Growing up, I could never figure out how to speak any language besides English fluently. I had a rabbi stand with me to read my Torah portion during my bar mitzvah, and I learned only the barest minimum of French, to check off that high school requirement. The reason for my struggle, I’ve always believed, is that the adults in my life spoke multiple languages. There was Yiddish, French, Polish, Russian, and Spanish. It seemed as if the adults who spoke more than one or two languages knew when to change things up in order to throw off the children from knowing what they were saying, and now, here I am: an adult who has a hard time learning another language.
But I’ve always retained a good memory of how to say “cheers” in various languages. When I’m traveling to a country where another language is spoken, it’s the first thing I learn. Whether it’s Japanese, Farsi, or German, no matter where you come from or how you say it, I love your toast. Toasting, to me, is one of the most beautiful moments you can have with a group of people. Raising a glass is something that we can all do together. And now that we can actually do that again, toasting is more important than ever.
I’m usually the first person to raise a glass and toss in a Hebrew l’chaim or I’ll try out a Korean geonbae or maybe a Polish na zdrowie, depending on the company and what we’re drinking. But this year, as we hopefully find ourselves reunited with loved ones we weren’t able to break bread with in the very dark, pre-vaccine days of 2020, when every holiday or gathering was done around a computer screen, I’ve started to think deeper about the toast.
While I’ve always liked the idea of raising a glass, my own personal obsession with the toast really took off in my 20s, when I spent an American Thanksgiving with a bunch of Russians, who didn’t really care about the whole myth of the Pilgrims making the Indians think they were friendly and totally wouldn’t steal their land. These Russians just liked an excuse to cook a big meal that also involved a lot of drinking. The night went like this: The host raised his glass and said something in Russian that I was told translated to “Soon it will be cold, like the winters we remember from our childhood, so we should enjoy the warmth of tonight.” Very poetic, I thought. Then we started eating, and within two bites, another guest raised their glass and offered up a few words. A few minutes later, another person was moved to do the same. Three bottles of Beaujolais later, I decided it was my turn. I stood up, picked up my glass, and...promptly spilled the wine all over myself.
I was obviously embarrassed, but then the host said, “This is good luck, because now we’re out of wine. All we have left is vodka.” Then the real party began. I picked up my shot glass, my sweater still wet and red with wine, and said, “To accidents that lead us to vodka.” I gave a garbled vashe zdorovye, and that is the last thing I remember from the evening. The next afternoon when I woke up, my head pounding and a cat trying to eat little bits of turkey stuck in my beard, all I could think about was how fun it all was and how I couldn’t wait to raise a glass again.
My philosophy for toasting comes from the end of the 1988 movie Scrooged, where Bill Murray (as the 20th-century version of the famous Dickens character from A Christmas Carol) has seen the light and is yelling about the miracle of the holiday and how it doesn’t need to be only once a year: “It can happen tonight for all of you! If you believe in this spirit thing, the miracle will happen, and then you'll want it to happen again tomorrow.”
I love that idea. I don’t celebrate Christmas—I’m more of a latkes and menorahs kinda guy—but I appreciate trying to hold on to something that moves you and making it part of your life. I think if more of us tried to capture these feelings and keep them with us during the entire year that we’d all be a little happier. That’s what toasting reinforces. It can just be raising a glass and saying a single salud, it can be a speech you prepare beforehand, or it can just be some off-the-cuff thing you say. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s shots of tequila at a bar or glasses of wine around a dinner table—all that matters is that there’s some feeling behind it. Toasting is something you’ll want to do again and again this season, when we’re hopefully all getting together again and truly feeling thankful for loved ones, but also next season, and every season after that.
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