Where Text Meets Sweat: Reading Yiddish Utopia in the Utah Landscape

Erin Faigin

I AM HERE in this expanse of space. I am surrounded by mountains. It is hot and the sun is drying out my skin that is stretched like a hide over me. I am bathing in the stench of a dairy in Utah in June and the bugs are crawling up my legs. I am somewhere foreign. I am somewhere familiar. I am where text meets sweat.

In 1911, twelve Jewish men arrived in Utah to establish a Jewish agricultural settlement. For some of the colonists, the colony represented a socialist utopia or a building block in a broader program of labor-oriented Zionism. For others, the colony was a practical escape from the overcrowding of tenement life and low pay of sweatshop work. Through the Yiddish press and word of mouth, the colony’s reputation grew. Just over a year later, the colony was home to 156 settlers, by 1914, 200. But by 1915, the colony dissolved, the colonists dispersed. Today, all that remains of Clarion is the foundations of a couple buildings, a small Jewish cemetery, a display on Main Street in Gunnsion, texts and memories.

I first learned about Clarion while doing research on the Los Angeles Yiddish Culture Club’s periodical Kheshbn. Isaac Friedland was its original editor; born in Zhitomir in 1884, he arrived in New York in 1906. Friedland first came west as one of the original settlers of Clarion in 1911. In 1949, he published Roy-erd (Virgin Soil), a collection of his memories from Clarion and California.

I became fascinated with the improbability of it: Who were these Jews who went to be reborn in the American desert? How did they feel when they arrived? What chances of history brought them to this place? What were their dreams? Where did their dreams go?

Robert Goldberg’s Back to the Soil is the only book-length history of Clarion that has been published in English. The colony was organized by Benjamin Brown, an immigrant from Odessa who came to America in 1900. Brown lived in Philadelphia with his sister, vacillating between peddling and farming. By 1909, he started organizing a Back to the Soil movement among Philadelphia Jews. Although he considered himself a “theoretical socialist,” he advocated for a settlement that would operate as a collective in the marketplace, but consist of privately owned farms with their own livestock. He insisted that the settlement be in the West, where they could afford a large plot of land and there would be less temptation for settlers to return east. Goldberg paints Brown as tempestuous, impatient, a poor planner and unobservant, character flaws that would have a significant role in the undoing of the colony. 1 1 Robert Goldberg, Back to the Soil (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987) 43-44.

The colony was promoted in the Yiddish press and through social networks. Brown published Far Vus Nit Mir (Why not we?) in Chaim Zhitlowsky’s journal Dos Naye Lebn in April 1909. His letter promised agricultural opportunities for Jewish colonists and the success that returning to the soil had brought to other ethnic groups. Through self promotion and word of mouth, the Jewish Agricultural and Colonial Society would come to have branches in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. The project appealed to a wide range of people: socialists, Labor Zionists, anarchists, union leaders and those seeking an escape from the oppressions of urban life. Each conceived of the colony in their own image.

Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf of Philadelphia, a supporter of Back to the Land movements, recommended that Brown and his colleagues investigate Salt Lake City as an option. Krauskopf knew supportive Jews living in SLC, and he believed that Jews and Mormons had solidarity as persecuted peoples. At the same time that the Jewish colonists were seeking land, the state government was promoting a “sell Utah” campaign. The colonists were able to purchase land on favorable terms: 6,085 acres for $46.50 an acre, with only a small portion of the payment due up front. Clarion was settled in stages, with twelve men heading out first to prepare the land and build shelters.

Colonization proved more challenging than any of the settlers imagined. In April of 1912, the colonists constructed a cistern under the supervision of Isaac Herbst, yet the very night it was filled with water it burst. 2 2 Goldberg, 78. The first harvest in 1912 was disastrous, a loss of $14,250 in financial and labor losses. 3 3 Goldberg, 84. Despite these initial setbacks, the colony continued to grow, and in 1912 the colony entered its second stage of settlement. Wives and children arrived and the land was divided into individual forty-acre lots. The colonists hoped that individual self interest would intensify the colonial effort, and that the coming year would bring more gains than losses.

