February 23, 2020

Susan Karlin Carries on the Family Shofar Blowing Tradition

Susan Karlin; Photo by Gerri Miller

There are three shofars on display in Susan Karlin’s West Hollywood apartment, but to her, they’re not just Judaica. “When I look at them, it makes me smile and think of my parents and my lineage, and making people happy at synagogue,” she said. 

A fourth-generation shofar blower, she provides the teruah, tekiah and shevarim blasts every year at the Laugh Factory comedy club’s High Holy Days services.

“It’s a very majestic, powerful and spiritual sound. It can be chilling or very emotional,” Karlin said. “There’s something awe-inspiring about everyone gathering together and listening to that sound together. There’s an element of power and spirituality associated with it. It’s a profound ritual. That’s what draws me to it.”

Growing up in New Jersey, Karlin loved watching her father blow the shofar at their synagogue. “One Rosh Hashanah, we came home from services and I asked him to show me how,” she said. She learned on the smallest of her shofar trio, which her grandfather brought from Poland to the United States in the 1920s. 

“I had to keep practicing and practicing. It took a while to actually get a sound out of it. Then my dad taught me how to manipulate my tongue to get the notes. He taught me to blow it on the side of my mouth, not straight on. You purse your lips and you want to wet them and create a little airway so they vibrate a little bit,” she said. ‘You have to hit it in exactly the right spot.

“It also takes a lot of core work,” Karlin noted. “If you don’t take the breaths properly, you get really dizzy. I’ve learned over the years to slow down. My dad did it rapid-fire and I’d copy his pace but I found I couldn’t do it. It gives me a new respect for trumpet players.”

On a trip to Israel in the late 1970s, Karlin was with her father when he bought two shofars in Hebron, one 29 inches long and the other 12 inches. Each of the trio has a different sound. Her grandfather’s 10-inch shofar is “a bit shrill, and harder to blow because of its narrower opening. The large one has a deeper tone. The middle one is easiest for me,” she said. “It’s the one I play the most.”

“It’s very profound to be carrying on a family tradition like 

this. I like that I pushed this family tradition into the 21st century and broke some barriers. It started as a badge of honor, carrying it on. Now I derive more meaning from it. It makes me feel more connected to the ritual of gathering together as a community and taking stock of our lives.” 

— Susan Karlin

Karlin didn’t learn to blow the shofar with any intention of doing it publicly, but after she attended services at the Laugh Factory, she approached Rabbi Bob Jacobs and volunteered. She auditioned and was hired on the spot. She was aware that at that time, in the 1990s, there were no female shofar blowers. “Now it’s much more common. I’ve seen female rabbis, kids, fathers and daughters do it,” she said. She hopes to bequeath her shofars and teach the skill to her teenage niece.

“It’s very profound to be carrying on a family tradition like this,” she said. “I like that I pushed this family tradition into the 21st century and broke some barriers. It started as a badge of honor, carrying it on. Now I derive more meaning from it. It makes me feel more connected to the ritual of gathering together as a community and taking stock of our lives.”

A University of Pennsylvania graduate, Karlin is a journalist who writes “about the nexus of science, technology and the arts,” and whose work has taken her to every continent. She recently became recertified in SCUBA diving for an assignment and will go to Lake Como in Italy for a comic-art show this spring. She’s developing ideas for books, graphic novels and oral storytelling. “My goal is to continue to learn and try new things and to have as many adventures as I can,” she said. “I’ve always been more interested in experiences than things.” She attends the Burning Man festival every year and has turned her pet snails into Facebook stars.

Of Polish and Russian heritage, Karlin was raised in a Conservative, kosher home. Her father was Orthodox and her mother was Reform and, she said, the two “met in the middle.” She “still has PTSD from learning my haftarah at my bat mitzvah,” she joked. Pork and shellfish are still off the menu, and she defines her humor as “very Jewish. I see everything through that prism,” she said. Diagnosed with hypoglycemia several years ago, she no longer fasts on Yom Kippur. “I eat, but less than I normally would.”

Since returning from Burning Man in early September, Karlin has been practicing her shofar-blowing every day. She also is teaching herself to play the banjo, an instrument she received as a gift at the festival. “My neighbors are going to hate me,” she said. 

For Karlin, the High Holy Days are more than an occasion to pray and ask forgiveness, “even though that’s part of it. It’s more about taking stock of who I am, who I’ve become, how I’ve changed in the last year as a person, how I want to better myself, and whether I’m happy with the direction I’m going in on a spiritual level. It’s also taking stock of how I’ve wronged other people, wanting to ask their forgiveness and forgiving myself for how I’ve handled things in the past,” she said. 

“At the Laugh Factory, I feel a greater connection to the community and spirituality and my growth as a human being.”

Rosh Hashanah services will be held at 11 a.m. Sept. 30, continuing with Kol Nidre at 5 p.m. Oct. 8, and Yom Kippur at 11 a.m. Oct. 9 at the Laugh Factory, 8001 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 656-1336. Admission is free.