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Legendary singer visits summer camp

Peter Yarrow, legendary singer-songwriter, performed July 12, 2007 at URJ Eisner Camp with an anti-bullying message. (Brian Harris)

Peter Yarrow, legendary singer-songwriter, performed July 12, 2007 at URJ Eisner Camp with an anti-bullying message. (Brian Harris)

GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. – Peter Yarrow had been at Eisner Camp barely an hour before his fingers started strumming the melody to “Puff the Magic Dragon” on his guitar. The campers at this Reform movement summer camp in the heart of the Berkshire Mountains aren’t old enough to recognize him – a few even mistook a visiting reporter for the legendary folk singer – but they know his music, particularly the classic song about the mighty dragon and his departed playmate Jackie Paper.

As he played last week, Yarrow began riffing on the ideas of mutual respect and personal responsibility, using for inspiration the “Puff” lyrics that have frequently been construed – falsely, the composer insists – as a coded reference to marijuana use.

At what point in our life, Yarrow asked, do we start to stand up and take responsibility. A quiet boy named Zack stood up to suggest, tentatively, at the age of bar and bat mitzvah.

“That’s right,” Yarrow said. “When people ask me what ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ is about, I say it’s about being bar/bat mitzvah. Is that the case? No, but it’s a good story.”

Yarrow has lots of good stories to tell after nearly 50 years of performing, the bulk of them as part of the legendary folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. The group played at the March on Washington in 1963, and their music became part of the soundtrack to the social struggles of that decade.

At 69, Yarrow is still fixed on issues of social justice, making him a perfect fit for a Reform movement summer camp.

Though in high school he was a member of the Socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, Yarrow has never been closely associated with Jewish causes. In his meetings with campers at Eisner, however, he went out of his way to couch his account of 1960s activism in the vernacular of tikkun olam, the Jewish shorthand for social justice.

“There’s been a great sense that what is Jewish within us is not just about Jews, but it’s about all people who are suffering enslavement or deprivation of their rights,” Yarrow told the campers on July 12. “When I sang at the March on Washington with Paul and Mary, right before Martin Luther King delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, it was all one thing. We, I, as a human being, as a Jew, as a person of consciousness, had to act Jewishly. And I more than others, like yourself, because in our history we have known slavery and we have known prejudice.”

With guitar in hand, Yarrow sings a little, talks a little, and generously gives hugs and kisses. His message is less spiritual than social and, in keeping with his tie-dyed roots, decidedly counter-cultural. Again and again he assailed society’s willingness to see ridicule and humiliation as the stuff of entertainment. When children internalize that, Yarrow said, the consequences can be disastrous.

Yarrow has had to overcome his experience with humiliation, having been convicted of taking “immoral and improper liberties” with a 14-year-old girl who came to his hotel room after a concert in 1970 and serving three months in prison. His public rehabilitation was helped along 11 years later with a pardon from President Carter, and these days he’s rebuilt his reputation to the point where he can shift his focus from writing songs for the masses to developing educational curricula for the young.

In 2000, Yarrow founded Operation Respect, a New York-based non-profit that works to combat childhood bullying. And though he stresses the consonance of his focus on bullying with his life’s work of political activism through music, he concedes that he has basically given up on adults.

“It says it starts with bullying, it starts with pushing ridicule, making fun of someone, and it builds to racism, prejudice, hatred, war, Holocaust,” Yarrow told the camp’s counselors-in-training, his voice dropping to a whisper. “If we want to interrupt the cycle, you are a critical force in this.”

It is a message that resonates at Eisner Camp, which has waged a seven-year battle against childhood bullying. The camp employs a full-time “inclusion coordinator” and requires campers to sign an anti-bullying pledge, according to the camp’s director, Louis Bordman.

Campers of all ages use the curriculum developed by Operation Respect and know the words to its theme song, “Don’t Laugh At Me,” by
heart. The appearance of the song’s singer sent a buzz through the camp.

“This is one of the most powerful moments we’ve had,” Bordman said.

After Yarrow discovered the song in the late 1990s, he called the man he refers to as “my rabbi,” the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of programming, Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, to report the good news.

“This is what we’ve been talking about,” Kleinman recalled Yarrow telling him. “This is tikkun olam.”

Over the years Yarrow has become close with the rabbi, whom he met at a Jewish folk festival nearly 30 years ago, and regularly attends the Kleinman family’s Passover seder.

After meeting with smaller groups of campers during his afternoon at Eisner, Yarrow capped the day by performing an hourlong set for the entire camp. It included a medley of Peter, Paul and Mary favorites like “Puff” and a poignant rendition of “Some Walls,” whose refrain of “If there’s any hope for love at all/ Some walls must fall” made a fitting backdrop for Yarrow to describe how he once reduced an Israeli soldier manning a checkpoint to tears with his guitar.

But it was Yarrow’s performance of “Don’t Laugh At Me” that brought the 700 campers and counselors to their feet, swaying arm in arm and singing along.

“Thank you so much for standing,” Yarrow told them. “That’s beautiful. You make me feel like I’m at a peace march.”

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