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A Chat With Postville's Stephen Bloom

5/13/04

It's been ten months since I last spoke to University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom, author of the book Postville.

Thursday morning I read on Forward.com about a glowing documentary on Postville by Hallmark, ludicrously titled, The Way Home: Stories Of Forgiveness.

Stephen: "The producers wanted a blurb from me estolling the virtues of the show."

I about fall off my chair laughing. "Do you think they read your book?"

Stephen: "No.

"I was the one responsible for Hallmark going to Postville. About the time I connected with you, I got a phone call from an independent producer who was contracted by Hallmark [to Faith & Values Media, a coalition of feel-good Jewish and Christian groups]. He'd been asked to come up with several different story ideas.

"They said they'd read my book and the story interested them.

"I said, 'This is not a story about reconciliation. This is more like a civil war saga.' That was the last I heard from them.

"The initial people I talked to bowed out of the project. Hallmark got involved. They did go to Postville. It's one of three episodes on this hour-long documentary."

Luke: "What did you think about what they came up with?"

Stephen sighs. "Umm, hang on a second...Oh, it was terrible. You ought to look at it. You're the media. You can plug a show or damn a show.

"It's interesting how the press works. Why is there this sudden revival of interest in Postville? Because Hadassah magazine (April) has a cover story on Postville ['Torah Amid Corn' by Jennie Rothenberg, a UC Berkeley grad student in journalism and a contributor to The Atlantic]. Are you familiar with Hadassah?"

Luke: "Yeah."

I think, "Hadassah is about little old ladies. It's about the most unhip thing around, though there's nothing wrong with being out of this sinful old world."

Stephen: "Hadassah came out with a valentine on Postville saying things are just so great up there. It's like the United Nations. I thought the story bordered on being unethical. The reporter talked to me a long time ago.

"It's what we call in the business agenda-journalism. Hadassah had an agenda. And this reporter fulfilled that agenda. I wrote a letter to the editor attacking the piece. I don't think they'll ever print it.

"After Hadassah run this piece, the Washington Post runs a story on Postville. A short story on A-2, inside the cover."

Kosher Meat Plant Sets Off Iowa Feud
Some Fear Release of Salt Water Into River

By Juliet Eilperin

Postville, Iowa, may seem an unlikely site for a showdown between a group of Hasidic Jews and local farmers. But the construction of a wastewater treatment plant with $7.5 million in federal funds has sparked a contentious legal battle, with a citizens group challenging the right of a kosher slaughterhouse to dump heavily salted water into the local river.

Agriprocessors Inc., which was founded in 1989 when a group of observant Jews moved from Brooklyn and took over a closed meat processing plant, is building a new wastewater facility to dispose of the salted water it uses to cure meat. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has issued a permit for the plant, but a group of local residents charges that the permit violates state and federal law.

"The permit issued by the Iowa DNR won't be enough to protect the environment," said Dave Smith, a farmer and leader of Northeast Iowa Citizens for Clean Water. "We just want to have our environment and property protected. It really is distressing to see all this wastewater come down."

Stephen: "The reporter called me. Frankly, I wasn't impressed by the reporter. She didn't ask informed questions.

"The the JTA[.org] piece appeared because they'd seen the Washington Post piece. It's dominos.

"Because the JTA piece appeared, I get a phone call from The Forward [reporter Steven I. Weiss]. None of these pieces refers to the preceding piece.

"The [Hallmark] video is an embarrassment. It's contrived. It's an audio-visual Hallmark card. It's cheery, upbeat, positive.

"Ever since Postville has come out, I've been interested in what the Japanese call Wa -- how Japanese society is run. It means harmony. In Japan, Wa is very important. It's rare in Japan for a vote in a corporation or the parliament that is not unanimous. All the differences are aired in private. By the time the public is clued in, everyone is on board, even the most vociferous critics.

"It's most important to live in a harmonious society where disagreement is eliminated. In America, journalism is generally opposed to the Wa. We journalists look at issues and we don't say, 'George Bush is doing a great job.' That is not a news story. We say, 'George Bush is screwing up big time.'

