YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


American Gothic Meets Lieberman

August 24, 2000|STEPHEN G. BLOOM | Stephen G. Bloom is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Iowa. His book "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America" about the divide between residents of Postville, Iowa, and the group of Lubavitcher Jews that opened a kosher slaughterhouse there, will be published in October by Harcourt

Several weeks after my wife, young son, and I moved to Iowa from San Francisco in 1993, we walked into a jewelry store in Cedar Rapids. Immediately, I sensed the jeweler, a white-haired man in his 60s, giving us the once-over.

"You from New York?" the jeweler started.

"No, we moved here from California."

"So, you're new to the community?"

"We don't live in Cedar Rapids. We're down the road, in Iowa City."

"You a doctor?"

"No, I teach journalism."

"At the university. Ah, a professor. What's your name?"


Pay dirt. The jeweler stuck out his hand, then cranked his head my way, and whispered, "Have you met any people in Iowa City yet?"

The jeweler had choreographed this elaborate dance to determine whether I was a Jew, a fellow traveler among all the corn and pigs in this rural state. His code was necessary so that, should his instincts be wrong, neither he nor I would lose face. The jeweler's covert sense of being Jewish, and his protective, roundabout way of connecting with another Jew, still governs many Jewish people here. That's why Joseph Lieberman's nomination as Al Gore's running mate is so significant, especially here in the American heartland.

Until I moved to Iowa, all my life I had lived in cities with large Jewish populations. Gentiles peppered their speech with words like shtick, schlock and schmooze. The grocery stores stocked fresh matzos year-round, delis sold knishes. But here in Iowa, the grocery stores carry pigs' ears that customers pick out of a big wooden crate.

The longer we live in Iowa, the more I realize how profoundly Christian Iowans are. Iowa is a through-and-through white, Christian kingdom. Most Iowans are so accustomed to everyone else being Christian that they can't even imagine anyone not believing in Christ or, at least, reared to believe in Christ. They talk about church bazaars, Sunday school, Bible-study groups, Bible camps for their kids. They wear church T-shirts and their cars boast church bumper stickers.

After one of my students got arrested at a local bar for underage drinking, she told me she got called home for a "come-to-Jesus talk." I had visions of a large, God-fearing, farm family, holding hands and kneeling in a prayer circle around a figurine of Christ. But, it turned out, a "come-to-Jesus talk" just meant a serious discussion. The expression was vintage Iowa, invoking the name of Jesus as though everyone believed in the good Lord's son.

Our back-door neighbor often takes out a white leather-covered, gilt-paged Bible on Sunday mornings and reads it on his porch while swinging under a canvas canopy. Our landlord made it a point to tell us the best corner in the living room to set up the Christmas tree. One Easter, the big-city paper in Cedar Rapids ran a banner headline: "He Has Risen."

I remember our first Labor Day weekend in Iowa. We drove 40 miles southwest to the small county seat of Washington to watch a parade. Parades in small Iowa towns are disappearing slices of Americana: homemade floats, John Deere tractors, shiny fire trucks, 4-H heifers and calves. Afterward, we ate at a restaurant on the town square that has been serving meatloaf, mashed potatoes, gravy and soggy green beans ever since it opened in 1928. Two elderly ladies, farmers' daughters from "American Gothic," sat near us. They poked at their blue-plate specials, glaring our way. When we passed their table to leave, one of the women looked up and asked, "You're not from around here, are you?" It really wasn't a question at all.

"Why?" I replied.

Well, the two ladies were speechless. Their cheeks turned the color of stewed beets. What they were driving at wasn't where we were from, but who we were, what we were: city folk, Jews, foreigners to these parts. They weren't mean-spirited, just inquisitive, and they had the courage to speak up.

These memories of our first years in Iowa seem to me to have special relevance now that Lieberman may become the next vice president of the United States. Will his candidacy sell in Iowa and in the heartland? Will the people of America between the ethnic coasts put aside their preconceived notions of Jews and city slickers? Can they?

We've had our share of uncomfortable incidents, but my sense is that they stem not from anti-Semitism but from the insulated nature of the heartland. Farmers and other rural people of this state have an amazingly pure, unadulterated view of the world. Maybe it has to do with the rich soil of the upper Middle West and the potential of what comes from it. Farmers consider their occupation to be a privilege: to provide sustenance for all mankind. Iowans, by and large, to me seem to be the kind of people who are so satisfied with their share of nature and its bounty that they have little sense of cities, crime, traffic jams, of people of different colors and heritages.

The jeweler in Cedar Rapids is thrilled that a Jew finally has made his way to the Mount Sinai of American politics, and there's no question in my mind that he, like millions of other Jews in big cities, will vote Democratic, as Gore rides Lieberman's coattails.

The cafe ladies from Washington, Iowa, are another story. They, like tens of thousands of rural Iowans, certainly won't vote for Lieberman simply because he's a Jew. But I'll bet they'll open their ears to him, and they'll do that because they're curious about this foreigner among them. And, if that happens, despite the profound religious, geographic and cultural differences that separate this Jewish city slicker and them, then Lieberman's candidacy will truly be an American political experiment that works.

Los Angeles Times Articles