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71 of 77 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's a Memoir, It's not Supposed to Be Objective...
I picked this book up randomly, at a thrift store, but I am always fascinated by non-fiction books that offer glimpses into other cultures and in books that look at the assimilation or non-assimilation of various groups into the American mainstream. POSTVILLE: A CLASH OF CULTURES IN THE HEARTLAND OF AMERICA is the portrait of a typical small midwestern town (almost...
Published on July 26, 2005 by Colleen McMahon

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47 of 53 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Another View by an Iowa City Jew
Stephen Bloom's book proved to be a quick and interesting read about a subject to which I can relate. Like Bloom, I am a secular Jew who moved to Iowa City a number of years ago and who has taken an interest in how the Hasidim and local Iowans in Postville have gotten along. I have visited the community on several occasions and have informally talked to a few of the...
Published on September 10, 2001 by Jason B. Lassner


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71 of 77 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's a Memoir, It's not Supposed to Be Objective..., July 26, 2005
I picked this book up randomly, at a thrift store, but I am always fascinated by non-fiction books that offer glimpses into other cultures and in books that look at the assimilation or non-assimilation of various groups into the American mainstream. POSTVILLE: A CLASH OF CULTURES IN THE HEARTLAND OF AMERICA is the portrait of a typical small midwestern town (almost stereotypical, as the author waxes on about parades, agricultural festivals, and kids who don't have to lock up their bikes in front of the corner stores) trying to come to grips with a settlement of militantly anti-assimilationist settlers in their midst: a group of Hassidic Lubavitcher Jews who have purchased the closed meat packing plant and reopened it as kosher slaughterhouse, bringing economic life back to the town but unearthing a host of conflicts with the locals over a host of issues of custom and lifestyle.

Many of the reviews of POSTVILLE here take issue with the author coming down on one side or the other of the division in Postville, Iowa and thus finding the book flawed because it is not objective.

But Bloom never pretends to be writing an objective or sociological treatise. The book is as much a memoir of his own coming to terms with his internal conflict between his Jewishness and his feelings of being a fish out of water in Iowa, and his longing to find a place that he fits in--is it by a deeper embrace of his Jewishness and thus his differences, or by further assimilation? A main part--if not the main point-- of the story is his own developing attitudes and his eventual realization that he has chosen to support one side--and thus one way of life--over the other.

Over a period of several years, Bloom makes trip after trip to Postville, at first drawn by the incongruous settlement of Jews there, and perhaps seeking a spiritual connection and answer to his own feelings of isolation. Bloom becomes fascinated with the schisms in Postville between the native (and nearly 100% Christian) Iowans and the Jewish newcomers who seem determined to stay separate and who seemingly deliberately flout local conventions of politeness, neatness and unassuming behavior.

As Bloom interviews numerous people in Postville, both Jewish newcomers and Postville natives, the schism in the town gradually coalesces around the issue of a referendum on annexing the land that the slaughterhouse is on, allowing the town to possibly exert more control over the business there and by extension, perhaps, the Jews. Both the native Iowans and several of the Lubavitchers reach out to him, telling him of their viewpoints and trying to recruit him to their point of view.

Bloom reports what he is shown by both sides, and in the end finds that he comes to support the native Iowans rather than the Jews. He does seem to give breaks to the native Iowans for sometimes nakedly anti-semitic statements (particularly when they move from concrete, personally unpleasant experiences with individual Lubavitchers in the town to generalizations about "the Jews" and the way all Jews are. On the other hand, some of the unpleasant behaviors of some of the Jews in the town feed entirely too neatly into a larger world of nasty stereotypes waiting to be applied.)

Bloom's conclusion seems to be that the Iowans he deals with, both in Postville and in Iowa City, are by nature of long isolation and homogeneity suspicious of and slow to welcome any outsiders, Jewish or otherwise, and that they are willing to try to get along with people who try to get along with them. The Lubavitchers, with their unconcealed attitudes of superiority, their rufusal to moderate even some of their behaviors in deference to local custom (even behaviors that don't infringe at all on their beliefs, such as keeping their yards neat or refraining from attempting to bargain prices at the stores, which the townsfolk see as insulting) and their complete disinterest in having any sort of relationship with the people they are living alongside, consistently show no inclination at all to try to get along. And Bloom, as a Jew and an outsider, ultimately chooses the path of trying to fit in over that of flaunting his difference. He chooses as his role model Doc Wolf, the legendary doctor of Postville and surrounding areas who for over 60 years doctored the locals, delivered babies and made housecalls, with most people unaware that he was Jewish and those who did not caring.

