Tefillin in Iowa

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Sep 7 18:17:00 MDT 2001

[In 1987 ultra-Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn bought an abandoned
slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa to supply the kosher needs of their
sect back home and around the world. These were the same Lubavitcher
Hasidim who had clashed with African-Americans during the Dinkins
administration after an auto from the chief rabbi's motorcade ran
down and killed a black youth. It is also one of the mainstays of the
rightwing Israeli Zionist government.

[The same sort of conflicts found in Brooklyn and Israel soon cropped
up in Postville, where the sect was regarded as insular,
double-dealing and arrogant by the local population. As might be
expected, local nativist and anti-Semitic attitudes exacerbated
resentment toward genuine misdeeds.

[Stephen Bloom, a journalism professor at the University of Iowa, who
is a secular Jew like myself, wrote a book about the conflict.
"Postville: a Clash of Heartland America" is now available in
paperback. It is some of the finest prose I have read in many years.
This is chapter 5. It describes the killing floor at the packing
house and Bloom's putting on of 'tefillin,' a convoluted ritual
involving leather straps that drove me from the grips of Judaism 43
years go.]

The weekend rains seemed to have transformed Postville. The
water-soaked soil began to resemble organic fields that would someday
bear hardy, tall stalks of corn. The sprouts along geometric rows of
tilled earth looked as though they had actually grown
after-yesterdays downpour, is known to farmers for its amazing
symmetry. An ear has fourteen, sixteen, or eighteen rows-always an
even number-and depending on the number of rows, there are thirty-to
forty kernels per row. In less than four months, corn goes from a
three-millimeter seed to a seedling, to a sprout, a seven-toot stalk
with golden silk tassels. That rapid growth has led farmers to swear
something city folk can't fathom: They insist you can actually hear
corn growing. On a night in late spring to midsummer, in the middle
of a field, there is an unmistakable popping, crunching sound.

The air on this Monday was no longer heavy and portentous, but crisp
and sharp. The sky, which yesterday was the color of an iron skillet,
today was a clear, almost translucent, blue. People strode down
Lawler Street and stopped to say hello to one another. Their tone was
unhurried, confident with purpose. Three men in overalls standing in
the parking lot at Casey's nodded as another farmer got into a Chevy
pickup and turned on the ignition. Beneath the shade of oaks and
shagbark hickories along Greene Street, I saw a teenage girl in denim
cutoffs flip a baton in the air, look up while holding her breath,
and expertly catch the silvery staff as it glided back into the crook
between her right thumb and index finger. The baton thrower's little
sister, sitting on the front steps in shorts and bare feet, clapped
her hands in delight.

Back at the slaughterhouse, the same woman with the ponytail, the
sentry at the guardhouse, waved me through, today with a smile. Up
the rickety stairs again, Don Hunt greeted me, and gave me a white
butcher's coat, yellow hard hat, and black rubber boots. He pulled
two pairs of goggles from a hook on the wall. "Better wear them to
avoid the splatter," Don said. "You're going to see lots of blood."

The dilapidated kosher killing floor looked like a throwback to Upton
Sinclair's days. I had imagined high-tech robotic devices -that
mechanically moved sides of beef as efficient teams of men surgically
cut and carved. But there was nothing modern about what went on in
this kosher abattoir. The slaughterhouse was divided into two halves:
One side was the killfloor with the hot, sickening smell of hundreds
of dead animals, their blood and guts spilled on the concrete floor;
the other side was for processing, really a giant walk-in freezer,
where the carcasses were wrapped, boxed, stored, and readied for

Still warm from life, the carcasses were very large-thirteen hundred
pounds for a normal-sized steer. While workers killed, eviscerated,
and disassembled the steers, the killfloor was unbearably hot and
humid. Steam rose from the cut-open animal carcasses. The stench of
manure, cud, and lingered in the air. I was afraid that if I thought
too much about the smell and the sights before me, I would vomit.