"There seems to be a tremendous attempt by the Jewish community, as prompted by the Hadassah piece, JTA, Forward, and this Hallmark presentation, to say that two different communities can flourish in America today. Postville is an example of that. There's a tremendous sense that readers and viewers need to come away with a feel good response. 'That stuff that Stephen Bloom did is water under the bridge. That was a long time ago. That was terrible. But now there's been forgiveness, reconciliation and harmony.' That's what the [Hallmark] show is all about.

Luke: "This [Hadassah] writer, Jennie Rothenberg, is supposed to be a regular contributor to The Atlantic."

Stephen: "She sent me an email a while back. She was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. She wanted to know if she would have access to the Hasidim. But she never called me back.

"Before I came to the University of Iowa, I worked for the Sacramento Bee in San Francisco. One of the reasons I left that newspaper is that I was asked to do all these agenda-journalism pieces. 'Tell us what a weird, wacky place San Francisco is. How it's Sodom & Gomorrah falling off into the ocean. Why Sacramento, implicitly, is such a great place.

"Minnesotans have jokes about Iowa. There's always a stupid pecking order. Don't let the truth get in the way of the story is what Hadassah is suggesting.

"There used to be a columnist in San Francisco [Chronicle] for many years, Herb Caen. My wife worked at the Chronicle for many years. Her favorite saying was, 'Check 'em and lose 'em.' You check the facts and you lose the story. So let's not check 'em. There was no attempt by Hadassah and Hallmark to do a truthful story.

"I believe there is a difference between truth and accuracy. Truth is of a higher order than accuracy.

"There's an old expression -- is it good for the Jews? Sandy Koufax. Good for the Jews? John F. Kennedy. Good for the Jews? For a lot of good reasons, those words have stuck. I guess Hadassah feels it is not in their purview to run a story that gets at larger more important issues."

Hadassah Magazine's Jennie Rothenberg

Jennie Rothenberg, published an article on Postville in the April 2004 issue of Hadassah magazine.

I talk to her by phone Friday morning, May 14.

Luke: "Stephen Bloom traces a flurry of what he would call 'valentines' to your article in the April Hadassah magazine."

Jennie: "I don't think I had anything to do with that Hallmark documentary."

Luke: "He said the articles in the Washington Post, JTA and the Forward followed yours."

Jennie: "That's flattering but I don't think that is the case."

Luke: "How did you come to write that article for Hadassah?"

Jennie: "I was in Iowa at that time [she did her undergraduate degree in English Literature at Iowa's Maharishi University of Management] and I'd always been intrigued by Postville. I'd never been there. I didn't think there was a whole lot going on in Jewish life [in Iowa] at the time other than Postville."

Luke: "Bloom called it agenda-journalism. Did Hadassah only want a feel-good piece on Postville or is that what you genuinely encountered?"

Jennie: "I think both things are partly true. I don't think Hadassah told me they wanted a feel-good piece but if you are writing for different kinds of audiences, different things will be an issue. There's investigative reporting where you go into the slaughter house and look at what is going on. My piece was on the school. It's a different topic than what he covered. I don't think the topic required as much digging up... It was about what they accomplished by creating a Jewish school in the middle of Iowa.

"I did go out of my way to get many sides of the story. I spoke to the local superintendent and to a teacher. They found it difficult to work within the Jewish system. I spoke to some high school kids who said the Jews kept to themselves. I included all of these viewpoints in my article.

"Because Stephen Bloom so covered one angle of this [story], it frees other journalists to look at other angles. Anyone who goes in there will have read his book."

Luke: "Did you want to feel good about what was going on in Postville or is this primarily a reflection of what you encountered?"

Jennie: "That's an interesting question. On the one hand, I want to live in a world where everyone respects each other but if I felt that the people there were causing strife, I wouldn't feel comfortable reporting that in a positive way. If I had found that people had not nice things to say [about the Hasidic Jews], that would not have been something I could've covered up in a story.