Yet, Goldberg writes, “Farming and colonization had been attempted in a harsh environment hardly amenable to success. Human error had compounded these natural defects to besiege the colony and make life difficult.” 4 4 Goldberg, 88. Rather than an intensification of the colonial effort, the division of land led to a sense of disunity, highlighted by conflicts over education and religion. Brown grew more defensive and erratic in his decision making, his tumultuous leadership caused some families to leave. Furthermore, the colony was perennially short on resources: Brown and Herbst’s fundraising was insufficient, and after being rebuffed by the Jewish Agricultural Society for funding, they turned to the leaders of the Jewish community in Salt Lake City. The leaders of SLC (Yahudim) demanded a dissolution of the colony and an end to Clarion’s collective features—when their “capitalistic [re]orientation” failed, they issued a final temporary loan of $2,500. 5 5 Goldberg, 121. Owing more than $57,400 to the Board of Land Commissioners of Utah, the colonists were left with no other choice than to liquidate the colony. While a few families stayed behind, most accepted train tickets from the Yehudim and departed by train to Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia or New York.

Goldberg argues that the colony failed due to lack of farming experience among the colonists, poor environmental conditions, insufficient capital, weak morale, and the existence of viable alternatives for the colonists. It’s true. Most of the colonists had very little agricultural experience; those who had any such training were used to plowing the fertile lands of the East Coast, they were entirely unfamiliar with irrigation farming in the West. The land at Clarion was unforgiving. There was little rain, the Piute Canal which had been promised upon their arrival was not finished until 1918. The canal would divert water from a reservoir in Sevier County north to Sanpete County, where Clarion was located. Even once the canal was complete, it would not carry enough water to support the colony. Early winters shortened the growing season. The colony was perpetually underfunded; the Jewish Agricultural Society refused to associate with the Clarion colony due to its unstable financial structure. And while many of the colonists were eager to leave the poor conditions of East Coast slums, the harsh realities in Clarion prompted many to return to urban life. From the outside, the colony seems at best a blip in the historical record, at worst a profound failure. Yet for the colonists, their experiences at Clarion were deeply transformative and would impact the course of their lives. In the case of Isaac Friedland, his experience at Clarion shaped his career as a writer and his vision as editor of Kheshbn.

After Clarion collapsed, Friedland moved further West to Los Angeles where he remained the rest of his life. In the 1920s, he was involved in two Yiddish modernist journals there: Zunland and Pasifik. He was a member of the LA Yiddish Culture Club from its beginning in 1926, and served as editor of Kheshbn from 1946-1966. As editor of Kheshbn, Friedland promoted “a California colored” Yiddish literature, and used the space of Kheshbn to promote local Yiddish writers and their work.

In his own work, Friedland is in direct dialogue with the canon of American literature. Friedland often alludes—directly and indirectly—to its klasikers: Walt Whitman, Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller. His stories are set west of the Mississippi: Berkeley, Carmel, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Utah. Friedland weaves his experience as a western colonist into his experience as a Jew, and biblical and folkloric intertextuality characterizes his work. As a colonist at Clarion, he watched a utopia crumble, and as a Yiddish writer, he portended the threat to linguistic heritage and community. His lived experiences negated his visions; in his writing he wrestles with both his anxieties and hopes. Utopia lives in Friedland’s writing, both in his fantastic imagining of the Western environment and his enactment of Yiddishland on the frontier. 6 6 For more on frontier mythology, see James Grossman, “Introduction,” and Patricia Nelson Limerick, “The Adventures of the Frontier in the Twentieth Century,” The Frontier in American Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). For more on Yiddishland, see Jeffrey Shandler, “Imagining Yiddishland: Language, Place and Memory.” History and Memory 15 (1) 2003: 123-149.

The transformative power of nature is a ubiquitous motif in Friedland’s writing, echoing the transformative impact that Clarion and its environs had. In Roy-erd, “nature” transforms the landscape in ways unimagined: summer becomes winter, mountains turn into sphinxes, beautiful rivers are but a mirage. The natural world also transforms the colonists as they pass through it: endless rapture, spontaneous singing, nearly religious adulation and praise. In Friedland’s writings, nature is never static; it is active and dynamic, on the edge of personification.