The process was the exact opposite of the tried-and-true
assembly-line concept that made America famous. Here, the product
came into the plant whole, healthy, and intact, the animal was
killed, it was disassembled and repackaged into portions that
transformed the animal's carcass into portions of sellable
commodities. The workers were positioned at different stations:
splitters guided the carcasses on platforms and then split the
animals in half; deboners and trim-worked with small knives, cutting
inside the carcasses, drawing away fat and preparing the meat to be
quartered and ultimately boxed. These workers could be gentiles;
their jobs required no special religious training. But those who
checked the lungs of the steers for lesions or imperfections (which
make the meat unsuitable since it would not be 'glatt') were
specially trained and were all Jews.

In a small room where the cattle were being lolled, there was no stun
gun used; kosher-kill means to purge the animal as fast as possible
of blood. In this killroom, three men stood in rubber boots knee-high
in blood. Each steer was forced down a chute and loaded onto a giant
vertical turntable. The animal slapped and wiggled back and forth in
the mechanical vise, wailing against the inevitable. Once the steer
was in the turntable slot, the apparatus lifted and spun, so that the
animal was positioned upside down. A shochet, a Kosher slaughterer,
in the pit, his apron soaked in blood, with his back toward the
animal, took out a fifteen-inch-long blade and ran it quickly, in a
single motion, across the steer's neck.

Blood spurted three or four feet from the severed neck in a
pulsating, crescent-shaped arc that got larger and larger, and within
ten seconds, ebbed to a trickle. The steer was then turned right side
up again, mechanically pushed out of the slot, and hung ignominiously
on a stainless steel hook, as another animal was loaded onto the

The only thing humane about the whole process seemed to be that the
shochet shielded the shiny blade from the animal about to be
slaughtered. One of the shochtem sloshing in blood saw me peering
into the pit, eyes as large as saucers, and smiled amiably. "Come in!
It's fun," he said in a Russian accent. "Vant to try?"

The shochet, whose name I later learned to be Moishe Tamarin, looked
almost Amish, with a creamy complexion, a beard of thick straight
auburn hair, and deep blue eyes set far apart. The eyes were
difficult to forget. They were crossed, almost hypnotic as they drew
me in. "Join me, I will watch out for you," his beguiling smile
seemed to say.

I shook my head as Don Hunt grabbed my arm and led me to the chicken
kill. Four rabbis, their beards confined by bluish, mesh nets, sat
side by side, wearing white coats and goggles. Each held a small
razor in his right hand, slitting the necks of chickens, 2,850 per
hour. It was a sight-a flurry of squawking chickens all on death row.
The neck of each chicken was forced into a metal brace, and as the
cut-throat chickens moved past the rabbis' workstation, they still
fluttered and bristled, advancing toward the next workstation, where
feathers were removed in a chemical bath. The speed was amazing, 50
birds per minute.

Staggering out of the chicken kill with fresh poultry blood
splattered on the coat I was wearing, I vowed to make good on a
passing interest I had had to turn vegetarian. I made my way back to
Sholom's office, and again, he was arguing with the red-bearded rabbi
I had met last night. Sholom motioned me to take a seat, and popped
three Tums into his mouth. The rabbi took from his pocket a single
cigarette and lit it. Their discussion seemed to be resolved.

"No problem?"

"No problem."

"You sure?"

"No problem."

"I don't want to have any problem."

"No problem!"

"You sure?"

"No problem!"


With that settled, the rabbi left, and Sholom went back to lecturing
me on the sacred life righteous Jews ought to lead. For Hasidic Jews,
there was good reason to remain apart from gentiles.To grow up
Hasidic was to grow up in a nation within a nation. Hasidism carried
its own deeply instilled history and myths, its indelible,
almost-impossible-to-attain schema of how to lead the life of a
tzaddik, a righteous, holy man. There were thousands of codes and
rites to pass from generation to generation. For hundreds of years,
Hasidim had dutifully explained to their children how Jews had been
expelled from country after country. Jews had been hunted, murdered,
the victims of unspeakable pogroms. They had always sought redemption
as exiles, wandering from place to place. Because Hasids saw Jews
assimilating all around them, being subsumed into the dominant
Christian culture, Hasidic were deadly serious when it came to
carrying out the six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Torah
with holy, fundamentalist zeal. These divine commandments, taken from
the laws of Moses, controlled every facet of their lives, from the
moment they awoke to the second they closed their eyes and drifted
off to sleep.

