13 March 2006
Forty kilometers west of the Mississippi River is a farm town so small, it doesn't have a shopping mall or a fast-food restaurant. But it's one of the most remarkable communities in America. In fact, little Postville, Iowa, is a sort of United Nations on the prairie.
For 150 years, Postville was what is sometimes called "white bread country" -- polite, predictable, and 100% Caucasian. Its mainly German and Norwegian descendants joke that meeting a person from another county -- let alone another culture -- was considered exotic.
When one of the town's two meatpacking houses shut down in the 1980s, Postville's population was 1,400 and falling fast. People worried that the town's school would have to merge with one from another community.
Imagine the reaction when a couple of ultra-Orthodox Jews from teeming Brooklyn, New York -- a place 1,800 times the size of Postville -- came to town to look over the abandoned plant. And then the sheer astonishment when those men BOUGHT the plant and turned it kosher. Soon 150 Hassidic Jews moved in. Among them: 40 or so rabbis, trained to supervise the kosher inspection and slaughtering process.
University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom wrote a book about the sudden influx of Orthodox Jews. It's called Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America. "They wear long, ankle-length outer garments called cassocks," he says. "They have long beards. Their heads are always covered. It was a totally different world for the Postville locals. It was almost as though someone had come in from outer space!"
Although Mr. Bloom is Jewish, he won few friends among the Brooklyn transplants, for he wrote that the Jews snubbed efforts to fold them into the community. He calls Postville's culture shock a "civil war." "The Hassidim did not come to go to ice-cream socials," he says. "No way. They came for one strong, American reason, and there's nothing wrong with it: to make money."
Sharon Drahn, the editor of Postville's weekly newspaper, says residents were indeed insulted at first that the newcomers kept to themselves. "For those of us who maybe only knew about the Jewish religion from something we'd read in a book, or the movie The Diary of Anne Frank, it's, 'What's with these people? We're clean!' Change did happen, and it's maybe not the way we envisioned it."
Shalom Rubashkin, one of the sons of the founder of the kosher plant, says Jewish families soon fell in love with their safe, clean, and comfortable surroundings. Yes, we send our kids to separate yeshivas, or private religious schools, he says. And no, we don't eat pizza with our new neighbors. But that's because of kosher laws, which, he says, God handed to Moses at Mount Sinai. "It's somewhat hard for people to understand that when you're not eating their food you're not, God forbid, rejecting anything that they're doing. What they're doing is perfectly fine. But for your religious beliefs, you can't partake in that food."
As if the insertion of talkative strangers from a bustling New York City borough was not shock enough to Postville residents -- some of whom had never met a Jew or black person or heard a foreign language outside Spanish class in school -- the packing plant soon hired hundreds of ethnic Bosnians, Hispanics, Ukrainians, and others. Says Stephen Bloom, "You don't need to know English for slaughterhouse jobs. All you need is a strong back and a strong stomach. The wages are low. The work is hard. And Iowans don't want to do that work."
All of a sudden, little Postville could count 30 ethnicities among its growing population. Ukrainian, Hebrew, and Spanish words and music joined English on the airwaves of Postville's local radio station. To hear Councilman Bob Schroeder tell it, the newcomers saved the town from what he calls a "slow death." "It's reinvigorated," he says, "and there's life here. It's wonderful. I have many friends from all over the world, and they're very good people."
Aaron Goldsmith, who moved his custom bed shop from giant Los Angeles to tiny Postville, became, as far as anyone knows, the first Jew ever to serve on the town council. He is widely seen as a uniter of the disparate cultures.
"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness mean something," he says. "And even when it comes to a clash of cultures, people will find their common grounds. We all want a secure community. We want good education for our children. We want job opportunities. We would like to live in a decent home. And we'd like to know that our neighbor is looking out for us if we're down. And that's what happened in Postville."
Even the somewhat insular Hassidic newcomers now join in the annual Taste of Postville festival, in which ethnic foods, dance, music -- even comedy -- turn Greene Street into an international bazaar. And while the locals can't get a McDonald's hamburger, they can now buy Russian rye bread, Mexican tamales, and kosher meats any day of the year. Councilman Schroeder calls today's Postville "a butterfly, emerging from its cocoon. A beautiful thing."