Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America

Overview

In 1987, a group of Lubavitchers, one of the most orthodox and zealous of the Jewish sects, opened a kosher slaughterhouse just outside tiny Postville, Iowa (pop. 1,465). When the business became a worldwide success, Postville found itself both revived and divided. The town's initial welcome of the Jews turned into confusion, dismay, and even disgust. By 1997, the town had engineered a vote on what everyone agreed was actually a referendum: whether or not these Jews should stay....

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Overview

In 1987, a group of Lubavitchers, one of the most orthodox and zealous of the Jewish sects, opened a kosher slaughterhouse just outside tiny Postville, Iowa (pop. 1,465). When the business became a worldwide success, Postville found itself both revived and divided. The town's initial welcome of the Jews turned into confusion, dismay, and even disgust. By 1997, the town had engineered a vote on what everyone agreed was actually a referendum: whether or not these Jews should stay.

The quiet, restrained Iowans were astonished at these brash, assertive Hasidic Jews, who ignored the unwritten laws of Iowa behavior in almost every respect. The Lubavitchers, on the other hand, could not compromise with the world of Postville; their religion and their tradition quite literally forbade it. Were the Iowans prejudiced, or were the Lubavitchers simply unbearable?

Award-winning journalist Stephen G. Bloom found himself with a bird's-eye view of this battle and gained a new perspective on questions that haunt America nationwide. What makes a community? How does one accept new and powerfully different traditions? Is money more important than history? In the dramatic and often poignant stories of the people of Postville - Jew and gentile, puzzled and puzzling, unyielding and unstoppable - lies a great swath of America today.

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Editorial Reviews

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Bookseller Reviews

If you want to learn what "rapid demographic shift" means, visit Postville, Iowa. In this tiny (population: 1500), remote (twenty miles fro the closet McDonald's) rural community, outsiders were rare. Until recently, the term denoted visitors from Cedar Rapids or Prairie du Chiene. But then something happened. A group of ultra-Orthodox Jews moved in. First came the rabbis, dozens of bearded, long-coated black-hatted rabbis, wearing prayer shawls and intoning Hebrew prayers as they walked down Main Street. Postville was hardly prepared for these strange-looking men, but they were even less prepared for the change that these devout Lubavitchers would bring with them. Opening a kosher slaughterhouse in an abandoned meatpacking plant on the edge of town, they brought economic prosperity to Postville, attracting more outsiders. But Lifelong Postville residents eyed these new intruders warily, wondering whether their alien ways were corrupting their undisturbed hamlet. Stephen G. Bloom's narrative of ethnic strife and difficult assimilation places us on both sides of the chasm. First-rate journalism.

Robert Eisenberg
...a vastly entertaining and original piece of real-life social drama.
Chicago Tribune
From The Critics
A gripping portrayal of a confounding collision.
New York Times
A gripping portrayal of a confounding collision.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Bloom's account of a vicious clash between the residents of a small, intensely Christian town and the group of Lubavitcher Jews who open a highly successful kosher slaughterhouse there is a model of sociological reportage and personal journalism. In 1987, after a Hasidic butcher from Brooklyn bought a slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, and began to relocate Jewish and immigrant workers to the area, the town began to change. While some residents were suspicious and anti-Semitic, most were happy to see the town rise above its previous financial destitution. But the Lubavitchers, who traditionally live and work within their own closely knit communities, were not interested in fitting into Postville, and many were dismissive of, or overtly hostile to, its original citizens. After the Lubavitchers started buying real estate and exerting greater influence on the town's finances, longtime Postville residents began to feel marginalized, yet their reactions caused the Jews to become more isolationist. The slaughterhouse also caused problems: workers were paid below minimum wage and were uninsured, women workers were sexually harassed and fighting among the (often illegal) immigrant workers escalated. Finally, the town took legal action to gain more control over the slaughterhouse. Bloom, a professor at the University of Iowa, writes cleanly and with great insight and temperance about these events. As a secular Jew, he also weaves in his own story as he tries to find some common ground with the Lubavitchers. His book proves an illuminating meditation on contemporary U.S. culture and what it means to be an American. Agents, David Black and Gary Morris. BOMC and QPB selection; 8-city tour. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
When a group of Hasidic Jews opened a kosher slaughterhouse just outside the small, financially struggling town of Postville, IA, their arrival brought financial benefits as well as cultural conflict with the locals. In order to force the slaughterhouse administration to pay taxes to the town, the Postville authorities decided to annex the land where the slaughterhouse was located and held a vote to see whether the townspeople support this idea. Bloom (journalism, Univ. of Iowa) came to Postville not just to investigate the story but to reach out for a bit of his Jewish heritage, which is hard to maintain in Iowa. He was frustrated by the Hasidim, who at first wanted no part of him and then sought to convert him and his family, and they were angered by his refusal to take their side. By the end of the story, Bloom realizes that he can maintain his Jewish identity and live in the middle of the Iowa farmbelt, the Hasidim realize that they may have to make adjustments to stay in Postville, and the people of Postville realize that the Hasidim are there to stay. Part cultural history, part search for identity, this book makes for balanced, interesting, and insightful reading, but a glossary of Jewish terms would have been extremely helpful. For American studies, Iowa history, Jewish studies, and social studies collections.--Danna Bell-Russel, Library of Congress Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Richard Bernstein
Stephen G. Bloom's riveting tale is of a cultural clash so sharp and irreconcilable that it challenges easy assumptions one might make about the ability of different people to live in a state of harmonious reciprocity. ...what Mr. Bloom has given us is a gripping portrayal of a confounding collision, an adjunct battle in the larger culture wars, one that removes the question of diversity from the realm of abstraction and makes it prickly, difficult, and real.
New York Times
From the Publisher
A gripping portrayal of a confounding collision."-The New York Times

