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Remembrance of cringes past

All of us have had experiences in our lifetimes that we would very much prefer never to have happened. Who has never wished it was possible to go back in time and, as it were, push the delete button, erasing certain unwanted episodes as if they had never been? Here, I am thinking specifically of those excruciating social blunders that leave one wishing that one’s parents had practised contraception more assiduously.

I am one of those unfortunates who quickly forget the good experiences, but relive the embarrassing moments over and over again, even many years later. Sometimes, I even let out an involuntary yelp of anguish when revisited by an especially cringe-making memory, eliciting puzzled (not to mention uneasy) looks from innocent bystanders.

What is a Mega-Cringe Moment (MCM)? It is telling a woman who has fourteen children that the biggest threat to the world is overpopulation (score bonus MCM points when she is your rabbi’s wife). An MCM is meeting a married couple and asking the wife, “Is this your son?” It is prematurely bursting into song when the rest of the congregation remains silent. I’ve done all of these things.

Following a rugby match I’d been playing in my dad, a headmaster, got talking with an old pupil he met there. Asked what I’d thought of the game, I said that the opposing team had been a bunch of dirty pricks. Dad gave me a tongue-lashing afterwards, but how, in fairness, was I to know I had been speaking before the opposing captain?

Impetuosity is usually behind most embarrassing slip-ups. During my student days, my friends and I were getting rollickingly drunk one evening at my digs when we were confronted by a thick-set, bearded bully who shouted and brandished a stick at us. How I got it into my head that he was my landlord I’ve long since forgotten, but the next day I moved out and wrote a furiously indignant letter to the real landlord telling him exactly what I thought of him. The latter, who turned out to be a frail and gentlemanly old lawyer, was reportedly deeply puzzled on receiving it.

There were bigger humiliations, which still rankle. My first paying job was as a department store Father Christmas and I was fired after three days (ostensibly for losing balloons but really because I slagged off the boss to one of my colleagues and was promptly ratted on). Being interviewed for the first time on a TV programme was likewise traumatic, but even worse was seeing myself on screen afterwards — I looked like I was having a heart-attack.

Looking back, it would seem that most of these social blunders occurred during my youth and late adolescence. In my case, certainly, William Butler Yeats’ famous phrase “the ignominy of boyhood” would seem to be entirely apposite. At least with advancing age has come a degree of sour-faced dignity, underpinned by a hard-won ability to keep my gob shut where necessary. Most faux pas occur through people never knowing when to button up.

While my dad has done much to help knock me into shape, he too has had some hairy experiences. Once, he told us how he had been free-wheeling down a hill prior to starting the engine when his passenger door flew open. Unable to steer and close it at the same time, he saw a black lady walking on the opposite pavement and gesticulated to her to come across and assist. Now what does any self-respecting black matron do when confronted with a bug-eyed whitey beckoning frenziedly at her from an open car door? She bolts, of course. We had, as they say, a “good chuckle”, but since my dad was Mayor of Sandton at the time, it would have been no joke had the press got wind of the episode.

Just to show that I remain capable of embarrassing screw-ups, I’ve just sent a letter to over 700 subscribers to our journal, Jewish Affairs, which began by describing it as the repository of over sixty years of local Jewish history. That, at any rate, was what I’d meant to write. I’ve since been informed, more in sorrow than in anger, that the word I used was “suppository”. Not the best way to start 2010.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.