The United States Census Bureau reports that the American population topped 281 million in the year 2000, a ten-year gain of about 13 percent in a country that is more pluralistic—ethnically, culturally, religiously—than ever before. A tiny fraction of those people inhabit Postville, Iowa. Its less than 1,500 rural residents live in the northeastern part of the state, not far from the Mississippi River and the state’s Wisconsin-Minnesota line, where 90 percent of the people have Lutheran roots. Iowa’s population of 2.8 million gets its largest income from manufacturing, but this Midwestern heartland remains best known for agriculture. In pork, corn, and soybean production, 97,000 farms put Iowa first in the nation. Meanwhile, although the latest census found that 28.3 million—about 10 percent—of the U.S. population is foreign-born, Iowa added relatively little to those figures. Its people are more homogeneous and white (96 percent) than the country as a whole. Largely for that reason, the journalist Stephen Bloom found that an obscure Iowa hamlet contained an unexpected story, which the author tells with sensitivity and skill. Postville, a cautionary tale, deserves attention. Its fascinating description and thoughtful appraisal of a cultural clash in small-town America provides instructive preparation, personal and public, for a twenty-first century life that keeps the nation coping with tensions between unity and diversity.
In 1993, Bloom became a professor of journalism at the University of Iowa. Climbing into a packed 1979 Volvo, leaving behind his fast-paced career as a writer in San Francisco, one of the most culturally varied cities in the United States, Bloom and his family headed east, scarcely imagining how dissimilar their Iowa City surroundings would be. Houses with big yards and large front porches, a culture that takes hunting seriously, extremes of climate, and a basic honesty that still keeps homes unlocked and gas pumped before paying—these were examples that only began to illustrate how Iowa’s sameness made it different. As Stephen and Iris Bloom watched Mikey, their young son, becoming “less and less an urban kid,” they missed San Francisco from time to time, but on the whole they liked Iowa. Loneliness, however, created an exception to that rule, and it would be a factor in Bloom’s discovery of Postville.
In Iowa, Bloom found, being lonely and being Jewish went together. About 4.5 million of the world’s estimated 14 million Jews live in the United States. The Blooms were among the handful in Iowa, where culture, if not commitment, was steeped so thoroughly in the traditions of Christianity as to make it commonplace that the Easter edition of the Cedar Rapids Gazette would feature a banner headline announcing, “HE HAS RISEN.” Such a culture, Bloom observed, could lead people to say, “We know, we’ve been praying for you,” when a co-worker responded to their “Merry Christmas” by saying, “Thanks for the good wishes, but you know I’m Jewish.” Blatant anti-Semitism was not what Bloom confronted, but the question was how best to “nurture our Jewish souls” in a culture where being Jewish kept one “outside” and without many options for support, especially if one’s Jewish identity, like Bloom’s, ran deep but not in the conventional channels of organized religion and Jewish agencies.
One morning, feeling “landlocked, stranded in this vast middleland, surrounded by people whose multitudinous farm families went back for generations,” Bloom happened to read a magazine that introduced Postville to him. He learned about the ultra-orthodox Lubavitcher Jews who had moved there from Brooklyn, where the Crown Heights section is headquarters for the movement’s world population of 200,000, about 25,000 of whom live in that New York area. Contemporary American Lubavitchers trace their roots to Eastern Europe’s eighteenth-century Jewish villages (shtetlach) and the passionate expression of Jewish faith known as Hasidism that sprang from those places. Led by charismatic rabbis (rebbes), these people developed a spirituality informed by belief in the Messiah’s coming, a rich heritage of Yiddish storytelling, strict observance of religious and cultural traditions, and hard work.
By 1987 only three Lubavitcher families had arrived in Postville, but the community soon grew to 150, including three dozen rabbis, which gave the Iowa town more rabbis per capita than any other place in America. The answer to Bloom’s question—Why had they come?—was largely answered by economics and religion, two factors that historically motivated immigrants to pull up their eastern stakes, within America as well as abroad, and head west for better times and places.
The Lubavitchers had taken over a run-down slaughterhouse on Postville’s unincorporated outskirts. They had revived its fortunes by converting...
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