Gershom the Sojourner – the Sound of One Monkey Chewing

When I went to study French in France in 1962, I had to obtain a “carte de séjour”, which was a document indicating I was a foreigner (étranger) permitted  to stay in France for a fixed period of time. The English word for séjour is “sojourn.” In the Bible there are at least two people who are called “A Sojourner There,” which is English for the Hebrew name Gershon, or Gershom: alternate spellings of the same name. There was Gershon,  the eldest son of Levi, who was the founder of the Gershonites, and there was Gershom, the first son of Moses.

The name Gershom consists of Ger and shom. Ger means alien, exile, stranger, sojourner;  shom could  mean either “there” (sham) or “name” (shem). So, Gershom could mean either  “ a sojourner/alien there”; or “a sojourner/alien is his name”. I like Rabbi Tani Burton’s comment on the dual meaning of shom:

What is a name?

“There are many views on this topic. The words shem and sham are interrelated. First of all, they have the exact same shoresh—even the same letters. What is the difference between sham and shem? We use the word sham to indicate where something is located or contained. In fact, the word shamayim is simply a plural form of the word sham; shamayim is the ultimate sham, the totality of sham. There can be no more sham-ness than the seemingly endless shamayim. Shem, on the other hand, is a word that indicates both the content of an item and its purpose.”

Perhaps one could add that “shem” does not only indicate content and purpose but the totality of sham “thereness” as well. Also, the “purpose” of Hashem “the Name” is another word for His will, which is an attribute of the content of Hashem where “content” is synonymous with who God is. Perhaps Gershom refers not only to alienation (ger) from a place (sham) but also alienation from the Name (shem).

Why did Moses call his first son Gershom? The Book of Exodus explains:

“Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock. When they came home to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come home so soon today?” They said, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds and even drew water for us and watered the flock.” He said to his daughters, “Then where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread.” And Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah. She gave birth to a son, and he called his name Gershom, for he said, ‘I have been a sojourner in a foreign land’ ” (Exodus, 2:16-22).

(Moses was initially taken for an Egyptian in his new land – as indicated in the passage. He had just fled from Egypt where he lived and dressed as an Egyptian).

Moses,  the wandering Jew? No fixed home; a stranger sojourning in a strange land. Shem and sham are all of a piece in (Ger)shom. No matter how close Moses came to Hashem, he remained alienated, like most of us. The question ix can this alienation be overcome, and if so, how?

In my family we all had Hebrew names, but the English equivalent was used more often in the home, and always outside the home. This chapter is about another Gershom, my brother Gerry, whose life is recorded here.

Here is Gerry Gamaroff at 6 years old (cut-out from family photo in the “Gamarophans”). I don’t have any other photos of him. My parents didn’t take photos.

Gerry

Gerry

Gerry grew into that endearing grin as other children’s bodies grow into their heads.One of his favourites was laughing with a straight serious face. Gerry, as an adult, was the family entertainer. I never saw Izzy and Fanny  laugh so much than when Gerry was around.

How does someone turn out to be the focal point of family mirth, who at 11 years old was already wandering the streets late at night hanging around with the wrong crowd, whose despairing parents appealed to the state for help. How did it come to this?

We both left the Orphanage at the end of 1949. At the beginning of 1950, Gerry (9 years old)  and I (8 years old) became day scholars at Landsdowne High School, about 5 km from home. Landsdowne High catered for Grades 3 to Grade 12. Landsdowne High included the junior grades.

At break, the juniors jostled against one another in the queue, the bigger juniors leading from the front. Some days we got thick sweet custard; other days, a handful of giant red roasted peanuts and unseeded raisins. Gerry called peanuts and raisins “apies and mongories”. “Apies” in Afrikaans means “little monkeys”; and mongories”? Is it some kind of crunching pips-’n-all sound ? Mongories mongories mongories.

“Mongories” has the stress on the second syllable, mongories, not on the first syllable as in ironmongery.  I think what Gerry wanted  his “mongories” to convey was the sound a monkey makes when chewing, when mangling its gories (food). Now it just so happens that “mangle” derives from “(iron)mongery”. Both “mangle” and “mongery” derive from the Greek word manganon “a deceptive device”, which the Greeks called their war machines. Gerry was a master of deception, of mangling, of mongreling the mongories of truth.

Everyone presses against one another in the queue. The two teachers don’t know which hand is Arthur’s which Martha’s. They dig tin mugs into the sack of the mix of apies and mongories,  then tip the mouth-watering contents into the craze of upturned hands. Gerry employs his contortionist skills (which he later used to good effect as a champion high jumper). He pushes against the person in front; others push from behind. He stretches out his cupped right hand, swivels his left arm behind his back,  twists his body slightly sideways, and brings his left cupped hand around to his right side to meet his right cupped hand.  The teachers sees the “extra” hand. Mission accomplished: two handfuls of apies and mongories. He showed me how to do it. I tried next time. No luck  I wasn’t blessed with his flexible talents.

One day, a few months into the year,  Gerry and I were called to the principal’s office. Gerry was expelled and I was suspended for a week. I don’t remember why. I can surmise why Gerry was sent home; it was more than for jumping once out the classroom windows; and more than for one sleight of hand in the apies-and-mongories queue. One swallow doesn’t make summer, but lots of swallows – of illicit apies and mongories – perhaps do; as well as lots of  jumping in and out of  classroom windows. Perhaps it was the sound of one monkey chewing one mongory too many that broke the camels back?

After my one week suspension, I returned to Landsdowne School and finished the year (1950, Grade 4). The following year I went to boarding school  -koshuis (“food house” in Afrikaans) in Wellington and attended Huguenot Junior School.  Wellington is about 20kms from Paarl in the Boland, Western Province. The school was about 80kms from home. I describe these “koshuis” years later.

After Gerry was expelled from Landsdowne High Shool, he went to Newlands Primary School, about 4km from home. After one year at Newlands Primary, he was expelled (“struck off the role” as described in his school report). He was then placed in Tenderden Place of Safety in Wynberg, 10 kms from Cape Town. After one year, he ran away. A Probation Officer wrote a report on Gerry and made recommendations. Here are the details:

The following is a record of Gerry’s conduct that appears on an Investigation Report of the State Probation Officer, dated 6 July 1951 Gerry came to the notice of the Probation Officer for the first time in November 1950, after he had been six months at Newlands Primary School after the Principal of the school had made a report to the Probation Officer about Gerry’s “unsatisfactory school attendance of this juvenile.” Since then he was kept under observation. In Februrary 1951, Gerry’s case was reported to the Secretary of the Jewish Board of Guardians, which is the main Jewish charitable organization in South Africa. Meanwhile Gerry continued playing truant and doing other wayward things.

In May 1951, the Jewish Board of Guardians referred the case back to the Probation Officer with the recommendation that Gerry be committed to a suitable institution. As a result, Gerry was removed to “Tenderden (Tender Den!), Place of Safety” Wynberg, which still exists today. Gerry’s Medical Certificate for entry into Tenterden stated that he was physically and mentally in good health.

(Continued in next post).