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Echoes of Jewish Back-to-Land Movement Under Utah’s Big Sky

Back to the Land: A group of Jewish pioneers founded a farming colony in central Utah. A century later, little remains except the memories. Image by Naomi Zeveloff

On a sunny Saturday in September, Lillian Brown Vogel rolled her wheelchair to the brink of a small gravesite just outside the city of Gunnison, in central Utah. She squinted at the two headstones before her, slabs of gray and brown rock etched with Hebrew letters. Each one was surrounded by a small pen of metal pipes to keep the cows at bay.

“I’ve been at this spot before” she said, “about 15 years ago.”

This was Vogel’s second pilgrimage to one of the only visible remnants of the Jewish farm colony in the Utah desert where she spent her early childhood. This time, the 102-year-old retired psychologist from Ukiah, Calif. was joined by nearly 80 other children and grandchildren of the original colonists, who descended on the site to mark its centennial anniversary.

The settlement of Clarion lasted a mere five years before disappearing into historical oblivion. It was a bold venture, meant to unshackle the Jewish spirit from the fetid confines of East Coast tenement life. Instead, the colony ended up as a blip in American history — an unlikely Jewish experiment in the unlikeliest of places. But for the descendants visiting Utah, it was nothing less than a cornerstone of the family lore.

“It is the history of the Jews in this one small little place,” said Janine Lieberman, whose paternal grandparents lived in Clarion. “To me, Clarion was the seed for my involvement in Judaism and Jewish life and wanting to raise the family Jewish.”

The story of Clarion began with Vogel’s father. Benjamin Brown, born Ben Lipshitz in 1885, near Odessa, immigrated to the United States at the age of 15. As a young man, Brown found work as a peddler and later as a farm laborer outside Philadelphia. Brown’s time on the farm — he took the owner’s last name —propelled him to seek a career in agriculture. But it wasn’t until he came into contact with German and Scandinavian colonists in the Midwest that he formulated the idea for the Jewish settlement.

“We Jews…have to and must create a new healthy condition here in this country that should serve as a model for our people everywhere — in the whole world,” Brown wrote in a retrospective essay.

According to University of Utah historian Robert Goldberg, Brown initiated his project in Philadelphia, hosting a series of meetings with local Jews in which he proposed a Jewish farming settlement in the American West. The distance, he reasoned, would weaken any temptation to return to urbanity. Brown’s selling point was both practical and philosophical: by leaving the tenements for farm life, Jews could find dignity and prosperity. But they would also redefine what it meant to be Jewish in America, changing the image of the Jew from sniveling to robust. It was a domestic parallel to the rationale that propelled the Zionist farming settlements in British Palestine at the time.

Brown’s charisma caught the attention of Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf of Keneseth Israel, a Reform congregation in Philadelphia. Krauskopf was a major proponent of the national back-to-the-land movement, which generated more than 40 Jewish farming colonies in the United States between 1882 and 1910 — nearly all of which failed within the first few years. Brown’s project, launched with Krauskopf’s support, would be the last of the back-to-the-land efforts. By 1910, Brown had found his participants.

Two-hundred Jews — most of them Eastern European immigrants living in Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore — contributed about $300 apiece to the newly formed Jewish Agricultural and Colonial Association. They were anarchists, Labor Zionists and socialists; Orthodox Jews who sought to preserve tradition out West and Jews who simply wanted a better life for their families. Several people planned to gain experience at the settlement to farm in British Palestine. Out of the group of 200, 75 went to Clarion.

“Brown got to a point where he didn’t care who joined, as long as they had got the money to make this work,” said Goldberg, whose 1986 book, “Back to the Soil,” tells the story of Clarion. “I don’t think he ever worked through the idea of having a bunch of people on the land with different motivations. What would they do in regard to hard times?”

In 1911, Brown and his partner, Isaac Herbst, set out on a three-day trip to scout property in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. After fruitless inquiry in New Mexico, the men received a telegram from Krauskopf, urging them to travel to Utah, where Krauskopf had connections with influential Jews in Salt Lake City, including future governor Simon Bamberger. Krauskopf also reasoned that the Mormons of Utah would welcome the Jews, who, like them had faced religious persecution.

Eager for settlers, the Utah state government was in the midst of constructing a 60-mile-long canal through south central Utah that would create arable farmland out of the chalky soil. A state official brought Brown and Herbst to Sanpete County — an area today known as a hub of turkey production. Brown fingered the dirt. This, he decided, was the place.

