“Mazel tov…l’chaim…I wish for you a hundred years of success,” raps hip-hop artist Jay-Z in a music video for the 2007 song ROC Boys (And the Winner Is), a celebration of success and excess. In the widely popular comedy, Wedding Crashers, two non-Jewish bachelors played by Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn shout l’chaim!—complete with the guttural clearing-of-the-throat sound unique to Semitic languages—to a bride and groom they have just met.
No longer reserved for Yiddish-speaking grandparents from the Old Country, l’chaim—to life!—has become synonymous with “cheers.” It’s an all-purpose toast for any occasion or situation that crosses barriers of class, culture and age and can be heard over clanking beer mugs across the nation.
L’chaim’s new life as an all-American drinking toast comes courtesy of the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof and its famously catchy refrain “To life, to life, l’chaim; l’chaim, l’chaim, to life!” sung by Tevye, the protagonist, during an impromptu celebration of good fortune in one of the play’s more boisterous scenes. The play—based on Sholem Aleichem’s story, “Tevye’s Daughters”—debuted on Broadway in 1964.
“The gentleman who wrote the libretto for the show, Joe Stein, wrote a scene in which Tevye and the butcher talk about whether or not Tevye will allow the butcher to marry his daughter Tzeitel,” says Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics forTo Life. “Towards the end of the scene Tevye agrees, so the butcher says, ‘Good, let’s toast on it.’ And I thought, what a nice kickoff for a song!”
Harnick’s inspiration for To Life came from the most unlikely of sources: a performance by comedian Lenny Bruce. Bruce’s well-known use of obscenities didn’t bother Harnick. What did annoy him was that Bruce would throw out Yiddish words that left many in his audience baffled. To guarantee that theatergoers would understand the Hebrew and Yiddish words in Fiddler, Harnick made sure to give proper context and explanation. “For l’chaim I thought to take no chances, I’m going to incorporate the translation into the lyrics,” he says.
Harnick, Stein and composer Jerry Bock never imagined the song would take on a life of its own, so much so that almost 45 years later, offers for free downloads of To Life cell phone ring tones would eventually permeate the web, or that the toast itself would have transcended East European Jewish culture to become mainstream. “We had no idea that the show was going to become such a huge hit,” says Harnick.
Harnick’s translation of l’chaim was right on the mark: The word, which originated in Hebrew, literally means “to life.” The letter lamed means “to” and the letters chet and yud combine to form the word chai or “life.” According to the Hebrew system of numerology known as the Gematria, chai also equals the number 18 because yud (10) plus chet (eight) is 18. As a result, 18 is considered a lucky number by many Jews.
“The word chai is very important,” says Ruvik Rosenthal, author of the 2005 Comprehensive Slang Dictionary, published in Hebrew. “You can see it everywhere.”
Use of the term l’chaim stems from longstanding Jewish tradition. In the Torah, wine is often associated with death and destruction, according to Rabbi Mendel Bluming of Potomac, Maryland. In the Bible, Noah drinks after the flood and is taken advantage of by his son Ham. “In the Megilah, Achashverosh kills his wife after a long night of drinking,” he says. “We say l’chaim to clarify that we are drinking to life, not death. We say the plural chaim instead of chai because, though the two words have the same meaning, we must clarify that one should never drink alone.”
L’chaim is also popular in Israel. “It is a shortening of the phrase l’chaim u-l’shalom, meaning ‘to life and to peace,’” says Rosenthal. In a country where Hebrew speakers make a strong distinction between Sephardic and Ashkenazi pronunciation, and usually favor the Sephardic tradition of emphasizing the last syllable as opposed to the Ashkenazi way of stressing the next-to-last syllable, the word is pronounced l’CHAim instead of l’chaIM in an acknowledgement of its Yiddish incubation.
Regardless of pronunciation, l’chaim will likely remain in the Hebrew lexicon for years to come. “Israelis have taken to saying ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ instead of shalom, and they often say ‘thanks’ and ‘please’ instead of toda raba and b’vakasha,” says Rosenthal. “But you will never catch an Israeli saying ‘cheers.’” —Helen Grove