A Chat With Stephen Bloom, Author Of Postville
I speak by phone July 1, 2003, with author Sue Fishkoff (The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch).
Luke: "What did you think of the book Postville?"
Sue: "It was a fascinating lurid read, filled with stereotypes and lies."
Luke: "What were the lies?"
Sue: "A lie by omission. The town [of Postville] and the Lubavitchers reached a modus vivendi, an agreement, before he turned in the final manuscript, but he chose to end his story while they were still at loggerheads. That was deceptive. He could've at least put that in the epilogue."
Luke: "Anything else?"
Sue: "That was the only lie. The stereotypes were almost anti-Semitic in his depictions of the fat, sweating, sloppy, Hasidic Jewish butchers."
Luke: "You don't think they could've been accurate?"
Sue: "They could have been accurate but the deceptive part of it was presenting that as a picture of Hasidic Jewry. If you go to a slaughterhouse in Chicago and you talk to the workers and you present that as a picture of Americans, that's no more or less deceptive or accurate. Yes, probably those descriptions of those particular people were accurate but it was the context that was misleading."
Luke: "So you didn't frequently encounter the Hasidim he depicts in your travels?"
Sue: "No, because who was I interviewing? The best and the brightest at the top of the foodchain. I would've encountered the same people he did if I had written his book. That said, it's a fascinating book. I read it all in one night. He's a very good writer."
On 7/2/03, I chat by phone with Stephen G. Bloom, author of Postville. He's on Sabbatical in Miami Beach.
Stephen: "I haven't read [Sue Fishkoff's] book. I read Samuel Freedman's review of her book in The New York Times Book Review, in which he cites Postville. He says her book is an interesting read but it's a valentine. It doesn't really deal with some of the more complex issues of the Lubavitchers.
"You're a good journalist for trying to pin her down when she says it's filled with stereotypes and lies. What were the lies? She sort of backtracks and says a lie by omission.
"I am in contact with many people in Postville on a weekly basis. The town of Postville and the Lubavitchers have never reached an agreement. I turned the manuscript in in mid-2000. There was not an agreement reached in mid-2000. There is not an agreement reached in the summer of 2003. I am not sure what she's talking about. I go up to Postville and talk to people in Postville and there's still a civil war being waged in Postville. I can give Sue Fishkoff, you, or anyone else, the names of dozens of people who will tell you that they want the Lubavitchers out. That the Lubavitchers have ruined that town. Crime has increased. The nature of that insular community is not the same.
"I'm not sure if Sue Fishkoff has been to Postville, if she's listening to the Lubavitchers and that's their story... I chose to end the story while they were still at loggerheads. They are still at loggerheads.
"She also talks about the stereotypes are almost anti-Semitic. I don't think so. My job is to report. My job is to go up there, open my eyes, and write what I see. If I see people who are sweating, doing a difficult job that requires a strong back and a strong stomach, I'm going to write that. That they are Jewish, should that enter into some kind of self-censorship? Absolutely not.
"Then she backtracks and you smartly say, 'Don't you think those descriptions could've been accurate?' She says they could've been accurate but the deceptive part was presenting that as a picture of Lubavitch. No way. This book is about Hasidim in a tiny town 23-miles west of the Mississippi River, in a corner of Iowa sandwiched between Minnesota and Wisconsin. It's not about Hasidic Jewry. It's about a town. The name of the book should tip off Sue Fishkoff that this book is not about the rebbe's army. It's about Postville. I'm not sure how more clearly we could've alerted the reader to that issue.
"Postville is a tiny town of 1400 that suddenly changed when 150 ultra-Orthodox fundamentalist Jews came and opened up a slaughterhouse.
"To the larger question you raise about reactions and social standing, did you read the epilogue in the paperback version?"
Luke: "Yes. You talk about two Hasidic women who congratulated you on the book."
Stephen: "I've spoken in a lot of public places. It's rare when I'm in a metropolitan venue and someone doesn't stand up and scream something like, 'Shame, shame, shame. For a Jew to say this about other Jews, shame on you.' I'm not going to surrender my role as a journalist based on erroneous inferences that some may draw that this is a story about Jews in general.
