Out and About (Sort of): Chautauqua…continued by Howard Freedlander


If you recall yesterday from the outset of this serious and somber column, bereft of notable humor, I noted the prevalence of culture. One night we attended a ballet performance and the next a symphony presentation by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. A very unsophisticated performing arts lover, as I believe I’ve stated in a previous column, I understand ballet as well as I understand nuclear physics. Yet, “An Evening of Pas de Deux (dancing by two) was magnificent. I just can’t explain why.

Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra

The seamless blending and melding of different instruments under the leadership of a gifted conductor simply confounds my senses–and confirms my lack of musical ability. My reference point, farfetched though it might be, is a professional football team playing at its best when all the parts seem to come together as one powerful masterpiece.

As I think about vacations past, I confess that seven days in Chautauqua compare to no others spent escaping the daily drumbeat of life. I laughed more in seven days than during the past seven years. I attended six consecutive religious services, inspired by a Baptist minister who talked about deep spiritual subjects with a sense of humor that demanded attention and laughter.

Rev. Susan Sparks

Again, I harken back to the delightful musings and message of the Rev. Susan Sparks.

Elvis is not dead. Just ask his followers in more than 500 fan clubs, she alerted us. Sightings abound.

Jesus is not dead if his followers believe in his teachings, Sparks said. And according to this former trial lawyer and stand- up comic turned a Baptist minister on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, Jesus liked to laugh. Hard to believe; he just seemed so serious and driven, blessedly so. Susan Sparks’ source is the Gnostic Gospels of Thomas, which cites several times ‘and the Savior laughed.’

Understanding that most people seek and value proof, Sparks called for faith and belief. She also suggested that Christ may appear in unexpected places, such as in a homeless person or “seeing the face of Christ in a person before seeing the color of the skin.”

Last Thursday afternoon I listened to nearly 45 minutes of 50 Jewish jokes told rapidly and expertly by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Jewish humor, according to Telushkin, focuses on mothers, food, money, argumentativeness, and anti-Semitism, among other easy marks. I thought about the tradition of Jewish humor as embodied in Jackie Mason, Rodney Dangerfield, and Jack Benny.

I thought about my own upbringing. I laugh now about my Jewish mother. Life with her wasn’t always funny, except in retrospect. Her no-nonsense resoluteness could drive her sons crazy.


Rabbi Telushkin told a story about three elderly Jewish women conversing on a bench in Miami bragging about their sons’ utter devotion to them. For the sake of space, I will go immediately to the punchline. After hearing her two friends boast about their beloved sons, the third woman exclaimed that her son visits a therapist three times a week, at $300 an hour–and talks almost primarily about his mother. Rather easy to appreciate that punchline.

I suspect that Jewish humor strikes universal chords. Mothers are convenient targets of humor.

This week’s theme at Chautauqua is “Fear.” I’m glad that I fell upon “comedy and the human condition. I wouldn’t travel more than seven hours, past Pittsburgh and Erie, PA. to become immersed in fear. That’s going too far.

The first part of this column can be found here.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia. 


Letters to Editor

  1. George Strother says:

    I am a long time resident of Easton (19years) and a long time summer resident of the Chautauqua Institution (37years). My wife and I , and 3 children, began attending the
    Chautauqua Festival in 1982. We discovered the Institution while living in Western Pennsylvania. We continue to have many exceptional weeks and we are uplifted by our good fortune. Your description of last week and the your very positive response is so typical of what many of our weekly guests experience.

    George W. Strother M.D
    Marianne Strother
    Clubhouse Drive, Easton Md.

    27 Foster Steet
    Chautauqua N.Y

  2. Sharron Cassavant says:

    Howard Freedlander’s account of his Chautauqua week reminds me I’ve been meaning for years to spend a week there. Part of my story is that traveling Chatauqua people befriended my when she was a child in the sagebrush desert of southern Idaho around 1912. The vision they offered her of a wider life inspired her and stirred ambition. Although penniless, she found a way to earn her way to the University of Idaho in 1920, when there were about 50 women enrolled, virtually all from families with means. Her accomplishment lay at the core of my own ambitions. Thanks for stirring me to action, Howard.

  3. Imagine my surprise to follow a link from Susan Sparks website to the Talbot Spy. My name is Mary Lee Talbot and I live at Chautauqua and write the morning worship column for the Chautauquan Daily. That means I heard Susan Sparks preach six time and tell about her faith journey and wrote about each event. See chqdaily.com. Glad Howard got to know our “quirky” little world. At least he did not call us quaint. Come back soon. Howard.

    By the way,my great-grandfather headed that committee that saved Chautauqua from bankruptcy during the Depresssion and then served as its president from 1947-56.

    Mary Lee Talbot

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