Friday, July 30, 2010

A Censored Amazon Review: Stephen Bloom's "Postville"

In the early 2000's, I was writing "Bieganski."

Like most PhD candidates, I was apart from normal society, submersed in hundred-year-old debates about the place of Jews in Poland. I read critiques like that of Stanislaw Staszic, who sharply harangued Polish society as a three-part caste system.* On the bottom were "stupid, unindustrious, and lazy" peasants, "terrible drunkards," "unworthy of justice or freedom;" in the middle were their immediate superiors, Jewish agents, "bloodsuckers," who worked, in turn, for those at the top, exploitative and greedy Polish noblemen, who created taverns, "like a net, for trapping the peasants."

 As an escape from ancient and distant Poland, I picked up Stephen G. Bloom's 2001 book, "Postville," and I had that supremely weird sensation a researcher can get when she realizes that her marginal, cobwebbed obsession has some pertinence in the wider world.

Bloom probably didn't realize it, but he wrote a book that resonated with all those harangues protesting Poland's de facto caste system. Iowans and Lubavitcher Jews in Postville, Iowa, probably did not realize it, but they were acting out tensions parallel to those that had been acted out in Poland.

In 1987, Lubavitcher Jews opened a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, whose population had mostly been Lutherans of German and Norwegian descent. A culture clash followed. I tried to summarize that culture clash in a review I submitted to Amazon. That review is below. Amazon never posted it. I've occasionally resubmitted it in the intervening years. It's not shown up.

I know what you are thinking. "You can't say that." I think the same thing. "You can't say that."

Anti-Semitism is real. There are snakes in the garden. Why feed them?

But. How do we talk about the very real issues that arose in Postville, in Poland, that are arising now in multicultural America, without saying things that could be exploited by snakes on every side (including the inside)?

You tell me. I'm listening.

This isn't just about Poles and Jews – and Iowans. This is about us all. Should English be the national language? Should four-year-old, physically handicapped, Ryan Thomas, the son of a police officer, been forced to remove his leg braces by airport security personnel, while Muslims in face veils walk through unimpeded? What's the difference between multiculturalism and balkanization?

I'm still listening.

It would be great if those who protested Bloom's book seriously tackled the issues he brings up. I read through the one-star reviews for "Postville" on Amazon. The one-star reviews conspicuously don't tackle the issues Bloom brings up. Rather, they misrepresent what Bloom wrote, and then they tackle Bloom himself. Bloom is a "self-hating Jew," a "gastronomic Jew." "I predict his grandchildren will not be Jewish."

Such ad hominem attacks merely squelch frankness and leave the issues to simmer beneath the surface of silent rage and resentment.

Below please find my (still censored) Amazon review of "Postville":

Stephen G. Bloom's "Postville," about recently arrived Lubavitcher Jews opening a slaughterhouse in rural Iowa, is one of the most shocking books I've ever read. Bloom says things that you are not supposed to say. If you do say the kind of things that Bloom says, you are supposed to say them with a truckload of disclaimers. Examples:

Postville residents, in true Iowa fashion, attempt to befriend the town's new Jewish arrivals – to invite them in for "cookies and Kool-aid" (86). They report that the Lubavitchers refuse to shake their hands, to greet, or to so much as look at them. "We're invisible to them," a resident says. "they look right through us like we don't exist" (47). "If they mix with us, they think we'll contaminate them . . . Like we have AIDS" (51). A man distributing fliers for a local event was stopped by a Jewish woman who would not even speak to him, but communicated with demeaning hand gestures (96).

Postville residents report that the Jews behave as if they are superior to the locals. Bloom himself asked, "Who died and made them rulers of the universe?" (82) One Lubavitcher "bellows", "We *are* the chosen people. That's what they Bible says, even the Bible *they* read" (67). Put-downs for non-Jews include "goyisher kop," meaning "stupid" (63), "eater of trayf," "eater of unclean food," (56) and "goyisher chozzerai," or "Gentile piggery" (210). Special put-downs are saved for African Americans (231).

"They were downright rude. They seemed to go out of their way to be obnoxious, especially when it came to business dealings. When they did their shopping, they bargained for the best prices, for everything from shoes and food to clothing and cars" (48). One Lubavitcher is depicted engaging in abusive business practices (211, 231); a rabbi steals merchandise from a shoe store. When confronted, he says, "Never raise your voice to me! Women are not to do that, ever!" (323). "No way could they possibly treat their own people as poorly as they treat us" (49).

