Sunday, October 29, 2006

Who's Afraid of International Calls?

Remember when the phone rang and it was an overseas call? Maybe you don't have those memories but I can recall the summer when my father was on USY Pilgrimage as a madrich/counselor. He probably called once or twice to my poor beleaguered mother back in the US. Actually, we had a great summer. Originally the plan was for Jonathan and Sarah to go to camp - Cejwin, I believe, and I was to be shipped off to my Grandma Rena in Far Rockaway for the 6 weeks. This way, my mother would go with my father. It was 1967 and I was 5. My Mother informed my Grandmother that I was an easy customer - "Just give her peanut butter and jelly daily and she'll be happy." My Grandmother's reply? "I'll change that." My Mother decided that it wasn't worth the fight that would have broken out between the two of us - me and Grandma, that is. Instead, we all went with my mother to Far Rockaway. An apartment was available above my Grandmother and Grandfather's and we camped out in the upstairs apartment with borrowed cots and ate our meals at Grandma's house. We went to the beach every day and I started learning how to ride a 2 wheeler, courtesty of a local kid who had the most cunning mini bicycle. My other major memory of the summer is a food product called "Shake a Pudding." You mixed, shook for a long time (but it felt like it was instant pudding), then chilled for a while and voila! Instant but not really pudding.

My first trip to Israel was with my family in 1970. I'm sure that the very modest apt that we rented that summer in Kiryat Ha'yovel in Jerusalem didn't have a phone and I imagine that my parents didn't make overseas calls that summer - they probably wrote letters. My second trip to Israel was when I was 20. It was 1982 and I had just graduated from college. I worked on USY Pilgrimage as a counselor (just like my father had in '67) and then stayed on for the year. I called them for the first time about 8 weeks into the summer. In them thar days, you had to go to a calling center (if you didn't have access to another phone). You paid a certain amount in advance for your call and then waited to be told when it was your turn. Then, you'd go into a phone booth and the international operator would be waiting to connect you to your people. When the money was up, so was the call - it was always rather abrupt. Of course, there was, and still is, the time difference and that added a romantic and unexpected quality to those calls. You hoped you were reaching your party at the right time but it always seemed that whenever you wanted to call them, they were sleeping. Why were they always sleeping? In 1982/3, I was here for the year after college doing volunteer work (I highly recommend this to all those with children finishing high school and college - volunteerism is great). We didn't have our own phone - still a precious commodity for most. You had to buy these phone tokens - aseemonim (who still has a few saved?) - you plunked in a bunch (again, hoping that you had enough for a long distance call, not overseas, mind, long distance like T'zfat to Jerusalem), dialled your number and talked, listening to the aseemonim click as the time ticked by. Again, when they were done, you were cut off - no warning. It was always a little stressful but part of the game. International calls could be made from phone booths but required alot of patience and redialing and generally you were calling collect (which parents love so much) as you couldn't possibly collect enough aseemonim for an overseas call. You wrote letters, strange as that seems. Last year, while cleaning up and organizing for the move here, we came across Ira's letters to his Mother, and hers to him, when he came on a Ramah Seminar to Israel, when he was 17. Letters were so wonderful to receive when you were far away and although I'm not the best letter writer, or was not the best letter writer as in gen'l I'm a better emailer, I loved and still love receiving mail. It's so romantic - the letter, the stationary, opening it, sniffing the glue, rustling the papers, deciphering the handwriting. Things just aren't like that anymore with instant messaging and such.

Needless to say, when cellphones were first developed, Israelis were immediately enamored. By this point, one could get a home phone with ease, of course, and gone were the days of year long waits for getting a phone hooked up in one's apt. Yet, nobody had forgotten how hard it had been to be in touch in those not so distant days. I can recall back in the early days of the cellphones, sometime in the mid to late 90's, coming to Israel on a trip and visiting the big J'lem mall and EVERYONE, down to the little kids, had a phone. Maybe it's the Jewish mother thing and needing to let everyone know that you made it from point A to point B intact or maybe it's the love of technology that every Israel seems to be bred with. Either way, phones are everywhere and what's more, they work everywhere. It is unheard of to have dead spaces or blocks the way they occur in NYC all the time. Every so often, one loses a call and it's quite traumatic as you forget that it used to happen all the time. Cellphone politeness? Now that's a horse of different color but we won't discuss that at this juncture.

When my brother Jonathan and sister in law, Barbara, first moved to Israel in 1983, calls were really expensive. It was tough to be in touch and our phone bills were easily $100 more than most people I knew on an average basis. Sarah and Michael moved in 1985 and that didn't improve matters. Also, it was tremendously expensive to call from Israel, so they waited for us to call, leaving the financial burden on us. It was cheaper from the States but it wasn't like they were giving it away. My parents came to Israel in 1992 and things were getting better by that point - we all called each other at least bi-weekly and calling from Israel while not cheap wasn't as prohibitively expensive. During the 90's, Ralph and Lisa went to France. While we didn't talk a ton on the phone, it was fun to have another foreign location to call and certainly, I wasn't afraid of the process - it's just a bunch of numbers, other than that, it's a phone call. Ira travelled to London a few times during those years and by the time Jess came to Israel in 1995, I was accustomed to calling Israel at least once a week, if not more. Jess and I would talk all the time - we both needed it and why not? Knowing the nitty gritty of each other's lives was essential to both of us. If I needed a recipe, I could call Sarah and if I needed to talk and laugh, I could call Barbara, financial help, Jonathan and folk dancing steps, Michael. My parents would call to talk to the boys and hear about what we were doing. The cellphone just perfected the situation. In some ways it drove me crazy but my family could find me anywhere, anytime and they did - they called me when they were on the road, when they were together as a group or going or coming from a family event. They called me when I was on vacation and one memorable time, my phone rang while skiing down a run at Killington. It was Jess - she wished me good skiing and we hung up.

Ira and I are awash in long distance calling plans. We have a Bezeq line (regular phone service) and then we have cellphones (Ira and I and the boys). We have 012 service for long distance calls and Skype in and out for calls that can be received at the computer - this is great, stop hesitating and download Skype already. You can Skype from your computer (all you need is a mike and headset - just ask Mike Shelanski for instructions) and then, if you open an account, you can call a landline from your computer for literally cents per minute. We called Aunt Jo and Uncle Charlie today - Akiva was particularly in the mood and it was Sunday so we could catch them easily in the morning waking up - and talked for 30 minutes or so and it cost, 60 cents, I think? We may still do a Vonnage line or VOIP line so that all of you wusses who are still nervous about calling overseas, can have the pleasure of calling us via a 646 line - just like in NYC but haven't done it yet. Either way, getting decent long distance service and prices on calling is just so easy. Actually, my last few months in the States, I even had long distance service to Israel from my cellphone which didn't cost too much a minute. Certainly, it was fine for shorter calls and to check in on my folks especially.

Of course, nothing is as fun as Google talk or Skype on the computer because the voices come thru as if the person is sitting with you in the room and if you hook up a webcam, you can even pick your noses together or check out new purchases. I like these methods the most because of the magical quality of them. Even more so than phones, they seem rather mysterious and unexplainable to those of us who are more technologically challenged. Even my mother has Skyped, although she confesses, she felt a bit like she did when she first gazed on a TV set - "where's the little man inside the machine?"
Looking forward to hearing from you.


Jay B said...

I still have an asimone that I wore around my neck along with my Magen David for a few years after coming back home in 1973. Figured that with both hanging from a chain, I could reach out and touch somebody in either world. :-) Jay

Gella said...

We need to arrange a time when I can googletalk with Akiva. :)