Overworked do-good phrase is making writer meshugginah

I'm going to admit it right here in the pages of a Jewish newspaper: I am flat-out, wholeheartedly opposed to "tikkun olam."

In fact, it drives me downright crazy and I'd be happy if I never encountered it again. But before I'm banished from the Jewish community forever, let me clarify — it's the overuse of the phrase that bugs me, not the act.

Tikkun olam, for anyone who's been avoiding Judaism for the last 10 to 15 years, translates to "repairing the world." The phrase has become so popular that it's used to describe virtually any act of decency even vaguely connected to Jewish life. Political stances of every shade. Fund-raisers of every sort. I wouldn't be surprised if a Jewish group tried to convince potential donors that new office furniture could have tikkun olam-like repercussions. Maybe in some roundabout way, it could.

Still, I can't help but be annoyed by the omnipresence of the words. See, ever since I became a full-time editor a year and a half ago, I've become hypersensitive to overworked phrases, which can easily become so tired and washed up they lose their impact. Before you do anything else, I tell the writers I edit, sweep your piece clean of clichés.

Editors at the tech company where I work have gone so far as to ban certain overused aphorisms from our Web site. The phrase "check it out," for example, has become so ubiquitous on the Web that the Internet would practically cease to exist without it. At my company, the phrase has been tossed into cliché prison. May it never again see the sun.

"Tikkun olam," I fear, has become the "check it out," of the Jewish world. It fills the pages of Jewish newspapers and magazines and peppers sermons and drashes. Open any temple newsletter and you're as likely to find the "t" phrase as you are bagels and lox at a synagogue men's club meeting. In American Jewish life at least, it's raining tikkun olam.

Cliché-sensitivity aside, that's a good thing, of course. I am proud that Judaism places a premium on the precept of repairing the world. In theory at least, social justice is supposed to be second nature to Jews. For many of my Jewish role models, it's definitely second nature in practice.

I've got the "t" phrase on the brain because a group from my synagogue just spent a Sunday pitching in on a Habitat for Humanity project. Habitat builds affordable housing for low-income families, and since 1976, volunteers have built more than 100,000 houses in more than 60 countries, including some 30,000 houses across the United States.

At a site in San Francisco, we spent the day transporting sheet rock, clearing debris, hauling rocks and erecting a wooden fence. We even learned how to "pitch a slope," a skill that could come in handy if the tech downturn continues and I'm forced to seek a job in construction.

Participating in the project meant getting up way too early for a Sunday and coming home achy and looking like Pig Pen, that scruffy Peanuts character who walks around in a puff of dust. Still, I count it as one of the best Sundays I've had in weeks. We accomplished something significant and tangible (Who said Jews can't work a hammer?) and had lots of fun in the process.

Having been reminded once again of how important and personally fulfilling the "t" phrase can be, I'm more for the practice than ever. I just wish we could find a fresher way of describing it — and become more discriminating about using the phrase.

In the meantime, I might as well confess that being an editor hasn't just put me on 24-hour cliché alert. These days, I can't even read the side of a matzah box without noticing the tiniest of grammatical slights. I've even found myself sitting in services secretly editing the prayer book. Why, I ask myself, didn't they put a semicolon after the phrase "Holy One, blessed be He?"

Being an editor means living in a universe where misspellings and split infinitives can drive one to the brink of near-madness. Outside the workplace, at least, I'm trying hard to stop the insanity.

Which is why I guess I'll probably just have to learn to live with the phrase "tikkun olam," even though the editor in me still wishes we could just call acts of goodness being Jewish. Or, better yet, being human.

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.