What does a story told by a Jewish rabbi late last month at Chautauqua, N.Y., have to do with the North Carolina Board of Elections?
First a word about Chautauqua. Founded in 1874, it is the host to more than 100,000 visitors each summer. They participate in a series of lectures about religious, political, and other current topics, and enjoy a rich program of entertainment.
For instance, in the afternoons in the Hall of Philosophy during the week beginning July 29, there were lectures on the theme “What’s So Funny About Religion.” The program explained, “Even religion can have its less serious side, and in this week we will look for a lighter, smiling way to lift one’s heart and mind in the human enterprise that tends to take life and its meaning and purpose very seriously.”
On Tuesday, July 30, Rabbi Bob Alper gave a talk and told a story. Chautauqua praises Alper’s “wonderfully unique material presented in a way that’s intelligent, sophisticated, and 100% clean.”
Alper opened his presentation with stories to illustrate the value of using humor at the beginning of a serious speech.
Here is one of those stories:
Years ago in a small shtetl, a Jewish community and very poor, the communal cow died.
They collected 300 rubles, all the money they could collect, and sent a representative to Moscow to buy a new cow. He came back with 300 rubles and no cow. The cheapest cow was 600 rubles.
What are we going to do? The committee met. They thought, they thought. Finally, they came up with an idea that maybe cows are less expensive in smaller cities.
They sent him off to Minsk. He came back leading a cow.
This cow gave milk like no one ever remembered, amazing amounts of milk, to the point where they said, we need to breed her.
So they got a bull, and brought the bull to the pasture. The cow went to the far end of the pasture. The bull went to the far side of the pasture. The cow went to the east side of the pasture. The bull went to the east side, the cow to the west side the bull….
Nothing was happening.
They went to the wisest man in the village, the rabbi, and they told him what was happening.
He stroked his gray beard, and he thought and he thought. And he said, “Let me ask you a question. This cow, she’s from Minsk, isn’t she?”
“Why yes Rabbi, she is. How did you know that?”
“Heh, Heh,” [the rabbi said,] “my wife’s from Minsk.”
On the same day, Rabbi Alper was accepting a warm and appreciative reaction from the audience at Chautauqua, Elections Board Chair Bob Cordle was getting a very different reaction after telling essentially the same story, set in Ireland and Wales rather than eastern Europe, to a conference of elections officials.
Cordle has led an exemplary lifetime of unselfish public service. As his longtime friend and admirer, I have followed his laudable record of goodness and strength. To have his story characterized in the news as “a lengthy joke about cows, sex and women,” “sex joke,” “off-color joke,” “dirty” and even “misogynistic,” was unfair as was having him summarily forced out on the basis of these inaccurate characterizations of the story he told.
Different people may come to different opinions about whether such a story is appropriate for Chautauqua or for an election board’s conference. But having one storyteller embraced in Chautauqua on the same day the other was plummeted in North Carolina is an inexplicable, ironic tragedy for which our state and its leaders owe Cordle a prompt and complete apology.
Note: In 2017, Rabbi Alper and North Carolina native Susan Sparks appeared together at Chautauqua. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, lawyer, and senior minister of the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. That program is available for viewing at
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sunday 11 a.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8 p.m. and other times. To view prior programs: http://video.unctv.org/show/nc-bookwatch/episodes/