"I spoke in Chicago to the American Jewish Congress. I was introduced as a culinary Jew, as a lox and bagels kind of Jew. That did not sit well with me. It made me think that there is some kind of pecking order. That there are certain Jews who are less Jewish than other Jews. That if you keep kosher, you are a better Jew than others. If you go to synagogue every week, somehow you are a better Jew. It was a rating game. I didn't like being relegated to the bottom of that rating card. I think that fractures the collective nature of what it is to be a Jew."
Luke: "I know you emotionally didn't like it but didn't you intellectually realize that there was something to it, in that only the people who observe Jewish Law are going to perpetuate Judaism and the Jewish people?"
Steve: "No. If you and I were together, I'd probably be grabbing your shoulders right now and shaking you. Absolutely not. It's not in an intellectual way, it's in a visceral way that I found that offensive. My son Michael, his Hebrew name is Moishe, was just Bar Mitzvahed two weeks ago. To say that because I like lox and bagels that I'm not going to carry on the tradition of Judaism, shame on you. Shame on anyone. That's like the Orthodox saying, 'The Conservatives are the goyim.' That's like the Conservatives to the Reform, 'They don't know anything.' No, that's a bunch of bulls---. My kid is just as Jewish as any of those kids in Postville. And my kid read his parsha [Torah section] without mistake. My son wore a tallit and was able to carry a Torah around a synagogue. And to say that somehow because I don't keep kosher, I'm less committed to carrying on a Jewish tradition. No, that's the height of hypocrisy."
Luke: "Do you believe there's excellence in being Jewish?"
Steve: "I don't understand the question."
Luke: "There's excellence in journalism. You can be a good journalist, a bad journalist, or a mediocre journalist. You can be a good pianist or a bad pianist. You can be a good football player or a bad football player. Can you be a good Jew or a bad Jew?"
Steve: "Yeah, and it has nothing to do with how often you go to synagogue. It's something to do with what I believe Doc Wolf epitomized in the book [a Jew who did not practice Judaism and kept quiet about being Jewish]. The Hasidim confuse faith and religion. They believe if you know the 613 rules, you are a better Jew. No, no, no, no, no. If you precut toilet paper because you are not supposed to rip anything on the Sabbath, that means you are a better Jew? No. What makes you a better Jew is a sense that you are one of the Chosen people. Meaning, that way back Jews assigned themselves the role of being a model in their actions. That means that Jews ought to make this world a better place for those who follow us. All of those who follow us, not just Jews.
"My family and I take seriously the concept of repairing the world. Many of the Lubavitchers I met in Postville don't give a rat's ass about anyone else in the world except fellow Jews. I was a good person to write this story because I was allowed into the Lubavitcher family because my mother is Jewish. The Lubavitchers believed that I needed to be proselytized. Lubavitchers believe it is a mitzvah to make a Jew turn into a very observant [of Jewish Law] Jew. That wrapping tefillin is a mitzvah.
"In the five years I did this book, I interviewed 350 people in Postville. I learned that the Lubavitchers in Postville didn't care about the non-Jews. They look through the non-Jews. And it burned me because that is not what a righteous Jew is supposed to do. The world is larger than Jew vs non-Jew. It hurt me deeply as a Jew to see my fellow Jews not even acknowledge the locals, 'the goyim.'
"Even the word goyim makes my stomach burn. I'm repulsed by that."
Luke: "How about the word shiksa?"
Steve: "I'm repulsed by the word shaygetz, shiksa."
Steve: "Particularly schwartze. Jews of all people ought to know that they don't use words that are exclusionary. I remember the first reading I gave of Postville took place in Postville. We had a standing-room crowd only. I took to task the Hasidim for using the word 'goy.' A Hasidic woman raised her hand and again shouted shame, shame, shame. She addressed the crowd, explaining that in Hebrew, 'Goy means nation. We don't mean anything by that. They are not of our nation.' I said, 'They are of your nation. You're in fricken America.'
"There was a farmer who came up to me afterwards. He was too laconic and shy to say this in public. When that lady said we're the goyim, it reminded of those who said in the south, niggers. When you say to them, 'Don't use that word!' The good ol' Southern boy will say, 'We don't mean anything by it. That's just how we talk.' It does make a difference.