This is certainly a book well worth reading, but it's best to read it as one man's personal odyssey distilled through his observations of a larger sociological moment, than as a work of anthropological or sociological objectivity or disinterest. Of course, held to the latter standard it will fail, because that's not what the book ever set out to be.
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47 of 53 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Another View by an Iowa City Jew, September 10, 2001
By 
Stephen Bloom's book proved to be a quick and interesting read about a subject to which I can relate. Like Bloom, I am a secular Jew who moved to Iowa City a number of years ago and who has taken an interest in how the Hasidim and local Iowans in Postville have gotten along. I have visited the community on several occasions and have informally talked to a few of the Hasidim. I was even approached by two of them while having lunch at the kosher delicatessen and asked to put on tefillin (the Jewish "good deed" that Bloom himself performs with the owner of the slaughterhouse). My impression is that Bloom's portrayal of the transformation of the town as well as the clash of cultures is accurate. It is also valuable from a number of perspectives, including how it addresses the issue of assimilation. Jews, as well as other strongly identified religious and ethnic or cultural groups, have a difficult balance to strike in rural areas such as Iowa: retain (at least some) of their unique identity while also becoming a part of the community. Postville is an example of a place where the strongly identified newcomers, the Hasidim, choose not to even acknowledge the locals and their customs or way of life. This has dire consequences for all involved, although, paradoxically, the success of the Hasidic owned and run kosher meat packing plant has invariably influenced the local economy. For the better.
While this book was informative and enjoyable to read over a weekend, I hesitate to recommend it whole-heartedly because the author's voice got in the way. Mr. Bloom seems to have concluded that he, as the narrative observor, was entitled to inject his own internal conflict about being a Jew in rural Iowa into the story as if it is of particular interest to all readers. As a reader who can relate to many of Mr. Bloom's observations about adapting to Iowa culture as an identified Jew, I am not quibbling with his conclusions. However, his own story impeded his ability to comment on the situation in Postville without generalizing to a rediculous degree about all parties. Even when he seems aware of this, I still found it to be annoying and difficult to ignore.
For those seeking to understand the effect of multicultural perspectives on a small rural community, Postville is a worthwhile book. It is also informative and interesting for Jews who seek to answer some of their own questions about their religious and/or cultural identity by learning about how the author accomplished this. I just wish his own struggle had been a side-light to the main story rather than its competition.
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars an interesting look at ourselves, April 21, 2002
By 
Randy Keehn (Williston, ND United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This is a good book and Mr. Bloom has done a very good job putting it together. The basic focus is on a group of ultra-orthodox Jews who set up a kosher meat-cutting business in little Postville, Iowa. I lived for a number of years in nearby Decorah, Iowa so I was interested in reading it as soon as I heard of it. I glanced at some of the reviews in Amazon and I could tell that the author has raised quite a bit of controversy over his approach to the subject. What is interesting is that he is accused of being biased both for and against each side of the controversy. Personally, I think he has done a good job of staying in a sort of middle ground approach. Let's face it, his Jewish background was a strong point given our current societal tendency to blame differing opinions on racism, sexism, anti-semitism, etc. Bloom is, thus, uniquely able to approach the subject unincumbered in ways that others would have been. As one who is proud of his Iowa roots, I felt proud of the praise Bloom gave my home state and some defensiveness when he was critical of its' citizens. I attended a junior high school in Des Moines that had two or three of the citie's synagogues in its' territory. In or around 1967, the junior high school was spray-painted with hateful ant-semitic statements. As I came to school that day, my reaction was one of great surprize. This was something that was obviously the work of someone not in touch with the mainstream of thought in our community. However, I learned that day that not all Iowans are perfect. Mr. Bloom has reminded us of that (not that we REALLY think of ourselves that way).
The interactions of the two societies; rural Middle-America and Orthodox Jewish, did not go well in little Postville. The author ends up taking sides but only after a seemingly thorough attempt to hear both sides out. I was surprized at the aloofness of the Jews in their new surroundings. I knew that the local citizens would have done at least a reasonable job of making them feel at home if they had been given a chance. I found myself having to realize a different perspective on Orthodox Jews. I have read just about every book written by Isaac B. Singer and Sholom Aleichem. I love the stories of the Jewish societies in Eastern Europe in the decades prior to WWII. I always assumed that little mention was made of the Goyim because the Goyim didn't want anything to do with the Jews. I now realize that there was a likely, unspoken, opposite point of view in which the Jews wanted nothing to do with the Goyim.
In many ways this is a tragic story but it is also an illuminating story of our modern American society which prides itself on its' diversity. To preach about assimulation as the method our ancesters followed ignores the seperation of different races and faiths that was the standard of the past. Yet to try and praise an ethnic group that disavows all others but their own gives us a distaste that's hard to ignore. Professor Bloom has written an excellent book. His style of writing makes the reader glad that a person of his talent is teaching journalism. You need not be Jewish or Iowan to get a lot out of this book; just American.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clash of Cultures, May 29, 2011
One would not expect to find a group of ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews in small town Iowa, but when the Rubashkin family started a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, they made the town their own, keeping themselves separate from the rest of the townspeople. This in and of itself was enough to start a culture war, but when the townspeople decided to annex the land on which the slaughterhouse was located so that they could have control over this group, an all-out battle was set in motion. This confrontation is what Stephen G. Bloom examines in "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America", an honest and unflinching look at custom and tradition and the differences that unite and separate all of us.

