Israel in Iowa?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Nov 3 11:05:03 MST 2000


NY Times, November 3, 2000

BOOKS OF THE TIMES

'Postville': Hasidim and Iowa Townsfolk

By RICHARD BERNSTEIN

The word of the day is multiculturalism, which suggests an American
identity of mutually tolerant diversity. But what happens when diversity
means groups so different that mutual tolerance becomes a practical
impossibility? That seems to have been the case in Postville, Iowa, the
setting of Stephen G. Bloom's riveting tale of a cultural clash so sharp
and irreconcilable that it challenges easy assumptions one might make about
the ability of different people to live in a state of harmonious reciprocity.

Mr. Bloom's story, "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America,"
is about a group of Lubavitcher Hasidim, members of a worldwide sect of
deeply religious Jews with headquarters in Brooklyn, who came to Postville
in northeastern Iowa in the mid-1980's to take over a non-Jewish packing
house that had long been in existence but that had fallen on hard times.
Their aim was to provide kosher meat to Lubavitcher communities around the
nation.

The Jews brought a jolt of prosperity to sleepy, commercially inert
Postville, population 1,465. But they also brought aggressive business
practices and extreme insularity that disturbed many (though not all) of
the mostly Lutheran inhabitants, whose culture called for an affable sort
of neighborliness.

The annoyance of local people with "the Jews" led some to place on the
ballot a proposal to annex the land where the slaughterhouse stood. The
annexation vote, whose practical effects were hard to predict, amounted to
a referendum on the presence of the Lubavitchers, and as such put the usual
bromides about tolerance to the test.

"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," Mr. Bloom writes. His statement is given substance by remarks
of actors on the Hasidic side of the drama, like the man he calls Lazar
Kamzoil whose home he visited on the Sabbath. "Wherever we go, we don't
adapt to the place or the people," Mr. Kamzoil tells a shocked Mr. Bloom.
"It's the place and the people who have to adapt to us."

Mr. Bloom, a former Bay Area journalist who in 1993 moved with his family
to Iowa City to teach journalism at the University of Iowa, spent two years
visiting Postville. Because he is Jewish, he, unlike the local non- Jews,
was able to visit the Hasidim in their offices and homes and to see them
from the inside. He got to know many gentiles, who were by no means of one
opinion about the Lubavitchers.

Mr. Bloom tries to answer fundamental questions: Were the Hasidim at fault?
Was the reaction of the local people who hated them a recrudescence of
primitive anti-Semitism?

It is perhaps paradoxical that the book comes along at a time when there
have been plenty of well-publicized conflicts among Jews, pitting Orthodox
against Reform, Hasidim against the more assimilated - episodes in which no
principals could be considered anti-Semitic.

In their way, all of these stories, Mr. Bloom's included, are variations on
a theme as old as America, about the limits of the melting pot and the
challenge presented by people who do not want to fit in.

Mr. Bloom writes at times with a wide-eyed wonderment, and there are
moments when one is almost embarrassed for him, as when he realizes,
driving with his young son to spend Sabbath in Mr. Kamzoil's home, that
maybe he should wear something more sedate than jeans and a T-shirt.

Still, he does a thorough and penetrating job of reporting, on the
slaughterhouse, on the lives of its workers, on the inner worlds of the
Hasidim and of the gentiles, who, as he puts it, "were so accustomed to
everyone else being Christian that they couldn't possibly imagine anyone
not believing in Christ, or at least, reared to believe in Christ."

The truth is his portrayal of the Hasidim makes for particularly painful
reading. It is not simply that they defied community standards in such
small ways as failing to cut their lawns. It is not even their conviction
that preserving their way of life requires a high wall of separation
between themselves and non-Jews, though that is certainly one aspect of
their behavior that alienated their neighbors.

Once, for example, the leaders of Postville's three churches invited the
Hasidim to an ecumenical Thanksgiving service so they could all get to know
each other. The Hasidim, uninterested in mutual understanding, simply
didn't show up. Beyond that, some Hasidim interviewed by Mr. Bloom use
racist epithets; they express contempt for non-Jews, all of them.

The man he calls Kamzoil, who sometimes sounds like a caricature invented
by an anti-Semite, brags about how he postpones payment of bills. "We'll
pay him - eventually - but on our terms, not his," he says.

In the end, Mr. Bloom is better at describing the fascinating situation in
Postville than at analyzing it or placing it in moral or historic context.
He does draw conclusions. He makes clear that his sympathies lie with the
local people against the Lubavitchers, whose especially obtuse insularity
leads them to bad behavior.

"What the Postville Hasidim ultimately offered me was a glimpse at the dark
side of my own faith," he writes, "a look at Jewish extremists whose
behavior not only made the Postville locals wince, but made me wince, too."

There is honesty in this private conclusion, even if it conflicts with
other statements Mr. Bloom makes elsewhere as he engages in a continuing
effort to measure his own responses.

"Why should Lazar be governed by my rules?" he asks himself after Mr.
Kamzoil has expressed what he sees as an objectionable, retrograde
attitude. Why, for that matter, should he be governed by the rules of the
local Christians who put the annexation referendum on the ballot? Isn't the
presence of a group seeking to build a separate religious community as
American as Plymouth Rock?

Mr. Bloom doesn't show much originality when he grapples with that
question, though he circles it on almost every page. But what he has given
us is a gripping portrayal of a confounding collision, an adjunct battle in
the larger culture wars, one that removes the question of diversity from
the realm of abstraction and makes it prickly, difficult, and real.

Louis Proyect
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