"I don't think Jews of all stripes need to use words like schwartze. I know it means black in German. It's a divisive term that subjugates people."
Luke: "Do you think it is wrong of Lubavitchers to ignore non-Jews?"
Steve: "They can do what they want. The way I carry on my life, I want to include people. There are too many bountiful things in this world for me to put blinders on so I can't allow myself to say hello to somebody on a Saturday morning in the middle of Iowa because his mother isn't Jewish. No, that's what you call racism. It's based on blood. Lubavitchers don't even see the guy on the sidewalk because to acknowledge him would be the beginning of assimilation. Then his children will play with my children and that's the end of our faith. I don't think it is the end of my son's faith if he plays stickball with Hispanic kids. I want him to do that."
Luke: "How would you feel if he married a non-Jew?"
Steve: "That's his decision. Isn't it presumptuous for me to tell my son to marry somebody based on solely on who somebody's mother is?"
Luke: "I don't think so, but I affiliate Orthodox. We're talking about the clash of Orthodox Judaism with modernity."
Steve: "Joe Lieberman is an Orthodox Jew and I don't think he would walk down the street and ignore someone who is not Jewish, particularly if the person is over 21 and can vote."
Luke: "Did you get much of that patronizing, you're just a lox and bagels Jew, from institutional Jewish life?"
Steve: "No. Most rabbis have written me and they're tickled by the book. They think the book took guts to write and needs to be out there.
"I want to address the issue of does the book spur anti-Semitism. It's why the book has received favorable comments from many rabbis. If there is anyone who is creating anti-Semitism in Postville, it is not the Steve Blooms who are going in there and observing, it is the Lubavitchers who are not wanting to fit in in any way, shape, or form to that community. It's the Lubavitchers who are cutting into line at the Post Office because, perhaps, that's what they do at Crown Heights.
"When I first got up there and I tried to connect to both sides of the story, it took a New York second for Sholom Rubashkin to acknowledge who I was. The first thing he said wasn't 'You're Stephen Bloom,' but, 'You're a Jew.' It took two years for the locals to muster enough moxie for them to backdoor into the issue. It was Ida May Olsen and Clifford Olsen who, apologetically, said, 'Are you Jewish, Stephen?' Two years of going up there every weekend. For most of the Postville locals, there was no vision of what a Jew is, except perhaps Seinfeld. They'd never met a Jew before. And in come 150 ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of whom are very obnoxious, who essentially flip the bird to the locals. If Postville people were different people, they'd think that's what all Jews are like. People have told me that my entry into this theater of sorts gave them optimism that all Jews were not of that ilk.
"The book has never been acknowledged by the institutional body of Judaism. It was never really reviewed any of the Jewish magazines like Reform Judaism or Moment. I thought that was peculiar. It's one of the first books that takes to task a group of Jews.
"About a year and a half ago, I got an email from Hadassah, saying that Postville had been picked as one of the six books that Hadassah was going to urge all of its members to read. It's a congratulatory email. They wanted to know if I had a reader's guide to the book. I was surprised but proud that Hadassah could be open and large enough to accommodate a book like Postville.
"A week later, I get another email from Hadassah. 'Mr Bloom, we're sorry. We made a mistake. Postville isn't one of the books.'"
Luke: "Any explanation?"
Steve: "They said it was a clerical mistake."
Luke: "Yeah, right."
Steve: "Hadassah is the only Jewish magazine to review the book. They said it was a great book but at the end of the review, they say that Mr. Bloom is a self-loathing Jew."
"This was not an easy book to sell [because it made a group of Jews look bad]. I have an agent in New York City. We had a literary auction. There was someone interested from the Free Press. He'd read the proposal and he wanted to interview me. He said, 'First off, I'm uncomfortable with your conclusions. The Jews come out the bad guys.' I said, 'This book is not for you,' and hung up.
"There were 18 publishers who had the chance to bid on this book and only two bid on it. I ended up with Harcourt, who were terrific.
"When I handed in the manuscript, the editor said two things to me: 'One - this is terrific. Two - I'm really glad you're Jewish, because I don't think we would be able to publish this if you weren't.'
"I teach journalism at the University of Iowa and I make a point of telling my students that there's a difference between accuracy and truth. It's accurate to say that 6,000,000 Jews were killed during World War II. It's not truthful. Truth carries a higher responsibility.
