American Civil Rights Review Diversity's
arrival in tiny Iowa farm town makes for uneasy mixing of cultures

POSTVILLE, Iowa, By Stephanie Simon, Copyrighted by Los Angeles Times, Sunday, February 21, 1999 - Used to be if you wanted a quickie breakfast in this small town, your choices were pretty much limited to doughnuts: one with sticky pink frosting or one smeared with gooey chocolate. Now you can get a kosher blueberry bagel. Or a loaf of dense, tangy Russian bread. Or even a Mexican pastry.

Diversity has arrived in this tiny farm town, and locals are trying hard to cope.

For 150 years, Postville was all white, all Christian, all Norman Rockwell, an everyone-knows-everyone, live-and-die-here kind of town run by farmers of German and Norwegian stock. Then, a decade ago, an ultra-Orthodox Jew bought a boarded-up meat-packing plant on the edge of town and converted it into a kosher slaughterhouse. Word soon got out that Postville had jobs. Lots of jobs.

The Jews came first - three dozen rabbis trained to kill livestock and inspect kosher meat, plus friends and relatives to help. Then came the others. Mexican, Guatemalan, Ukrainian, Nigerian, Bosnian, Czech - dozens, then hundreds, of immigrants swarmed to jobs in the kosher slaughterhouse and in the Iowa Turkey Products plant next door. To locals, it seemed an invasion.

"It was a little scary at first," said Becky Meyer, a lifelong resident.

Wade Schutte, a high school sophomore, said: "You'd see them, and you wouldn't really know how to talk to them, how to act around them. It took a while to adjust."

And no wonder. Postville's population is just 1,500, "and that's counting everyone and their dog," locals say. It's isolated, too, some 20 miles west of the Mississippi River in the northeast corner of a state that's still 95 percent white. The biggest nearby city is Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin, with 6,000 souls.

Many folks born and raised in Postville until recently had never met a black person, never met a Jew, never heard a foreign language except in school.

Now they run into rabbis in long black coats and prayer shawls walking down the streets speaking Hebrew. On their way to the pharmacy, they pass a Mexican store decorated with bullfight posters, selling refried beans.

Some locals purse their lips with unmistakable disgust and refuse to talk about Postville's new look. But many are trying to adjust.

"This is a little town that's 20-some miles from even a McDonald's," reasoned Doug All, a quality inspector at the slaughterhouse, "so we have to get along."

If locals are unsure what to make of the newcomers, the feeling is mutual. Summoned by word of mouth, immigrants come to Postville knowing jobs await them - and knowing precious little else.

"The first time I'd ever heard of Iowa was when we moved here," said 15-year-old Ilya Pakarov of Kazakhstan.

"It's way different from California," said Susy Navarro, who moved here from Oakland so her husband could work at the slaughterhouse.

The uneasy melding of cultures in Postville reflects a broader drama playing out across the Midwest and the South. Wherever there are jobs, there are immigrants. And meatpacking plants offer jobs.

But even in the context of rapid demographic change, Postville stands out.

For one thing, it's unusual to see immigrants from so many countries find their way to such a small town. There are so many immigrants from the former Soviet Union that the kosher slaughterhouse posts its safety warnings in Russian - along with English, Hebrew and Spanish.

Experts say it's also rare to see thriving Jewish communities in rural Iowa, much less ultra-Orthodox communities.

With several dozen Jewish families, virtually all of them adherents to the Lubavich branch of Hasidism and many with six or eight children, Postville "is a very interesting little place," said Mark Grey, an anthropologist at the University of Northern Iowa who has studied the town.

Aaron Rubashkin, who bought the slaughterhouse to supply fresh meat to his kosher store in New York, never explained why he settled on Postville. His son Shalom, who now helps run the plant, can say only that "divine providence" must have guided him here.

When the slaughterhouse opened in 1990, the Rubashkins and the rabbis they hired commuted from large cities with established Jewish populations. But that got wearying. So a few years ago, they committed to Postville. They set up a synagogue. They converted a former hospital into a Jewish school. They bought homes.

The Jews were quickly pegged as snobby because they wouldn't eat in the local pizza joint (it wasn't kosher) or greet their neighbors warmly (among the Lubavich, men don't shake hands with women and women don't shake hands with men). They were thought odd because their little boys all have such long hair (by tradition, it can't be cut until age 3) and because the women all wear wigs (they cover their natural hair out of modesty).

Plus, there were cultural differences that have nothing to do with religion. These Jews were big-city bustlers, fast talkers who didn't adapt right away to the slower pace of small-town life.

In time, however, many grew to love the measured tempo of Postville. Locals began to relax as well.

The newspaper recruited a Jewish woman to write a regular column explaining Hasidic customs. Kids of all religions started playing together.

Most important, the kosher plant, AgriProcessors, was doing well by Postville's economy. The workers shopped in town, boosting local merchants. They also spurred development in a town that had long been stagnant.

"You could say the quality of life here has deteriorated if you liked a small, sleepy town," Mayor John Hyman said, "but there has been economic betterment."

Despite these gains, tension persists. Spanish-speaking immigrants, many of whom live in a trailer park on the fringe of town, seem to have had the toughest time integrating into Postville society.

"They don't like Mexicans," concluded Santiago Flores, a 19-year-old immigrant who puts in 65 hours a week at AgriProcessors. "The people here, they don't know how to live with people who are different," complained Navarro, the transplanted Californian.

Although overt acts of racism are rare, community leaders say most old-time Postvillians cope with the changes in their beloved town by staying aloof. "A few of us, maybe 10 percent, intermingle and get along well," newspaper editor Sharon Drahn said. "The rest coexist."

American Civil Rights Review
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