A friend of mine sends a short video as a New Year's greeting, celebrating the beginning of the year 5767 on the Jewish calendar. It depicts a driver, frustrated because the remote control for his garage door won't work. He bangs on the remote with his hand, his head, his nose and his chin. Nothing happens. A Hasidic Jew drives up, with his black hat and long black locks curled in front of his ears, rolls down the window of his car and aims a shofar, the long ram's horn played at the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He blows the horn with a piercing shriek. The garage door opens.
The greeting: "These High Holy Days, stick with what works. Shofar, so good."
Such humor is stock in trade for the Jews, who have always mixed the sacred with the sacrilegious. If not necessarily a saving grace, humor acts as a palliative to tragedy. Jews have certainly needed it through the centuries. "Oppressed people tend to be witty," wrote Saul Bellow, and Jews know a lot about oppression, too. Humor soothes pain with laughter, though the laughter that brings tears to the eyes may reflect anguish and despair, too.
The shofar is not generally an instrument for humor, but it calls attention to the spiritual nature with appeals to joy, hope and trust, as well as awe, fear and trembling. A new generation of comic writers tries to add humor with edginess to the sounds of the shofar, aiming to revive religious traditions and express concern over Israel.
My greeting card was made by a group called Jewish Impact Films Fellowship, established in Los Angeles to bring freshness to faith. Back in the days of vaudeville, Jewish comics knew how to exploit suffering for humor, building on Shalom Aleichem's dialogue, "God, I know we are Your chosen people, but couldn't You choose somebody else for a change?"
Political correctness, which is out to dull everything, finds ethnicity in humor an embarrassment. Molly Goldberg, like Amos and Andy, had to go. (Lum 'n' Abner, which mocks only rural Southerners, can still be heard on occasional small-town radio.) Self-mocking with Yiddish accents or idiosyncratic ungrammatical English was sacrificed first on the altar of assimilation, then later with an appeal to an arrogant multiculturalism. The folk wisdom inherent in the depiction of Jews to deflate the pomposity of the more powerful lost its bite.