Strangers in Our Midst

Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America By
Stephen G. Bloom. Harcourt, 338 pages, $25.00

The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community's Battle over Sex,
Faith, and Civil Rights
By Arlene Stein. Beacon Press, 267 pages, $27.50

A stranger comes to town. It's one of the great
themes of American literature and film, not to mention contemporary American
politics. Often our towns don't seem big enough for everyone, especially when
profound disagreements arise. Liberalism at its most limited sometimes tries to
overlook those disagreements, as if all we needed to live happily side by side
were a kindergarten diversity curriculum in which brown- and yellow- and
pink-skinned children and children with two mommies happily taste one another's
foods and sing one another's holiday songs. But that pleasant vision of pluralism
can itself offend those who believe tolerance to be dangerous and immoral while
seeing their own philosophy as the One True Way. What happens when liberalism
meets fundamentalism, when Why can't we all just get along? meets Get thee
behind me, Satan?

That question runs through two recent books about strangers who ride
into town and decide to stay. In Stephen G. Bloom's Postville, small-town
Iowa is shaken when an unfriendly group of Lubavitcher Hasidim buy a failed Iowa
slaughterhouse so that they can supply kosher meat and poultry to Orthodox Jews
worldwide. The story in Arlene Stein's Stranger Next Door is more
complicated: In a small Oregon town, an evangelical Christianity springs up among
dispossessed white men and women and finds political focus in a campaign against
"special rights" for gay people (who are all but nonexistent here). Each book
structures its story around a local election that everyone understands to be a
referendum on those cast as aliens. The back story is that of a global economy
increasingly shifting work away from local white men while bringing in outsiders
whose habits and values seem arrogant, inconsiderate, and strange.

Postville is the lighter read, and frames its microcosmic culture clash
with Bloom's own story. In 1993 Bloom, a San Francisco journalist, takes a job as
a journalism professor at the University of Iowa. At first he and his wife are
enchanted by Iowa City's exotic cultural habits: people sitting on the
wraparound porch, driving under the speed limit, fishing with fresh-dug worms,
eating all-pork meals at the county fair. But after a few years, the Blooms
notice that they don't quite fit, both as "city slickers," as the locals call
them, and as Jews. For their fellow Iowans, Christianity is neutral background;
Jesus is unthinkingly invoked by teachers and scoutmasters, neighbors sing
Christmas carols outside their door as if this were benign, and the newspaper's
Easter headline is "He Has Risen."

And so when Bloom hears about the Lubavitcher Hasidim in Postville, 350 miles
north, wearing their payot (those curly earlocks) and black hats in a state
"where pigs outnumber people by almost five to one," he's riveted. "While I knew
the Lubavitchers to be fierce fundamentalists who proselytize other Jews the way
Jehovah's Witnesses go after nonbelievers," he writes, "I also realized that the
Hasidim in Postville were as close to family as Iris and I could muster in our
new home state." Although the Hasidim, notoriously xenophobic, don't answer his
calls requesting an interview, eventually a non-Jewish plant manager at the
kosher slaughterhouse invites him to come by. Once he's inside, the Hasidim
recognize his ethnicity and start recruiting.

The fact that Bloom is actually going inside the slaughterhouse flabbergasts
the locals, whom he interviews as well (and who don't realize that he can be
Jewish without a yarmulke and so forth). Postville is so small--population
1,465--that "no one used turn signals because everyone knew where everyone else
was going." The local newspaper covers everyone's vacation destinations,
afternoon visitors, and birthday-party decorations. It's a town so monoculturally
descended from German Lutheran settlers that before World War II, German was
spoken more often than English on the street. But by 1987, when Aaron Rubashkin,
a Brooklyn butcher, came looking for a place to start a glatt-kosher
slaughterhouse, Postville was in economic crisis. Fueled by the worldwide
Orthodox boom and advances in international shipping, Rubashkin's business became
wildly successful, bringing money into town.

