(Reprinted with permission from the Baltimore Sun, written by John Rivera.)
Stephen G. Bloom, a San Francisco-based journalist who had seen it all and had enough, chucked it in the early nineties and moved his family to Iowa, home of the Hawkeyes and lots of corn, but precious little of his beloved Jewish culture.
He was feeling very much like a stranger in a strange land when he stumbled upon a magazine article about a sect of Hasidic Jews called the Lubavitchers, who in 1987 moved from Crown Heights in Brooklyn to a tiny Iowa town called Postville to start a kosher slaughterhouse. Hasidic Jews in Iowa, where “the pigs outnumber people two to one?” Bloom knew “in his bones” it was a good story.
Over the next four years, he made more than fifty trips to Postville, interviewing 450 people in a town with a population of 1,400. The result is Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America. Bloom’s Jewishness led him to pursue the story and soon becomes part of the story. Although not religiously devout, Bloom felt cut off from his Jewish roots in Iowa. In the Jews in Postville, Bloom thought he might find kindred spirits, but he also realized that the Jews of Postville were the most Orthodox of Jews: Hasidim, who shunned secular culture and even other Jews who were not as religiously observant as they are.
What Bloom found was a culture war. The Lubavitchers had initially been welcomed by the locals when they reopened a business that had been shuttered for years, buoying the local economy. But years of shunning the other residents of Postville took their toll.
The tension was inevitable. The Iowa farmers were a garrulous lot, accustomed to a nod and a wave for friend and stranger alike. The Hasidim wouldn’t return their greetings, instead averting their eyes as they passed. Iowans kept their yards tidy: “Postville lawns are mowed like crew cuts—military cut, regulation length,” Bloom writes. The Hasidim rarely cut their lawns, didn’t rake their leaves, and used their front yards for storage and parking.
Although initially sympathetic to the Hasidim, Bloom eventually took the side of the Iowans. Although few Jews proselytize, the Lubavitchers do seek out those they consider non-observant Jews and try to win them over, inviting them to Sabbath dinner with a Lubavitcher family. Bloom got such an invitation and brought along his son, Mikey. His host, a fifth-generation Lubavitcher rabbi, insisted they wear yarmulkes and use Hebrew names. All that was fine, Bloom says.
The turning point came when Bloom and his son walked to synagogue with their hosts. He greeted some locals working in their front yard. “Ten paces down the road, I was criticized by my host. ‘You do not do that! You do not acknowledge locals. That’s the beginning of assimilation.’” He was amazed, shocked, and deeply disturbed that someone of his religion could be so shallow as to ignore another person because that person was of a different religion.
Bloom says his experience with the Lubavitchers in Iowa taught him the difference between formal religion and a transforming faith. Religion is about teachings and rules governing behavior and ritual. Faith, he says, is about “how good a person you are.”
“So, I found Lubavitchers and the Hasidim very religious,” he says. “But are they necessarily good people because they’re religious? Absolutely not.”
Bloom has been the target of no small amount of criticism from Orthodox Jews, who say his account is biased and perpetuates Jewish stereotypes. “But I’m a journalist, and I happen to be Jewish,” he says. “Everything in that book is true. It might hurt, but it is true.”