Catching a wave

Immigration | Iowa town revives under the influx of Hasidic, Hispanic, and animal-rights newcomers

Issue: "Demsnami," Nov. 4, 2006

Is this heaven? No, it's Iowa. Is this civil war? No, it's life, jarring but prosperous and interesting, in ethnically tense and ideologically divided 21st-century America.

Twenty years ago Postville, 64 miles north of the Field of Dreams baseball diamond and cornfield that seemed heavenly to one young ballplayer, was a heavily Protestant town with lots of empty storefronts. A grocery store, a clothing store, and the local hospital had all closed. Most residents went to a Lutheran Church, a Catholic church, or the Community Presbyterian Church, formed (oddly enough) by a merger of the Methodist and Congregational churches.

The city's one famous son was John Mott, a founder of both the World Student Christian Federation and the World Council of Churches, but he died seven years after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1948. By the 1980s ecumenism was fading and so were Postville's population (sinking below 1,500) and property values.

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Today, Lawler Street, Postville's main drag, displays standard Midwest items like an IGA supermarket and a NAPA Auto Parts store with its familiar blue sign. But the brick building on the busiest corner hosts Sabor Latino, a Spanish-language restaurant/grocery store that serves excellent tacos and sells four varieties of chili peppers. Down the street is the Chabad Lubavitch education center, which sells Jewish prayer books and other ritual items, along with advice books like Guidance from the Rebbe.

Postville began changing in the late 1980s when Hasidic Jews grabbed an inexpensive opportunity to reopen a long-abandoned slaughterhouse at the edge of town. Soon men in long black wool coats and hats were walking down the streets, adding to their strangeness (in local eyes) by refusing to make eye contact or shake hands.

The Hasidim showed their separatist values in many ways. They turned the basement of what used to be the community hospital into a school for their children. (The public-school district gave them desks, chairs, and supplies.) They ghettoized themselves by building and buying large houses in an area of Postville that quickly became known as "Kosher Hill." They didn't let their kids swim in the municipal pool.

Many longtime residents thought the new immigrants to Iowa rude and arrogant. According to Stephen Bloom's Postville (Harcourt, 2000), the Hasidim put flesh on stereotypes by engaging in hard business practices, bargaining for everything, and stringing out payments to local handymen. Many Hasidim, on the other hand, saw the locals as yokels and probably used the traditional expression to describe a slow-witted person: "He's got a goyisher kop" (literally, "He has a Gentile head").

The Agriprocessors slaughterhouse implemented strict Orthodox standards: for example, shochets (Kosher slaughterers) on the killfloor do not use a stun gun because the Talmudic goal is to get all the blood out of the animal as quickly as possible. Bloom describes steers forced down a chute and loaded onto a giant vertical turntable. The apparatus then spun so that each animal was upside down, at which point the shochet cut its throat with a 15-inch-long blade. For several seconds blood spurted "three or four feet from the severed neck in a pulsating, crescent-shaped arc."

The chicken kill area was similarly gruesome: "Four rabbis, their beards confined by bluish, mesh nets, sat side by side, wearing white coats and goggles. Each held a small razor in his right hand, slitting the necks of chickens, 2,850 per hour. . . . The neck of each chicken was forced into a metal brace, and as the cut-throat chickens moved past the rabbis' workstation, they still fluttered and bristled, advancing toward the next workstation, where feathers were removed in a chemical bath. The speed was staggering, 50 birds per minute."

Those descriptions are included not to start you running to a bathroom-they do not include the stench of manure, cud, and entrails, or the sight of men standing in rubber boots knee-high in blood-but to help you see why the slaughterhouse success brought to Postville two new groups of people: illegal immigrants and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) activists.

In many cultures most people like to eat the results of animal slaughtering, but those who do the killing or the processing of hides are social untouchables. In Judaism, those who wield the knives and razors receive honor due to their rabbinical status, but the splitters who guide 1,300-pound carcasses onto platforms and split them in half, or the deboners and trimmers who use their small knives inside the carcasses to prepare the meat for eventual boxing, can be low-paid employees who do the messy work few other people want to do. In the United States, that means immigrants from south of the border, often illegal.


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