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.
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.
So longtime Postville folks, as they barely became used to the Hasidim, faced from their perspective another invasion: Hundreds of Hispanic immigrants came to work at the slaughterhouse. They filled up apartment buildings and trailer parks, almost doubling Postville's population. Their children kept Postville schools open at a time when nearby school districts had to close or merge schools.
Longtime Postville residents, like many Americans, discuss immigration pluses and minuses. Property values and food choices have increased. The Postville school district, aided by state grants, has constructed a new auditorium and track and began this fall a program designed to make every student bilingual by the eighth grade. Many immigrants from Mexico work very hard and stand in line on Saturdays to send home remittance checks.
But Postville council member Jeff Reinhardt argues that the town's Hispanics have "a lack of respect for our laws and culture which contributes to unwed mothers, trash in the streets, unpaid bills, drugs, forgery, and other crimes." Many Hispanics are undocumented and cannot get a driver's license or car insurance, and some drivers involved in accidents have simply left town. The number of arrests in Postville jumped from seven in 1992 to 28 in 1998, but fell to 12 this past year.
A new Postville wrinkle emerged in 2004 when a PETA activist secretly videotaped the slaughtering process and showed workers pulling out steers' tracheas with a hook to speed bleeding. The tape depicted staggering animals slamming their heads against walls, with the death throes of one lasting three minutes. This past March PETA obtained and gave to The New York Times an internal Department of Agriculture report that faulted the 10 government inspectors at the plant for allowing cruel treatment and unsanitary conditions, not making complete inspections of carcasses, taking improper gifts of meat from plant managers, and sleeping or playing computer games on the job.
The Humane Slaughter Act of 1978 requires stunning in slaughterhouses but exempts religious slaughter that includes quick cutting of an animal's neck. The question for USDA inspectors and for Jewish organizations is whether the killing is quick enough so that the animals do not suffer. Orthodox and Conservative Jewish organizations, along with Israel's chief rabbinate-Agriprocessors is the only American plant that exports kosher food to Israel-have investigated the plant and asked for changes.
The Jewish Daily Forward, a century-old New York publication that now comes out weekly with both English- and Yiddish-language editions, has had periodic reports on Agriprocessors, noting that the company's "kosher seal gives it an apparent moral imprimatur in a business that is known for harsh working conditions and labor violations. But even in the unhappy world of meatpacking, people with comparative knowledge of Agriprocessors and other plants say that Agriprocessors stands out for its poor treatment of workers."
Yet through it all Agriprocessors has apparently been profitable, and the company this past summer had a grand reopening of another long-closed meatpacking plant, this one in Gordon, Neb., an area also hit hard by population declines. At the time of the opening two-thirds of the 100 employees were American Indians, so the plant-located in an empowerment zone established by the Oglala Sioux Tribe-qualified for tax incentives.
In mid-October on Postville's Lawler Street an electric sign at Sunday Mattress Factory Direct displayed its Thought for the Week: "Never spit in a man's face unless his beard is on fire." And at the city's outskirts a sign proclaiming that Postville is "Home Town To the World" now greets visitors. As in America generally, it's still not clear whether the result will be a melting pot, a salad, or a fire.