"Most journalists would parachute into Postville, hang out for a day or two, go back to Chicago and write their story. It would be a 'Golly, gee whiz' story. That's the story I did write in fact. Postville began as a piece in the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine. I wrote 8,000 words and it was 'Golly, gee whiz, who would've thunk it?' Wow, Hasidic Jews, guys with hats and beards, in a state that has ten times as many pigs as people.
"There was something about that story that propelled me deeper and deeper into Postville and also into myself. It initially hurt me when I would read flippant comments about the depth of my observations.
"Postville is painful because it is me, my family. I put it all on the line.
"The hatchet pieces were in Orthodox Jewish newspapers. There was a newspaper in Chicago where the review began, 'This is the worst book I have ever read in my life.' The Lubavitchers in their own organ said that I should convert to Protestantism. They said that I should not be welcomed in any synagogue. So they're the only righteous Jews?
"When I report, I never use a tape recorder. I always use a notebook.
I keep it in my backpocket. I get people comfortable with me. About the
sixth or seventh time [Stephen sees them], I start taking notes. It's
a time-intensive, labor-intensive business. It's not, 'Gee whiz, tell
me what you've got,' and then leave."
Luke: "Why don't you use a tape recorder?"
Steve: "It inhibits people. I find that 97% of what people say is background information and is not quotable. How old are you?"
Luke: "I'm 37."
Steve: "I find that in the newsroom, there's a line of demarcation at about 45. People over 45 do not use tape recorders. People under 45 do.
"It's difficult to have a conversation with somebody with the tape recorder rolling. I don't like tape recorders and often times they don't work. Are you taping this?"
Steve: "That's fine. I'm a writer who is particularly interested in language. I want to listen to how the Hasidim and the locals express themselves. There's a great line in the book when Clifford Jay Olsen says about the locals, 'The Jews are coons on a hound's back.' I always think that quotes are for opinion, not for recitation of fact. The only time I would use a tape recorder is when I only have one opportunity to interview a person. If I am interviewing a Colin Powell or a jury foreman at a press conference after a murder conviction."
Luke: "Did you notice a difference in reactions to your book from Jews and non-Jews?"
Steve: "Yeah. I'm not going to put it that way exactly. Three groups of people didn't like the book. Many academics did not like it because I put myself in it, there are no footnotes, and it sold well. It was nontraditional research. I do not look at myself as an ethnographer. I look at myself as a journalist. There's a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education that takes some cheap shots at the book."
Luke: "Oh? I love cheap shots."
Steve: "It's a strange review.
"There are a lot of Iowans who don't like the book because they think I take cheap shots at Iowa. They say I make people believe that everyone is a country bumpkin who just fell off the turnip truck but these are my perceptions coming from San Francisco, where I lived for a long time. Interestingly, former Iowans love the book.
"Then the last group being those who claim that I am anti-Semitic. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews. I don't get many emails from them. Ninety nine percent of the emails I get are wildly enthusiastic. Many rabbis have written me, praising the book. Many Conservative and Orthodox rabbis, who don't like the Hasidim for their heavy-handed tactics, have written me to praise the book."
Luke: "You mention that crime has gone up in Postville. Is it the Lubavitchers?"
Steve: "No. When I was doing the research for Postville, the Hasidim would not hire Mexicans. That changed after I wrote the book because the labor shortage was so acute. The crime rate has increased in Postville based on a couple of things. One, that there is a slaughter house and they employ 500 people at that slaughterhouse. You don't need much to work at a slaughter house except a strong back and a strong stomach. Most of the men who work at the slaughterhouse are there alone. There's no family support system. So the liquor store is popular on payday. When you mix single men, no family support system, and alcohol, there's a higher evidence of crime."
Luke: "These generally aren't Jews working these manual jobs? These are immigrant laborers?"
Steve struggles. He hates to answer in racial terms: "Yeah. There have been several incidents of high profile crime in Postville. One incident involved two Hispanics. One involved a Russian and Ukrainian, both non-Jews. There was an attempted murder committed by a Jew on another Jew. So it's not exclusive to non-Jews.