On September 10, the first group of settlers — 12 able men — arrived at the Gunnison train station from Philadelphia. Brown greeted them in Yiddish, and they made their way to the Clarion site, singing Ukrainian folk songs as they went. The experiment had begun.

One hundred years later to the day, descendants of the settlers — representing more than 15 states, plus Israel — gathered in the lobby of the Marriot University Park Hotel in Salt Lake City. Outside, two tourist buses idled in the parking lot as the tour guide, Mary Ellen Elggren, admonished the visitors to slather on sunscreen in advance of the trip down to Clarion. It was 9:30 a.m., and the Utah sun was already burning brightly.

Much like the Clarion settlement itself, the centennial celebration was initiated by one man and then carried forward by the Salt Lake City Jewish community and its Mormon counterpart in Gunnison. Goldberg first visited Clarion in 1981 after reading about it in a book of Utah ghost towns. A Jew trying to stake his claim in Mormon Utah, Goldberg was moved by his visit to the Clarion site, with its two eerily beautiful Hebrew gravestones. In the early 1980s he began researching the long-forgotten settlement, placing ads in the Forward, The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, seeking Jews with ties to settlement. Goldberg eventually made contact with the children and grandchildren of 53 of the 75 families who lived in Clarion between 1911 and 1916.

“I realized that these people had stepped out of their rat mazes and ordinary lives and had become better than their smallest intentions,” he said. “They reached out to change the world. That had been communicated from father to son, mother to daughter, son to daughter, and on and on. It had been communicated through 50, 60, 70 years, through 1911 on. That was what so struck me as a powerful thing.”

After the publication of his book on Clarion, Goldberg fell out of touch with most the families. In the ensuing years, he attempted to establish Clarion as a national or state historic site. Though the current landowners agreed to partner in such a project, the plans fizzled amid state budget woes. When the centennial began to draw near, Goldberg decided to honor the site in a different way, by bringing the descendents back to the land. The Mormons in Gunnison said they would participate, and so did the Salt Lake City Jewish community. In planning the centennial anniversary, Goldberg reconnected with many of the descendants he interviewed for his book, and he connected them to one another over Facebook and e-mail. “They just started bubbling up and bubbling over,” he said.

The night before the centennial observance at the settlement site itself, Goldberg hosted an event at the Salt Lake City Jewish Community Center, where these connections played out in person. Dozens of descendants milled about, greeting one another like long-lost cousins. Just like their settler ancestors, the visitors represented a wide swath of American Jewry, from the highly observant to the secular. There were revelations aplenty: Benjamin Brown had fathered a love child at the colony, and this rent asunder his marriage. The boy, Eugene, later had children of his own — two of whom were in attendance. Lillian Brown Vogel, long thought to be the only surviving person who lived in Clarion as a child, found that she had company. This 98-year-old woman could not make it to the centennial; her daughter and niece went in her absence.

The next morning, the descendants filed onto the tour buses, each wearing a white card bearing the name of his or her settler ancestor. In less than an hour, the Clarion caravan had cleared Salt Lake City and its suburban rings, delving deep into the center of Utah as it passed by Brigham Young University. Craggy brown hills covered in green scrub brush rose alongside the highway. Elggren spoke into a microphone at the fore of the bus: “This is the way your ancestors came.”

“Everything is dwarfed by the mountains,” Lynn Schlossberger said as she looked wistfully out the bus window. “Everything we do is small by comparison.”

At around noon, the buses arrived in Gunnison, population 3,000, and parked at the Gunnison City Hall, where a local Mormon women’s group had prepared a kosher-style lunch for the descendants—cold cuts on rolls with quinoa salad, chopped fruit, and homemade snickerdoodle cookies. The city of Gunnison had advertised the centennial celebration on its website as “Jewish Days,” calling on interested residents to participate.

Outside the building, a thin man in a red shirt and oversized eyeglasses waited with a folder under one arm and a white cowboy hat under the other. This was Bruce Sorenson, a local farmer whose grandfather and father had served as unofficial tour guides to the Clarion site over the years, collecting newspaper articles and artifacts that referenced the ghost town settlement.