"I was happy to find that things have improved. When Aaron Goldsmith [became the first Hasidic Jew to sit on the city council]. At the time of his campaign, there was a lot of hate mail sent to residents of Postville by a neo-Nazi group nearby. That crystalized a lot of things. People in the town felt that they weren't just operating in a bubble but were on a world stage and had to overcome a lot of the pettiness happening on both sides.

"I don't know if Bloom has such a high opinion of Aaron Goldsmith but I think [Goldsmith] did a lot to bridge the gaps in the town. Before he came, there were two distinct groups that hadn't really met anyone like the other before.

"Hasidic Jews do keep to themselves. They are not politically correct modern liberal people. I didn't feel the need to harp on that. The readers of Hadassah tend to know that. They are not going to be Hasidic Jews. They're going to be Reform or Conservative. I wouldn't say that I came there and found Hasidic boys dating Iowan girls. There's also a kosher issue. [Hasidic Jews] can't eat at [the houses of people who do not keep strict kosher].

"A lot of it is urban vs rural. Iowans have a different social fabric. The Jews in Postville are fast talkers. They're New Yorkers. They're businessmen. You wouldn't expect to see them bonding but they seem to be getting along all right. There's a range. Some Jewish people are more worldly and some are more sheltered."

Luke: "Do you want Hasidim and Iowans to get along? For goodwill between different groups?"

Jennie: "I don't think anyone would say they have a yearning for people to not get along."

Luke, thinking about himself: "I think some misanthropes do."

Jennie: "I'm not as interested in that style of journalism. I wanted to find out what makes these people tick. I explored some avenues that were just not as interesting to Stephen Bloom because that is not his personality. I'm more philosophical. I found it interesting to have long discussions with people and to find out what their beliefs were."

Luke: "How much do you think who we are influences the stories we write?"

Jennie: "Absolutely. My story is not the most positive one [on Postville] to come out. There are people who come out with a completely rosy picture and don't interview any naysayers at all. Every story is so complex. Even if you spent 15 years living with a group of people, someone else could come in and see a completely different side that you did not focus on. Sometimes, the longer you are with a story, the more you form your hardened crystalized ideas and you just continue in that track for the rest of your exploration. We need lots of different perspectives on any story, whether it is this or the Iraqi prisons."

Luke: "Have you ever felt like you owned a story and then you resented when other people came in and did not do it as well as you thought you had?"

Jennie: "No. I haven't gained the kind of high profile that Stephen Bloom has. I can imagine that he would probably feel that way. I can't think of any time that has happened."

I often feel proprietary towards stories I feel like I own. I resent it when other reporters come in and, in my view, get it wrong. I resent it even more when they get it right and show up my shoddy reporting.

Jennie spent from November to the end of January 2004, on and off, working on the piece and she says she spoke to dozens of people in Postville. "My editor kept having me go back and talk to more people after I had written my first draft. Like Stephen Bloom, I stayed in people's homes."

Luke: "Was it hard to get access?"

Jennie: "No. In his book, he describes that as being difficult. There was a professor who gave him a hard time and did not return his phone calls. I called [Stephen Bloom] before I did my story because I wanted to find out how difficult it would be [to get access]. It wasn't hard at all. Lubavitch of Iowa publishes a calendar and send it to everyone they can find who's Jewish in Iowa. In almost every square, there's a family that wants to invite you to come to their home in Postville."

Luke: "Did you present yourself as a reporter or as a religious seeker?"

Jennie: "I presented myself as a reporter for a Jewish magazine."

Luke: Did Stephen Bloom's book make it difficult for you to follow in his footsteps?

Jennie: "I had a lot of people ask me if I had read his book. They were suspicious about that."

Luke: "They wanted to know your reaction to it before they spoke to you?"

Jennie: "Yes. I told them the truth. That I felt he had explored one aspect of it.

"I had other experiences writing about communities where a group comes from the outside, like a university vs the local town community... You can always find some shocking story. In his case, he wrote about these two Hasidic boys who came for a summer and committed a crime [attempted murder]. Obviously, that makes for a better story, but personally, I'm not so sure that reflects what is going on [in Postville]. I'm not sure the people there can be held responsible.