I visited Clarion in the summer of 2016, just after college graduation. This was a transitional moment for me, as arrival in the Utah desert was for the Clarion colonists. While my return to the soil was not through my labor, during this trip I made pointed efforts to engage with the earth in new ways. I waded in the Virgin River, I swam through reeds in the Quail Creek reservoir, and I felt the unforgiving soil of the Gunnison River Valley. As we learn from this land, we must remember the legacy of violence that allows me to tell this story. This land, a place of ongoing occupation, belongs to the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah and their five constituent bands. The Koshareem Band of Paiutes claims small reservations in Sevier County, south of Sanpete County where Clarion was located. In Sanpete County, there are no recognized claims to indigenous lands. The Paiute are still struggling to claim land and water rights in a place that has always been their home. 7 7 For more on the Paiute, see Logan Hebner and Michael Plyler. Southern Paiute: A Portrait. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2010).

In the remainder of this article, I connect my experience of the Clarion site to Isaac Friedland’s evocations of the space in Di nesie in di berg (The Journey in the Mountains) from Roy-erd (Virgin Soil), paying attention to the transformative power of nature and the particularities of the Gunnison River Valley. 8 8 Isaac Friedland, “Di nesie in di berg” (The Journey in the Mountains), in Roy-erd (Virgin Soil), (Los Angeles: I. Friedland Bukh Komitet, 1949): 27-30. Translations by Erin Faigin.
Alternating between our two voices, I echo Friedland’s vision for a California Yiddish literature and highlight the transcendent power of place. Both Friedland and I reconstructed our experiences at Clarion through the medium of memory and literature, reclaiming history-making as an interpretive endeavor.

Clarion is only two hours north of Zion National Park, so I decided to extend my road trip for a few more days and check it out. I booked a cabin in Monroe, Utah, about forty minutes west of Gunnison, or two hours south of Salt Lake City, and I dropped a note to Professor Robert Goldberg asking for advice.

Professor Goldberg told me, “When you go to clarion, be sure to stop at the historical display on clarion on gunnison’s main street. When you go to the clarion site, go to the large dairy farm and ask for directions to the small cemetery.”

I went to the historical display on Main Street. Three bold Stars of David stood in stark relief against the backdrop of a monolithic Mormon town. In 1910, the Gunnison Gazette read, “JEWS HERE.” In 2016, JEWS HERE printed on three plaques on main street. My partner and I were JEWS HERE on Main Street, too. Our histories and presents are both here, our mutual existences give new meaning to this land.

I went to city hall and asked for the pamphlet on Clarion. The pamphlet on the Jewish colony. I clarify, The Jewish colony here in Gunnison. The clerk doesn’t seem to remember. Minutes later, she finds it. The pamphlet reads, “CLARION: THE UNFORGETTABLE HOPE.”

The pamphlet told me, “Clarion can be reached by driving west from Gunnison on 100 South, following the paved road as it curves south and keep driving south when it turns into a dirt road. At Brown’s dairy (not related to Ben) there is a jog in the road, after which you will be able to see the ruined foundations of the old colony of Clarion.”

I had two sets of directions and one purpose. I drove west on 100 South, I followed the paved road as it curved south and I kept driving south on that dirt road. I arrived at Barex dairy (not related to Ben; Brown and Rex dairies merged at some time since the pamphlet was printed). Where could I ask for directions to the small Jewish cemetery?

There was no office; I was received by a friendly cattle dog. I asked the first person I saw, a worker covered in manure and dirt. He didn’t know where the cemetery was. I asked the second person I saw, another worker covered in sweat and soil. He introduced himself as Jésus and he told me to go “out that way” and “past that green fence.” That’s where I would find the two remaining headstones; there had once been four.

autumn gradually began to reveal itself. here and there, one by one, the leaves on the sparse trees in the valley began to fall. the earth in the early morning was cold and frosty. because one could not manage to do much field work, together we worked around camp: repairing roads, oiling the machines until they were good and loose, so that they wouldn’t rust over winter. others were busy repairing either the dangerous and poor brick roads or the dugouts which surrounded the perimeter of the colony. we needed the roads level and mended. one often needed to travel to the nearest town to buy winter goods and provisions.

around this time, on a clear sunday morning, the entire pioneer group gathered with zek, hek, un shtrik (bags, axes, ropes) to voyage in the mountains, in search of timber. aside from the wood, we wanted to become well acquainted with the hills around, which had been tempting us. to us, groys-shtotishe city folk, the giant and often fog covered mountains were full of secrets and they summoned us with religious bliss and wonder.

the day was wonderfully beautiful and sunny. traveling on the open roads, the autumn sun baked our bare heads. the flaxen wild grass on the flat meadows shined against the radiant sun. a river from afar joyfully smiled at the sunbeams coming down to earth; and the trees silently murmured, as if they were praying.

