Filed under: General, History and Culture, Immigrant Moments, Israeliness, Nostalgia Sunday, Pop Culture, Technology, War
Nostalgia 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 By 1999, these had been replaced by 22,000 Telecard phone boxes.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?