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Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America 1st Edition

3.3 out of 5 stars 107 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0156013369
ISBN-10: 0156013363
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Postville, Iowa (population 1,478), seems an unlikely place to find a sizable Jewish population, let alone an ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher population. It is, after all, in the heart of pork country, and the world headquarters of the Lubavitchers is far away in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. But when the Hygrade meat processing plant, just outside Postville, went belly-up, threatening the town with decline, Sholom Rubashkin bought it and turned it into a glatt kosher processing plant, complete with shochtim and a rabbinical inspectorate. By the late 1980s, "Postville had more rabbis per capita than any other city in the United States, perhaps the world."

The enterprise was a huge international success, with its kosher meats exported even to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The Jewish population grew to 150, and they were rich. The town was saved, and the people were grateful. All's well that ends well? Not quite. The Hasidim kept to themselves, did things their own way, and basically had no interest in integrating into Postville. And why would they? Their laws are strict, their mission clear, their community defined by race and religion. They are not interested in watermelon socials or coffee klatches at the diner. Their little boys do not swim with their little girls, are not educated together, and do not go on play dates with goyim. Small-town Iowans, on the other hand, are very friendly. They know each other's news, they support each other's businesses, they wish each other Merry Christmas, they want you to feel at home. They don't like that the new townspeople stomp up the street hunched over, talking in a foreign language and looking straight through them when greeted. They really don't like it when one of the newcomers drives around town with a 10-foot candelabra strapped to his car playing music at full volume for eight consecutive winter nights. They don't actually know about menorahs or Hanukkah.

Into this comes secular Jew Stephen Bloom, a professor at the University of Iowa. By the time he arrived in Postville, the town was riven along religious lines. One of the townspeople was running for mayor on the sole platform of annexation of the land on which the plant stood. Rubashkin was threatening that he'd shut the plant and leave if that came to pass. Bloom closely considers both sides, and the result is a wonderful book. It is a fascinating tale of culture clash in the American heartland: the John Deere cap meets the black fur hat. It is a book about identity and community and what it means to be American. It covers all the things you aren't supposed to talk about at the dinner table--religion, politics, and even sex. It is full of suspense: Will the plant be annexed? Will the Jews leave? And it is also Bloom's exploration of his own sense of belonging. --J. Riches --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Bloom's account of a vicious clash between the residents of a small, intensely Christian town and the group of Lubavitcher Jews who open a highly successful kosher slaughterhouse there is a model of sociological reportage and personal journalism. In 1987, after a Hasidic butcher from Brooklyn bought a slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, and began to relocate Jewish and immigrant workers to the area, the town began to change. While some residents were suspicious and anti-Semitic, most were happy to see the town rise above its previous financial destitution. But the Lubavitchers, who traditionally live and work within their own closely knit communities, were not interested in fitting into Postville, and many were dismissive of, or overtly hostile to, its original citizens. After the Lubavitchers started buying real estate and exerting greater influence on the town's finances, longtime Postville residents began to feel marginalized, yet their reactions caused the Jews to become more isolationist. The slaughterhouse also caused problems: workers were paid below minimum wage and were uninsured, women workers were sexually harassed and fighting among the (often illegal) immigrant workers escalated. Finally, the town took legal action to gain more control over the slaughterhouse. Bloom, a professor at the University of Iowa, writes cleanly and with great insight and temperance about these events. As a secular Jew, he also weaves in his own story as he tries to find some common ground with the Lubavitchers. His book proves an illuminating meditation on contemporary U.S. culture and what it means to be an American. Agents, David Black and Gary Morris. BOMC and QPB selection; 8-city tour. (Oct.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Harvest Book
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; 1 edition (September 10, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156013363
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156013369
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (107 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #64,686 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Colleen McMahon VINE VOICE on July 26, 2005
Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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