Nevertheless, 10 years later, the locals aren't exactly happy with their
marriage of necessity. "The Jews," as they're called, drive like maniacs, never
mow their lawns, build without permits, bargain furiously (which the locals feel
implies the price is unfair), and wait months, if ever, to pay their bills.
Disregarding the fundamental rule of Iowa coexistence, the Hasidim won't even
make eye contact on the street. One of Bloom's local informants asks: "Hadn't
their mothers taught them any manners?"

Bloom does his best to be fair to the Hasidim as he explores their
hermetically sealed world. He notes his relief at the familiar speech rhythms,
the questions upon questions. He accepts an invitation for a Shabbat stay with a
Hasidic family, revels in the food, and prays with his hosts on command. But
finally, Bloom is a liberal, not a fundamentalist: He's repelled by their
intolerance, their insularity, their open delight in cheating "the goyim," and
their manipulative arguments. He quotes one Hasid as saying proudly: "I am a
racist... . Why haven't the Jews been extinguished after scores of attempts
throughout history? That we are still here defies logic. There is only one
answer. We are better and smarter. That's why!" Bloom's heart is with the
Postville local who says: "It's not such a great religion if they don't want to
be a part of the community, is it?"

Bloom's background as a daily journalist shows; while the book brims with
factual details, it lacks a sustaining narrative. As a result, parts of
Postville are compulsively readable, filled with vivid information about
such things as the town's history, kosher killing and evisceration, the filthy,
algae-covered mikveh for Hasidic men, and Rubashkin's all-expenses-paid
importation of labor. But there's too much filler: reconstructed "conversations"
full of nothing much, for instance, and detail about an assimilated Jewish doctor
who'd coexisted nicely before the Hasidim came. Bloom's own story doesn't fully
hold the book together. Nor does the confrontation he constructs: a vote over
whether the town should annex the slaughterhouse land and that of other local
businesses, subjecting them to city taxes and law--an effort the Hasidim call
anti-Semitic. Annexation passed; the Hasidim stayed. Postville's biggest
disappointment is its failure to take on the larger questions: What does it mean
that more people worldwide are taking refuge in separatist ideologies like the
Lubavitchers'? And what is to be done when a separatist culture crashes into a
pluralist one?

These are the questions that Arlene Stein takes up in The
Strangers Next Door.
In 1992 the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA) ran a statewide
initiative campaign to prevent antidiscrimination protections based on sexual
orientation. After the statewide measure failed, the OCA targeted rural towns and
counties that had voted in favor and attempted to pass similar measures locally.
"Rural Oregon was a rather unlikely site for a battle over homosexuality," writes
Stein, a sociologist at the University of Oregon. "In this vast, sparsely
populated region of the country, there were few visible signs of queer life: ...
no out homosexuals lobbying for civil rights; no lesbian/gay coffeehouses,
newspapers or running clubs." Why this moral panic about a nonexistent threat?
Stein chooses one rural town (calling it "Timbertown" to protect her informants)
so that she can closely examine the larger symbolic meanings behind the campaign.

Stein recounts how Timbertown had uneasily absorbed successive
intrusions of newcomers--back-to-the-land counterculture folks, Jesus freaks,
latte-drinking Californians--whose manners and morals offended the town's
frontier values of "strength and obedience, self-discipline, self-reliance, and
respect for authority." This uneasy meeting of cultures grew nastier as the
lumber economy began to sputter. Loss of prosperity led to a 1980s and 1990s
explosion of membership in evangelical churches. There, many with shaky finances
and unstable lives found shelter, invoking a strict God and a stern but loving
church family to shepherd them through change. Their beliefs infused the
struggles of everyday life--from maintaining sobriety and sexual restraint to
making friends and sewing slipcovers--with purpose and meaning. But many, Stein
believes, remained deeply ashamed of their personal failures, embarrassed by
their lower-class God--in need of a scapegoat to help define their outsider
Christianity as "traditional" and to prove to themselves that they walked in the
path of righteousness. "By declaring who is strange," writes Stein, "we come to
know who is familiar." Enter the OCA and its antigay campaign.

