Nostalgia Sunday – Asimonim

israel_telephone_token_backNostalgia is defined as “longing for something past” and the asimon, or Israeli telephone token, was a beautiful object for which I’m quite nostalgic. Not only did asimonim have a practical function — to make calls from public phones — they were attractively decorated with the image of a phone dial and had a hole in the middle, so you could string them on a leather thong to wear around your neck. Or, as I did, impaled on a large safety pin and hooked onto a belt loop. All very punk.

And here’s something I’m not at all nostalgic for: scrounging around desperately for an asimon, either because you miscalculated the length of your call, or — in most cases — because the public phone decided to eat your last precious token. This after having waited in line for 45 minutes to make the call.


I thought perhaps it was just me imagining conspiracy theories but it turns out that there actually was a national shortage of telephone tokens! This was between 1973 and the post-Yom Kippur War era, when asimon consumption shot way up, and 1981, when the Ministry of Communications found a way to manufacture asimonim locally instead of farming out the work to our friends at Vereinigte Deutsche Metallwerke AG (VDM). (Rumor had long had it that the arrangement with VDM was part of a reparations deal closed between the Israeli and German governments. Now, there’s a conspiracy theory to mull over).

In any case, by the time 1984 rolled around and the Ministry of Communications privatized Bezeq, there were asimonim aplenty and the black market in phone tokens (yes, there was one) had all but shut down. On the other hand, there was a wave of phone box break-ins. To stop the madness, Bezeq introduced the phone card in 1990, and again, war gave the new technology an unexpected boost in 1991 when the first Gulf War created new demand for international phone calls — mostly placed by those of us in sealed rooms trying to find out from relatives and friends abroad what CNN was reporting and which way the SCUDS were heading.


According to an excellent online article (in Hebrew) by Moshe Lipner, “Israel’s Telephone Tokens“, at their peak, there were 13,000 token telephone boxes around Israel. By 1999, these had been replaced by 22,000 Telecard phone boxes. These can still be found, as can phone cards, but their presence has declined considerably with the massive public switchover to cell phone technology — and who can blame the public for wresting itself out from under Bezeq’s monolithic thumb?

Meanwhile the modest little asimon has become a collector’s item on Ebay and an objet d’art. Given my penchant for wearing asimonim, I think I may need to get a pair of these:

Overdue kudos for winged communicators

April 10, 2009 - 7:54 AM by · 2 Comments
Filed under: History and Culture, Israeliness, Politics, Technology, War 

Soldiers with pigeonsAfter reports surfaced that Hezbollah had succeeded in eavesdropping on IDF soldiers talking on their cell phones during the Second Lebanon War, the army began investing heavily in creating its own proprietary, super-secure cellular network, dubbed Afik Rahav (“Wide Channel”).

But even in the “resounding success” of the latest round of military action against our enemies, this past winter’s Gaza operation against Hamas, was marked by some cellular communication backfirings, as both the IDF and Hamas attempted to rile up the general public on the opposite side by placing calls to random numbers.

But back in the day, communications among and with forces in the field were even trickier. Pre-state Zionist military forces used the low-tech method of carrier pigeons to get messages around the land, and recent Ha’aretz coverage of the aviary units has succeeded in prompting the IDF to honor its communications-minded predecessors.

In December, the newspaper reported that the Haganah’s dovecote at Kibbutz Givat Brenner was in danger of being destroyed and petitioned to preserve it, following Shaul Sapir, 81, who delivered the Haganah’s pigeons, and Aharon Landsman, 73, who trained them, as they visited the dovecote. This would have been a shame, since the Tzrifin base’s “monument to the unknown pigeon” (for real) was retired long ago, with few testaments remaining to remind us of the once-crucial section, which was incorporated into the IDF in the Fifties.

Then, a few weeks ago, the paper reported with glee that amid great fanfare and top-brass attendance,

Pigeon trainers who dispatched carrier pigeons for the Palmach and Haganah, the Yishuv’s military forces, were invited to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Israel Defense Forces Teleprocessing Branch at Tel Aviv University….

Senior Field Commander Major General Ami Shafran spoke glowingly of the pigeon corps, giving respect where it was finally due:

“The pigeon trainers from kibbutzim Ramat Rachel, Beit Hashita, Mishmar Hashiva and Negba, and from the dovecote at Givat Brenner, are some of those who laid down the [nation's] infrastructure, and they are a part of the strong foundation on which our present capabilities were built.”

Image courtesy Copper Kettle from Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

On the radio

September 25, 2008 - 7:06 PM by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: A New Reality, General, Music, Pop Culture 

cell phones.jpgI’ve discovered my latest pet Israeli peeve: People (yes, mostly teenagers) who use their cellphones with MP3 player ability to play the music they have downloaded on their phones, out loud, for all of us to hear. It’s noise pollution at its worst, because it’s not even obviously blasting out of one’s car radio, or some boom box (circa 1985) sitting on a park bench. It idles out, not so tinnily, emerging from the slim rectangles that we all carry around. It can happen anywhere.

Now it’s one thing when one’s cellphone ring is a song, clearly beloved by the owner, that plays every time the phone rings. I personally have James Taylor’s “Carolina In My Mind” on mine, which isn’t exactly a favorite song, but I liked it more than the tunes my Nokia was offering. Now, however, six months later, I’m heartily sick of “Carolina In My Mind,” and need to find a substitute. And I am aware that I’m forcing others to hear it whenever I do, and they are clearly forming an opinion of me and my musical tastes whenever my phone rings. But that’s not as bad as those who force you to hear a song when you call them, which is another kind of torture, or, those who walk around listening to the music on their phone, out loud, on the speaker.

I’ve been grumbling about this to myself for several weeks now, but hadn’t had the opportunity to take anyone to task for it. And then, on the bus the other day, a kid was sitting opposite me in one of the four-seater sections, and he began ‘playing’ his phone.

I bided my time, thinking maybe he wasn’t going to play it for the entire ride, but it kept on going from one song into the next. Granted, he wasn’t playing any of my favorites, more of a Galgalatz run-through, but I was wondering if anyone else was going to say something to him. By song #3, I said, “You know, it’s not so polite to make everyone listen to your music when you’re in public.” He looked at me quizzically, and responded, “How’s it any different than the bus driver making all of us listen to the radio?” I didn’t have an answer, but I also couldn’t remember the last time I’d hear a radio playing on the bus. I acknowledged that it’s a similar concept, but the bus is the driver’s domain, whereas he’s another rider like the rest of us.

Then he asked me if it would make any difference if I liked the music he was playing. Yeah, maybe, I said. But not necessarily. He nodded. And then, he took a set of earphones out of his pocket, plugged them into his phone and his ears, and shrugged. It was a typical Israeli shrug, the one learned by children in kindergarten, that can mean, “No, don’t feel like it,” or, “Sure, not sure why you’re making such a big deal of it, but it’s fine.”

I think he meant the latter. And I’m not sure, but it felt like a victory.


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