Talk about strangers in a strange land: Bloom’s story of the heartland Lubavitcher meatpackers and the waves they caused to ripple across the rural Iowan landscape is an immediate, elegantly personal piece of reportage.
In 1987, a Brooklyn, New York, butcher bought an abandoned slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, and turned it into a kosher meatpacking plant, owned and operated by the Hasidic Jews known as the Lubavitchers. The largest such operation in the US, it was (and is) hugely successful, bringing money into the Postville economy at a time when every other Midwestern downtown was being killed by Wal-Mart, and it helped to stabilize the skewed agricultural economy that was sending one family farm after another down the river. Bloom (Journalism/Univ. of Iowa) was a piece of flotsam himself, having recently washed up in Iowa after he and his wife had concluded that San Francisco was no longer a fit place in which to raise a family. Just then the Lubavitchers were having a hard time with the locals in Postville (who wanted to annex the land the slaughterhouse sat on, exert a little control over the business, and tap into its profits). Bloom was curious. Was it that the Jews had become a ruling class that the locals found grating? Was there hard-wired bigotry at work all around? Why did the Lubavitchers refuse to acknowledge even the presence of anyone who wasn’t Lubavitcher? Had they too moved to Iowa for the same reasons Bloom had? What did they make of this white, Christian kingdom, this place of soft summer nights, fireflies, and swings on the front porch? Bloom’s exploration of the antagonisms between the two groups is subtle and canny, not aspiring to great truths but revealing of all the little miscommunications, unintended slights, expectations, and prejudices that rally round when very distinct cultures meet.
A rural canvas of extremes—from hard-bitten bigots to the naïve, the sure of faith, and the latitudinarians—disentangled by the author with deft, probing strokes.