Hasidim in the Heartland

POSTVILLE: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, by Stephen G. Bloom. Harcourt, 338 pp., $ 25.

Newsday, November 5, 2000

STEVE BLOOM gets his first glimpse of the Hasidic Jews of Postville, Iowa, on a Friday evening. He drives to this rural town of 1,500 souls from his home in Iowa City and parks across the street from the synagogue. Instead of introducing himself as a Jewish visitor away from home on the Sabbath, Bloom observes the Lubavitch men from afar. As they erupt into exuberant song, Bloom leans on his car and munches on a sandwich, a salami-and-cheese on white.

Postville was a withering hamlet surrounded by failing family farms in 1986 when Aaron Rubashkin of Brooklyn bought a defunct slaughterhouse on the outskirts of town. The Hasidim bought homes, and they banked and shopped on Main Street, but in other ways they behaved as if they had no neighbors, ignoring sidewalk greetings from non-Jews and shunning local schools. By the time Bloom arrives in Postville, the Rubashkins’s factory is grossing $ 100 million a year and the Iowans have traded in the welcome wagon for a pickup truck full of resentment.

In “Postville,” Bloom, a journalism professor at the University of Iowa, explores the tensions between the Hasidic newcomers and the largely Lutheran old guard, whose families emigrated to northwest Iowa from Germany generations earlier. Locals, who, Bloom says, “by and large, were tolerant,” complain that the Postville Hasidim are secretive, wealthy, ostentatious, deceitful, chauvinistic, unassimilable and disrespectful of local customs. “The complaint I hear most is that they need to live by the same rules as all of us,” says city councilman Leigh Rekow. “It’s not such a great religion if they don’t want to be part of the community.”

The gentiles’ gripes echo anti-Semitic calumnies that predate Iowa, but as Bloom talks to dozens of Postville residents, he finds that many complaints have a basis in reality. The Hasidim don’t say hello to Christians on the street. They don’t attend the annual street fair, and they don’t maintain their lawns. The owner of a shoe store, who at first prospered due to large Hasidic families, extended credit to her Hasidic customers, and they never settled their accounts.

One Hasidic man admits this is just how he does business, telling Bloom about a shipment of computers he bought on credit. Let the vendor sue, says Lazar Kamzoil: “We’ll pay him-eventually-but on our terms, not his.” Kamzoil adds that bargaining is “part of being a Jew” and that Hasidim never had any interest in mingling with the goyim. “It’s the place and the people who have to adapt to us,” he says.

Kamzoil reveals himself while playing host to Bloom and his young son for the weekend. The reporter had a much harder time penetrating Hasidic society than he expected (on the other hand, the longtime Iowans were relatively open with him), and Bloom’s easiest point of entry was to let the Lubavitchers, known for urging assimilated Jews to become more observant, proselytize to him. One of the Rubashkins gets Bloom to strap on phylacteries, and Kamzoil makes sure Bloom participates in a Saturday service. Once the Hasidim figure out that Bloom is only playing along, however, they treat him like a pork-eater.

“Postville” is told in the first person, and the “clash of cultures” mentioned in the subtitle refers not only to the divide between Christian Postville and the Hasidic outpost, but also to Bloom’s relationship to each. A New Jersey-bred, Berkeley-educated reporter who moved to Iowa from San Francisco, Bloom is a creature of the speedy, modern life of the coasts, and his Jewishness manifests itself mostly as a longing for pastrami and a revulsion at the mention of Jesus during Cub Scout meetings. He feels himself as much a fish out of water in Iowa as he imagines the Lubavitchers would be. In fact, they have brought their way of life with them, whereas Bloom feels somewhat rootless.

Bloom writes about his own struggles, at times affectingly. He also shows himself to be a valiant reporter. He is at his impersonal best in a long tangent about a pair of disgruntled Hasidim who go on a crime spree through the Iowa countryside; one, a convert, is severely punished, and the other, from a renowned rabbinic lineage, gets a slap on the wrist.

One area Bloom did not master, however, is Judaism, particularly in his mistaking the whole-hog observance of the Hasidim for complete authenticity. He brings his son to the Kamzoils’ so Mikey can have a “thoroughly Jewish experience,” as though it were impossible to have one at home.

The reporter in Bloom does not judge the Rubashkins for hiring illegal immigrants and flouting labor regulations, much as he bends over backward not to accuse the Postville Christians of anti-Semitism. However, by the end of the book Bloom, whose sense of kinship with the Hasidim brought him to Postville, feels as stung as the Iowans did, and he himself describes the Hasidim of Postville as secretive, chauvinistic and deceitful.

Bloom makes a convincing case that they are, but unfortunately he extrapolates from his experiences to make unsupportable broad generalizations, much as the Iowans do. Bargaining is not “an undeniable part of Bloom’s own culture” just because the Iowans and Kamzoil both say so, and if it is, so is a respect for workers’ rights, which was championed by the secular Jewish labor movement.

Early on, Bloom makes the claim that Postville “seemed like a social laboratory, perhaps even a metaphor for America.” Perhaps, but a more fitting parallel might be Central Europe, where a changing economy brought religious Jews from the east into German Protestant cities and towns. One hopes the Postville experiment goes better.

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