Twists of Fate at the ‘U.N. of the Prairie’

Posted September 7th, 2012 at 11:21 am (UTC-4)
1 comment

I’ve been to a lot of places across America that have changed character over the years.  Austin, Texas, for instance, was once a drowsy state capital, worked by politicians and bureaucrats and lobbyists — and people wanting to talk to the politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists.  Now it’s a trendy hot spot for art, start-up businesses, and music.  Dullsville became “The Live Music Capital of the World.”

But that’s nothing compared to what happened to a little speck of a place up in Iowa.

Seeing this sign, one would think the Postville is another humdrum Midwest town.  John Mott was a Protestant leader and onetime president of the national Y.M.C.A. (pCka, Flickr Creative Commons)

Seeing this sign, one would think the Postville is another humdrum Midwest town. John Mott was a Protestant leader and onetime president of the national Y.M.C.A. (pCka, Flickr Creative Commons)

Forty kilometers west of the Mississippi River lies a farm town so seemingly nondescript that it doesn’t have a shopping mall or a fast-food restaurant.  Not even a traffic light.

Postville, Iowa, population 2,000, epitomized dull a few years ago until, overnight, it morphed into one of America’s most astonishing communities — a veritable United Nations on the prairie.

Then something else happened that turned it on its ear all over again.

For 150 years, Postville was what is sometimes called “white bread country” — polite, conservative, slow to change, and nearly 100-percent Caucasian and Christian.  For descendants of its mainly German and Norwegian settlers, meeting a person from another county — let alone another culture — was considered exotic.

When one of Postville’s two meatpacking houses shut down in the 1980s, the town’s population was 1,400 and falling fast.   People worried that the lone school would have to merge with one from another town.

Imagine the reaction when a couple of ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews, wearing long, dark coats called “rekels,” wide-brimmed hats, and sidelocks, showed up in town to look over the abandoned plant.  They came from teeming Brooklyn, New York, a place almost 2,000 times the size of Postville.

That's right: that's a Jewish menorah, prominently displayed atop the reopened meat-processing plant.  (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

That’s right: that’s a Jewish menorah, prominently displayed atop the reopened meat-processing plant. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

And to the amazement of the farmers-in-suspenders crowd, these strange-looking men BOUGHT the plant, reopened it . . . and turned it kosher!

Not only that, 150 Hasidic Jews moved to town with them.

Among them, 40 or so rabbis, trained to supervise the strict kosher inspection and slaughtering process.

University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom later wrote a book about the sudden influx of Hasidic Jews.  It’s called Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America.

“It was a totally different world for the Postville locals,” Bloom told me in a classic understatement.

“It was almost as though someone had come in from outer space.”

Bloom is Jewish, but he won few friends among the Brooklyn transplants, for he wrote that the Jews snubbed efforts to fold them into the community.

He calls Postville’s culture shock a “civil war.”

The Hassidim did not come to go to ice-cream socials.  No way.  They came for one strong, American reason, and there’s nothing wrong with it: to make money.

Downtown Postville looks like Anytown U.S.A., until you look more closely.  (AP Photo/Nigel Duara)

Downtown Postville looks like Anytown U.S.A., until you look more closely. (AP Photo/Nigel Duara)

Sharon Drahn, the editor of Postville’s weekly Herald newspaper, told me residents were insulted at first that the newcomers kept to themselves.  For her and most everyone else in town, the only thing they knew about the Jewish religion came from books or the movie “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

“‘What’s with these people?’” the townfolk wondered at first, she said. “‘We’re clean!’  Change came to our town big-time, and maybe not the way we envisioned it.”

That was six years ago, when I visited Postville.  Sholom Rubashkin, one of the sons of the kosher plant’s new owner, told me then that Jewish families, mostly transplanted from New York, had fallen in love with their safe, clean, and comfortable surroundings.  Yes, their kids go to separate yeshivas, or private religious schools.  And no, they don’t eat pizza with their new neighbors.

