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Iowa Town Facing a Diversity Dilemma

Once all-white and all-Christian, it now has Hasidim and others from afar. Jew's appointment to City Council is challenged.

February 01, 2001|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Aaron Goldsmith is Jewish.

He sits on the City Council in Postville, Iowa.

And dozens of his fellow citizens want him off.

Those three facts--which may be related and, then again, may not--have of late ratcheted up tensions in Postville, a tiny farm town in far northeast Iowa that has been engaged in a remarkable experiment in diversity.

For 150 years, Postville was basically all white and all Christian. Then an ultra-Orthodox Jew from New York came to build a kosher slaughterhouse. Dozens of Hasidic Jewish families followed. So did immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Bosnia, from Ukraine, Nigeria and the Philippines--all drawn to jobs at the slaughterhouse and a nearby turkey plant.

Many locals tried mightily to get along. And many of the newcomers reached out to the community.

But tensions persisted, especially between Postville's old-timers and the Jews. The Hasidim spoke Hebrew on the streets. Refused to eat in the local (non-kosher) pizzeria. They looked, to the locals, so very different, so odd, the men in long black coats and prayer shawls, the women in wigs, the little boys with hair curling down past their shoulders. To make matters worse, the city accused the kosher slaughterhouse of polluting a local river and levied a $2-million fine. The Jewish owners refused to pay--and the two sides sank into an angry legal battle of suits and countersuits.

Into this charged environment, enter the 43-year-old Goldsmith.

He was appointed--the first Jew to serve on Postville's City Council--to fill a midterm vacancy. The council members who voted, 4 to 1, to seat him for a year--until the November election--spoke with pride of reaching out to the new face of Postville. "We were breaking new ground," Mayor John Hyman said. "We wanted the council to be representative and reflective of the other cultures in town."

But within a week, residents were circulating a petition to boot Goldsmith out.

The petition requested a special election to fill the council seat. And some of the 126 who signed said they did so simply because they felt strongly that their representatives should be elected, not appointed. "It's not an issue of whether [Goldsmith] is Jewish or Mexican or American. It's just that we feel we should be able to elect our council members," said Sandra Helgerson, who runs a beauty parlor in town.

Yet 81-year-old Dorothy Radloff said with utter candor that she signed the petition because she did not want a Jew on the council. "We're just afraid if they get one in, then pretty soon the whole council will be Jewish and they're going to run the town," she said. "They're working to take the town over and push the rest of us out."

Farm Towns Must Absorb Immigrants

Such raw antagonism, forced to the surface by Goldsmith's appointment, has unsettled some in Postville.

And it raises issues for the rest of Iowa--indeed, for much of the Midwest--as more and more traditionally all-white farm towns absorb immigrant workers of different ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds.

Iowa's jobless rate is one of the lowest in the nation--so low that some employers have taken to staging job fairs in prisons, with an eye on hiring convicts once they finish serving time. Immigration represents a possible solution to the tight labor market. Yet in a state that's long been at least 95% white, immigration represents a source of tension as well. Postville--the subject of a front-page Times story two years ago and, more recently, of a PBS documentary and a book--has been scrutinized as a model of what to expect from rapid demographic change.

Goldsmith, for his part, thinks the town is doing well.

He does suspect the petition was motivated largely by anti-Semitism, and he calls that "very disturbing." Yet Goldsmith is quick to add that he's always felt at home in Postville. His business, which makes equipment for the disabled, has been honored by the Chamber of Commerce. He's been asked to give speeches to local groups. Indeed, since moving to Postville from Los Angeles in May 1998, "I've experienced tremendous warmth from this town," he says.

Since his appointment to the council, Goldsmith has not received a single nasty letter or call. On the contrary, many of his neighbors--and even many strangers--have come up to shake his hand and wish him well. "I feel like Jimmy Stewart in a Frank Capra movie," he marvels.

So, while he calls the petition "a bit of a black eye" for his town, he remains optimistic and adamant: Diversity can work--in Postville and anywhere else. "This town has beautiful facets," he insists. "It just needs to be polished."

University of Iowa professor Stephen Bloom, who studied the town for five years to write "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America," has come to a harsher conclusion.

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