Thursday, January 3, 2008

Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America

In honor of the Iowa caucuses today, I thought I'd make mention of an Iowan story.

Part memoir, part literary journalism, Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America is written by Stephen Bloom, a college professor from San Francisco who takes a teaching position at the University of Iowa, his wife and young son in tow. As a Jewish family amongst the strong Norwegian (and Lutheran) population, the Blooms immediately feel like outsiders. Bloom, a secular Jew, yearns for some sort of connection with other Jews in Iowa. That’s when he decides to travel to Postville, Iowa, home to a large, successful glatt kosher processing plant, and 150 Lubavitcher Jews. Perhaps he’ll feel more at home here?

Bloom learns how hard it is to get in contact with the owner of the plant – there’s a certain cultural way to do these things. [Not that this really compares, but if you've ever seen the Sex and the City episode when Charlotte decides to convert to Judaism so she can marry Harry, the way the rabbi treats her at first is similar.] However, the non-Jewish people of Postville are more than willing to talk to Bloom. In their eyes, the Hasidim are taking over the town, yet aren’t willing to integrate into the population – buying up all the real estate, yet refusing to let their children play with other resident children, swim in the same pool, come to ice cream socials, etc. They don’t say hello, they barter for their goods – actions the residents just don’t understand.

When Bloom does integrate into the plant and finally into the Hasidim circle, he learns they have their own opinions about the citizens of Postville. All they’re doing is making a living, living their religion and keeping to themselves. What’s the harm in that? Plus, if they were to leave, the town would flounder. Postville needs the Jews and the processing plant, more than the Jews need Postville.

I found this book extremely interesting. With each chapter, Bloom has you on the side of the Postville citizens, then after reading the next chapter, you’ve switched your loyalty. So, who’s right? Bloom takes his own journey to answer that question, and brings the reader along for the ride. He’s so honest about his thoughts and beliefs, you can understand why his book caused some tensions when it was published in 2001. He discovers a new aspect of his religion and heritage, yet he sympathizes with the Postville citizens. I was aching for a hard conclusion, for Bloom to tell me who was right, but as with all issues of religion and culture, sometimes there is no right or wrong. We just have to find common ground.

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