Kosher deli among ethnic riches in Postville

Hanukkah begins at sundown Friday, and that makes it a fitting time to study a small town with more ethnic diversity than communities that are 10 or 20 times as big.

Postville, Iowa, has a population of 2,300 and is a half-hour west of the Mississippi River, near Prairie du Chien.

It is a little town that has a worldwide reputation, particularly if you are Jewish and adhere to a kosher diet. Ultra-orthodox Jews from the former Soviet Union are among the people from 27 countries who have settled here. Yes, 27 countries. Yes, population 2,300.

The lure has been meatpacking plants: Iowa Turkey Products and Agri Processors, the latter of which operates from Postville one of the largest kosher meatpacking plants in the world. Immigrants from Mexico and South America are among the plant employees.

“This was a plant sitting empty, a former beef plant that was bought to produce kosher foods in 1987,” says Nina Taylor, who has lived in this area all of her life. Plant operations resumed in 1989, and since then kosher foods have been shipped as far away as Israel.

It all has made Postville a mini-melting pot of cultural diversity and – at times – cultural tension.

“Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America,” a book written in 2000 by Stephen G. Bloom, contains examples of the latter. That publicity snowballed into other types of media exposure that the town has learned to handle with grace, and even capitalize upon.

“Now we’re getting bus tours,” observes Taylor, who operates the Postville Visitor Center, which opened two years ago. The town also decided to call itself “Hometown to the World.”

Taylor acknowledges that rough spots remain: Language still can be a barrier, for example, and that makes education a challenge for some families.

“Many don’t read or write Spanish, much less English,” Taylor matter-of-factly says, of the town’s Hispanic population, which totals about 1,000. For many people, she says, life savings were spent on the hope of living a prosperous American dream. In reality, factory work is tough and not the fast moneymaker that some had envisioned.

“Diversified yet unified” is the slogan on T-shirts at the Visitor Center, and the shirts also list the native countries of local residents: Albania and Bangladesh to South Africa and Sweden.

Artwork and crafts that are traditional to these countries are sold in the center’s gift shop. A woman from Guatemala sells dolls and weavings here. There also is furniture, musical instruments, handmade jewelry, gift cards, baskets, sculptures – even handblown glass rabbis, in wildly comical poses, for $35 each.

As Taylor explains it, the merchandise “comes from local artists and those associated with the culture of the community.” She has an accounting degree, helps teach new business start-up classes and also is an emergency medical technician. The latter is a job that has placed Taylor in all types of ethnic settings – and apparently contributed to the growing trust that residents have begun to develop for her, and each other.

Taylor says she has chaired the Taste of Postville for six years (next year, it’s Aug. 29). Steamed muffins and rice cakes from the Philippines, Norwegian krumkake and lefsa, Polish pierogies and kolaches were among the fare this year.

“It’s the only event where all of the cultures come out and participate,” Taylor says.

Year-round, an unusual and tasty place to visit is Jacob’s Market/Table, operated by Shulamis Jenkelowitz. This is the area’s only extensive kosher deli and restaurant – a rarity in the Midwest, particularly outside of the Twin Cities and Chicago.

The proprietor makes her own Jewish rye bread, pitas, falafel, tabouli, salads. There are potato knishes, cabbage breads, chopped liver, schmaltz herring filets in the deli cases.

The restaurant sometimes has a kosher buffet. Market walls contain at least a dozen clocks, each set to keep time for a different part of the world. Don’t bother visiting on Saturday, as that is the Sabbath, a day of rest.

There also are Hispanic markets, charming churches, a feed mill and a truly rural feel in Postville – but none of these features is as prominent or unusual as the ultra-orthodox Jewish presence.

A local radio station – KPUL/89.1-FM – broadcasts in four languages (English, Spanish, Hebrew and Russian), which is another indication of the area’s unusual nature.

For more about Postville, call (563) 864-3440 or go to Town tour information is available in cassette and printed formats, at the Visitor Center.

This is not a town that is filled with amusements that will pre-occupy you for days, but well worth a visit when in the area.