Peter Yarrow has a hammer

And he's hoping to use it to hammer out hatred between kids all over the Holy Land.

Peter Yarrow 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Peter Yarrow 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Mention the names Peter, Paul and Mary to most inhabitants of the western world over the age of 50 and the most likely response would probably be something along the lines of: "Oh yes, the folk trio that did 'Puff the Magic Dragon.'" While the 1963 number is certainly the band's best-known song, the eponymous members - Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey and Mary Travers - had plenty of other folk hits during the Sixties. They also got heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement, performing during the historic march to Washington DC led by Martin Luther King in 1963, as well at numerous peace/anti-Vietnam events. In the intervening almost half-century, Yarrow has kept up his social activism and is now in Israel for a week, to perform a couple of gigs and mostly to spread the word about his long-running Operation Respect program, which aims to increase understanding and tolerance among schoolchildren by promoting civility and conflict resolution. According to Yarrow, the program has been highly successful in the United States over the past eight years. "There are no easy solutions, either to regional violence in the Middle East, or to violence at schools or in society," he says. "At school, it starts with children bullying and ridiculing and pushing others away. Operation Respect aims to get past racial hatred, and past violence toward the gay and lesbian community, too." The 70-year-old Yarrow, who arrived here on Sunday with the sponsorship of the US Embassy, has a packed schedule for his brief sojourn here that would have someone half his age gasping for breath. His first day featured a meeting with a team from the Center for Educational Technology in Ramat Aviv, followed by a recording of the Operation Respect program anthem, "Don't Laugh At Me," in Hebrew and Arabic. The idea is to utilize the recordings, along with Hebrew and Arabic translations of other program material, for use in primary school classrooms up and down the country. Yesterday saw Yarrow visit the Shalva Institute for children with special needs in Jerusalem, and a rehearsal with a choir in Jaffa in the afternoon. On Tuesday, Yarrow will head north to Kibbutz Barkai and Wadi Ara, and he performs at the ZOA House in Tel Aviv in the evening. For the rest of his stay here, add a workshop at Kibbutz Haviva, a "Don't Laugh At Me" instructional session in Jaffa, a gig at the Jerusalem Cinematheque and a performance at the US Ambassador's residence, plus a concert in Acre with David Broza - and you get the idea that Yarrow isn't exactly letting up. "Peter is a legend," says Broza. "We have met several times in the States, when I played at the Kerrville Folk Festival [in Texas, which Yarrow helped to found]. But to meet him here, on my home patch, that's very moving. He does wonderful work." "IF YOU teach kids early on, you can make a difference, there is the possibility of changing things," says Yarrow, adding that his Jewish upbringing comes into play here, too. "Many years ago, I realized my Jewishness gave me a sense of carrying on the traditions I had articulated in the songs. Jewishness means to live according to justice, and that's a burden; that means we have to form our own set of morality and values, and live by them." The Media Line's Felice Friedson wrote an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post last October about Yarrow and the Operation Respect program, and that provided the impetuous to bring him to Israel, since someone at the US Embassy saw the article. The Media Line was highly instrumental in facilitating Yarrow's trip and implementing Operation Respect. Yarrow's work in the States and elsewhere around the world in engendering mutual acceptance in young children has brought him a slew of awards over the years, but it is the practical fruits of his labors that interest him most. "There are 150,000 children in the US who stay home because they are afraid to go to school. We want to help those kids and others around the world. It is the kids who are the true agents of change. You can't teach peace per se, but you can address the things that fuel hatred. As we Jews say: 'Let someone be a mensch first, everything else will work its way out.'" On the musical legend front, Yarrow also took a moment to dispel a commonly held take on the song that made Peter, Paul and Mary a household name all those years ago. "'Puff the Magic Dragon' was never about drugs. I think Newsweek ran some story about references to psychedelic stuff in it. It is a song about lost innocence and nothing else." Extraneous interpretations apart, doesn't Yarrow ever get fed up singing the song with which he has been most readily identified for 46 years? "Of course not. It's a lovely song and, yes, I will definitely be performing it this week in Israel."