Sholom suddenly looked up at me. He nodded almost imperceptibly. His
dark eyes narrowed, turning into slits again. Sholom leaned forward,
placed both palms atop old issues of Meat and Poultry magazine on his
cluttered desk. "Have you done tefillin yet this morning?" he asked.

When I paused, Sholom asked, raising his voice, "You know what
tefillin is? Nu?"

I had read about tefillin and had seen photos of Orthodox Jews
wearing the leather straps and leather boxes, but had never used
tefillin nor had ever seen a Jew wearing them. I knew that one box
was to be strapped to the center of the forehead while the other was
strapped onto the left arm through an elaborate system of wrapping
and intertwining straps. The two boxes contain tiny parchments with
Hebrew inscriptions from Exodus and Deuteronomy. Laying tefillin is
essential in the execution of prayers for every Hasidic male past the
age of thirteen, and tefillin are to be worn every day of the year
other than six holidays and the Sabbath. I also had read somewhere
that Lubavitchers believe that when a non-practicing Jew lays
tefillin it serves a special mitzvah. In fact, as I was to learn,
Lubavitchers not only encourage, but vigorously exhort all Jewish men
to observe die ritual. Lubavitchers with tefillin are like Jehovah's
Witnesses on street comers holding up the Watchtower. Members of both
faiths minister to all possible recruits through these tools.

Sholom's question to me wasn't really a question at all, but a
requirement: Should I want to continue talking to him or local Jews,
I would have to submit to their rules. I played in my mind the
reaction that shunning sacred tefillin would carry in the Postville
Hasidic community. "He says he's a Jew? But he refuses to pray with
tefillin? What kind of Jew this?" I didn't want to wrap two yards of
black leather found my arm and head, say a prayer that I didn't
understand or believe in, as a way to assure Sholom that I was an
upstanding Jew.

But why not? I had often mused about what it would be like to take a
Communion wafer in my mouth. To kneel before a priest and have him
place in my mouth a thin wafer was more bizarre than wrapping an arm
and forehead with leather straps and two square boxes. And this
religious ritual came from my religion. It would be a way to get
closer to the men I had seen from my car that first night in
Postville, 'davening' in the shul.

But it was more. It would be a way to separate myself from our Iowa
City neighbors who had stiffed us at the Watermelon Social, from the
scoutmaster who wanted to invoke Jesus' name, from Kurt Reynolds and
his cache of guns. Isn't this why I had come to Postville in the
first place? To commune with men like my ancestors, steeped in
tradition and in religion?

Sholom got up from behind his desk, walked over to his office door,
locked it, and then came at me. He gravely instructed me to remove my
wristwatch and get up from the chair. He reached into a velvet pouch
and pulled out the leather straps and two boxes, which he kissed. If
I was going to be reborn an Orthodox Jew, it would be here, in the
messy I office of a slaughterhouse magnate, above the wails of
cattle, sheep, and chickens about to be slaughtered in the middle of

Sholom was quickly on me, first wrapping one strap around my left
arm. The leather was smooth and warm. Sholom picked up my left arm, I
was to learn much later, not simply because it is closer to the
heart, but because the left hand is the weaker and feebler, more apt
to be led astray. But like much in Orthodox Judaism, that, too, is
unclear. It could have something to do with the prosaic reason that
for most people, who are right-handed, wrapping the left arm with the
right hand is just easier to do. Sholom wrapped my arm with the strap
seven times, also cause for disagreement among Jews. Seven windings
of the leather may be to recall the seven handmaidens chosen to serve
Queen Esther; or it may recall the seven angels: Michael, Gabriel,
Raphael, Uriel, Tzadkiel, Yufiel, and Raziel; or it may conform to
the seven benedictions recited at a Jewish wedding; or it may be
because it took God seven days to create the world and rest. The way
Sholom explained it as he busily tightened the strap up to my bleep,
where he put the box on the inside of my upper arm two finger widths
from the crook in my arm, was this: "Seven is a very special number
to Jews."

In a slaughterhouse, being bound with black leather straps by a
stranger, I couldn't keep a straight face.

"So seven is the number to bet on in Vegas?" I cracked.

