‘Goin’ down to Yasgur’s farm’

The husband and wife duo that authored ‘Max Said Yes! The Woodstock Story’ will be the guests of honor at this week’s Woodstock Revival festival in Jerusalem.

Yasgur 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yasgur 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was one of the most memorable speeches in a long line of historic moments that took place at the three-day Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, the fabled counterculture watershed which is celebrating its 41st anniversary this month.
“I’m a farmer. I don’t know how to speak to 20 people at a time, let alone a crowd like this. But I think you people have proven something to the world; a half a million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and God bless you for it.”
The speaker was the late Max Yasgur, a Catskills dairy farmer who endeared himself to hippies everywhere and entered American history by allowing the festival to take place on his land in Bethel, New York.
According to Yasgur’s cousin, Abigail Yasgur, and her husband, Joseph Lipner, the authors of the illustrated children’s book Max Said Yes! The Woodstock Story, there was an intrinsic Jewish theme to Yasgur’s decision to welcome the Woodstock Nation to his fields over the opposition of many of his upstate New York neighbors and local officials.
“Max wasn’t a traditional Jew, but he was based on an Abraham and Sarah model of welcoming strangers to his land. Was that a direct connection for him from the Torah? I have no idea,” Yasgur told The Jerusalem Post from her Los Angeles home. “When Joe and I teach the book to young audiences, we talk about the value of generosity and welcoming strangers.”
Lipner, an attorney and a fiction writer, seems more convinced that Yasgur was acting upon the longstanding Jewish tradition of hahnasat orhim. “It just seemed like the paradigm of what he was doing. Opening up his tent, as it were, when everyone else was shutting theirs down seems like an intrinsic Jewish value,” he said.
THE COUPLE, whose book was published last year, are going to be graciously welcomed themselves this week, when they arrive in Israel as featured guests at the second annual Woodstock Revival taking place on Thursday night at Kraft Stadium in Jerusalem.
“We’re looking forward to seeing what it’s all about.
There’s a certain tikkun olam/Messianic element to the Woodstock generation and Israel is a place where these ideas are very much alive,” said Lipner, adding that he, Yasgur, and their three children engage in an observant lifestyle in Los Angeles.
“We understand that there are in the expatriate community a bunch of ex-hippies and current hippies and it’s great. There are certainly people in Israel working towards a more beautiful and complete world. And I think it’s very fitting that there be a Jerusalem Woodstock festival.”
“It’s not just great for expats and old hippies,” added Yasgur, who works as a librarian. “It’s great for young families with children that want to instill those values within their lives – not to mention the music.” According to Yasgur, those values outline in her book include the message of being open to ideas and opportunity that’s available, as exemplified by her cousin’s actions.
“I think the big message of the book is the power of ‘yes’ and the opportunity that’s before you. It’s funny because it makes me think of the drug campaign in America, which has always been ‘just say no.’ “There’s a part in the book with a beautiful illustration by our illustrator Barbara Mendes, of Max, smoking a pipe, listening to kids with his arms folded, in his plaid shirt and khaki pants. And you see him listening to these people who are shorter than him, because they’re younger, and opening up to the possibility of, in this case, three days of peace and music.
And he said ‘yes,’ instead of ‘no,’ like every other farmer. That’s a message – open, listen to kids, big ideas.”
YASGUR GOT the idea for the book after years of being asked if she was related to Max Yasgur, who was further immortalized beyond the film in Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock,” popularized by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, with its opening lyrics “Goin’ down to Yasgur’s farm.”
“For 41 years, whenever I used a credit card or was introduced to someone, they always asked ‘are you related to the guy who did Woodstock?’” she said. “Prompted by that interaction with people who had strong feelings about Max Yasgur and strong memories around Woodstock and what it did in their lives, I could proudly say ‘yes, he’s my cousin.’ We even named our son Max in his memory.”
Rather than focusing on a standard book about the farmer and his place in history, Yasgur decided to use her background in children’s literature gleaned from her master’s degree in library science to write for a child’s viewpoint.
