When Stephen Bloom longed for Jewish culture in Iowa, he wasn't prepared for Postville.

Iowa Story 

When Stephen Bloom longed for Jewish culture in Iowa, he wasn't prepared for Postville.

It may come as a surprise that Postville, Iowa, is home to more rabbis per capita than any other city in the United States. It came as a surprise to Stephen Bloom, anyway.

Tired of being a reporter in San Francisco, Bloom put his family in their 1979 Volvo and drove to Iowa City, where Bloom had been offered a position teaching journalism at the University of Iowa. As Bloom's family planted roots, little things started to bother him: the local paper's Easter story, which ran on the front page under the headline He Has Risen; the friendly woman who repeatedly told Bloom how profoundly she had appreciated Schindler's List; the fact that he couldn't find a decent pastrami sandwich. It was an awkward place for a nice Jewish boy to be.

So it's easy to imagine how happily astonished Bloom felt when he found out that 150 Hasidic Jews -- members of the sect known as Lubavitchers -- had settled in nearby Postville. In the mid-'80s, a handful of these ultra-Orthodox Jews had moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Iowa and opened a kosher slaughterhouse, making them powerbrokers in a mostly Lutheran, blue-collar community.

Bloom had to see this dynamic for himself. But even though the Postville natives answered his phone calls and offered to show him around, the Lubavitchers had no desire to speak with members of the secular press.

"My only entrée to the Hasidic side was my religion," Bloom says. "The Hasidim looked at me as potential convert material." Although they would not welcome him into the community as a writer, they would welcome him in as a lapsed Jew who could be shown the error of his ways.

Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America came out in the fall of 2000. In it, Bloom investigates the boundaries of tolerance, not only showing the Iowans' limited ability to accept the Lubavitchers' seemingly mysterious ways, but also exposing the Lubavitchers' unwillingness even to make eye contact with their new neighbors. Bloom recalls being reprimanded by his host for greeting an Iowan on the street. "That was a turning point for me," he says. "Don't acknowledge the locals? No. No."

At almost every reading, the author says, someone tells him he should be ashamed for presenting his fellow Jews in a less-than-flattering light. When Bloom gave a speech at the American Jewish Congress, members of his audience called him a "lox and bagels Jew." Hadassah, an organization of Jewish women, put Postville on its book club's reading list, then quickly removed it.

But between the scoldings, Bloom has enjoyed considerable praise. His book doesn't just reveal Bloom's struggle to remain thoroughly Jewish in a place where real estate agents show home buyers the best spot for the Christmas tree. He also asserts his identity when other Jews question it. Admitting that this sort of tension exists among American Jews has made him a pioneer. And luckily, one of his fans comes to Iowa City on business four times a year, delivering Bloom some good, old-fashioned rye bread and lean corned beef, city style.

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