Don't tread on me

Folk singer Peter Yarrow is taking his peacenik message to the schoolyards.

Peter Yarrow 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Peter Yarrow 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
St. Louis - Peter Yarrow wants to make something clear: "Puff the Magic Dragon" is not a song about marijuana. And he should know. Yarrow co-wrote the nostalgic ballad as a student at Cornell University before teaming up with Noel Paul Stookey and Mary Travers to turn it into one of Peter, Paul and Mary's most beloved hits. It is, Yarrow insists, about the lost innocence of childhood. In the song, Puff the Magic Dragon and little Jackie Paper frolic in the autumn mist of a land called Honah Lee until one gray night Jackie Paper doesn't come. While dragons live forever, the lyrics tell us, not so little boys. So Yarrow informs his audience at a performance this summer that despite the connections others might have made between the name of the song and its origins in the 1960s, "It's not about drugs. It's about getting bar mitzvaed." You see, he says, "Jackie Paper grew up and he became bar mitzva. And at that point everybody said it's time to do away with childish things. You have to start dealing with life... One day he just knew he had to perform many acts, many mitzvas. He became so involved in that, that that's what Puff's about." The explanation, which Yarrow admits is fanciful, still elicits a warm response of laughter and cheers from the members of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education for whom he is performing. At his earnest behest, scores of the Jewish educators in the audience - both those old enough to have caught "Puff" when it first hit the airwaves and those who only learned it from their parents - have come on stage to join Yarrow in his rendition of the classic tune. He hugs and kisses and poses for photos with as many of them as he can, all while filling them in on the deeper meaning of his words. Yarrow has come here to use his ageless music to return the CAJE crowd to both the innocence and memories of youth. But Yarrow knows that not all youth is innocent, not all memories happy. So he has also come to give these educators a curriculum drawing on music and activism that aims to create a positive learning environment for young students. Though his anti-bullying message is a universal one, his approach is one that he believes particularly resonates with - and can be augmented by - the Jewish community. Yarrow, still joyful and energetic at 69, has long used folk music to reach people, as his group took center stage throughout the protest movement in the 1960s, including an appearance as part of the March on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963. And Yarrow, wearing a light blue T-shirt, faded jeans and sneakers to his performance, still radiates folksiness, approachability and an abiding faith in the power of music to unite and uplift those he gathers around him. "He does love it," says Yarrow's friend Mark Weiss of the music he plays, "but he also loves it because of what it can do, that music can move people. He's a reminder of that." The CAJE audience is certainly ecstatic about his appearance and the personal touch he provides; after meeting him the emcee gushes excitedly, "I think I'm going to pass out!" But Weiss, who has accompanied Yarrow to the CAJE event, means it more in the sense of the political activism which has always informed Yarrow's music. "Now," Weiss says, "he sees it as a much bigger effort - and different and bigger effort - to help people get along." Weiss is working with Yarrow as the education director at Operation Respect, the formal name of the anti-bullying program Yarrow founded. "Hate starts, war starts, Holocaust starts with very young children, who say, 'We're not going to play with you.' It starts with ridicule, it starts with ostracism, it starts with bullying," Yarrow states. "The Anti-Defamation League says, and I believe it, if we can stop the cycle in the early years, before children have bought into it, we have a chance to build a different kind and sense of community." So after discovering the song "Don't Laugh at Me," Yarrow helped turn it into the centerpiece of the anti-bullying curriculum. The song packs an emotional punch on its own, with the refrain, "I'm fat, I'm thin, I'm short, I'm tall/I'm deaf, I'm blind, hey aren't we all/Don't laugh at me. Don't call me names/Don't get your pleasure from my pain/In God's eyes we're all the same/Someday we'll all have perfect wings." Weiss, who's listened to it many, many times, reports that "invariably when people hear the song, they cry." But the curriculum goes beyond the song to include lesson plans, a teacher's guide and detailed activities. One, for instance, has children perform a skit learning how to use "I statements" so they can express how they feel without putting down others. In another game, students play musical chairs - except they need to make sure all their peers get seats instead of get excluded. "The most important thing we need to give our children, who are so challenged in this world today, is a sense of their worth, their empowerment. Let them grow up in an atmosphere of love and respect, free of bullying," Yarrow tells the crowd at CAJE before launching into "Don't Laugh at Me." In the version he sings, he tweaks the words to say, "I'm black, I'm white and I am proud. I'm Jewish, Christian, I'm Muslim, I'm Buddhist." It's an appropriate change considering that after years of implementing the Operation Respect program in nonsectarian schools in America, Yarrow recently decided to bring it to religious institutions. "We want to bring it to the faith-based communities where we have a lot of embrace and traction already," Yarrow explains to The Jerusalem Post ahead of his musical set, discussing the ways the curriculum can connect with Jewish teachings and values. "Being a mensch, what does it mean?" he asks by way of example. "To accept differences, to stand up in the face of bullying and not be a bystander - that's being a mensch." NOWADAYS, THE Jewish connection is a natural one for Yarrow to make, but it wasn't always that way. Yarrow's mother, both a schoolteacher and a Jew, brought her son up to be suspicious of organized religion. "She had the odd idea that religion can sometimes cause people to be bellicose, to persecute others," he recalls, "but she was Jewish... non-observant but Jewish." Though he became more aware of his