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ZipUSA: Iowa Kosher
JUNE 2005
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Iowa Kosher @ National Geographic Magazine
By Emily Yoffe
Photographs by Carolyn Drake
In Postville, Iowa, kosher is kosher.

"Slaughtering an animal is a bloody business," says Sholom Rubashkin, a manager at AgriProcessors, one of the largest kosher meatpacking plants in the country. A video secretly filmed last year in Rubashkin's plant in Postville, Iowa, by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) demonstrates just how bloody. For an animal to be considered kosher, it must be killed by a swift cut across the throat with a perfectly sharpened knife. This ritual slaughter, called shehitah, is designed to ensure that death is nearly instantaneous. But the video shows cows moving, even trying to get up after being cut. PETA says this violates humane slaughtering laws and that the plant should be prosecuted.

Rubashkin says the video, shot over seven weeks, selectively shows those few cases in which a cow, though rendered unconscious, may not look like it was killed instantly—he compares the animal's movements to a chicken with its head cut off. As he takes me on a tour of the chicken-processing side of the slaughterhouse—the birds' featherless bodies clicking along on an overhead conveyor belt—he says the criticism is an attack not only on his company but also on an ancient tradition. "I think PETA is after the shehitah process," he says in a staccato Brooklyn accent that has not softened after years in the Midwest. "They'd love to make it illegal."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now investigating AgriProcessors, and in February PETA launched a national ad campaign against them. This isn't the first time the Rubashkin operation has attracted controversy to Postville. In 1987 Sholom's father, Aaron, purchased the then defunct meat-processing plant, and eventually some 250 Hasidic Jews moved to town. When I ask Rubashkin how the family decided on Postville, he says, "It was divine providence. God wanted us here."

God may have wanted it, but not all the locals did. Farmers of German and Norwegian descent, many of Postville's residents were appalled by the sudden arrival of the Hasidim, with their strange clothes and odd customs. Hasidic men typically wear dark suits, skullcaps, broad-brimmed black hats, and untrimmed beards. Married women wear wigs or kerchiefs to cover their hair. As Orthodox Jews, Hasidim are not allowed to work, or even drive, on the Sabbath. They observe strict kosher dietary laws, such as not eating pork or shellfish and not mixing meat and dairy.

When they first arrived, the Hasidim didn't return the greetings of the townspeople. "They brought their New York habits with them," says one resident. Their lawns went unmowed. They drove erratically—a U-turn became known as a Jew-turn. "People accused them of being standoffish," says Ron Taylor, a city councilman. Hasidic Jews see assimilation as a threat to their very existence. Wherever they live, they create a close-knit community and start their own schools. Food often brings people together, but because of their dietary restrictions, the Hasidim can't eat at their neighbors' homes or restaurants or even accept a welcome food basket. "Our dietary laws are different. That's why we're here," Rubashkin says.

With its streets of tidy houses that peter out into endless farmland, Postville offers a classic story of small-town America transformed by newcomers. The image of black-hatted men and their modestly dressed wives emerging from the cornfields on their weekly walk to the synagogue has been irresistible to the media. CNN has been by, as has PBS. In 2000, journalist Stephen Bloom published a book depicting Postville as a town irrevocably riven by cultural misunderstanding.

It doesn't feel that way today. "We learned from the book," says Cheryl Waters, owner of the Beauty Hut hair salon off the town's main street. She insists Postville was never as divided as in Bloom's portrait, but believes the book broke down barriers on both sides.

Take Leigh Rekow, a semi-retired farmer, member of the city council, and a regular at The Bakery, a piece of old Postville where farmers, bankers, and housewives gather each morning—men at one table and women at another—to drink coffee and catch up on the news. Rekow wryly mentions that he's the man in Bloom's book encouraging the Hasidim to depart ("Just don't let the screen door hit you in the butt when you leave") during a zoning dispute a few years ago. So bitter had feelings become that Sholom Rubashkin was quoted calling Rekow an anti-Semite.

Now Rekow says he's glad the Hasidim came to Postville. "The Jewish people don't cause any problems whatsoever," he says. And the plant has helped turn the town's moribund economy around, employing 700 people from 14 countries and processing more than 100 million dollars worth of livestock a year. Postville's population grew 55 percent in the 1990s to nearly 2,300—about ten times the rate for the rest of the state.

Today half the pupils in Postville's kindergarten are Spanish-speaking—children of workers at AgriProcessors and other nearby plants. The town has both a popular Mexican restaurant and a kosher deli. The visitors center sells gifts representing the mixed heritage of the new Postville, from painted wooden crosses to glass figurines of bar mitzvah boys. Nina Taylor, who runs the gift shop, says, yes, she could send me to people "who want to go back to the '50s. But if we go back there, we'd be a dead town."

Rubashkin says his people have simply learned to fit in. They invite neighbors to their bar mitzvahs and have grown to appreciate a mowed lawn. "We don't look down on anybody. We share the same family values. And we learned the custom of saying 'hello.' You do that in New York and people think you're nuts."

Now that PETA has targeted AgriProcessors—a threat from true outsiders—the town has rallied round. The city council passed a resolution renouncing "unfounded and unproven attacks on AgriProcessors, Inc. or its kosher processing."

When I'd first asked Rubashkin for a tour of the slaughterhouse, he was wary, asking why I wanted to see it. I said that without it there wouldn't be much to Postville. "The locals don't want to hear that," he said ruefully. I said that's exactly what the locals had been telling me. For a man who rarely pauses, he did so for a second before replying, "Then things have really changed."

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