Hasidic Jews, local farmers clash in Iowa

Reading: A new book examines the culture gap that developed when a group of Orthodox Jews opened a slaughterhouse in the Heartland.

January 06, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Stephen G. Bloom, a San Francisco-based journalist who had seen it all and had enough, chucked it in the early '90s and moved his family to Iowa, home of the Hawkeyes and lots of corn, but precious little of his beloved Jewish culture.

"You can get bagels in Iowa," says the University of Iowa journalism professor. "But they taste more like unsweetened doughnuts."

He was feeling very much like a stranger in a strange land when he stumbled upon a magazine article about a sect of Hasidic Jews called the Lubavitchers, who in 1987 moved from the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn to a tiny Iowa town called Postville to start a kosher slaughterhouse.

Hasidic Jews in Iowa, where, Bloom notes, "the pigs outnumber people two to one?"

Bloom knew "in his bones" it was a good story. He immediately knew he had to get to Postville.

Over the next four years, he made more than 50 trips there, interviewing 450 people in a town with a population of 1,400. The result is his book, "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America," which Bloom will discuss and sign tonight at the Bibelot Woodholme bookstore.

Bloom's Jewishness led him to pursue the story and soon becomes part of the story. Although not religiously devout, Bloom felt cut off from his Jewish roots in Iowa.

In the Jews in Postville, Bloom thought he might find kindred spirits.

"I thought we were cut from the same cloth," says Bloom, 49. "Surely these guys and I would have to share some common interests. We were both Jewish people, both people from large cities adjusting to a smaller town and a different way of life."

He also realized that the Jews of Postville were the most Orthodox of Jews: Hasidim, who shunned secular culture and even other Jews who were not as religiously observant as they are.

What Bloom found in Postville was a culture war. The Lubavitchers had initially been welcomed by the locals when they started the slaughterhouse, reopening a business that had been shuttered for years, thus buoying the local economy. But years of shunning any attempt to fit in with the culture of Iowa, and shunning the other residents of Postville, took their toll.

The tension was inevitable. The Iowa farmers of Postville were a garrulous lot, accustomed to a nod and a wave for friend and stranger alike. The Hasidim wouldn't return their greetings, instead averting their eyes as they passed. Iowans kept their yards tidy: "When the Iowa spring comes round, Postville lawns are mowed like crew cuts - military cut, regulation length," Bloom writes. The Hasidim rarely cut their lawns, if at all, didn't rake their leaves during the fall and used their front yards for storage and parking.

Although he initially went to Postville sympathetic to the Hasidim, Bloom says he eventually took the side of the Iowans. Although few Jews proselytize, the Lubavitchers do seek out those they consider non-observant Jews and try to win them over, inviting them to Sabbath dinner with a Lubavitcher family.

Bloom got such a Sabbath invitation and brought along his son, Mikey. His host was a fifth-generation Lubavitcher rabbi who insisted they wear yarmulkes and use Hebrew names: Shlomo for Steve, and Moishe for Mikey. All that was fine, Bloom says.

The turning point came, however, when Bloom and his son were walking to synagogue with their hosts, and Bloom greeted some locals who were working in their front yard.

"Ten paces down the road, I was criticized by my host. `You do not do that! You do not acknowledge locals. That's the beginning of assimilation,' " Bloom recalls. "I had just gotten fed up at that point. I was amazed and shocked and deeply disturbed that someone of my religion could be so shallow as to ignore another person because that person was of a different religion."

Bloom says his experience with the Lubavitchers in Iowa taught him the difference between one's formal religion and a transforming faith. Religion is about teachings and rules governing behavior and ritual. Faith, he says, is about "how good a person you are. It's how you leave the world and if you leave the world a better place because of your presence."

"So, I found Lubavitchers and the Hasidim very religious," he says, "but are they necessarily good people because they're religious? Absolutely not."

Bloom's book has been embraced by the locals of Postville. His first reading after its October publication was held at the community center in Postville, which was attended by 275 people. None of the Hasidim were there.

"We've sold over 500 books out of this office," says Sharon Drahn, editor of the Herald-Leader, the local newspaper. "I would say the majority of people read it, enjoyed it very much and found it to be very accurate."

But Bloom has also been the target of no small amount of criticism from Orthodox Jews, who say his account is biased and perpetuates Jewish stereotypes.

They call him a "lox and bagels" Jew, someone whose only connection to the faith is through his stomach.

"When I speak to Jewish groups, someone always says, `Shame on you. You're a self-loathing Jew,' " Bloom says.

"But I'm a journalist, and I happen to be Jewish," he says. "Everything in that book is true.

"It might hurt, but it is true."

Book signing

What: Reading and signing by Stephen Bloom, author of "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America"

When: 6 tonight

Where: Bibelot Woodholme, 1819 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville

Call: 410-653-6933

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