Jewish sensibilities as he grew older, he still had enough doubts about his bona fides to hesitate when asked to write a Hanukka song to be included at a holiday concert in the early '80s. "I said, 'I can't. It would be wrong. I don't have the credentials. I don't have the background. I don't have the history.'" On the other had, "I understand that being Jewish is a very personal thing and you can have as much observance in your life as is comfortable and still be a Jew." At the same time, he thought, "I'm not going to write a black song about slavery. I'm not black and I don't know that experience. [In the same way] I have a very limited [Jewish] experience." But then again, he posited, "Who wants to say that a person who ethnically feels the importance of Judaism but hasn't been given the trappings is not a person who can speak about this from a Jewish perspective?" An observer who watched this process finally told him that his internal debate sprang straight from the pages of the Talmud. He told Yarrow: "This discussion makes you as Jewish as you can be. Go write your song!" Yarrow resolved to pen the song, but his personal dialectic still wasn't settled because he felt uneasy about what he would write given his distress over the recent reports of the Sabra and Shatilla massacres. The result was one of the most popular Hanukka songs of the modern era, "Light One Candle." In it was a cautionary verse: "Light one candle for the strength that we need/To never become our own foe/And light one candle for those who are suffering/Pain we learned so long ago/Light one candle for all we believe in/That anger not tear us apart/And light one candle to find us together/With peace as the song in our hearts." It was, in fact, through taking a stand on Israeli politics that he says he "became Jewish in a really deep sense." Invited on a trip with Peace Now, he visited Jordan, Gaza and Damascus as well as Israel. "I saw stuff you don't want to see," he recounts. "That's when I became Jewish - I said, 'Not in my name.' I came back and I became active in Peace Now." The frustrations of that trip haven't kept him from making repeat visits. Just this year he returned to help bring Operation Respect to Israel. He's under no illusions that the curriculum, which is also being translated into Arabic to distribute to Palestinians, will solve the enmity between the two groups and teach the two peoples how to make peace. "That's not up to us," he says. But he maintains that the conditions of stress and violence and trauma that Israeli and Palestinian children live under make programs like this one that much more valuable. "What this curriculum [does] is to help create an environment in which kids can learn, they can focus," he says. "The most important thing you can do so that people can teach and kids can learn... is acceptance of each other and nonviolent conflict resolution." He concludes, "All kids deserve to grow up in an atmosphere of acceptance and love and not live in fear of emotional and physical violence. That's what we're doing." IT'S NOT JUST a message he delivers through the Operation Respect curriculum book, CD and video, but one he communicates personally on trips to institutions that are implementing the program. This summer he went to the Reform-affiliated Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, before heading to the CAJE event. "Peter Yarrow, the day that he came was one of the most amazing days we had at camp. He's such a mensch [and] a wonderful teacher," says Louis Bordman, Eisner Camp's director. "He really gave of himself." With his staff, Bordman introduced the Operation Respect curriculum this past year and saw it fit easily into the Jewish framework of the camp. "In Judaism we are commanded to treat our world and our people with reverence," he says. That lesson as taught through Operation Respect and other anti-bullying programming employed by the camp created a more cohesive and connected camp environment, according to Bordman. Bordman told Yarrow about the exceptional extent of that cohesiveness during the singer's visit. He related that a child at the camp suffering from an autistic disorder had become so disruptive that the director decided to ask his parents to take him home. While the parents were waiting, Bordman went to their son's cabin to tell his fellow campers that he had to leave. To his surprise, the campers responded that it must be their fault that their bunkmate behaved badly and that they weren't going to let him go. "That's not Jewish. He can't go home. He's one of us," they told Bordman, who recalls that, "The kids were crying. Our staff was crying. I was crying." In the end, the parents went home without their son, who spent the rest of the month at camp. In Bordman's assessment, having learned the Respect curriculum gave the campers a vocabulary and a sense of how it is Jewish to be inclusive and not bully others. Sometimes that curriculum can serve as guidance for educators not just in their programming, but in their own homes. Before the CAJE performance, Yarrow gave a seminar on Operation Respect for CAJE teachers. One of them was Gail Greenberg, who works for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. She was impressed by the curriculum because it "creates an atmosphere of respect" and makes students and teachers proactive. While a lot of other anti-bullying curricula are addressed to teachers, this one involves direct kid participation. But Greenberg was also inspired by Yarrow's words and presence because her own son had been the victim of vicious bullying when he was younger. After Yarrow's presentation she thanked him and told him of her son's experience. "Peter looked at me and said, 'Get him on the phone,'" she relates. "My jaw dropped to the floor." Yarrow was being rushed off via golf cart to a sound check, so he pulled Greenberg aboard with him while she called her son Seth, a high-school student then on summer break. Once he was on the phone, Yarrow sang Seth a slightly revised version of his famous song: "Puff the Magic Dragon lives by the sea, and doesn't put up with any crap from any bully." The encounter, Greenberg says, still evokes a smile from Seth like nothing else. "It truly, truly made a difference in my son's life, and in mine." While her son has largely made peace with his past experiences, Greenberg's still grateful for the extra help supplied by Yarrow. "If Peter Yarrow says it's okay, it's okay," she says. "If he says it's cool, then it's cool."