"This is a self-selecting population. Jews who would go to Postville are not typically scholars. They're butchers. There are two no-goodniks, two bad [Jewish] guys in Postville the book, Stillman and Lew. If you have a problem kid, and you live in Brooklyn or Crown Heights, what better place would there be to send him than a Lubavitcher community in North Eastern Iowa? This community is not a cross-section of Lubavitchers. This book is not about Lubavitchers. It's about Postville."
Luke: "Do you have any Lubavitch friends?"
Luke: "Nobody in the Lubavitch community in Postville is talking to you today?"
Steve: "Nobody from that community is talking to me today."
Luke: "Is there any Jewish journalism you admire within the Jewish press? I find most of it a wasteland."
Steve: "There are a lot of journalists who are Jewish that I admire. Remember what I said about the editor from the Free Press? 'We can't publish this. It makes me feel skittish.'
"That's how it is. A lot of people said to me, 'Wow, this would make a great movie. It's like Witness. We could call it Vitness.'
"Well, the Jews come out as the bad guys. It can't be made into a movie for a lot of good reasons. Who's going to make it into a movie? Look at Hollywood.
"If you run that, people are going to say, 'Gee, is he talking about the Jewish conspiracy, a cabal that runs Hollywood?' No. But a lot of Jews make influential and important decisions in Hollywood and this would make a tough sell.
"I read Jewish Currents [a secular progressive Jewish monthly magazine]. I devour a lot of Jewish publications, like Reform Judaism, a great magazine. But when it comes to discussions of Israel and meaty issues like the Hasidim, no, there's a complete boycott of those kinds of articles.
"Jewish Currents comes out of New York City. It's not a slick magazine. They gave Postville a positive review. It's the closest Jewish publication I see that attempts to write about Jewish issues fairly, accurately."
Steve praises his friend Samuel Freedman and his book Jew vs Jew.
Luke: "It's a safer book than yours. He doesn't blow any covers."
Steve: "I don't think it went far enough but I'm not Sam Freedman. A lot of people have read Postville and said, 'Wow, that's a gutsy book. You lay it on the line.' I always looked at it as reporting and stumbling on the social laboratory called Postville and doing my job.
"People have used this book as a touchstone for their own personal situations. I've gotten many emails from gay men who have looked at the book and seen themselves as being persecuted, as the Postville locals look at themselves, by this powerful group of brokers. A lot of feminist women have written me, like Susan Brownmiller, who talks about how courageous the book is and how it should be viewed as a book about oppression of people who do not belong. Those who don't belong in this topsy turvy world are the locals."
Luke: "So your book hasn't impinged on your private life? You haven't gotten death threats?"
Steve: "No, I haven't gotten death threats. Some people on my street are smarting that I wrote about the Watermelon social, that we didn't get invited, and that when I gave the watermelon social, nobody came. They seem to read what they want to read into the book. They say I imply in the book that they are anti-Semites. If you read the whole book, you'll read that a year after I gave the watermelon social, another newcomer (non-Jew) gave a watermelon social and nobody came.
"There's a minor character in the book, Brenda Barnhart. She runs a bed and breakfast for Chicago city slickers who want to know what it is like to live on a farm in Iowa. I describe her as 'big-boned and handsome.' Boy, did I ever hear from her!
"Warning to any writers who are reading your website - make sure that before you write 'big-boned and handsome' about a woman, that you are certain that you want to write that.
"I gave a reading at a small bookstore in Marquette, Iowa, and she came in with four gnarly very large motorcycle riders and just screamed at me for 40-minutes. 'You know that for the rest of my life, I will be called 'big-boned and handsome.' Does any woman you know like to be called handsome?'
"I'm not going to shy away from accurately describing people but at the same time I want to make sure that that description is fundamental to the reader's perception of the image I want to create. In this case, it wasn't, so I took that out from the paperback."
I ask Steve for contact info for his wife, Iris Frost, a former features editor at the San Francisco Chronicle for ten years.
Steve: "You are the first journalist who's wanted to talk to her about the book, but that's fine."