"Postville" is written as a memoir, beginning with Bloom's move from San Francisco to Iowa City where he was a journalism professor at the college. He writes honestly of the culture shock he and his family experienced and even some anit-Semitic encounters that made him question his move and how to hang on to his faith in an overtly Christian part of the country. So upon hearing about Postville, Bloom was curious to meet these Jews, hoping to find something that would bind them together. But as Bloom learns more and more about the Hasidim in this small Iowa town, he understands the complaints the locals have about them. For the Hasidim is a deeply private group who separates from the rest of the community and doesn't feel the need to follow any laws but their own. This is difficult for the small town folk who are used to life being lived a certain way. How can they raise opposition when to do so would make them look anti-Semitic? Bloom finds himself torn between his people (although he is a reformed Jew) and the townspeople who willingly open up their lives to him. And as the vote on annexation draws nearer, both groups find themselves at a crossroads that encompasses race and religion and faith.

Bloom is an engaging writer who makes no apologies for his views, doing justice to both the locals and the Hasidim. While he finally does choose a side in the annexation matter, for much of the book he is unswerving in his objectivity, showing the warts that each side has. "Postville" is an intriguing read that deftly captures the rifts that can be so easily created by race and religion, matters heightened in the homogenous American heartland.
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51 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A true -- and truly fascinating -- story, September 22, 2000
By 
Dee54 (Nashville, TN USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America (Hardcover)
You could slog through a stack of dry, boring sociology books to understand the push and pull between diverse cultures in the United States -- or you could simply pick up "Postville" and enter a fascinating microcosm of American multiculturalism. In elegant style, Stephen G. Bloom masterfully tells the story of this tiny Iowa farm town and the influx of ultra-Orthodox Jews who simultaneously save it and turn it upside down. The book reads like a good mystery as Bloom, a secular Jew, makes his way through Postville, trying to figure out why the people who opened a kosher slaughterhouse there have so alienated their neighbors. His surprising discoveries and conclusions illuminate what every homogenous population endures when differences intrude. "Postville" speaks eloquently to the issues of assimilation, cultural integrity, exclusivity and what it really means to be a community. On top of that, it's just plain fun to read!
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth a look, August 14, 2003
At first I was surprised by some of the harsh reviews of this book. The events related were all experienced firsthand by Bloom or related to him by Postville residents. Unless Bloom is doing some EXTREMELY selective reporting or flat-out fabrication, this book cannot be said to be a misrepresentation of the Lubavitchers in Postville. In the book, Bloom doesn't extapolate that incidents of boorish behavior by some of the Postville Lubavitchers are representative of all orthodox Jews, or even all Hasidic Jews. Also, the Lubavitchers in Postville, as Bloom portrays them, do not come off without charm or likability. They seem to be decent people with values that happen to differ radically from those of mainstream America.
Then I got around to reading the afterword, which Bloom writes folling his return to Postville shortly after the release of the book, and things became clear. Bloom seems to be a changed man by this time, losing any of the objectivity he displays in the book proper. He endorses the non-Jewish residents of Postville, and of Iowans in general, almost unconditionally. Additionally, he presents a summary judgment against the Lubavitchers. Most offensive was his assertion that these Lubavitchers were very religious but lacked faith. As Bloom's mother would say, "This is for you to judge?" It seems strange that Bloom's assessment of these ultra-orthodox Jews would sour considerably after being away from Postville for six months, but it certainly does.
