Book Review
by Chad Powers
Jewish Tribal Review

POSTVILLE: A CLASH OF CULTURES IN HEARTLAND AMERICA, by Stephen G. Bloom, A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc. San Diego New York London, 2001

In the early 1990s, University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom, feeling alienated in Iowa City, went searching for his Jewish heritage. He thought he could find it in Postville, a small town in northeast Iowa, where he discovered there was an enclave of ultra-Orthodox Jews. This book, framed as both personal journey and examination of cultural clashes in the American experiment of multiculturalism, documents what became his profound shock, and disappointment. In looking for romantic myths and legends of the Jewish past, he found instead a jarring ghost from Jewish history and traditional identity that deeply troubled him.

The story centers upon a band of arrogant, racist, elitist, rude, thieving and separatist [Bloom gives examples of each of these adjectives] band of Chabad Lubavitcher Hasids ("the pious") who in 1987 bought a slaughterhouse in Postville (population: about 1,400), imported hundreds of non-Jewish illegal alien laborers to work for $6 an hour in oppressive conditons, and, since then, have been taking over the town. They also bring pollution to the local river, at least two attempted murders, and Iowa state lawsuits against the company. Bloom hears such tales first from angry local non-Jewish townspeople and initally assumes that their perspective is merely an expression of anti-Jewish prejudice. The longer the author spends in the town, however, and the more he time he spends with the ultra-Orthodox Jews who seek to pull him into their community, the more he accepts the fact that it is not "anti-Semitism" that fuels the outrage felt by longtime Postville residents, but verifiable Jewish hostility, discrimination, and exploitation of non-Jews. A range of classical "anti-Semitic" canards against the ultra-Orthodox Bloom finds to be true. "Many of the Hasidim I had encountered in Postville pretended to be holy," writes Bloom, "but their actions displayed bigotry and racism of the worst degree. The book explored taboo topics such as bargaining, poor hygiene, atrocious manners, disrepair of homes, Jewish elitism, sexism, crime and prejudice directed at gentiles."

This book is a MUST read for anyone who seeks to honestly understand the verifiable origins of what is popularly known as "anti-Semitism" because the Chabad exemplify today the classical traditions of exclusionary Judaism, the norm of Jewish people throughout the world for centuries. No reasoned person who reads this book can fail to understand the hostility of local residents against the invasive Jews who expressly came to condemn, destroy, exploit, and ultimately dominate their town and their values. Bloom concludes the volume with justifiable concern about the future of American multiculturalism and its clash of cultures. What he fails to address, however, is the poignant implications of this book to the past, and to the very essence of traditional Judaism, Jewish identity even today, and the hostility it has engendered throughout history. After all, this genre of Judaism, Hasidism, accounted for about half of all Jews in Eastern Europe before the rise of Hitler and World War II. The fact that Bloom notes he has received dozens of pieces of "hate mail" from fellow Jews underscores the implicit dangers this book presents to modern Jewish conventions about itself. The justifiable complaints by Postville residents about the separatist Jews in their midst is mirrored by past conditions of those in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and other parts of Eastern Europe before the rise of Nazism, massive anti-Semitism, and World War II.

Bloom doesn't address this, of course, nor does he state bluntly the broader implications of Chabad for modern Jewry and its engendering of anti-Jewish hostility. In the present day, the Chabads who alienate and outrage so thoroughly so many in Postville are growing throughout the Jewish world. The chief rabbi of today's Russia is a Chabad, as are half the rabbinates of England. Hasids are profoundly influential in modern Israel, where Orthodox Judaism is the official norm of the Jewish state. Ari Fleischer, the spokesman for President George W. Bush studies with Chabad, as does "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger, the famous talk-show moralist and ambassador for Orthodox Judaism. In 1995, due to Jewish lobbying efforts and stupifying public ignorance, deceased international Chabad leader Rabbi Menachem Schneerson was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the first religious person ever to receive this award.

The subtext of this book is the roiling of modern Jewish identity, torn between the demands and expectations of democratic, universalistic America and the norms of the Jewish ghetto past, the foundation of Jewish identity. Virtually all stereotypes of the notorious "ghetto Jew" are here confirmed. As Bloom notes, the first thing the head of the slaughterhouse remarked to him when they met was, "You're Jewish." As if that -- like days of old -- was all that mattered.

* Some online links about Chabad.

Jewish Tribal Review