Iris says her husband's book is wonderful and she hasn't had to deal with any social ostracism because of it. "Quite the contrary. Ever since the book has come out, people have flocked to us with kind words and gestures. There's a man in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who comes to Iowa City, and he brings us lean corn beef as a present. We get letters from people who say, 'I've never written to an author before...' Some of the people I went to high school with have emailed my husband, 'Is it possible that the Iris who grew up on Miami Beach is the person I went to high school with.' People have not turned their back but stood up to say this book meant something to them."
Luke: "Not even the neighbors who were upset with being written about in the watermelon social?"
Iris: "A lot of people who read that have whispered to me that if they had lived on my street, they would've come to the party."
Luke: "Did you have any concerns about how self-revelative Stephen was being with the book?"
Iris: "No, because I never read the book before it was published. I was busy with law school. I only went to Postville once or twice."
Luke: "Were your sympathies with the natives of Postville?"
Iris: "I didn't really have any opinion about that because I had not been involved in getting to know anybody in Postville.
"This book has struck a chord. People come to our door. One woman came with her five-year old daughter from Colorado. She just knocked on the door and asked, 'Would you be willing to sign my book and take a photograph with me and my daughter?' The book was meaningful to a whole group of people who grew up Jewish but not Orthodox but are the bulk of the reformed [I think she means Reform] Jews in this country. People like us who have Jewish traditions, Jewish roots and Jewish heritage but are not as religious or as committed as the Lubavitch."
Luke: "Have you had much experience with Lubavitch Jews?"
Iris: "No, not really. I was raised in a pretty ultra-reformed [secular] environment. I grew up on Miami Beach, where a large chunk of the community was Jewish. Being Jewish was not a big deal. It was not different. I had friends who were Christians."
Luke: "Is it still weird being a Jew in Iowa?"
Iris: "Yes but less than it was."
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?"
"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?"
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."
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.
"They make up a story line that when the Gentile head of the slaughter house, Donald Hunt, who's in my book, I call him a Caesar Romero lookalike, died about a year ago. His death brought together the distinct factions in Postville and began to heal the wounds. There's footage of Hunt's funeral and locals as well as Lubavitchers at the funeral. They use that as a point of entry for establishing a premise that things are going along just great.
"The people I talk to in Postville say things are not going along great.
"This latest skirmish is the slaughter house dumping some 30 tons of salt a week into the aquifers of ground water... There seems to be a journalistic mandate to remind everyone that Postville has reached Wa status. That's not what journalists do. Journalists are supposed to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted."
Luke: "But isn't that what Jewish establishment journalism has always done [protect the establishment and project a feel good message, however contrary to the facts]?"
Stephen: "We've talked about this. That's right.
"Postville was not reviewed by too many establishment Jewish magazines. It was reviewed favorably in Hadassah until the last sentence, which said Bloom is a self loathing Jew.
"There have been some courageous [almost all liberal] places that have invited me to speak. I spoke at a Reform synagogue in New Brunswick, New Jersey. It was a huge crowd. People were enthusiastic about my book. There's a tremendous backlash among progressive Jews about the Lubavitch and what they're doing.
"Even at Reform synagogues, I still get people screaming at me, 'Shame, shame, shame. For a Jew to say this, shame on you.'
"My parking myself in Postville for five years was the best way for me to deal with any incipient issues of anti-Semitism. I'd go up there and say I was Jewish and some of the responses would be, 'You're Jewish? We thought Jews wore big hats and long black coats and call us anti-Semites if we disagree with them.' If I've done my mitzvah, it is to allow people in a small town to know that not all Jews are Hasidic Jews."
Luke: "Do you have any reason to believe that the situation in Postville has significantly improved from the latest version of your book?"
Stephen: "No. The people I talk to in Postville are waving a white flag. They've lost. There's nothing they can do. The slaughter house is the industry in town. There used to be a turkey processing plant. It burned down. Agriprocessors [owned by the Hasidim] is going great. You've got to get with the program.
"There was a small piece in the Chicago Tribune December 26 about discontment in Postville. The Hasidim were up in arms because the local merchants [and/or city council] laid out about $10,000 for non-sectarian holiday decorations in the downtown. There were no creches. Jesus Christ was not on every lamp post. And the Hasidim said no. We want menorahs up. If you are going to put up what we perceive as religious, then we want menorahs up.
"But there's a sense of Wa. That you don't talk about these kind of things."
Luke: "In media or in Postville?"
