“You can call me Johnny …” comes from a comedic routine that baby-boomers and their parents may remember. A quick check with Wikipedia identifies the character as Raymond J. Johnson, Jr., created by Bill Saluga. Bristling at being called “Mr. Johnson,” he launches into his refrain – “Now you can call me Ray, or you can call me J, or you can call me Johnny …” It was quite popular back in the day.
I never, or almost never, refer to our upcoming holyday as “Passover.” Its name is Pesach. Undoubtedly, many call it “Passover” because they are used to it or because it’s hard to pronounce the “ch.” But there is another reason.
For certain Jews, especially those who were Americanizing, Jewish things, including Jewish names, were, and still are, simply “too Jewish.” Translations make them more acceptable in their society. But the challenge for at least two generations has been particular Jewish identity – and names are a part of it – names for children, names for holydays, names for places, etc. Consider: Jacob or Ya’akov, Rivkah or Rebecca, Jerusalem or Yerushalyim, kippah or skullcap?
In addition to a Jewish cultural loss, the translation of “Passover” may be inaccurate and misleading, imposed upon the Hebrew “pesach” by later understandings. The first reference in the Torah is in Exodus 12. The Israelites were commanded to take a lamb and shmear its blood on their doorposts (12:7). In 12:11 – they were commanded to eat the lamb: “This is how you shall eat it … hurriedly; it is a Pesach offering to the Lord.” This is the first mention of p-s-ch, as a noun. As a verb, p-s-ch comes two verses later: “And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pasach over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike Egypt.”
Scholars have not obtained a clear consensus, but the original meaning of “pesach” may have been either “to have compassion;” “to protect;” “to skip over;” or to “straddle.” The verse would then read either:
“when I see the blood I will show compassion for you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike Egypt.”
"when I see the blood I will protect you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike Egypt.”
“when I see the blood I will skip over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike Egypt.”
“when I see the blood I will straddle you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike Egypt.”
For some, multiple possibilities confuse. “Passover” makes it simple, and familiar. But multiple possibilities enrich our thinking. Retaining our language is a precious particular that keeps us rooted and creatively challenged.
Now, “You can call me Pesach.” Just don’t call me late for seder. Chag kasher v’samech.