Once upon a time, 81 Jewish families looked for Zion in the Mormon Zion.

Immigrant urban Jews were greeted with a bleak landscape. Photo courtesy of Robert Goldberg.

Beryl Rosenstock of Philadelphia remembers the tales her father, Joe Levitsky, recounted about his pioneer days in Utah in the early 20th Century. “Ever since I was a little girl, my father would tell us stories about being a little kid in the West. How he went to school in a stage coach and was in a gang that collected beautiful stones and hid them in an abandoned shack,” she recalls. “I grew up at a time when there were a lot of cowboy TV shows. It sounded to me—in my mind—like my dad was a cowboy.”

Her sister Sandi Levitsky Cohen also remembers being mesmerized by her father’s stories of a childhood “out West.”

“He used to come in my room and tell me about his years in Utah,” she says. “It was the highlight of his life.” A favorite story was about a horse running off with a young boy in the wagon. “The kid fell off the wagon and into a pile of manure! My father thought that was very funny.”

The Levitskys later learned that not only were the stones the Stoney Gang hoarded worthless rocks, but that their father had omitted the extremes of cold and heat, relentless work and painful hunger that dogged his family’s life in the West. “He never talked about the hardships,” Cohen says. 

Pioneer stories are not rare in Utah, but Joe Levitsky was part of something far different than the Mormon experience and equally unique. 

Early in the 20th Century, Joe’s father, Sam Levitsky and more than a million other Jews fled the Russian Pale of Settlement, which was roiling with poverty, religious bigotry and pogroms, seeking freedom and economic security. They came to America in ships’ steerage class, sometimes arriving in New York with a few dollars in their pockets to be greeted with the tenements and sweat shops of lower Manhattan and Philadelphia.

Some, like Levitsky, continued to yearn for America’s promise of open space, fresh air and land of their own. They became a Back to the Soil movement that hoped to prove, given the opportunity, Jews could work the land as farmers and ranchers and contribute to the nation’s westward expansion. Ultimately, the movement founded more than 40 farming colonies in New Jersey, Louisiana, Kansas, the Dakotas, Colorado and Texas. It was a first step toward the kabbutzim, or collective farms, of Israel.

“Key to it was leaving the city where life was incredibly hard,” says Bob Goldberg, a University of Utah history professor who has written the definitive book on the ill-fated Utah Jewish colony Clarion. “A larger goal was this call for a spiritual and physical renewal of Jewish life. They were the spearhead of a movement back to the soil.”

An often fractious group of 200 Zionists, socialists, anarchists and dreamers led by Benjamin Brown settled in Sanpete County, near Gunnison, in September 1911. The leaders of the land movement were drawn across the continent by cheap land and the state’s promise of irrigation. “They had no idea how terribly barren this place was—a moonscape,” says Goldberg.

The Bernsteins made a home in Clarion. Photo courtesy of Robert Goldberg.

Utah’s Mormons, who believe they are descendants of ten lost tribes of Israel, felt a biblical kinship with the Jewish arrivals and welcomed them. In 1912, Gov. William Spry spoke at the colony’s first harvest celebration.

But by the end of 1915, Clarion had failed agriculturally and was virtually a ghost town. It was the victim of the settlers’ almost total ignorance of dry-land farming, an irrigation canal that came far too late and infighting. Most of the settlers returned to eastern cities, others moved on to the West Coast. “Many of them felt shame,” says Goldberg. “There was a sense that they had let people down.”

But Goldberg says the real impact of Clarion was on the settlers themselves, as individuals and families. “Their legacy is that they dreamed and struggled for a larger cause,” Goldberg says. “And their struggle has had a profound impact on their descendents.”

In researching his book, Goldberg interviewed many of Clarion’s participants and met their families. “They would bring these things out—a piece of broken screen door or a shard of china—from a pilgrimage to the Clarion site. It was a very powerful legacy for their families.” 

When Goldberg interviewed a Clarion settler in Los Angeles, the man’s extended family crowded into the room. “I was in front of a rapt audience of 20 or 30 children, grandchildren and grand-nieces and nephews.”

Founder Benjamin Brown planning the first season. Photo courtesy of Robert Goldberg.

Morris Levin of Philadelphia is a proud descendant of great-grandparents Samuel and Rebecca Kristol, who left the Jewish Quarter of South Philadelphia for Clarion. In 1915, his grandmother Claire was born in Utah and named for the colony. “My father raised me to know how his grandparents set out for Utah to try and make it as farmers,” Levin says. “Now that I have children, it’s important to me that they know their family legacy. I talk about it with my 5-year-old and show her pictures of where my grandmother was born.” During Philadelphia’s Hidden City Festival last June, Levin, who has visited the Clarion site, gave a presentation on South Philly’s connection with Utah. 

“When my children are older and able to appreciate it, I look forward to taking them to Clarion,” he says.

Cohen and Rosenstock have also made the pilgrimage to Sanpete County. “We regard Clarion as something very special. It’s important to us as part of our family legacy,” Cohen says. “I find it very moving that my grandparents came to America, difficult enough, and then picked up again and started a life as pioneers. Even though it ultimately failed, we are all very proud of it.”

Rosenstock says Clarion gives her a sense of her identity. “It’s incredible to me. To know your grandfather was a pioneer—how courageous to go there and try this experiment. I am proud of these people who had that kind of strength,” says Rosenstock. “I wish I could ask my grandfather, ‘What made you do this?’” 

A Hard Land
Photos courtesy of Robert Goldberg. 

Clarion's one tractor regularly broke down.

Farming still depended on horse power.

Settlers' clothing harkened back to Russia.

Photographs of Clarion and interviews with its settlers are stored at the Marriott Library at the University of Utah. You can read about the colony and the movement that spawned it in Robert Goldberg’s Back to the Soil: The Jewish Farmers of Clarion Utah and Their World, University of Utah Press. 

Back>>>Read other stories in our Jan/Feb 2014 issue.