NEW YORK, Nov. 9 (JTA) – Stephen Bloom admits that the first draft of his book about a Lubavitch enclave in rural Iowa lacked something: his own personal story.
In this early account, he wrote about the culture clash between members of the Chasidic group, who settled in Iowa beginning in the mid-1980s around a kosher slaughterhouse, and the longtime residents of the sleepy town of Postville. But Bloom de-emphasized his reactions to his own encounters with the town’s Christian residents and the Chasidic Jews.
So the Jewish professor of journalism at the University of Iowa, reworked it. In his new draft, he says, “I try to act as a tour guide who allows the reader to follow the narrator inside this extraordinary community.”
The result: “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America,” a book that has already garnered much praise. It was featured as a Book of the Month Club selection in the United States.
But Bloom created something more. By weaving his own personal journey into the book, he created a classic tale of a struggle for an American Jewish identity, updated for the 21st century.
Bloom is the son Jewish parents want their daughter to bring home.
Handsome, with dark curly hair, he’s both thoughtful and forceful in conversation.
He was an award-winning journalist who worked for several major newspapers before he uprooted his wife and young son to Iowa City, where he took a job at the university there.
A complex move for someone who grew up near New York and was accustomed to liberal, cosmopolitan San Francisco, the migration was made all the more difficult by the monolithic Christian culture he discovered in Iowa.
As he puts it, “On Easter, the big-city paper, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, ran a banner headline: ‘HE HAS RISEN.’ Other than being offensive and irrelevant to non-Christians, the headline broke all the rules of news judgment that I preached to my students. The event was neither breaking news nor could it be corroborated by two independent sources.”
Bloom was raised in a nonobservant home, didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah and was comfortable in non-Jewish circles. But he was still feeling uneasy in his new surroundings. So when he read about a Lubavitch enclave in the tiny town of Postville, he was intrigued.
“If I was suffering a culture clash, they were in a place where there were 10 pigs for every person,” he said in a recent interview with JTA.
The Lubavitch followers had migrated to Postville, more than 700 miles from their Brooklyn headquarters, because they wanted to operate a slaughterhouse close to where beef is produced – and because they found an inexpensive slaughterhouse that had been closed for several years.
Their Iowa slaughterhouse was immediately successful – and controversial.
The plant brought some jobs to the depressed town, even though most of the employees at the slaughterhouse were immigrants. The population influx increased business, even though the Chasidim didn’t always shop at the local stores, preferring to make major purchases back in Brooklyn.
Most longtime Postville residents were taken aback by these strange newcomers, with their beards, odd way of speaking and desire to remain apart.
At times, this mistrust manifests itself in the book as blatant anti-Semitism.
As one longtime Postville resident who Bloom meets with at a local coffee shop puts it, “They’re all about the dollars. They do what they please whenever they want, and everyone else be damned!”
At the same time, the Chasidim aren’t interested in becoming part of the local community.
As one member of the community tells him, admonishing him for saying hello to some non-Jewish residents of Postville on their way to synagogue one Shabbat morning, “The goyim will always be the goyim, no matter how nice they are to you. So what’s the point?”
The tensions eventually come to a head when the town tries to annex the land where the slaughterhouse is located, which would force the Chasidim to pay taxes to the town. The Chasidim threaten to leave if the annexation passes.
Bloom uses the tension during the annexation battle to tell his story.
Along the way, he discovers some compelling stories: what happened at the deathbed of a longtime resident – a non-Chasidic Jewish doctor, and a murder committed by two young members of the Chasidic community.
But his own personal story – and views – emerge just as vividly as the battle in Postville.
Bloom is not on a personal search for religious meaning. He seems to be at ease with the spiritual life he has created for his family.
When asked about it, he emphasizes “tikkun olam,” or repairing the world. He and his family belong to a Reform congregation where they live in Iowa City, and his son will celebrate a Bar Mitzvah.
Like a good journalist, he doesn’t pick any sides in the struggle over annexation.
He says he enjoyed sharing the same Yiddishkeit and sense of humor with the Chasidim – and he compliments their “wonderful belief.”
But by the end of the book, he appears to prefer the local Iowa residents over the Lubavitch. He feels more at ease in Iowa, writing that his family will “never become Iowans, but Iowa has become our home.”
More controversially, he makes comparisons between the Lubavitch and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan – whom he covered for the Los Angeles Times – that are sure to rankle some readers.
When questioned about the comparisons, Bloom responds by making an analogy that appears to describe his journey.
“A black author could have gone to interview Farrakhan and done a story and in many ways it would have been a fight for his soul.”