With Peace as the Song in Our Heart: Peter Yarrow’s Operation Respect

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Learning to listen is the secret to learning to sing. In his book Never Too Late, educator John Holt described teaching a boy who loved music but was “tone deaf” to sing by having the boy listen to Holt sing a note and then trying to repeat the sound: finding his own voice by learning to listen to another. When people sing together they cannot help but listen to one another. This is the magic that Peter Yarrow would like to bring to children everywhere.

“People say folk music is protest music, but I think it’s music of affirmation,” Yarrow told the audience assembled at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on Friday, April 3. Yarrow’s roots in folk music and social action run deep. The music of Peter, Paul and Mary is not only beloved by generations of children who grew up on Yarrow’s “Puff the Magic Dragon” but is emblematic of a time when people believed that songs could be an instrument of change.

Naïve? Perhaps, but despite the inevitable cynicism provoked by a quick glance at the front page of any newspaper, one cannot deny the achievements of the civil rights movement and others of that era. To quote a Peter, Paul and Mary album, it’s “no easy walk to freedom”, but Operation Respect, the program Yarrow would like to introduce in Israel, indicates a step in the right direction.

Co-directed by Yarrow and Dr. Charlotte Frank, Senior Vice President of McGraw Hill (the company’s sponsorship makes the program available online free of charge), Operation Respect seeks to address the problem of violence in schools through music, developing an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance, where children can feel safe. Since its founding in 2000, the non-profit project has been implemented in over 22,000 schools in the U.S. The curriculum has been translated into several languages and used in schools in Hong Kong, South Africa and Croatia.

Yarrow’s inspiration came from a song – “Don’t Laugh at Me” written by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin, which he heard at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1999. With its straight-forward lyrics, “I’m a little boy with glasses/The one they call a geek”, the song describes familiar people, scenes and feelings, and makes a simple request: “You don’t have to be my friend/But…Don’t laugh at me, don’t call me names/Don’t get your pleasure from my pain.” The song is used as a catalyst to encourage children to explore their own experiences of ridicule or exclusion and help them identify and empathize with the pain of others.

yarrowbigthumb1Yarrow radiates a joyous exuberance and attentiveness to his audience, Friday’s concert becoming a conversation among friends as he invited the children (young and old!) to join him onstage to sing “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Yarrow emphasized the need for a safe school environment to enable learning to take place, saying “Music can make a community in which kids can feel safe, open their hearts.” The children did open their hearts to Yarrow as he talked to them about their thoughts and feelings.

Asking what happens to anger that is not expressed, he was told by one boy, “It happens to me a lot…it’s really hard if you don’t take it out…it’s like something stuck in you. Stuff can happen which you really don’t want to happen.” After hearing “Don’t Laugh at Me” another boy said, “I did see parts that you can see in real life like racism that happens sadly too much too.” Toby Trachtman, aged 18, said, “It definitely relates, especially in Israel where there are Arabs, Jews, Russians, Ethiopians, Americans – we have to work together.”  Trachtman was hopeful about the future, citing his experiences in the Jerusalem Circus (an Abraham Fund initiative) where Jews and Arabs worked alongside one another.

The idea to launch Operation Respect in Israel began when U.S. Embassy officials took note of an op-ed article published simultaneously in Al Quds and The Jerusalem Post by Felice Friedson of Media Line News Agency which mentioned the project. The Embassy saw the potential for a connection between Operation Respect and the Embassy’s ongoing work on co-existence and organized this visit in which Yarrow and Dr. Frank presented the program before different groups of educators and journalists. Dr. Frank described their intention of identifying four to six schools to participate in the program, weaving social and emotional learning throughout the academic subjects through the cooperation of teachers, school principals and parents. Yarrow said, “I hope that in a year or two young people creating songs, poetry, art and drama will come together and have an exchange that will let them share their thoughts and creations.”

When asked how his path in life has been influenced by Judaism, Yarrow spoke of his mother, a teacher who was a member of Planned Parenthood and The Teacher’s Union at a time when those activities could have meant the loss of her job, saying, “You can’t buy your credential of decency or goodness by going to synagogue. You earn your credential of Tikkun Olam (mending the world) by living it.”

Photos by Mordechai Malca: Peter Yarrow talks to 8 year old Netanel Churgin, Peter Yarrow in concert.

2 COMMENTS

  1. “Learning to listen is the secret to learning to sing” such a nice quote to remember. For me, this is the right attitude of a singer that should always be remembered by most of our artists nowadays. Indeed, we can earn someone’s respect if we only have to sing it from the bottom of our heart. A song that comes from the heart gives the right melody of a music.

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