Can you hear me now?
The black dial phone in the Jerusalem residence of former prime minister Levi Eshkol. (photo by Sharon Altshul)
Around Rosh Hashanah, some of us do this back-and-forth dance, reflecting on things past while looking ahead. As I live in Israel, I am going “to dance” to what I believe is the most pervasive part of our daily existence – our (some would say obsessive) phone use.
In the days prior to Israel’s becoming a “start-up nation,” telephone service was in pretty sad shape. For many years, most Israelis did not have phones in their homes. So, in the evening, you would wash up, dress up and go outside to use a public telephone. To make your call, you would load your pockets with asimonim, round, grooved, metal tokens. If you were calling someone outside your area code, you would hope that the weight of all the necessary asimonim would not tear your pockets.
Talking on payphones was fraught with problems. For starters, how would the person at the other end know you wanted to chat? Answer: the call had to be carefully arranged in advance, with both sides knowing the time, location and telephone numbers of the public telephones that were to be used.
It was an event requiring lots of patience. You had to stand in line with your neighbours, who also wanted to use the phone. You had to ignore the pressure from those behind you, telling you to hurry up and let someone else have a turn. Loud “discussions” occasionally broke out. People claimed they had a dahuf (urgent) call to make or receive. (In Israel, the term dahuf is thrown around a lot.) Thus, the beginning of the Israeli telecommunication era is essentially a study in how people function in groups.
Moreover, Israeli payphones seemed to have a mind of their own. You would be talking when, suddenly, in one big gulp, the telephone cruelly swallowed all your tokens. No amount of whacking the sides of the phone box or banging the receiver in its cradle would return the tokens. You were simply finished for the night. Talking on a payphone was such a tricky business, people would resort to sending postcards, as it was an easier way to relay a message.
By and large, Israeli households did not have telephones until the 1960s – as late as 1964, 55,800 Israeli homes were waiting for phones. If someone had acquired a telephone before the sixties, the person was either suspected of, or envied for, his or her protectzia, the fact that s/he “knew” somebody.
After a long wait – possibly for years – the phone company gave a household a black stationary phone with a short cord. Meaning that, to talk, you had to stay in one place. If you were lucky, nobody’s line would cross yours. If it did, you were stuck listening to their private affairs. People didn’t hang up right away because they didn’t know how long it would take to reconnect with friends. And, while on the subject of talking on the phone, to counter the high cost of doing so, employers with chatty employees or families with talkative children (or adult family members) went to the extreme of putting a lock on their dial phone.
After the implementation of the black telephones, changes came faster. Although the colour choice remained limited, Israelis could choose something other than a phone. They could also order a long phone cord or a press-button phone. Likewise, people could have phones in more than one room. Some advances have gone smoother than others. For example, fax installation and transmission continues to gravely challenge Bezek (the Israeli telephone company, established in 1984) and Bezek users.
In the international sphere, things also changed, albeit unevenly. In the late 1950s, Israel got hooked up to five continents. To place or receive an overseas call, you had to go to the central post office. You sat in a special glassed-in wooden booth while a special operator made the connection.
After a period of time, there were telecartim, or insertable phone cards for public phones. These cards became quite popular and many Israelis became phone card collectors and traders. I remember attending a telecart exhibit in Tel Aviv.
What feels like light years later, Israelis started equipping themselves with cellphones and, not long after that, with ear sets. Suddenly, it seemed that many people were experiencing severe mental health problems. In public, flaying arms and shouting at invisible people became rampant. I remember the first time I spotted a person exhibiting this behaviour. Only when he drew near did I see a thin black wire around his jaw and ear. I sighed, “another cellphone casualty.”
Israelis are apparently now making up for lost time by being glued to their mobile phones. They converse everywhere (on dates, in toilets, on trains and buses) about everything.
Some of the usage issues are (pretty close to being) unique to Israel. If you were under the impression that kashrut (kosher) is a food-related concept, think again. In Israel, as well as in a few Western countries, there are kosher cellphones. While they are not edible, they have been a boon to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. According to Cellular Israel, “a kosher phone is any phone that is approved and certified by vaad harabonim” (the rabbinic committee for matters of communications).
A kosher phone can only make and receive voice calls. Text messaging and emails will not work on a kosher phone. Moreover, for health, security, public services, water and electricity personnel, there is even a kosher phone designed to avoid breaking the laws of Shabbat. Technically, this mobile device may be dialed without connecting. There is even a kosher de-smarted (meaning that it has no web-browsing capability) smartphone.
Not all the changes appear to be positive. While more studies need to be done, Israeli researchers are beginning to think there is a real downside to cellphone use – it might even interfere with the biblical injunction to “be fruitful and multiply.”
As reported in Reproductive BioMedicine Online, there appears to be an association between higher rates of abnormal semen concentration and talking on cellphones for an hour or more a day, and talking on the devices as they are being charged. Among men who reported holding their phones within 50 centimetres of their groin, a higher rate of abnormal sperm concentration was found. Semen concentration was abnormal among 47% of those who stored their phone in their pants pockets, while it was abnormal in only 11% of the general male population. In brief, Israeli men might need to curb their cellphone use.
There might be another advantage to having an alternative to cellphones. Several years ago, when there was a wave of terrorism, having old-fashioned payphones around turned out to be beneficial. When an attack occurred, Jerusalemites whipped out their cellphones “to report in” with their families. With so many people simultaneously calling, the system crashed. It was the city’s remaining public phones that allowed people to reassure worried loved ones.
Admittedly, many of the above changes likewise happened elsewhere in the Western world; the telecommunication revolution has been a global revolution, after all. But, for many in Israel, each change or step of the way was met with a kind of curiosity or wonder that may have been singular to Israel. Today, that innocence has disappeared. For better or for worse, I’m not sure.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.