"I told people that he presented things in a certain way that made for an interesting story but..."

Luke: "Sensationalized?"

Jennie: "You could say that. I think he was trying to prove a point with that. He was trying to show a connection between people committing that crime and people turning up their noses at their neighbors. I'm not so sure that connection can be drawn, to merit two chapters in the book about the crime.

"He spent a lot of time on Doc Wolf [secular Jewish doctor who lived and died nearby]. Some of the families who had gone to Doc Wolf's bedside had a very different impression of what Doc Wolf's desires were at the end of his life [from what Bloom described]. I met some of the boys who had gone there as teenagers and I didn't get the impression they had gone there with an agenda. They did have an agenda to bring him closer to Judaism at the end of his life but I don't think they were trying to win people over for the vote coming up in town [as Bloom's book suggested]."

Jennie identifies with the Conservative stream of Judaism.

"I think [Postville] was a good read. I don't feel it was the complete story. I wanted to be extra conscientious not to just stand on his shoulders and use his book as my manual for what happened in Postville. I went the extra distance to form my own opinions.

"I interview a Conservative family that lives [in Postville]. They send their kids to public school. The mother was great, really honest about both sides of the issue. The dad thought it was great that some Jews were following the letter of the [Torah] law. [The Hasidim] are preserving a lot of the traditions. Whether or not I choose to follow those, they're all valuable.

"Hasidic Jews are mystical. I had a fascinating conversation with one of the Rubashkins. I have more of a philosophical background [than Stephen Bloom] and I love going into the kabbalistic issues and the subtle aspects of their beliefs and traditions.

"It does rub me the wrong way if anybody does not relate to other people as human. [Many of the Hasidim] did not think about non-Jews as part of their world. I would like to see that change. But in general, I don't have any anger towards them."

I read to Jennie Stephen's harsh letter to Hadassah.

Stephen Bloom, author of the book Postville, emailed:

I am deeply disappointed in Hadassah Magazine. The story, Torah Amid Corn (April), is a woefully one-sided portrait of an crucial and confounding issue facing American Jewry today. In the news business, we call Jennie Rothenberg's account of Postville, Iowa, a "valentine." Nowhere was there any mention of the appalling surge of crime, substandard living conditions, alcoholism, drug abuse, or ground-water pollution in Postville - all spurred on by the operation of the kosher slaughterhouse. Most egregious is that apparently no effort was made to get at the truth of what is really happening in Postville. Hadassah Magazine's account is a cheery bit of public relations. The story violates journalism's time-honored mission - to get at the gritty essence of the story whether we like the results or not. Instead, Hadassah painted a cheery and comforting picture of what we may want to see, but hardly a depiction of what Postville is today.

Jennie: "That's not surprising. My focus was on the school. It would've been outside of my story to investigate crime rates and all that. I didn't write about the Mexican or Ukrainian immigrants. So when he talks about substandard living conditions, I assume he's talking about the immigrants.

"I'm a vegetarian. I've never [intentionally] eaten meat in my life. In the '70s, my parents became interested in health.

"I didn't want to have anything to do with the slaughterhouse. If I had seen one slab of meat hanging... That took a lot for me to accept that they could have other beliefs [about eating meat]. They have this kabbalistic belief that it elevates the animal for them to consume it. I don't feel that. I felt that was a test of my own journalistic maturity to let that part go.

"I wonder what Bloom expects other journalists to find when we go there. It's part of our natures to want other people to have the same impressions we do. I get the impression from his letter that he would've only been satisfied with a piece that reported all the same things he found. We all know about those things because he wrote about them. We all read his book cover to cover."

Luke: "Is there a particular tone to your work? Do you prefer cheery and winsome?"

Jennie: "If there's conflict, I prefer to go one level deeper and get to the source. I think journalism has a two part role: One, to inform people. Two, to influence the world in a positive way.

"I think he honestly feels that his book did good and it may well have... It may have made some people more open and tolerant. I didn't feel that was so much needed now. I didn't feel like it was my role to go and do a huge expose. My skill as a journalist is getting into the subtleties of people's thinking and their psychology more than to go through all the records and find scandals.

