Sholom and me

Late last week, Agriprocessors’ owner Aaron Rubashkin announced that he would be replacing his son Sholom as company CEO. This was not totally unexpected. A source close to the family told me he had recommended turning the plant over to professional management and that Aaron had seemed open to the idea. But during my five days in Postville last week, Sholom was still very much in charge and the one person I was eager to interview above all others.

I made a request with his spokesperson, and dropped by the plant asking to see him, but to no avail. So on Tuesday afternoon, I drove out to the Rubashkin homestead. Sholom’s house is perched quite literally at the edge of town. The family backyard looks out on – what else? – a cornfield. In any American suburb, it would be considered a modest abode, but it’s nearly luxurious by Postville standards. A Hasidic boy who looked to be about 18 answered the door and over his shoulder, in the foyer, was an enormous portrait of the Lubavitcher rebbe. “Ahh a reporter,” he said when I identified myself, his lips curled into the barest smirk.

He asked for a business card, and as I fussed in my pockets for one, Sholom’s wife appeared, holding a telephone to her ear. She was talking to Sholom who was – where else? – at the plant. “He looks like a very nice boy,” she told him as she gave me the once over. “He even put on a yarmulke.”

I was instructed to drive over to the plant, where Sholom would meet me. Agriprocessors is situated at Postville’s western edge, its silver water tower stenciled with the company name in black looming over a collage of ramshackle buildings and gravel drives. It was after six, and the plant was unusually quiet. Slaughter normally runs around the clock – six days a week except for Shabbat – but since the raid manpower has been short, and as a golden Iowa sunset illuminated the silver metal of the water tower, the plant was eerily quiet.

Sholom greeted me in a small hallway at the plant’s entrance. He was sporting a scraggly black beard flecked with grey, filthy black pants, black shoes and a blue Iowa’s Best Beef fleece jacket.

“What can I do for you?” he asked smiling.

I wanted to ask him about the allegations concerning working conditions at the plant, I told him. Sholom smiled and told me he had a spokesperson. He had only come out to meet me as a courtesy, because I had come out to the house. Had I put on teffilin, the phylacteries Jews wear during morning prayers, he asked me. Yes, I lied, hoping to convince him of my piety, and thus my trustworthiness.

“Then my work is done,” he said.

D’oh!

We jousted some more – me asking questions, Sholom mentioning his spokesperson, all the time smiling, enjoying the game. After a while, he began edging back towards the security gate and I realized our time was up. I turned and headed back towards the parking lot when I heard a Brooklyn accent calling my name.

“Give me your business card,” Sholom told me as he trotted out to me.

I pulled one from my pocket and handed it to him. He asked if I had spoken to Menachem Lubinsky, who runs a kosher foods Web site and consults for the company. I had, I told him, and I had spoken with his Kansas City representative, but neither of the men were addressing the claims that Agriprocessors workers themselves were making against their former employer – that they had been made to work 12 and 14 hour shifts, that the company had employed 15 year-olds, that it had tolerated an atmosphere of sexual harassment and that it had shorted workers on their paychecks. I gestured to my notebook, telling him it was full of claims against him. I wanted to hear his side, I said.

No you don’t, Sholom countered. You just want to say you spoke to Sholom Rubashkin so you can write what you’re going write, “just like that guy from the Forward.”

I sensed an opening. “Well I’m not that guy from the Forward,” I began. “I came here to hear from you. It’s your name on the package. It’s your reputation that is being damaged. This is your opportunity to speak to the Jewish community.”

Sholom took a step back and stared intently at my card, holding it in both his hands, considering the point. “I’m not a talker,” he protested, and for a moment he seemed like a young Moses begging God to pick someone else. “I’m not good with words.” He didn’t know what my agenda is, he said. Better to talk to Lubinsky and if I didn’t get what I needed from him, I should call him back.

He turned back towards the plant. “Come on Sholom,” I called out to him. “Lets get a beer, talk this over. You must be pretty stressed.”

On the contrary, Sholom said smiling, “I’m having a great time.”

Again I turned to go back to my car. I pulled out my laptop to jot some notes while they were fresh in my mind when I felt my cell phone vibrating against my leg.

“Do you want to take a tour of the plant?” Sholom asked me. Of course, I told him. He promised I would see a clean, modern, state of the art facility. Just call in the morning, he told me, and he’d set it up. Oh, and everything he had told me (which was basically nothing), was off the record. “I’m trusting you,” he said. Not that I have anything to hide, he added, “I’m as clean as a baby.”

Reporters are in no way bound by an after-the-fact request to keep things off the record. Still, I figured, it was worth keeping quiet if silence would get me a tour of the plant and a potentially more insightful interview later on.

But the next day, Sholom apparently had a change of heart. I called him twice in the morning. Again in the afternoon. And twice more in the evening. Nothing. Having broken his promise to show me around, I feel a bit better about sharing the story of our fleeting moment together in Postville.

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