Jews, according to the Lubavitchers' worldview, are not supposed to mix; they are a "nation within a nation" (73). Locals understood that religious proscription prevented the Jews from allowing Christians into their homes, though locals are eager to enter – "I'd give anything to do that!" (104, 174). Lubavitchers "stiffed" the local pastor's invitations (146). Jews received separate school facilities, and a separate swim time at the municipal pool (51, 111, 332). Oil, rather than candles, is used on the Sabbath, because oil does not mix, and it represents the need for Jews to remain separate (182). Assimilation is a "spiritual holocaust" (153). "The Jews are lambs surrounded by seventy wolves. . . We've got to stick close to each other . . . If we don't, we might get eaten" said the rabbi (147). Another said, "Wherever we go, we don't adapt to the place or the people . . .It's the place and the people who have to adapt to *us*" (209).

The Lubavitcher ethos was in sharp contrast to the majority local, Christian, agricultural Iowan one. "Through the brutal Iowa winters, scorching summers, pesticide-thick springs, around-the-clock autumn harvests, a communal bond was crucial if the community was to survive. Maintaining this support system was the undergirding of rural life . . .a collective soul arose" (56). One foundation of this Iowan ethos was modesty. It was not appropriate to be showy with wealth. This contrasted with the Lubavitchers' ostentation (151). Even appearance was a contrast: "The ruddy, weathered skin tone of the Iowans was anathema to the Hasidim . . . Jews spend their time inside. . . [the outdoors] was for goys who raked leaves or tinkered with cars" (165). There was concern that the Lubavitchers would not so much as allow the fire department to put out fires in their homes (86-7). "The Jews *were* out of sync with the natural symmetry I was growing to understand" concluded Bloom (114).

Locals did not find work in the slaughterhouse. The Lubavitchers imported workers from Eastern Europe for the dirtiest, lowest paid, non-union work (133-4). These workers were "prohibited from entering" a break room devoted to the slaughterhouse's Jewish workers who certified the meat as kosher (244-5). "I felt I wasn't in Postville at all, but in a working-class Eastern European village" (135).

[Bloom's description of the Eastern European workers reminded me of my father's description of Hunky immigrants and their "strong backs."

"Newly arrived non-English-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe … all gentiles … had to have strong backs for lifting and sliding the giant carcasses along the factory kill floor and for hauling the heavy boxes of cut-up beef and chicken parts into refrigerated trucks. They had to tolerate sickening sights and putrid odors and be willing to work in the packinghouse's near freezing temperatures for eight, ten hours a day" (133).]

If local Iowans voiced any objection to any Lubavitcher behavior, they were dismissed as anti-Semites (65, 159, 198). Anti-Semitism was a problem, some concluded. A Jewish family received hang-up phone calls, swastikas were spray painted on buildings, and a Jewish boy was run off the road (119, 124).

The book closes with the commission of a crime by a Jew, who though he had "been involved in two robberies and an attempted murder" would not sign an affidavit because it was the Sabbath (253). Locals perceived a double standard in what they saw as a lenient sentence (256). Bloom condemned the Lubavitcher community's callous disregard of the victim (257). Bloom interpreted the crime as "a perverted outgrowth of . . . [an] an us-against-them mentality" (273).

My plan was to close with a sermonette on the responsibilities of an author writing about badly behaved members of a stigmatized minority, and on the considerable significance of this book to debates on multiculturalism. But I see that I've used up my allotment of words just summarizing the material that shocked me. I can only say that I have mixed feelings. Anti-Semitism is very real. And yet . . . In some ways it is exactly Bloom's no-apologies, Politically Incorrect approach that makes "Postville" stand out.

Would I have the courage to write a similar book about badly behaved members of my own stigmatized ethnicity? For his courage, I give Bloom's book five stars.

* Aleksander Hertz "The Jews in Polish Culture" uses caste as a way to understand Poland's pre-WWII social system.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, POSTVILLE is a fascinating book. It can serve as a partial microcosm of pre-WWII Polish-Jewish relations. I have just reviewed it on Amazon in detail. Please click on, or paste-in:


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