A fascinating portrait of a town torn in two. [A] thoughtful, compelling book."
-The Dallas Morning News

Foreign as these two tiny and tightly circumscribed communities are to most outsiders, the story of their clash . . . is compelling and important."
-The Miami Herald

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780151006526
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 9/10/2000
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.46 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen G. Bloom is an award-winning journalist and has been a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury News, and other major newspapers. He now teaches journalism at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where he lives with his wife and son.

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2001

    Middle America in Postville

    As a Jew fighting assimiliation in America, I was compelled to read this book. This is well-written. It defines the cultural differences and draws a portrait of how alike the two sides really are. They all want the same things out of life but learned perceptions keep both sides from seeing it. I continue to be amazed at how any orthodox group alienates themselves from the mainstream and then complains about it. This book portrays that well. READ!!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2000

    Reads like a good novel

    The main characters in this well-written book are Hasidic Jews and Iowa farm people, but you hardly have to be either to enjoy it immensely. Stephen G. Bloom tells the incredible true story of this Iowa community's struggle with its Jewish newcomers -- and the story is simultaneously unique and universal. An unusual and satisfying book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2005

    Social, Ethical and Political Dymanics!

    I thought that the author did a great job of researching, writing, and painting a picture of a small Iowa town with a new group of people moving into their community. Bloom shows how this group of Jews were accepted and defined by the social, political and ecomomic forces of a small community of famers. Who won? You decide and read the book to draw your own interpretation.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2004

    I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    I appreciated Bloom's book--I found it both truthful and ironic. I grew up 20 miles from Postville and have witnessed it's changes. I think Bloom accurately described the accounts, albeit with a hint of entertainment.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2003

    Stereotyping of Iowa

    I'm not sure which Iowa Steven Bloom moved to in 1997, but it's not the same one I moved to in 1987. Bloom deliberately selects every sterotype of Iowa and greatly exargerates it -which makes his book difficult to read with any credibility.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2002

    Simplistic and Cliche

    Bloom does the remarkable feat of taking a fasninating situation and rendering it utterly simplistic and almost embarrasingly cliche. His notions of Jewish identity are so stock, he cannot go a few pages without mentioning corned beef. he even invokes Fiddler on the Roof, which is the only experience of Jewish culure he can reference. When he describes the Iowans he is almost as bad: Field of Dreams, countless images of corn and John Deere hats all around. Nonetheless, he romaticizes the farmers and blatantly, perhaps naievely, mistakes their outrageoulsy, explicitly anti-Semitic comments (all THE JEWS care about is money etc) as what small town America is about. I think Bloom is the one who needs to do some long hard thinking about America and diversity. As an avid reader and a writer myself, I can honestly say this is one of the few books I have ever read that made me scoff, page after pa

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2001

    Well Written and Thought Provoking

    This book is well written and full of wonderfully accurate descriptions of Iowa's people and culture and much thought-provoking material regarding cultural and religious diversity. When I picked up this book, I couldn't imagine how anyone could find much of interest to write about a place like Postville and expected to be thoroughly bored. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised and challenged to think in new ways.

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