The town's few lesbian business owners and school administrators were too
afraid to come out. Opposing the "no special rights" measure was thus up to
heterosexual liberals, who peddled a generic (and inadequate) support for
tolerance and diversity. For the liberals, the campaign was about something
other than gayness, which many weren't quite comfortable with. Many of them were
fighting their own scapegoats, with the OCA activists standing in for all
backward Oregon "rednecks" (that class slur against white people who work
outdoors). Writes Stein: "If few OCA members were college educated, this
group was, in contrast, a relatively educated, cosmopolitan one; if OCA
members repudiated the values of 1960s-style personal self-expression, social
experimentation, tolerance of difference--this group proudly embraced them."

It was, in other words, a class battle--a battle of worldviews--and thus far
more divisive than either side expected. The liberals underestimated the depth
of feeling on the other side, which was fed by class resentment, job loss,
falling wages, and despair at failing family relationships, as well as by disdain
for supposedly rich gay people wantonly escaping their sex roles and family
duties. Stein argues persuasively that liberalism hasn't offered a compelling
vision of what's moral and good in family and community life, and that
"diversity" rhetoric can be patronizing. When one identifies oneself as lesbian,
say, or as Hasidic, "born that way" just doesn't cut it: Obviously, the offender
is still choosing every day to embrace a set of values that repels, even
disgusts, a neighbor. Stein articulates the OCA activists' furious resentment
at diversity rhetoric this way: "Who was protecting their rights, their
livelihood? Who was championing their needs when they lost their jobs,
when their homes were repossessed, when they struggled to maintain their
community? Who was making them feel included?"

What's especially valuable about Stein's book is her detailed
look at each individual's take on the meaning of the campaign and her patient
exploration of the wide variety of forces shifting the ground of these people's
lives. She reveals both OCA activists and their liberal counterparts as
individuals with more ambivalence and nuanced emotion about the election than can
be divined from the angry boycotts of local businesses, the furious letters to
the editor, or the protest demonstrations that became screaming matches.

Stein traces the way the global economic climate's peculiar currents
are responsible not just for liberal choices like openly gay lives but also for
the rise in American fundamentalisms. None of us can get back to where we once
belonged: That world is gone and we must choose a new one. Gay-pride parades,
Pentecostal churches, ritual mikvehs, and NPR cruises are a few of our newly
invented homes. None can fairly be called "traditional," since all are chosen
adaptations or reactions to modern life. If once upon a time we had small-town
harmony, it was because we could purge our world of strangers, shipping the
Puritans off to America, shipping the Quakers off to Rhode Island, shipping the
Mormons off to Utah, and so on. But how do you kick the strangers out of
town--whether the strangers are Starbucks-drinkers or Hasidim--if their cash
props up your fading livelihood, or if they can turn to FedEx and Visa and the
Web for everything they need?

Learning to live together while disapproving of--perhaps even despising--one
another's behavior and beliefs is not the same as "celebrating diversity." It's a
grittier and less utopian accommodation to those who are both like and unlike
ourselves. Timbertown's antigay measure passed, but like the Postville
annexation, the win was largely symbolic. It was presumptively overruled when the
Supreme Court, in the 1996 Romer v. Evans decision, struck down the Colorado
antigay amendment on which the Oregon measures were patterned. Meanwhile, most
churches on the OCA side decided that political involvement was too divisive and
returned to ministering to individuals. But neither did the liberals win,
conquering ignorance and hate as they'd hoped. The waves of global capitalism
continue to wash strangers, with their peculiar and distasteful choices, into
town. As we've so terribly seen in recent weeks, we'll be facing showdown
battles, large and small, again and again in years to come.