"After the story appeared, the one city council member, Ginger Medberry, who spoke out against the Hasidim in Postville was reamed. She was censured for speaking negatively to a reporter. She was hung out to dry."
Stephen: "Her fellow council members crucifed her.
"Isn't it interesting that in the Hallmark video, there is no mention of alcoholism. No mention of crime. To work in a slaughter house, you don't need to speak English. You need two things -- a strong back and a strong stomach. It's dirty bloody work. The liquor store is doing box office business. When people leave their job, they just anesthetize themselves with alcohol. But we don't talk about that with Hadassah. We don't mention that in the Hallmark show. We don't mention the attempted murder in Postville by a Hasidic man [convicted]. This isn't even on the radar of Hadassah or Hallmark."
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."
Luke: "Or painful issues."
Stephen: "It's just easier [to wimp out]. My aunt, 82, alerted me to the Hadassah story. She said, 'I'm glad to read that things are copacetic now. When you were out there, things were different but now things seem better. I feel better about it now.'
"There's a sense of -- let's make a picture we can all live with.
"We can go further with this and talk about why these photos from Iraqi prisons [showing American servicemen humiliating Iraqi prisoners] are so upsetting."
Luke: "Because it destroys the picture of what we're trying to do."
Stephen: "Operation Iraqi Freedom? This is George Orwell. 1984."
Luke: "There is so much pack mentality in journalism. Few people are willing to blaze a trail."
Stephen: "That's why the Faluja pictures [of American bodies in Iraq being burned by angry Muslims] were so important. American contract workers hanging from a bridge. It was important for American newspapers to put that on A-1, above the fold. It wasn't so much the charred remains of these men. It was the sheer delight of the Iraqis. The most graphic of those pictures were not printed in mainstream American newspapers. They were printed in Europe. There's an amazing Reuters photograph of a body being burned that was run in the New York Sun.
"Do you know the Eddie Adams photograph in The New York Times around 1967? It's of an alleged Vietcong guerilla soldier shot on the streets on Saigon. The picture is so famous because this is frontier justice being administered. It's the actual shot, you can see the moment of impact, the moment of death of this kid."
Luke: "Isn't there a video of it too?"
Stephen: "Yes. The publication of that photograph and of the My Lai photograph [of a young naked girl running screaming down a street after an American napalm attack]... There was a sea change of opinion [after the publication of those photos]. It's hard to be Chicken Little and say the sky is falling. It has not been easy these four years to speak at public venues and for Jews to scream at me.
"I spoke to about 250 people in a tiny town in Illinois. Two upset older Jewish people came up and read me the riot act. Just yesterday I got a phone call from someone in Miami who took me to task. 'You put race relations back 50 years.' That's the job of a journalist, to afflict the comfortable and to seek justice, tikkun."
Luke: "Or to just follow the story. Reporting. How do you feel about the term 'journalism' as opposed to reporting?"
Stephen: "There's a wonderful old movie, Deadline USA, starring Humphrey Bogart (playing a savvy salty editor of a paper about to be bought out by a larger newspaper). There's a line in that movie: 'The journalist makes himself the hero of a story. A reporter is only the witness.'
"The old kind of reporting is to witness events and you're not there. A journalist puts himself at the crosshairs and reflects the meaning of the story. That's one reason the alternative, press, the Internet, and Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailor, became famous. That's an old definition of the New Journalism.
"The reporter's job today in America is to impart some meaning. Not just merely report what the officials say, but to also say whether what the official said is accurate and truthful.
"In China, the newspapers are owned by the government, and they are effective. If the government wants everyone to get SARS vacinations, they can disseminate that quickly. But that is not the job of the media in America.
"I tell my students that news is coverage of an event, trend, or sentiment that people care about or should care about. And it's the 'should care about' that makes a big difference to me. The job of a journalist is to let people know why this news is important to them."
A serious charge was raised in the comments section of the Protocols blog. Kettle Called Black (a Talmudist in Lakewood) writes about Stephen Bloom, author of Postville:
Stephen Bloom replies:
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.
"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 and 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 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..."
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."
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.
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 he 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 they are at least a complex individual who have sides to them. 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.
"Growing up in a world that people like to make fun of [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."