattle, 225,000 chickens, 700 lambs, and 4,000 turkeys were trucked into the renovated plant, and each week 1.85 million pounds of beef, chicken, lamb, and turkey came out in refrigerated trucks bound for Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Miami. The meat was so prized that some was even flown to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv."

from: "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America"

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"Postville" is a challenging story to review.

Challenging because:

• the story plays out over an eight year period, from 1993 through 2001.

• the story portrays one way of life as familiar to me as the streets of my neighborhood; and a second way of life as foreign to me as the streets of Jerusalem.

• as much as the story is about the clash of two communities, it is also about the clash of their cultures within the psyche—the soul—of the author, Stephen Bloom.

• the story paints a picture of the people of Iowa that makes me wince as often as it makes me proud to be an Iowan.

Let me tell you the story of a stranger, and a group of strangers. Not in a strange land, but in a land I call home.

What's in the book ??

There are 20 numbered chapters, a prologue, an epilogue, an afterword (added for this trade paperback edition), and an acknowledgment section. At 362 numbered pages, the average section is 15 to 20 pages long. A length that is reasonable to read in short 'bites'. The content is not really suitable to producing a helpful index, one is not included.

The 'readability' of certain sections would be enhanced if a short glossary of Yiddish/Hebrew terms was included, for the goyim*. (Words in my review marked with an * are defined at the end of the review.)

Growing Up and Moving to Iowa

Stephen Bloom, the author, is an Associate Professor of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa.

Bloom grew up " a decidedly Reform Jewish family in northern New Jersey." He did not have a traditional bar mitzvah but instead was confirmed (a practice borrowed from Christian faiths) in a Reform Jewish ceremony. His father "...was as East Coast as American Jews come--born in New York City."

Despite growing up in a community with a heavy Jewish ethnicity (half of his high school classmates were Jewish) the actual practice of the Jewish faith in the community was quite reserved. Few youths learned Hebrew, few families celebrated the Sabbath, and most other tenets of the faith were neither observed nor practiced.

Yet, despite this " assimilation into everything American and secular...", Bloom asserts "...we were thoroughly Jewish. Our perspective was Jewish as was our very essence." Jewish tradesmen and stores were preferred over gentile equivalents. The children were encouraged to have Jewish playmates. All family friends were Jewish, their societal role models—Sandy Koufax, Bernard Baruch, Golda Meir, Albert Einstein—were Jewish. While his family perhaps did not live the Jewish faith, they certainly lived the Jewish life.

From this background, Bloom's career in journalism took him to stops in Sacramento, Los Angeles, and Dallas among others before arriving in San Francisco. Bloom and his wife eventually feel the need to leave San Francisco to find "...less stress, more rewarding work, (and) a better place to raise (their then) three-year-old son..."

Interviewing at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, for a Journalism professor position, Bloom finds this better place to raise a family. But he also recognizes it is a worse place to be a Jew. Eventually the decision to move to Iowa turns on the needs of his family, despite the isolation of his Jewish heritage in Iowa.

The family's experience in Iowa is, over-all, pleasant and fulfilling. His work is rewarding, his students attentive, the 'four-season' weather of Iowa tolerable. The most unpleasant factor was his realization that the occasional Iowan chose to react to him and his family as " folk, Jews, foreigners to these parts."

Over time, despite his family's apparent acceptance into the university, civic and local Jewish communities, Bloom finds his family's Jewish heritage being challenged in subtle ways by the Christian social norms of Iowa City. From an Easter Sunday newspaper headline proclaiming "HE HAS RISEN" to a Cub Scout leader invoking Jesus to suffering "...the hard, unsweetened doughnuts that passed for bagels at the local..." bagel shop.

Bloom realizes the weak community of the local synagogue is not nurturing his, or his son's, "...Jewish souls, the sense of who we are, how we think, where we come from." Bloom recognizes that he is "...a Jew through and through, from my curly brown hair and robust nose to the synapses in my brain and the corpuscles of my blood." While not necessarily wanting the religious trappings of the Jewish faith, he "...wasn't about to let go of what I carried inside me every day."

It is at this point in his life, his family's life, that Bloom becomes aware of the Hasidic Jewish enclave in Postville, Iowa.

Postville, Iowa, USA

The citizens of Postville and the new Jewish immigrants clashed over many things. Maintaining their yards to the usual standards of the neighborhood. Bargaining over the price of even the simplest of items in a store. Paying their bills on time. Meeting city regulations for the keeping of animals or the building of a mikveh* in town. Indeed this clash had simmered to the point of the city scheduling a vote to annex the area of the slaughterhouse (which was just outside the city limits) so the community might exercise more control over the plant and its owners and workers.

