Small town tastes outside world

Sun Journal

Change: Orthodox takes on a new meaning when a burst of job openings brings traditional Jewish garb and a multitude of languages and cuisines to a corner of Iowa nearly devoid of minorities.

February 17, 1999|By Stephanie Simon | Stephanie Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

POSTVILLE, Iowa -- Used to be if you wanted a quick breakfast here, your choices were pretty much limited to doughnuts: one with sticky pink frosting or one smeared with gooey chocolate. Now you can get a kosher blueberry bagel. Or a loaf of dense, tangy Russian bread. Even a Mexican pastry.

Diversity has arrived in this tiny farm town, and coping with it is a struggle for many locals.

For 150 years, Postville was all white, all Christian, all Norman Rockwell, an everyone-knows-everyone, live-and-die-here kind of town run by farmers of German and Norwegian stock. Then, a decade ago, an Orthodox Jew bought a boarded-up meatpacking plant on the edge of town and converted it into a kosher slaughterhouse. Word soon got out that Postville had jobs. Lots of jobs.

`A little scary'

More Jews came first -- three dozen rabbis trained to kill and inspect kosher meat, plus friends and relatives to help. Then came the others: Mexican, Guatemalan, Ukrainian, Nigerian, Bosnian, Czech -- dozens, then hundreds of immigrants swarmed to jobs in the kosher slaughterhouse and in the Iowa Turkey Products plant next door. To locals, it seemed an invasion.

"It was a little scary at first," says lifelong resident Becky Meyer.

"You'd see them and you wouldn't really know how to talk to them, how to act around them," recalls high school sophomore Wade Schutte. "It took a while to adjust."

And no wonder. Postville's population is just 1,500, "and that's counting everyone and their dog," locals say. It's isolated, pinned by seemingly endless rolling fields in the northeast corner of a state that's still 95 percent white. Many folks born and raised here until recently had never met a black person, never met a Jew, never heard a foreign language except in school.

Now they run into rabbis in long black coats and prayer shawls walking down the streets speaking Hebrew. On their way to the pharmacy, they pass a Mexican store decorated with bullfight posters, selling refried beans.

Some locals -- raised, perhaps, on the maxim that if they can't say anything nice, they shouldn't say anything at all -- purse their lips with unmistakable disgust and refuse to talk about Postville's new look. But many are trying to adjust.

"This is a little town that's 20-some miles from even a McDonald's," reasons Doug All, a quality inspector at the slaughterhouse, "so we have to get along."

If locals are unsure what to make of the newcomers, the feeling is mutual. Summoned by a sort of international hot line that passes word whenever a friend of a friend of a friend finds work, immigrants come to Postville knowing that jobs await them -- and knowing precious little else.

"The first time I'd ever heard of Iowa was when we moved here," says 15-year-old Ilya Pakarov of Kazakstan.

"It's way different from California," says Susy Navarro, who moved from Oakland so her husband could work at the slaughterhouse.

The uneasy melding of cultures in Postville reflects a drama playing out across the Midwest and the South. Wherever there are jobs, there are immigrants. And meatpacking plants offer jobs.

But even in the context of rapid demographic change, Postville stands out.

It's unusual for immigrants from so many countries to find their way to such a small town. There are so many immigrants from the former Soviet Union that the kosher slaughterhouse posts its safety warnings in Russian -- along with English, Hebrew and Spanish.

Experts say it's also rare to see thriving Jewish communities in rural Iowa, much less ultra-Orthodox communities.

With several dozen Jewish families, virtually all of them adherents of the Lubavitch branch of Hasidism and many with six or eight children, Postville "is a very interesting little place," says Mark Grey, an anthropologist at the University of Northern Iowa who has studied the town.

Aaron Rubashkin, who bought the slaughterhouse to supply fresh meat to his kosher store in New York, never explained why he settled on Postville. His son Shalom, who helps run the plant, says only that "divine providence" must have guided him here.

When the slaughterhouse opened in 1990, the Rubashkins and the rabbis they hired commuted from large cities with established Jewish populations. That got wearying. So, a few years ago, they committed to Postville. They set up a synagogue. They converted a former hospital into a Jewish school. They bought homes.

The Jews were quickly pegged as snobbish because they wouldn't eat in the pizza joint (it wasn't kosher) or greet their neighbors warmly (among the Lubavitch, men don't shake hands with women and women don't shake hands with men). They were thought odd because all their little boys had long hair (by tradition, it can't be cut until age 3) and because all the women wore wigs (they cover their natural hair out of modesty).

There were cultural differences that have nothing to do with religion. These Jews were big-city bustlers, talking fast and taking a while to adapt to the slower pace of small-town life.

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