My small sedan could barely manage the untamed fields on the outskirts of the Barex dairy. We drove in “that” direction; there was no longer any road to follow. Clarion is not registered as a state historic site; there are no markers, and without intention, it would be impossible to find. Even with intention and now three sets of directions, it was still a trek to my destination.

First I drove the wrong way, into a dirt field surrounded by barbed wire. Then the right way, crushing the thick woody groundcover in my path. I parked once we were far enough away from the green fence that we were certain our destination must be close.

When I got out of the car, the environment cruelly embraced me: it was wretchedly hot, the air was pungent and earthy, big unfamiliar bugs flew out of the prickly weeds. Dessicated bovine skeletons were scattered throughout the field, and in a nearby trench there was a heaping pile of recently deceased cows. While I found romance in the dried out skeletons, the haphazard disposal of these fleshy cows, this industrial waste of them, shocked me.

traveling into the narrow valley, between two gigantic mountains, we could not have anticipated what we would see: pink and yellow colored stone mountains, with protrusions and figures carved by nature, as if they were sphinxes artistically rendered by a master-hand. as we went deeper in the narrow valley, we saw more of natures wonders. everything ignited in us an endless rapture; the entire way, our heads looked up at the towering and awe-inspiring beautifully colored mountains. here and there, when we looked down at the sides of the path, our eyes were filled with ragged limbs, from a sheep torn to shreds and devoured by coyotes. such sightings, which were until then completely foreign to us, filled our hearts with a strange quaking and silence…

The headstones were about a five minute walk from my car. They were surrounded on all four sides by waist-high fencing, constructed out of metal pipes and wire. This was to prevent cows from toppling the headstones, which had happened several times, and was presumably the fate of the missing two burial sites. The purpose of the fence was protective; it looked both loving and brutal.

It was hard to reach the headstones. I hopped the fence to the smaller of the two graves, a child’s, and placed a stone on it. I crawled back over then hopped the next fence, into the larger of the two enclosures. I laid a stone on the second grave too, and hopped back out.

This felt like insufficient commemoration. I wanted to plant myself and hold this space with these two graves, I wanted to tell them a story, I wanted to give myself the space to imagine a conversation with them. The heat, the rough terrain, the air were unwelcoming; I had to welcome myself. I sang to them and I read to them and I held their memories in my space for a moment. Then I left them in that unmarked field alone again.

after that, we traveled in a second shallow valley, a sort of corridor to a second row of even taller forested mountains, which enticed us with their enormity. before we arrived at the new mountain range, from far away, by the horizon of the valley, we saw a beautiful “river.” the closer we got to the “river” the further away it seemed until, eventually, it vanished altogether. later, we convinced ourselves that there was no river, only a “mirage,” a natural phenomenon, an optical illusion; a disguised object visible from only far away.

we traveled through the valley into a new mountain range; the bottom of the valley was filled by the last of summer’s warmth. deeper and higher in the forested mountains, we witnessed a strange metamorphosis: summer and winter in one and at the same time. from some distance in the peaks, a winter world revealed itself to us! the mountain tops wore white caps and the shadowed folds of the mountains were covered in snowy cloaks. this phenomenon was strange: we had just been under the shining sun, and we were so warm that we paused for a short rest, and there was no shortage of mosquitos and flies. but now we were ecstatic. the unexpected change in the natural setting became elevated as we approached the peaks of the snowy mountains. suddenly we heard a horrible sound, like thunder from somewhere far, which collected itself in the depths of the mountains and let loose. we were captivated by a joy that knew no limits: khevre sang and sprang as if they were children…

The pamphlet had given us directions to the old foundations of Clarion. By late 1912, 52 structures housed some 156 people. When the colony dissolved, many of the houses were bought or simply taken by the residents of Gunnison and nearby towns. They became sheds, stables, outhouses, and eventually, just wood. Today, one can see the foundations of just two buildings.

