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Author Stephen Bloom chats about his book, 'Postville'

October 24, 2000
12 p.m. EDT

As a guy who spent much of his career as a journalist, Stephen Bloom knows a good story when he hears one. And when he first heard about a community of Hasidic Jews that moved to the farming town of Postville, Iowa -- pop. 1,465 -- in 1987, his journalistic antennae shot up. Now a University of Iowa journalism professor, Bloom writes of the clash between the two cultures in his book, "Postville."

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Stephen Bloom, and welcome.

Stephen Bloom: Hi, I'm glad to be with I'm Stephen Bloom, the author of "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America."

One morning in 1995 I was sitting at my kitchen table in Iowa City, Iowa, munching on a bagel, which in Iowa tastes more like an unsweetened doughnut. And I read a squib in a religious newspaper about a colony of ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews, who had moved to a tiny town in northeastern Iowa. I had recently arrived in Iowa from San Francisco, and I, myself, was suffering no small amount of cultural depravation. Iowa, in many ways, was a vast Christian kingdom.

Where I had come from, everyone peppered his speech with words like "shmooze" and "shtik." But in Iowa, all "shtik" would mean to most people would be a piece of wood. So if I was feeling like a stranger in a strange land, then I knew that the Hasidim in Postville had to feel very estranged. I immediately knew down to my bones that this was a story I had to write.

Chat Moderator: What obstacles did you face in trying to tell this story?

Stephen Bloom: Well, at first, I did what most journalists would do, and that was I called as many as I could in Postville to set up meetings. I started by calling the mayor, local town historian, the editor of the weekly newspaper, the principal of the high school. All of the locals immediately welcomed me. They seemed to be tickled that a journalist and a professor at the University of Iowa would be interested in writing about their town.

Not so the Hasidic Jews. It was very difficult to enter into their world, even though I myself am Jewish. But ultimately I was able to make a connection and I left for Postville that weekend, meeting both the locals and several Hasidic Jews. Ultimately, I found myself acting a little like a mini-Henry Kissinger, shuttling between both sides in Postville. The locals were fascinated by their new neighbors.

I remember one girl after realizing that I was going to spend a weekend, at a Lubavitcher home, saying to me "Gosh! You are really going inside? That is so cool! I would give anything to learn about them. I've been told that the girls' husbands are picked out when the girls are born. I would love to ask them why they cover their elbows and knees with clothing. But I could never ask that; that would be rude." And from the Hasidic side, as soon as I presented myself, at the slaughterhouse in Postville, one of the first things asked of me was, "Well, what are the locals telling you about us? What do the goyim think of us?"

So neither side talked to each other, and I served as a confessor, or as a conduit between each side, Talking through me, they were able to talk to the other side.

Question from myjewishbooks: Many Hasidic sects elect a member to be the liaison to the government or its bodies. Did the Lubavitch community have a liaison appointed to interact with the Postville city council?

Stephen Bloom: I believe that the owners of the kosher slaughterhouse became the de facto representatives for the Hasidic colony in Postville. Unlike most newcomers to a community, the Hasidim in Postville arrived on top of the economic food chain. They had created 350 jobs, bought 35 homes in Postville, and had reinvigorated a stagnant economy. I think then that if there was any leader in the Postville Hasidic community, it was the older son of the owner of the slaughterhouse, and his name is Sholom Rubashkin.

Chat Moderator: Was this an isolated incident, or are there similar conflicts elsewhere in the U.S.?

Stephen Bloom: I look at Postville as a social laboratory to test the limits of diversity, tolerance, and acceptance. The Postville Hasidim arrived in northeastern Iowa, and had no intention of mingling with the locals. One of the characteristics of Iowans, for example, is that they are meticulous in the upkeep of their property. Many Iowans edged their lawns, for example. They rake leaves in the autumn, almost before the leaves hit the ground. Similarly, in the winter, they shovel snow before the snow stops falling.

Not so the Hasidic Jews. The locals complained that the newcomers weren't mowing their grass. There is a story of a Hasidic woman, who because she was from Brooklyn, New York, had probably never driven a car, and she sped downtown in Postville at 80 miles per hour, going up on the sidewalk, and when she was stopped by the local police officer, she offered him a bribe.

Question from chicagoan: Did you visit Crown Heights, the headquarters of the Lubavitch community, when researching this book?

Stephen Bloom: Yes. I went to Crown Heights, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, and interviewed the owner and founder of the Postville slaughterhouse, as well as several former employees at the slaughterhouse. I conducted more than 350 interviews, returned to Crown Heights several times, and returned to Postville more than 50 times to research the book.

Question from myjewishbooks: Is the photo on the cover a real photo or was it superimposed?

Stephen Bloom: It's a real photo of Iowa farmers and it is a real photo of a Hasidic Jew. But the photo is superimposed. It does not take place in Postville. The publisher was hard pressed to illustrate the conflict of cultures raging in Postville, since rarely are the two sides as close together as portrayed in the cover photograph. The cover, the publisher maintains, is a tool to spread word of the book, to the public. While the cover is a composite, everything in the book is 100 percent true. This is a serious book of nonfiction.

Question from What: Did it surprise you that this group of Hasidim strayed so far from their typical confines of the big city? What made Postville so attractive to them?

Stephen Bloom: For years, meat processors had shipped the corn-fed rich Iowa beef to slaughterhouses, sometimes thousands of miles away. It made sense for the slaughterhouse to be located next to the beef, instead of visa versa. So when the Hasidic community moved to Postville, they moved their entire ethos with them from Brooklyn to northeastern Iowa. They created immediately a shul or synagogue. They made two mikvehs, or ceremonial bath houses, as well as a yeshiva, or school for their children. They replicated in northeastern Iowa the community they had established in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. So in my mind, they were not suffering any degree of cultural deprivation. They moved their world, lock, stock, and barrel, one thousand miles westward.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us today?

Stephen Bloom: The book is the result of five years of work. I think in many ways this book exists on several levels. On the first level, it's a story about a tiny town in Iowa, undergoing cataclysmic change. But really, Postville is a metaphor for what's going on throughout the U.S. It also is a story about one person's quest to find meaning in his life, and to define the concept of family, home, and community.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today.

Stephen Bloom: It's been my pleasure to be with chatters. I hope the book speaks to you. Thank you.

Stephen Bloom joined the chat via telephone from California. provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the chat, which took place on Tuesday, October 24, 2000.

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