In 1987, a small town in Iowa was suffering some serious economic turmoil when a group of Hasidic Jews moved in and opened a kosher slaughterhouse. The result was a culture clash of epidemic proportions. In spite of being ultra Orthadox Jews, these folks were, by most people’s standards, highly unethical in their business dealings. This only compounded their natural inclination toward insulating their community from the secular and/or Christian world that threatened assimilation, all of which ired the locals to no end. Just outside the city limits, the townsfolk ultimately voted to annex the land that included the plant, thereby forcing the owners to pay taxes to the town. And then, a few years ago the plant was raided, and the owner charged with workforce violations (using illegal immigrants) and fraud.
Much of this turmoil has been captured in the book Postville by Stephen Bloom. Although the book was published in 2000 and therefore fails to include the raid and its aftermath, it does capture quite effectively the first dozen years or so of the conflict. More than that, though, it’s a book about cultural belonging. In the first few chapters, my thought was, “Holy crap, this guy likes the sound of his own voice (so to speak). The author spends page after page detailing all the different ways in which his being a Jewish city boy colored his move to Iowa from San Francisco to teach college journalism. A thorough skimming of that chapter was required.
The book soon settles in, although it does continue to be long-winded. Bloom spent two or three years making the 150 mile drive from Iowa City to Postville, visiting with the townsfolk, asking them for their perspectives, and having comparatively few interactions with the Jews themselves. And the result is a tale of the author’s discovery, rather than any plot-based narrative of the events that took place. A few chapters occur as out of place, somewhat valuable to me as someone researching the topic, but really not relevant to the story itself. And much of it drags, saying similar things over and over, reflecting I’m sure the same experience Bloom had talking to a hundred locals who mostly said similar things again and again.
The reason I read the book is because I’m writing the screenplay. My father wrote a fictionalized play version a few years ago, which I’m now adapting into a film. More on that in Part II – The Screenplay.