Surprisingly, Bloom finds his entry into the hundred-year-old middle-class protestant culture of Postville much easier to accomplish than to gain access to the culture of the Hasidic Jews. Indeed, he soon realizes that many do not even realize (or feel it worth realizing) that he is Jewish. A Jew to the people of Postville is someone wearing a yarmulke*, a tzitzit*, someone who would never engage them in conversation, never seek to know their way of life.

Gaining entry to the Hasidic community, Bloom finds himself and his son pursued as baalei teshuvah* by the Lubavitchers, as someone who might be 'returned to faith'. Invited to a Shabbos* dinner, Bloom attends with his son. He is fascinated with 'workings' of the traditional Jewish family, the subjugation of the wife to the husband, the obedience of the laws of tzniut*, i.e. female modesty. But most hoped for is a good dose of authentic Jewish cooking, which was difficult to find in Iowa. His hopes are met.

Invited to participate in worship at the shul*, Bloom finds himself a guest of honor, someone being made to feel a part of the group, someone important. An invitation to give a required blessing, an aliyah*, on the Torah reading makes him feel that perhaps "the invitation was an effort to ignite in me a fire of belief, to deepen my commitment to Judaism."

Later, in a return visit to the host family, Bloom feels the host is strongly trying to captivate the mind of his seven-year-old son. Trying to draw Bloom back to his faith by using his son to keep him interested. But neither Bloom male is willing to make the commitment. The elder Bloom because he finds his idealistic early impressions of the Lubavitchers are not borne out by the reality of the day-to-day behavior and life. The younger Bloom finds no compelling reason to give up his middle-class youth for the stricter life of the Hasidic Jewish community.

What is the final decision of Bloom, for himself, his family? Which of the two cultures draws his allegiance? The very publishing of the book should give you a strong clue to the answer to those questions.

What's wrong with the book?

Bloom devotes a significant portion of the book to the story of the commission of a felony by two Jewish youth and the trial and punishment that follows. While the story does contribute somewhat to understanding that the local community feels mistreated by the legal system, it really matters little to the story of Bloom and the choices he makes relative to his faith and life.

An additional section is spent discussing the number and lives of the common laborers in the Lubavitch slaughterhouse operations, primarily Hispanic and Eastern Europe workers. Again, doesn't really drive the story forward.

The author occasionally uses Jewish words without indicating their meaning. This can be confusing for the reader unfamiliar with the terms. I have included a brief list of the Yiddish/Hebrew words I have used in this review. A similar section would be helpful in the book.

A 'tricked up' picture is used on the cover of the book. It is a composite of two different pictures. The author acknowledges that the two cultures were rarely in such close contact on the street or in the businesses of the town.

The most annoying thing is the author's occasional reference to feeling singled out due to the physical manifestations of his ethnic heritage, for not being a native Iowan, whatever that means. It is slightly embarrassing to me as an Iowan. But I will admit that Iowa, particularly small town Iowa, can be rather 'white'.

The Bottom Line

Stephen Bloom is a man in search of his place in life. Is it with the Jewish faith and life that he carries inside himself? Is it with the strict and regimented lifestyle of the Lubavitchers who live to praise and worship their god? Is it as a typical Iowan, teaching at the University, worrying about his mortgage and whether the lawn needs mowed or not?

The choices he makes will surprise some. The reasons he gives will cause some to consider him a traitor, others to consider him a fool, and still others to consider him a right-thinking man.

Read the book and draw your own conclusions.

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Glossary of Yiddish/Hebrew words
( courtesy of:*N*D*E*X )

 goyim — Yiddish word for a non-Jew (plural)

 mikveh — Bath used for spiritual purification. It is used primarily in conversion rituals and after a woman's menstrual cycles, but many Chasidim immerse themselves in the mikvah regularly for general spiritual purification.

 yarmulke — The skull-cap worn for prayer and meals. Kippah in Hebrew. A distinguishing characteristic of the traditional Jew

 tzitzit — Ritual fringes on the Tallit or Tallit Katan tied with special knots

 baalei teshuvah — A formerly non-observant Jew who returns to the traditional ways of Judaism

 Shabbos — Sabbath. Rest. Observed from sunset Friday evening to sundown Saturday evening, marked by rest, worship, and study.

 tzniut — Rules of modesty. Judaism requires more of women than of men under the rules of modesty.

 shul — An Orthodox synagogue

 aliyah — (lit.,an `ascending') a return to Israel with holy significance for Jews; also, being called upon to read the Torah in a synagogue.

(Corrections/amplifications will be graciously accepted.)

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sleeper's reviews of Everything Iowa, my thoughts on stuff
about my home.

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"Just the facts, ma'am"

Title: Postville / A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America
Author: Stephen G. Bloom
Publisher: A Harvest Book / Harcourt Inc.
Copyright: 2000 / Stephen G. Bloom
Pages: 362
ISBN #: 0-15-601336-3 (paperback)

Recommend this product? Yes

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