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Clarion call: Failed settlement lives on in Jewish hearts

Published: Friday, Sept. 2 2011 10:47 p.m. MDT

Rex Brown photographs one of the two remaining gravestones in remains of the old Jewish ghost town of Clarion, Utah.

Johanna Workman

CLARION, UTAH — For Robert Alan Goldberg, the full significance of Jewish colonization efforts in Clarion, Utah, 100 years ago finally became clear to him as he sat a few years ago in a comfortable home in contemporary Los Angeles.

"I was just expecting to do a little one-on-one interview with a descendant of one of the Clarion families," said Goldberg, a history professor who had been drawn to the Clarion story after he and his brother chanced upon the town's ghostly remains in central Utah in 1980.

When he arrived at the descendant's home, however, he found the house filled with family members: children, grandchildren, cousins, friends.

"These people already knew the story," Goldberg said, "but they wanted to hear Grandpa tell it one more time."

They listened with rapt attention as Goldberg asked his questions, and Grandpa responded. Even the little children were calm and attentive. And when Grandpa brought out the carefully wrapped and preserved artifacts that had been found in the hard, crusty soil during his pilgrimage to Clarion, the entire house was filled with a powerful feeling of respectful reverence and awe.

"I think that's when it really hit me what the Clarion experience meant to these people," Goldberg said, his elbows propped on his office desk at the University of Utah. "It isn't just a story about a failed attempt at colonization. It's a story of idealism, vision, purpose and sacrifice, and of people trying to do something good for their people.

"That they failed is their history," Goldberg continued. "That they dreamed and struggled and were greater than themselves is their legacy."

The story of the Clarion colony is decidedly different from other colonization efforts during Utah's pioneering past. For one thing, it happened later than what is generally considered to be Utah's pioneering era, which ended with the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. For another, it had nothing whatsoever to do with Brigham Young's aggressive colonization outreach, or those of any other Mormons, for that matter.

The seeds of Clarion colonization were planted in the sweatshops and slums of the eastern United States, as the hopes and ideals of an international Jewish "back to the soil" movement took root in the hearts of urbanized Jews.

"For centuries, Jews had been deprived of land ownership," said Goldberg, author of "Back to the Soil: The Jewish Farmers of Clarion, Utah, and Their World." "Jews were peddlers, they worked in factories, they owned businesses, but they didn't own land."

And that, according to Jewish intellectual and philosophical leaders of the time, was unacceptable.

"It was felt that in order to be a complete people, Jews had to have their own land," Goldberg said. "Agrarian values were missing from their culture. It was felt that those who live close to the land also live closer to God. They are also healthier and stronger. They even have better complexions."

Land ownership was also a way for Jewish immigrants to assimilate into their new country. "If you own property, you are investing in the future of the country," Goldberg said. "You show allegiance. You show you belong. You show you want to stay."

It would also go a long way toward dispelling anti-Semitic stereotypes and facilitating the acceptance of Jews by Christians.

And so Jews throughout the world participated in the "back to the soil" movement, establishing more than 40 colonies in the United States as well as similar colonizing efforts in Argentina, Canada and the Holy Land.

"This had more to do with philosophy than faith," Goldberg said. "They weren't doing this because they were believers. Many of Jews who were involved were only Jews by birth and heritage. But they were idealists. Some were Socialists. They believed in the principles of the 'back to the soil' movement. They thought it was the right thing to do. And so they did it."

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