From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

Choosing Life

Praised are You, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sustained us, kept us alive and brought us to this moment.

Hebrew Liturgy

Many years ago my grandfather gave me a silver wine goblet so small that it holds no more than a thimbleful of wine. Exquisitely engraved into its bowl is a bow with long ribbon streamers. It was made in Russia long ago. He gave it to me during one of the many afternoons when we sat together at the kitchen table in my parents’ home memorizing phrases from his old books and discussing the nature of life. I was quite young then, no more than five or six, and when I became restless, he would revive my attention by bringing out the sacramental Concord grape wine he kept in the back of the refrigerator. He would fill my little beribboned wineglass with Manischewitz and then put a splash of wine into his own, a big silver ceremonial cup, generations old. Then we would offer a toast together. At the time, the only other celebration I knew was singing “Happy Birthday” and blowing out the candles. I loved this even better.

My grandfather had taught me the toast we used. It was a single Hebrew word, L’Chaim (pronounced le CHI yeem), which he told me meant “To life!” He always said it with great enthusiasm. “Is it to a happy life, Grandpa?” I had asked him once. He had shaken his head no. “It is just ‘To life!’ Neshume-le,” he told me.

At first, this did not make a lot of sense to me, and I struggled to understand his meaning. “Is it like a prayer?” I asked uncertainly.

“Ah no, Neshume-le,” he told me. “We pray for the things we don’t have. We already have life.”

“But then why do we say this before we drink the wine?” He smiled at me fondly. “Grandpa!” I said, suddenly suspicious. “Did you make it up?” He chuckled and assured me that he had not. For thousands of years all over the world people have said this same word to each other before drinking wine together. It was a Jewish tradition.

I puzzled about this last for some time. “Is it written in the Bible, Grandpa?” I asked at last. “No, Neshume-le,” he said, “it is written in people’s hearts.” Seeing the confusion on my face, he told me that L’Chaim! meant that no matter what difficulty life brings, no matter how hard or painful or unfair life is, life is holy and worthy of celebration. “Even the wine is sweet to remind us that life itself is a blessing.”

It has been almost fifty-five years since I last heard my grandfather’s voice, but I remember the joy with which he toasted Life and the twinkle in his eye as he said L’Chaim! It has always seemed remarkable to me that such a toast could be offered for generations by a people for whom life has not been easy. But perhaps it can only be said by such people, and only those who have lost and suffered can truly understand its power.

L’Chaim! is a way of living life. As I’ve grown older, it seems less and less about celebrating life and more about the wisdom of choosing life. In the many years that I have been counseling people with cancer, I have seen people choose life again and again, despite loss and pain and difficulty. The same immutable joy I saw in my grandfather’s eyes is there in them all.

Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.

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