Tamales were tasty new fare in town, but not to most of the Jewish newcomers.  (Nicole Salow, Flickr Creative Commons)

Tamales were tasty new fare in town, but not to most of the Jewish newcomers. (Nicole Salow, Flickr Creative Commons)

But it wasn’t because they felt Postvillians were hayseeds.  It was because of kosher dietary laws, which, observant Jews believe, God handed to Moses at Mount Sinai.  What the locals were doing and eating was perfectly fine, he said.  But the ultra-Orthodox newcomers couldn’t partake in it.

As if the arrival of talkative strangers from a bustling New York City borough was not mind-altering enough for Postville residents — some of whom had never met a Jew or black or heard a foreign language outside Spanish class in school — the packing plant soon hired hundreds of Hispanics; ethnic Bosnians, Russians, and Ukrainians; and others.

As Stephen Bloom told me, “You don’t need to know English” for slaughterhouse jobs.  “All you need is a strong back and a strong stomach.  The wages are low.  The work is hard.  And Iowans don’t want to do that work.”

Before long the Agriprocessors plant, which the locals called simply “the Agri,” was the largest producer of kosher meats in the entire nation.  And the little town in the middle of nowhere could count 30 ethnicities among its growing population. Ukrainian, Hebrew, and Spanish words and music even joined English on the airwaves of Postville’s tiny radio station.

And Jewish menorahs, Eastern Orthodox crosses, and Feliz Navidad signs popped up on lawns during the December holidays, all over town.  It was a bizarre sight in the middle of heartland farm country, I assure you.

Kids from many cultures were soon sprinkled among the students in every Postville classroom.  (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Kids from many cultures were soon sprinkled among the students in every Postville classroom. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

To hear Councilman Bob Schroeder tell it back in 2006, the newcomers saved the town from what he called a “slow death.”  It had “reinvigorated us, and there’s life here,” he said.  “It’s wonderful.  I now have many friends from all over the world [and a Mexican wife], and they’re very good people.”

One of the Jews who moved to Postville — but from Los Angeles, not Brooklyn — was Aaron Goldsmith.  He opened a custom bed shop and became — as far as anyone could remember — the first Jew ever to serve on the town council.  And he was widely seen as a uniter of the disparate cultures.

“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness mean something,” he told me, “and even when it comes to a clash of cultures, people will find their common grounds.  We all want a secure community.  We want good education for our children.  We want job opportunities.  We would like to live in a decent home.  And we’d like to know that our neighbor is looking out for us if we’re down.  And that’s what happened in Postville.”

Even the insular Hasidic newcomers joined in the annual Taste of Postville festival, in which ethnic foods, dance, music — even comedy — turned Greene Street into an international bazaar.  And while the locals couldn’t get a McDonald’s hamburger, they could buy Russian rye bread, Mexican tamales, and kosher meats any day of the year.

That was then, when Councilman Schroeder called Postville “a butterfly, emerging from its cocoon.  A beautiful thing.”

It’s not exactly Postville today, even though the town still boasts that it’s the “Hometown to the World.”  You see, its miracle-in-the-cornfields story took a quick and nasty turn in 2008, two years after the Agriprocessors operation got rolling.

One morning, two sinister-looking helicopters appeared over Postville, and a long line of big, black cars and white buses sped down Greene Street toward the Agri plant.  In an almost breathtaking account of that morning, Maggie Jones noted in the New York Times Magazine that the mayor and the four-man Postville police department had no idea what was going on.

The vehicles and their occupants — agents of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau, or “I.C.E.”  — swooped down on the plant.  “Workers shouted, “La migra, la migra” (immigration police), dropped their butcher and boning knives and fled from their jobs at the cutting and grinding machines,” Jones writes.

When the I.C.E. raid was over, about 400 of the plant’s 900 workers — mostly Guatemalans suspected of entering and working in the country illegally —  had been seized, loaded into the buses, and driven to a makeshift processing center in Waterloo, 120 kilometers away.

There weren’t many Russians or Ukrainians or Bosnians to seize; most of them had left town for easier work and better pay elsewhere.

This deportee, photographed in San Juan Calderas, and others had to start a new life back in their native Guatemala.  (longislandwins, Flickr Creative Commons)

This deportee, photographed in San Juan Calderas, and others had to start a new life back in their native Guatemala. (longislandwins, Flickr Creative Commons)

Some of the detainees then went to prison for several months and were eventually deported.  Other Agriprocessors workers and their families slipped out of Postville in the dead of that very night.