And she found an enthusiastic collaborator in her husband Lipner, who she described as “a writer, who’s a fine lawyer.” Unfortunately, book publishers were less than taken with the idea of Woodstock for children.
“We got tons of rejections – they kept saying, ‘don’t you want to do a teen or adolescent book about Woodstock?’” recalled Yasgur. “But the dream was always about this beautifully illustrated tale about Max and how Woodstock came to be. And that’s what we created.”
The result was exactly what they envisioned, including simple rhymes from Max’s perspective and engaging illustrations from Mendes, a former contemporary of underground comics pioneer R. Crumb who evolved into a celebrated Jewish-themed artist and who, according to Yasgur and Lipner, helped imbue the “hippie” element in the book.
One of the conundrums facing the authors was how to portray one of the defining moments of the hippie movement, which included plenty of freedom surrounding drugs and sex, in a G-rated environment.
“We’re both observant, so it’s a little bit funny when people say to us, ‘you’re writing a book about Woodstock? The sex the drugs, what that about?’” laughed Lipner.
“I will say that because it’s a children’s book, there’s no sex, no drugs. Yet it still stays very true to the spirit of Woodstock. There are muted references to ‘incense wafting through the air.’ “There some stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor, a little too racy for the young audience to whom we were gearing this book,” added Yasgur.
The directness and innocence of Max Said Yes has made it a favorite in the children’s library circuit in the US, as Yasgur and Lipner have traversed the country for book readings and lessons at schools and libraries. But it’s not just kids who show up for the readings.
“People that come to hear us that have been at Woodstock.
When we’re reading, their eyes will well up with tears thinking about their time of three days of peace and love,” said Yasgur.
“There are these values that we really think were so powerful – there was a beautiful dream in the Woodstock days and we wanted to encapsulate that in a book so the next generation would remember and know,” said Lipner.
THERE WERE plenty of children at last year’s inaugural Woodstock Revival, a convivial affair conceived by American Football in Israel president Steve Leibowitz as a fundraiser for the football league. The six-hour show turned out to be much more, with stellar acts like Lazer Lloyd and Geva Alon bringing 60s-era artists like Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young to life before a laid-back, appreciative crowd.
“The festival was such a success last year that everyone begged us to do it again,” said Leibowitz, who together with promoter Carmi Wurtman, has built another attractive lineup for this year’s show, including Lloyd once again back with his band Yood offering Hendrix (can he top last year’s feedbackdrenched version of “Hatikva?”), Yael Dekelbaum playing the music of Janis Joplin, Tree paying tribute to The Who, a Woodstock-era medley by Chicago blues man Mark Rashkow, and new immigrant Clare Dane and her band Graffiti taking a turn at the best of Led Zeppelin.
Yasgur and Lipner hope to arrange a “read aloud” of the book in between the musical acts in order to share Max Said Yes with the Jerusalem crowd. While the attendees will likely treat Yasgur and Lipner like visiting heroes, the real hero, they said, was Max Yasgur, who died in 1973 after sacrificing his farm and his standing in the community for the festival.
“It is true that he couldn’t reclaim his farmland after that many people had been sitting on it and using it like that. However, having spoken to his wife Miriam, I can tell you with certainty that he didn’t regret what he did,” said Yasgur.
“In terms of sticking his neck out, his milk and farm were boycotted by local people who used to buy from him after he decided to do this. He stuck his neck out in a very real way for something he believed in doing.”
“He was an independent thinker,” added Lipner, “even though his thoughts were not particularly liberal.
He was a supporter of the Vietnam War for example. But he really believed in every individual’s right to speak the way they wanted, act the way they wanted.”
While the Yasgur family was not particularly close (“My parents met Max and Miriam twice in their lifetime – we were separated by a full state – us in western Pennsylvania and Max up in the Catskills,” said Yasgur), they took family pride in what he did at Woodstock.
“I think the first my family heard about it was when it was on the front page of the New York Times. And it brought a smile to everyone’s face – ‘look what Max is doing!’ And what he did was to say ‘yes’ when everyone else said ‘no.’”