"I have written grittier pieces. I won't say that I didn't enjoy the fact that I found nicer people and nicer situations than I expected."

Luke: Even if there had never be any story written about Postville and you had a book contract to do it, I feel that you would've written a very different book from Bloom's.

Jennie: "You could say that. I would've gone into other issues, things such as the yeshiva, which wasn't as hot a topic. I wouldn't have chosen to write about pollution issues at the slaughterhouse.

"When people are very strong in their religion, in one sense it is the most beautiful, because they are vibrant and get to the deeper levels. On the other hand, they are more narrow. They close themselves into that world more. That's the challenge in Postville and why so many people have written about it."

Luke: "Tell me about your parents. Were they hippies?"

Jennie: "No. My dad went to Columbia as an undergraduate and then to NYU medical school. My mom got her Masters from Columbia. They were New York intellectuals. It was in medical school that my dad first heard about TM [transcendental meditation]. They're idealists. They never dropped out and went around in a flower bus through the country.

"My dad has always tried to incorporate TM and natural medicine into his medical practice.

"I was born in New York. I lived in California as a child. Then we moved to Iowa. My dad [Stuart Rothenberg] had a medical practice at the Maharishi University and he also taught in the natural medicine department. Now they've been setting up health spas, incorporating Western medicine and Ayurveda medicine, a system of natural medicine that originated in India thousands of years ago. He is now the medical director of a health spa in the Renaissance Hotel in Orlando, Florida."

We chat about befriending the subjects of our stories.

Jennie: "I had a lot of professors [at UC Berkeley journalism program] who prided themselves on, for example, spending quality time with Hillary Clinton, going on tour with her, becoming her best friend, then blasting her in Vanity Fair. In that case, it seemed frivolous. It didn't seem like people's lives were going to be improved. It was just that she got a good story.

"If you are going to spend time with people on a personal level you owe it to them to present some of the subtle nuances of their life. If you are going to stay in someone's home, you're going to show that he is at least a complex individual who has sides to him. Not just spend time with them, disregard everything that is positive and only write the negative.

"Humans tend to think in patterns. You like to come away with things that fit your hypothesis. At a certain point along the way, you crystallize what you think and everything has to support that. And what everyone else writes on the story in the future has to support that too.

"I grew up in a world that journalists liked to ridicule [a community where everyone practices Transcendental Meditation]. People would come in and go out of their way to find the one person who would say something negative. I went to Israel with my father when I was younger and watched the press interview him.

"One man interviewed him and wrote in the first draft of his article that he was a fancy doctor swilling research papers out of a leather briefcase. My father commented that he did not have a leather briefcase. He had a canvas blue bag from Lands End. In the final draft, he was a hippy swinging a bluejeans pack over his shoulder. The journalist was determined to ridicule him no matter what.

"I'm extra sensitive not to do that whenever possible. I'm not the type to go for the jugular."

Luke: "I don't feel like you're the person looking to be judge, jury and jailor."

Jennie: "We need people like that in the world but that may not be my role. In the case of Postville, I didn't feel like there was a need for that. I feel like everything is going along there pretty well.

"I'm not from the school of journalism that is all sweetness and light. But if there is a chance to go to a deeper level, I try to do that rather than spur of the moment impressions."

Luke: "I saw you interviewed Harold Bloom for The Atlantic. Did he rest his hand on your knee [like he purportedly did to Naomi Wolf during her undergraduate years when she invited him over for supper and to read her poetry]?"

Jennie: "No. He called me my dear, my darling. It was grandfatherly. Sweet. When you're 70 years old, you can get away with more. He's eccentric. I didn't get any sexual harassment vibes. I could see why someone might."

Luke: "As long as he wasn't priestly."

Jennie: "He's Jewish."

After reading my interview with Jennie, Stephen Bloom emails: "Luke, another interesting take on the evolving story of Postville, journalism, writers' perceptions. I enjoyed Jennie Rothenberg's comments. She really presented herself in a strong and (to me) fascinating manner. You got at the difference between her mission as a journalist and mine."