Writes Jones, “Within weeks, roughly 1,000 Mexican and Guatamalan residents — about a third of the town — vanished.”

Imagine waking up in your hometown and finding one-third of your neighbors gone:

I’m sure what happened to Postville would happen to your community as well: small businesses would lose their clientele and close, tax revenues would plummet, schools would lose students and funding, banks and civic pride would suffer, and your success story would become a nightmare.

But it wasn’t just low-wage illegals and local shopkeepers who were touched by this “long arm of the law.”

Sholom Rubashkin, who had become Agri’s chief executive, was arrested, charged with paying for fake identity documents, and, later, with defrauding banks of millions of dollars.

Ruboshkin listens to testimony in his fraud trial.  (AP Photo/Andrea Melendez)

Ruboshkin listens to testimony in his fraud trial. (AP Photo/Andrea Melendez)

He was subsequently convicted of fraud and sentenced to 27 years in prison.  And other Agri managers went to prison as well.

There were earnest but unsuccessful efforts to keep the slaughterhouse going — Kyrgyz, Micronesians, and American Indian workers were recruited, but most quit — and operations nearly ground to a halt.

“With few workers to slaughter the animals, hundreds of turkeys, stuck in cages on tractor-trailers outside the plant, began dying,” Maggie Jones writes.  “The smell of decay seeped into the neighborhood.”

Then, in 2009, Canadian businessman Hershey Friedman — a Hasidic Jew like the Rubashkins — bought Agriprocessors in bankruptcy court and reopened it under the name AgriStar, once again using a workforce of immigrants, primarily.  Somalis this time, who moved to Postville from larger cities in Minnesota and elsewhere.

Now, according to Jones, “Somali women dressed in head coverings and flowing hijabs shop at the IGA supermarket, and tall, dark-skinned Somali men smoke cigarettes and speak Arabic outside a store that they rent for their mosque.”

Somali Andurus Farah was among the new plant workers.  (AP Photo/ Charlie Neibergall)

Somali Andurus Farah was among the new plant workers. (AP Photo/ Charlie Neibergall)

Landlords in town were thrilled with their new Somali tenants, Jones points out.  In keeping with their Muslim beliefs, they don’t drink alcohol.

Some of the Guatemalans had stayed, and others had drifted back to the plant.  And about 50 Jewish families remain in town.  Aaron Goldsmith still has his store, and most of the rabbis who kept the plant kosher are still on site.

For Sharon Drahn, the town’s newspaper editor, these have been interesting times, to put it mildly.  “My dad used to say to me, ‘What do you DO all day down at that little paper?’” she laughed when I checked back with her the other day.  “Nowadays, I think we have one of every kind of person on the face of the earth walking the streets of Postville.”

There were protests immediately after the I.C.E. raid, and this one on the one-year anniversary, in which the flag of Guatemala is waved proudly.  (AP Photo/ Charlie Neibergall)

There were protests immediately after the I.C.E. raid, and this one on the one-year anniversary, in which the flag of Guatemala is waved proudly. (AP Photo/ Charlie Neibergall)

Is Postville still the Hometown to the World?  Sort of.  (Nicole Salow, Flickr Creative Commons)

Is Postville still the Hometown to the World? Sort of. (Nicole Salow, Flickr Creative Commons)

 

 

There’s still no traffic light, no McDonald’s, no mall or Wal-Mart super store — the humble status symbols of an ordinary small town.  Postville, [1]Iowa, may not be the U.N. on the Prairie any longer, or the “Hometown to the World” exactly.

But ordinary it is not!

 

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Hijab. A covering, much more extensive than a simple veil, worn in public by many Muslim women. Sometimes the woman’s face is visible, and sometimes just her eyes.

Rekel. A long, usually black, suit coat, worn by ultra-Orthodox Jews.

One Response to “Twists of Fate at the ‘U.N. of the Prairie’”

  1. John says:

    Good article. Just a little clarification, Sholom Rubashkin was charged with identity theft but thos charges were dropped as soons as they came, the was absolutely no evidence of that sort. As per the bank fraud, he had simply overstated his sales to get a larger loan and when his business collapsed he was unable to repay it.

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Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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