To Life! to Life! L'chaim!
Grove, Helen, Moment
"Mazel tov ... l'chaim ... I wish for you a hundred years of success," raps hip-hop artist Jay-Z in a recent music video for the 2007 song ROC Boys (And the Winner Is), a celebration of success and excess. In the widely popular 2005 comedy film 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 for To 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. …