However, I think the fair thing here is to review the book itself and not include the afterword that was appended later. The book is, as many have mentioned, a page-turner. I don't always enjoy Bloom's style, and I think the book could've been edited down a bit. Still, you couldn't go wrong with this subject matter. "Postville" is interesting and a great conversation piece. I'd give it 3 1/2 stars, if possible, along with a strong recommendation to anyone to read it.
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25 of 32 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bloom is not biased!, November 12, 2001
By A Customer
Much has already been said about this book's writings. I feel that had it been written a topic totally foriegn to me, due to the author's attention to detail and introspection,it would have maintained the same level of interest. I also don't feel that Bloom's writing about the Lubavitcher Chasidim is dishonest or deliberately hurtful. While it often unpleaseant; this was the reality that was given to him. Considering the self-congratulatory syle of writing that is so rife in the Orthodox Jewish world, it is a fair counterweight to such tomes.
I am an Orthodox Jew, and I do not feel that his view of Lubativch Jews is biased at all. That Bloom mentions his own distance from such Orthodoxy does not disqualify his emotions or views. Bloom's point that many in such groups will try to defend themselves using mechanism and guilt and aggresiveness, remains vaild-as some of these reviews prove. It is a shame that some people can't take criticism, and must twist it to be slander.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Look at Multicultualisim, January 30, 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America (Hardcover)
As an expatriate Iowa Jew, I found this book fascinating from start to finish. Reading it, I was as conflicted as the author obviously was. Where should my sympathies lie? With the Jews who were once again facing a sort of persecution? With the townspeople whose culture and values were much more comprehensible to me? As more and more of our communities become multicultural, we will face increasing difficulties as people who understand little of one another are forced to live in close proximity. Is the ideal of the American "melting pot" losing ground as groups jealously guard their cultural identities? This book raises some provocative isssues.
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97 of 134 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A poorly-balanced presentation, November 15, 2000
This review is from: Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America (Hardcover)
I had very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it's an interesting tale about what happens when two equally insular -- but very, very different -- cultures clash with each other. On the other hand, it would have been better if Professor Bloom had not allowed his own secular hostility toward the Hasidim to obscure his objectivity.

Bloom came to this project ill-prepared on the Jewish end, in that he knew nothing about Hasidism before he went to Postville. Like many secular Jews, he had an overly-idealized expectation of all Hasidim as perfect saints and sages. The disillusionment set in with his very first contact, the bombastic personality of Sholom Rubashkin (manager of the kosher slaughterhouse). Bloom takes an immediate dislike to Rubashkin because, as he later admits, "Bits of Sholom reminded me of my own father" (p. 159). This personality conflict then colors Bloom's entire view of Hasidic culture for the rest of the book. A journalism professor he may be, but an objective sociologist he is not!

Bloom paints the entire Hasidic community as a bunch of loud, boorish, backward bigots. While it is true that there are prejudices among some of the Hasidim he interviews, there are equally bigoted attitudes among the gentiles. But Bloom doesn't handle this with much balance. He is able to see both good and bad in the Postville farmers, but, when it comes to the Hasidim, he reports mostly negative incidents, and repeatedly uses buzzwords like "atrocious," "primitive," and "stifling" to put down the entire Hasidic culture as bad. With the bigotry of the Iowans, however, he doesn't make such blanket value judgements. In fact, he seems to want to like them IN SPITE OF the sometimes blatant prejudices that many of them have against Jews. When asked by Postville farmers if he is Jewish, Bloom reluctantly says yes, but is very quick to distance himself from the Hasidim, lest they think he is one of "them." Is it any wonder that the Hasidim, in turn, grow to distrust him?