Janine Lieberman remembered Sorenson and his family — the “keepers of the Jewish lore,” as she called them — from a trip to Clarion she took in the late 1980s. Her grandparents, Sam and Rose Lieberman, lived in Clarion. Their son, Edward, died as a baby and was buried in the site’s ad hoc cemetery. “When my girlfriend and I came and we went to the field, we got out there and within minutes, your dad showed up,” she said to Sorenson. “It was like magic. Someone takes care of you.”

Sorenson bowed his head shyly. “I used to watch for people,” he said.

The warm reception in Gunnison was just a taste of what the original Clarion settlers encountered upon their arrival in Utah. Mormons consider themselves a lost tribe of Israel, and they regard Jews with reverent fascination. They think of Utah as their own Zion, and even the state’s topographical highlights are loosely named after sites in Israel, a fact that could not have failed to strike the Jewish settlers. Utah’s Jordan River connects Utah Lake to the Great Salt Lake — the state’s own salt-rich “Dead Sea.”

When the Clarion settlers arrived in 1911, they were met with both Mormon hospitality and $500 in official church funds. Though a handful of Jews had prior farming experience out east, the large majority of Clarion colonists knew nothing of farm life. The local Mormons coached the Jews, instructing them on how to harness horses and plow fields.

In 1912, the Jews of Clarion invited Gunnison Mormons, Salt Lake City Jews and state leaders to a pre-harvest celebration to promote the fledgling colony. There, Gunnison’s Mormon bishop declared, “Let the Jews, gentiles and Mormons be one.”

The pre-harvest event, however, placed an illusory sheen on what was quickly becoming a dire situation. The promised central Utah canal was unreliable, delivering water infrequently. As a remedy, the colonists built a large concrete cistern to store water, but it burst with an ear-shattering crack the first night it filled. Working as a collective that first year, the colonists planted wheat, oats, corn and alfalfa, but the poor soil yielded little.

The problems did not stop there. The colony’s heterogeneity created a tense environment at times. The Jews considered faith a private matter, and some created minyans at home to worship. Many Jews worked on the Sabbath, and some even raised pigs. But questions over the nature of Jewish life at Clarion did surface with the proposal of a school. The Orthodox settlers wanted a teacher conversant in Hebrew liturgy to form a yeshiva of sorts. The Labor Zionists preferred someone who could instruct the students in Yiddish and Jewish culture. The socialists wanted a secular teacher. In the end, the school hired a Mormon who taught a nonreligious curriculum.

Unexpected tragedies further eroded morale. In 1913, one of the original 12 settlers, a 29-year-old man named Aaron Binder, was killed when his wagon overtook him as he was gathering wood in the mountains near Gunnison. He was buried in Clarion; his Hebrew gravestone is the iconic Jewish marker of the unsung settlement.

Hungry, impoverished and hounded by the once lenient Utah Board of Land Commissioners to pay money owed for the property, Clarion’s settlers began a slow trickle from the colony in 1915, many of them returning to the eastern cities from whence they came. Others remained in Utah, married Mormons and raised Mormon families. Brown, for his part, moved to Gunnison and began the Utah Poultry Association. By 1916, Clarion was all but gone. In his 1949 Yiddish novel about the settlement, colonist Isaac Friedland recalled how, that final year, “people waited for the inevitable end, as one waits for a dying person to die.”

After watching a musical rendition of the Clarion story at Gunnison’s Casino Star Theatre, the descendents traveled by bus to the Clarion site and saw firsthand the conditions that had forced their families to flee the settlement just five years after building it. The earth was rocky, gray and covered in prickly green shrubs and yellow flowers. Massive anthills dotted the earth. The school was nothing but a concrete base, the cistern a pile of rubble. Only the two headstones were perfectly preserved—twin testaments to hardship. Barbara Vogel picked up a rock from the site and vowed to place it on a family gravestone back home.

But what had been an utter failure for the Clarion settlers was a point of pride for the descendants. Back at Gunnison City Hall for a dinner of turkey steaks and homemade challah, Jeff Ayeroff pondered what unified all these families so many generations beyond Clarion. Poverty was one thing, and the will to overcome it was another. His own grandparents resorted to eating the family cat to survive the Utah wilderness. Today, Ayeroff is one of the top Los Angeles music industry executives. But there was something else.

“This is not the stereotypical story of Jews stuck in a ghetto-ized situation,” he said. “They wanted the opportunity to redefine themselves…. They decided to go somewhere else. That was the freedom that Clarion afforded.”

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at [email protected]

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