Exit Ramp: The cliches are coming — a plea for Jewish originality

Exit Ramp: The cliches are coming — a plea for Jewish originality

Now that the holidays are over, the Jewish calendar will quickly turn to a slew of dinners and fund-raising events. The events will be fabulous because fabulous — said in a perky voice with an over-emphasis on the first syllable — is the one-word Jewish evaluation that makes us all feel better about ourselves. The centerpieces are fabulous. The speaker is fabulous. The honorees are fabulous. The only thing that may not be fabulous is the food. And when it’s not FABulous, it’s awful, terrible, or, my favorite criticism, totally inedible.

With the slew of dinners comes the march of the cliche. The Jewish cliches are coming fast and furious, and I want you to be the first one to catch them. Because a Jewish event should give some formal nod to our ethnicity or our heritage, we usually pull out of our Jewish lexicon something everyone already knows. This leaves no need to pay attention. 

Here are some of my favorite Jewish cliches. Don’t hesitate to add yours:

“All of Israel are responsible one for the other.” If I hear this one more time, I am going to become irresponsible.

“If I am not for myself?… If I am only for myself…” In Hebrew, this is usually a tongue twister and comes out wrong. In English, it sounds decent but hackneyed. I’m sorry, Hillel. You have more than one great saying. I just wish people knew more of them. 

Whoever saves one life, it is as if he has saved a whole world.” Since few of us are in the life-saving business, it’s usually irrelevant but always sounds impressive — unless, of course, you’ve heard it a thousand times.

Hinei ma tov umanayim” — with or without a guitar. Can we please learn one more Hebrew song? Please? I’m also not sure what goodly tents look like. 

“If you will it, it is no dream.” Let’s face it, Herzl would be bored of it himself by now.

“A woman of valor, who can find? Her worth is far above rubies.” I will give you a ruby for every time you were going to use this expression but held back. This verse is used almost every single time a Jewish woman is honored. There are actually 22 lines in this passage from Proverbs 31. Right now, I’d be happier with “She makes coverings of tapestry”; I’m that tired of rubies.

“These and these are the words of the living God…” — slightly more advanced because it’s the Talmud, but still over-taught. The Talmud is a multi-volume work. We must be able to find another page besides BT Bava Metzia 59b.

“May you go from strength to strength” makes me want to go from weakness to weakness. I can’t help it. 

This is going to make me into a real curmudgeon, but even “mazal tov” is starting to get me down, especially when instead of adding something personal to expand it, we say it twice for effect. This is when I pull out my go-to cliche: Oy vey.

Here are two possible reasons for the Jewish cliche: There’s comfort food for the body and comfort quotes for the soul. We want people in a Jewish space to feel like they are home, and home is a place where things are familiar. I get that. We reach for cliches because they feel safe and were, once upon a time, genuinely inspiring until we hacked them to death through repetition.

Here’s the less generous reading. We’re woefully illiterate of the richness of our tradition. We pick a cliche not because it’s safe but because it’s all we know. It requires less effort than looking for something new, than asking a rabbi/teacher for help, than using the Internet more effectively and finding something new and fresh to say. 

You may feel genuinely inspired by the trite and over-used. Most aren’t. It gives the impression that we don’t have more than a cliche to offer at moments that benefit from being unique and memorable. Even powerful, inspiring quotes lose their punch with overuse. We have such a text-saturated tradition that it’s not hard to find something new. But it does take effort, an effort that makes us smarter and more insightful. 

I invite you to take the 5777 Leadership Challenge. This year go deeper and higher at your dinner or next event. Let’s use these occasions to invite a genuine teaching moment that uplifts us and takes us to somewhere we haven’t been before. If you’re the MC, CEO, the president or anyone with a leadership role, show us a little bit of your Jewish imagination. Steer clear of a great but overused line that betrays no original thought. Nation, we can do this. I know. Because if you will it, it is no dream. 

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