I sat on the edge of the foundation and imagined what used to be here. How many people held this space, and how? With joy or with struggle or both? What were their meals like? Did they dream in this space? What were their dreams?

The foundations sat close to each other. In Back to the Soil, Goldberg argues that the colonists built their shelters close to one another to combat isolation and loneliness. They had fled the crowded tenements for forty acres and (shared access to) a mule, but resisted the norms of settlement, staying close to one another, recognizing the value of community.

bi-bi was entirely enraptured: he stood on a felled trunk from a great tree, stretched out his arms to heaven and called out like a prophet to god… if an outsider, a wild stranger, were to pass us by, to him these “cries” and “jumps” would seem religious, as if we were a group of religious wanderers, who came in the forested mountains to pray to their god… an unusual joy filled everyone’s hearts, from the wonderful colorful richness of nature, from the thick-forestation, from the old-stumps of gigantic trees. we were like moths, dwarfed by the enormity around us yet at the same time, we felt the pleasure of a certain superiority, that we were lucky enough to have appreciated such an unusual experience.

when we came back to ourselves, tired, from both the nearly religious surrender and youthful playfulness, the forested mountain was already covered in a twilight blueness, the air around us had already become damp and foggy. over and between the clouds, we saw an image which one cannot easily forget…

traveling out of the mountainous woods, a thick snow accompanied our way back. the wood, which was the purpose of our journey in the mountains, had just barely been collected. our roads were half empty. but our hearts were filled with song and joy—a joy that was carefree, without the burden of tomorrow… 8 8 Isaac Friedland, “Di nesie in di berg” (The Journey in the Mountains), in Roy-erd (Virgin Soil), (Los Angeles: I. Friedland Bukh Komitet, 1949): 27-30. Translations by Erin Faigin.

As our day came to a close, I found myself at the foundations of Clarion with more questions than answers. I would never know what the colonists dreamt, how the valley held their voices in song, what their gardens looked like. But I knew how different this land must have felt to them: my experience of the dry and abrasive land at Clarion stood in stark contrast to my memory of the verdant lushness of the Belarusian countryside. I could only imagine how alone they felt, or perhaps, how strong a sense of community they developed. Back in my car, Clarion would become further and further away, spatially and temporally. As the path to the Clarion of my memory becomes farther away, the sun still shines on the foundations of Clarion and those the colony laid to rest.

Clarion’s invisibility had been part of its magic to me, but retelling and sharing this story has been an equal joy. I know that there are more stories like Clarion waiting to be told. As Yiddishists, we can’t be afraid of our local archives, or assume that they won’t hold meaning for us. Yiddish speakers were there and we are here, we need to tell their stories and hold their spaces.

If I sound idealistic or trite, I may well be. Friedland’s stories are often simple and overly hopeful, and while this may seem naive, considered in the context of pogroms, poverty, and a failed agriculture experience, naiveté seems like a survival strategy. As I have explored my feelings around Clarion, I have let this approach inform my thinking, not being wary of utopian ideals, but embracing them as part of this space.

This summer, I drove through Utah again, back through Gunnison. I didn’t stop at Clarion, Mom’s Diner in downtown Salina had closed, and I’m not sure if Brown or Rex still own Barex dairy. Like Isaac Friedland, I was passing through Utah on the precipice of a new life: in my case, graduate school, and like the founders of Clarion, a new home, a new state. But I felt grounded in the beauty surrounding me, an environment that was strange and slightly familiar, the texture and form of the red rock mountains of southern Utah. The Gunnison River Valley holds new and old beginnings, failed visions of utopia and my meek hopes for the future. For all the valley holds, its colonists and travelers are not permanent, it is a place that one passes through; for minutes, hours, or years. The tension between the permanence of this land and the impermanence of our shared experiences reminds me of how vividly utopian ideas exist and how fragile they are.

Faigin, Erin. “Where Text Meets Sweat: Reading Yiddish Utopia in the Utah Landscape.” In geveb, December 2017:
Faigin, Erin. “Where Text Meets Sweat: Reading Yiddish Utopia in the Utah Landscape.” In geveb (December 2017): Accessed May 26, 2024.


Erin Faigin

Erin Faigin is a PhD student in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.