Bloom's research was lopsided in other ways, too. While he seems to have interviewed just about every gentile in town, he only visited a small number of Hasidic families, then extrapolated from that limited experience onto the entire community. In those few Hasidic homes he did visit (and then only briefly), he went in with a defensive attitude about his own secularism that got in the way of ever understanding the culture from its own POV. As a result, some of his statements are just plain wrong. A "Shabbos goy" is not a non-observant Jew, the chant "aye-aye-aye!" in Hasidic songs is not a mystical name of God, nor is it bad luck to name a child after a deceased relative (It's CUSTOMARY to name children after deceased relatives. But it IS bad luck to name a child after a LIVING relative.) These and other glaring bloopers only serve to underscore that fact that Professor Bloom often does not know what he is talking about, and only succeeds in perpetuating further misunderstandings.

In the end, he comes down on the side of the locals in a political dispute, because, in his words, "It was finally time for the pleasant, accepting Iowans to stand up to the Hasidim" (p. 320). But many of the Iowans described in this book were not very pleasant or accepting at all. The old-timer Postville society was just as closed to outsiders as the Hasidim were, only in different ways. Just because the locals are more soft-spoken and polite to your face doesn't mean they are any less prejudiced behind your back. (Interestingly, Bloom likes Sholom Rubashkin's father Aaron, who talks more softly than his son. Low voice volume seems to be a big priority with the professor.)

Bloom severely criticizes the Hasidim for not mixing socially with the Iowans. But he seems to miss the double standards of the Iowans themselves, who complain that the Jews don't shop locally, while, at the same time, shunning and harrassing the locals who sell to Jews by shouting "Jew lover" at them on the streets. That's "atrocious" behavior, too, if you ask me.

My conclusion: If you want a book which explores the nature of prejudice (including that of its author) and how it can divide a town against itself, then this is an interesting read. Just don't rely on it for the details and meanings of Hasidic customs or beliefs, because in that area, it misses the mark. A much better book for that purpose would be Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry which was written by a Modern Orthodox anthropologist.
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21 of 28 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Idyllic Iowa?, March 6, 2001
By 
TundraVision (o/~ from the Land of Sky Blue Waters o/~) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America (Hardcover)
You can hear Professor Harold Hill exhorting "Oh, we got trouble, right here in River City." Or, in this case, Postville, Iowa. The author, a tenured Professor of Journalism at the University of Iowa, is originally from New Jersey and came to Iowa City via San Francisco. He describes how this book came to be: "The journalist in me had come out in full force. ... I had barely scratched the surface, but clearly there was a culture clash of the strongest magnitude between two groups, both born-and-bred Americans, who rarely had the opportunity to clash. Here was a kind of experiment in the limits of diversity and community, the nature of community, the meaning of prejudice, even what it means to be an American. Postville seemed like a social laboratory, perhaps a metaphor for America. "[81]
It sounded like an intriguing story - a clash between "the quiet, restrained Iowans" and "these brash, assertive Hasidic Jews," so I read the book. But the author's rendition is arguably more of a story than the story he purports to tell.
Urban-transplant author Stephen Bloom makes himself a major focus of the story. As a prior reviewer noted he "reveals more about himself than the town." Although he does come around some by the end of the book, I found Mr. Bloom whiney - "Poor me, Poor me! Here I am [voluntarily] in the middle of the Iowa cornfields and not a decent bagel to be had!" Well, how about ordering some? Surely there is a website? Or ASK the local grocer to carry some of these items. (Try it - it really works!)
The author bemoans his perceived non-acceptance by folks in Iowa. But one does not exactly ingratiate oneself to regional residents by referring to their home as merely " fly-over country" [217] or mocking their physical being. Of his first impression in Iowa City: "Never in my life, except Disney World, had I seen such large and such white people. As I slid into a booth, I noticed that the space between the table and vinyl bench must have been three feet wide. It wasn't just the abdominal girth of the hulking people around me, it was their necks, hands, fingers, arms. " [page 2]: " 'The Lubavitchers in Postville are very private people,' he said, as though lecturing a farm kid who couldn't understand the difference between median and average." [p. 29] Hunh? Are Farm kids less bright than City kids? Look at these comments again. Substitute any ethnic or religious group for the "hulks" and "farm kids."
I found the author's attitude very distracting. Food does not just "miraculously" appear on Market shelves. It takes a lot of hard work, acumen, and savvy to operate a farm or meat processing facility. In farm country, I've seen bumperstickers that say: "Don't criticize farmers with your mouth full!" To Professor Bloom, one could add, "especially when they are paying your salary!"
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Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America
Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America by Stephen G. Bloom (Hardcover - October 2, 2000)
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