“You may feel genuinely inspired by the trite and over-used. Most aren’t”

Here are some of my favorites Jewish clichés. 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 u-manayim” — 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 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 cliché: oy vey.

Here’s two possible reasons for the Jewish cliché: 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 cliché 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 cliché 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.

Erica Brown, “The Clichés Are Coming”, The Jewish Week (4 November 2016), 66.