Sholom's face allowed a brief smile. He pulled on the straps so that
they were tighter, and then wrapped the leather to form a series of
intricate loops and knots across my left palm and knuckles, ending on
the second digit of my middle finger. The straps were looped to
illustrate Hebrew letters. Sholom nodded his head and instructed me
to repeat after him:

Baruch atah adonai eloheyrtu melech hadam other kulshanu b'mitzvotav
v'tzivanu I'kaniach tefiUin.

(Blessed art Thou, Lord our Cod, King of the universe, who has
sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to put on

I repeated the words in Hebrew, which sounded vaguely , but at the
time, I had no idea of their English mean-In my mind, I tried to
summon images that would connect me to generations of Jewish men in
my family who years me must have performed the same holy ritual. I
tried to imagine the leather strap on my left arm as an electric wire
or antenna, the box on my forehead as a receiver picking up from my
father. Poppa Charles; or Jack, my great ; Jack, the Jewish cowboy.
But all I got was static.

My attempt at cosmic ancestral reverie was interrupted by a sharp
knock at the door. "Sholom," came a shout. It was the "No-Problem"
rabbi again, who tried to jiggle the door-knob, found that it was
locked, and yelled something in Hebrew to Sholom; but by now Sholom
had severed himself from the secular world of animal carcasses and
smooth-lined lungs. The rabbi continued knocking on the door,
jiggling the doorknob. Sholom ignored the knocks for five, ten,
fifteen ads, and them finally he let forth a staccato string of
Hebrew, including the word "tefillin," which prompted the rabbi to
back off immediately with a timid and final "No problem."

Just before Sholom tightened the leather box riding above my
forehead, he said three words at a time, and I dutifully stated:

Baruch atah adonai eloheynu melech haolam asher kidshanu s~
b'mJtxaotau v'tztoanu almttzvat tefUltn. Baruch shetn k'vodmalchuto
I'olam wed.

 (Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has
sanctified us with his commandments, and commanded us concerning the
mitzvah of tefillin. Blessed is the name of his Glorious Majesty
forever and ever.)

Throughout the twenty-minute ritual, every several minutes, someone
else knocked on the door, yelling for Sholom. His phone rang, too,
but Sholom was busy intoning Hebrew prayers to a fallen Jew. As he
finished unwrapping the leather straps, he invoked the third prayer:

Ve'eyrastieh lee I'otaaii oe'eyrastich lee b'tzedek u'v mishpat
uv'chfsed uv'rahamim; ve'eyrasttch lee b'emunah-ve'yadaahta et

(I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in
righteousness and justice, in kindness and mercy I will betroth you
to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.)

And then we were done.

Sholom quickly wrapped up the leather boxes and smooth straps,
returned them to the velvet pouch, and placed the sack atop a gray
metal file cabinet. He took out a Marlboro Gold from the pack on his
desk and leaned back in his chair. It was like afterglow; two people
who had shared an intense personal experience, now savoring their
moment of union. But within a minute, while Sholom exhaled plumes of
smoke, he began punching out checks, balancing his books on the
computer, alternately looking up at me.

"What you need to do is spend a Shabbos dinner with a family here.
That's what you need. I'll talk with Lazar Karnzoil about your family
staying with him for the Sabbath. You'll like Lazar. He's a funny
guy, maybe even a comedian. And who knows? You might even learn
something," Sholom said, shrugging his shoulders.

While looking over a ledger, Sholom told an allegory from the Rebbe
Menachem Mendel Sehneerson, the revered Lubavitcher leader who died
in 1994. It was the kind of story to which I would grow accustomed in
the company of Lubavitchers. "A businessman was having trouble with a
competitor who was deceitful and dishonest.

"'Rebbe,' the businessman asks, 'how should I deal with I this man?
How can I cope with someone who doesn't practice in his everyday life
the message of the Lord?"

"And the Rebbe asked, 'How old is this man, thirty-two, I
thirty-four? Give him time to learn the righteous way. He has a long
way to go."

"It takes time to learn," Sholom told me pointedly, again narrowing
his eyes. "Don't be in a hurry. The way of the righteous takes time.
You'll see. You'll learn the right way. Believe me."

Louis Proyect, lnp3 at panix.com on 09/07/2001

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