Yarrow enchants children and adults at San Diego Jewish Book Fair
By Gail Feinstein Forman
LA JOLLA, California –When Peter Yarrow walked onto the stage Thursday night, November 12, at the San Diego Jewish Book Fair, the electricity in the air was palpable. He owns the audience even before he starts to sing. And it is not all about the music—but Dayenu, that would be enough.
It is also about his exemplary life of Tikun Olam-his personal mission as one individual to “repair the world” through his activism on behalf of civil rights and the support for the dignity of each individual.
Yarrow lives by his words that “If you’re responsible for being Jewish, then you’re responsible for tzedakah (charity) for everyone and creating a mitzvah for the whole of humankind. If not, you’ve missed the boat of being Jewish.”
Yarrow appeared at The Jewish Book Fair to promote one of his newest endeavors, the children’s book with accompanying audiotape CD, Day Is Done.
The book, based on the song of the same name that he recorded as part of the Peter, Paul and Mary folksinging group in 1969, is a tender embrace of childhood fears and the loving reassurance parents or mentors can provide. The illustrations are rich and compelling – a perfect compliment to the warmth of family story-times.
The book also comes with an audio CD with three songs, Yarrow’s Day Is Done, the traditional, I Know Where I’m Going, and Dona, Dona, Dona, a popular Yiddish folk song.
Yarrow began the Thursday night program by inviting children in the audience to join him on the stage for a lively “Happening!”
The children introduced themselves, pantomimed to song lyrics Yarrow sang, and sung along with a children’s repertoire of popular folk songs. Yarrow also led a rousing version of Puff the Magic Dragon with a new, extended, ending.
But after the children left the stage, Yarrow, alone with his guitar, still after fifty years of performing, completely fills the stage. We meet Peter Yarrow unadorned, the man whose music has rallied people all over the world to
courageously do what must be done for equality and freedom.
Yarrow mesmerized the audience with a haunting rendition of Leaving on a Jet Plane, dedicated to his folksinging colleague Mary Travers, who recently passed away.
He turned to his next song, Don’t Laugh at Me. The song telescopes the negative effects of bullying and hatred while reaching out for acceptance
and love. It is now the anthem of his current heartfelt project, Operation Respect.
“It’s the most important work of my life,” Yarrow stated while on stage, referring to his ten-year old project, Operation Respect, a character development program now in 22,000 elementary schools.
Developed as an outreach attempt to stem the rising tide of bullying in schools and disrespectful public discourse, Yarrow passionately believes that music remains a catalyst for social change by creating a sense of community that is shared when singing together.
Paired with effective strategies for peaceful conflict resolution, the program’s goal is to open the eyes and hearts of children and the tools they need recognize and act upon the world with respecting the dignity of all individuals.
Though on the “book circuit” to promote the children’s book version of Day Is Done, his appearance can be seen as part of a larger whole to provide children with a vision of what a better world could look like by encouraging each individual to contribute his or her part.
Sitting alone on a stool in the center of the stage with his laptop, Yarrow eagerly shared a new development in Operation Respect. He speaks with pride about his groundbreaking innovation of Operation Respect in Israel.
He now has the song Don’t Laugh at Me produced in an audio CD of the song sung separately in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, and then simultaneously in all three languages.
Yarrow played a part it for the audience right off his laptop that night.
He plans to use the program in the Palestinian Authority and in Israeli schools. He is convinced that this program will foster understanding between the children living in these areas and will help create building blocks for peace.
Yarrow is often criticized for his Herculean efforts to rebuild the world from the bottom up with many admonishing his efforts as “Pie in the Sky” illusions- scenarios that are just not possible.
But Yarrow is undeterred. He has seen through his earlier endeavors how the work of just a few could change the course of society, and he soldiers on very much like the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland:
Alice laughed. `There’s no use trying,’ she said `one can’t believe impossible things.’
`I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. `
When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. “
Yarrow’s connections to San Diego go back a few decades and demonstrate a “menchlichness” that goes beyond music in this very surprising, poignant
In 1988, San Diegan Paul Nestor was living in New York and working as a window blind installer. One day, Nestor found himself installing blinds in Peter Yarrow’s New York apartment. After chatting awhile, Nestor mentioned that his mother, Harriet, was struggling with ovarian cancer. Nestor asked Yarrow if he would write a song for his mother to lift her spirits, and he gave Yarrow his phone number.
Yarrow responded that he would be happy to dedicate a song to her, but his songs dealt with social issues, not a person’s health.
So Nestor completed the installation work and left, giving up the idea of Yarrow composing a song for his mother.
Surprisingly, about a month later, Yarrow called Paul and sang him a song over the phone that he had written for Paul’s mother, Harriet, Nestor liked the song, but complained to Yarrow that it wasn’t “personal” enough,” and that ended the conversation.
A few months later, while back in San Diego visiting his mother, a small package arrived for Paul with recycled writing all over it. Apparently, Yarrow was and is an avid recycler and sent Nestor a package with scribbling all over the envelope.
But Nestor was visiting his mother and that took all his attention. He tossed the package aside, unopened, not knowing what it was.
Paul’s brother opened the package and found an audiotape from Peter Yarrow. On the tape, Yarrow explained how the song With Your Face to the Wind had come to be written and also included an acapella rendition of the new song that he had taped in his own apartment.
Luckily, Paul’s whole family, including his mother was able to hear and experience the musical gift of “menchlichnik” from afar.
Though Peter never had the intention of singing the song as part of his repertoire, when he played the song for his 86-year-old mother, she was reduced to tears and said, “This song isn’t just for Harriet. This song is for all of us. You must sing this song for other people.“
Now called Harriet’s Song, the song was recorded on the 1992 Peter, Paul, and Mary album Flowers and Stones, has inspired and lent hope to individuals facing critical health issues.
Over the years, Nestor and Yarrow formed a close friendship and when Nestor related the tragedy of San Diego’s Marla Bennett who had been killed in a terrorist attack in Israel, Yarrow made contact with the Bennett family and performed at Temple Emanu-El in their honor.
Yarrow also has close connections with many individuals in the San Diego School District where Operation Respect is clearly established as a working, dynamic program.
Gail Feinstein Forman is a freelance writer based in San Diego
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