Postville, by Stephen Bloom

A couple weeks ago, I read Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, by Stephen Bloom, which I had plucked from the Half-Price Books in West Des Moines sometime last year.  After the huge ICE raid on the kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, last year, I realized that the story had probably changed a bit since Bloom published his book in 2001.

It’s definitely not a clash of civilizations on a Samuel Huntington scale — oh no, Iowa is not exciting enough for that.  But the story of uber-Orthodox Jewish meatpackers (apparently of the Lubavitcher sect) moving into a sleepy rural town in northeast Iowa is interesting because I’ve spent some time in Iowa City, where Bloom is a professor in the journalism department, and because I have mostly traveled through rural Iowa, rather than camping out for a while.  I don’t know much about Orthodox Judaism, but Bloom’s account of the Lubavitchers describes them as very socially and culturally conservative — to the extent that women are meant to be wives and homemakers and baby machines only.  Obviously, this is something I cannot get behind.  It reminded me, accurately or not, of descriptions of conservative Muslim societies, where women must be covered and in some cases can’t be seen in public with men who are not their relatives.  I can see how dozens, and ultimately hundreds, of Lubavitchers parachuting into rural Iowa, where women are at least seen as competent to do more than make babies and pies, would be disconcerting.  I still find myself a little startled when I see Somali women and girls in the Twin Cities, always covered carefully from head to toe, often in beautiful scarves.  It’s just not an especially Midwestern way of life.

So my gripes with Postville, which is mostly informative and entertainingly told, are twofold.  First, Bloom is new to Iowa at the outset of the book, having moved from San Francisco with his wife and small son to take the professorship.  Yikes!  Iowa!  Full of corn and hillbillies.  Not really, especially not Iowa City, which is one of the most interesting and diverse parts of the state.  I can see how Bloom would be bewildered by the predominantly white, Christian culture.  He’s baffled by the fishing and hunting that (apparently) all Iowa men do.  The Iowa men in my family are, evidently, huge exceptions, but I stand corrected by my boyfriend Mike, who has fishing, hunting, farming men on both sides of his family.  Even Mike has gone fishing (but in Canada).  Back to Bloom’s shock at Iowa, though.  Apparently Iowans are suspicious of outsiders — this is a major argument made by Postvillians (not to be confused with Postvillains, which would be a good twist) who oppose the insular, un-law-abiding Lubavitchers but say they would have the same reactions if the newcomers were rude Frenchmen and -women instead.  I guess this doesn’t seem like an especially Iowan trait, but it helps Bloom make his argument about the monochromatic demographic landscape of his adopted state.

My second gripe is that the book I bought does not have an updated epilogue as recent as last year!  I wanted to see how the town dealt with changes in the staff at the meatpacking plant, who apparently started out as mostly Eastern European workers but morphed into undocumented Latin Americans.  The Lubavitchers were supervisors and kosher rabbis but the people working on the “kill floor” (mercifully, the book is not an analysis of modern, large-scale abattoirs) were low-wage immigrants.  Somehow I thought, before I started the book, that it was written more recently than, in fact, it was.  This isn’t Bloom’s fault.  I guess I expected more of a three-way clash of cultures: white Iowans vs. Lubavitchers vs. immigrants.  Alas, the book is primarily about the first two groups.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and found the descriptions of the Lubavitcher religion and society fascinating, particularly the differences between the family patriarch in Brooklyn and the slaughterhouse head in Postville.  As a native Iowan, I chafed at the broad strokes that Bloom – a journalist! – used to paint the people of my state.  Couldn’t he at least have gone to Des Moines for a different side of Iowa?  Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s Little Heathens at least shows Iowa from an Iowan’s perspective, though the timelines are vastly different.  I guess it’s hard to see your home described by someone else, no matter where you’re from.  (The Lubavitchers were not psyched by Bloom’s portrayal; no surprise there.)

Has anyone out there read Postville?  Or wants to defend Iowa’s honor?  Or Bloom’s honor?

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2 responses to “Postville, by Stephen Bloom

  1. I met him once at a scholarship thing. I was sure thankful to his committee for the scholarship — not so thankful to them for seating us next to one another. Maybe the journalism connection made sense, but I left derided for my not being a “serious” journalist, rather than honored for my academic prowess.

  2. Gosh…
    1) My cell phone ring has NEVER been the sound of applause. Total fabrication. Convenient, though, when trying to score points.
    2) I have lived and worked in Iowa for 16 years. The rude perceptions ascribed to me are dead wrong. I have taught thousands of the brightest students in the nation at the University of Iowa. Readers might not agree with my book Postville, and that’s their right. but character assassination of my personality (based really on what?) is poor manners.
    3) A second book I’ve written with photographer Peter Feldstein, The Oxford Project, is also about a small Iowa town. Thousands of Iowans seem to find both books useful appraisals of life in rural America. It’s easy to take potshots…..but try writing a book that is sincere, opinionated, compelling, and informative.

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