The heimishe cell phone

A kosher cell phone – a device that allows users to make voice phone calls, but doesn’t have any ‘extras,’like Internet access, cameras and the like – in Yiddish!

cell phone 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
cell phone 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Howdo you say “ring tone” in Yiddish? Until about a month ago, there was no definitive answer to that question. But now, thanks to Marc Seelenfreund, CEO of Tel Aviv-based Accel-Telecom, Yiddish speakers around the world can interface with their cell devices using the mamaloshen – in a kosher, rabbinically approved cell phone imported by Accel.
“Kosher” cell phones – the kind without Internet, SMS or any other data services – have been around for a while, after the cellphone companies here worked out an arrangement with the Rabbinical Council for Communication Matters in 2005. The group, which is considered the final rabbinical authority for haredim in Mea She’arim and Bnei Brak on matters cellular, had previously banned cell-phone use altogether, because yeshiva students were using the devices to access the Internet and other data services – a major no-no in the community.
For haredi businesspeople, the injunction against cell-phone use was “an edict the community could not tolerate,” to use the talmudic term. Thus was born the kosher cell phone – a device that allows users to make voice phone calls, but doesn’t have any “extras,” like Internet access, cameras and the like. The phones, mostly older-generation (i.e. pre-smartphone-era) devices, are now available from all four of the country’s major cell-phone service providers (Pelephone, Cellcom, Orange and Mirs).
According to Reb Lazer, a high-ranking member of a major hassidic court and a right-hand man of his rebbe (he made me promise not to mention which one), the problem with kosher cell phones is that they’re all the same. “They may have different brand names, but as far as we’re concerned, there is only one feature that counts – the ability to make phone calls.
Phones have dial pads, speakers and microphones – so they’re pretty much all the same.”
That’s one of the reasons, he says, that the plans offered by service providers for kosher phone customers are very inexpensive – unless you make a call on Shabbat, for which you are penalized with an astronomical per-minute cost.
Price is the only way for the providers to differentiate themselves, says Lazer, so “the competition is cutthroat.”
Enter the Yiddish cell phone – a project over six months in the making, and designed to give haredi customers a “heimishe” option, says Seelenfreund. Now, when customers purchase an Alcatel phone equipped with the Yiddish language pack, they’ll be able to display menus, commands and messages in Yiddish, as well as set the ring tone as a favorite hassidic tune – another innovation Accel developed for haredi customers, says Seelenfreund.
“It’s all built into the phone, so there is no need to download anything – and thus no question about the ‘kashrus’ of the phone. The Rabbinical Council that deals with cell phones is very happy with our product,” he says.
BUT ISN’T daily use of Yiddish limited to people like yeshiva students who don’t get out much – and don’t have much use for cell phones? Don’t most haredim in the Israeli business world speak Hebrew? Indeed they do, says Seelenfreund – but even those who use Hebrew on a regular basis may feel more comfortable with Yiddish.
“It’s true that most of the haredim that people outside the community come into contact with speak Hebrew, but in the ‘interior’ of the community, such as in the back streets of Mea She’arim and Bnei Brak, there is still a lot of Yiddish usage,” he says.
Developing the Yiddish cell phone wasn’t as easy as you might think, says Naftali, one of the folks in charge of the translation – it took translators over four months to develop what he calls a glossary of about 1,500 words and terms used in the phone’s menus, interfaces and directions for use.
“And those are only the terms the user is most likely to use,” Naftali says. “Even a simple cell-phone device can have as between 15,000 and 40,000 words and expressions, which would have been far too ambitious a project to undertake. So we limited the translation to the terms the user would be most likely to use, including terms like ring tone, power on and off, conference call and the like.”
Because the number of Yiddish speakers is limited – and confined to a group that does not necessarily keep up with the cutting edge of technology – there were really no agreed-upon words for many of the translated terms.
“Basically we had to come up with translations from scratch, because there had been no evolution of the language that produced a common usage to describe many of the actions of a cell phone – like ‘ring tone’ [translated for the phone as ‘klingen’],” he explains. “We didn’t make up any new words, but we did have to do a lot of research to find existing words that would be applicable to the terms we were trying to express.”
That research was also needed to overcome what Naftali said was one of the team’s biggest hurdles – reconciling the different versions of Yiddish that have developed in different communities. “There are many subtle, and not so subtle, differences in usage in the Israeli hassidic and ‘Litvish’ [Lithuanian yeshiva] communities, and major differences between the way Yiddish is spoken in Israel and in New York, for example. We had to come up with words that could be universally understood among all Yiddish speakers, since we expect our translations to become the standard for Yiddish usage on cell phones.”
You would think that an item like a Yiddish cell phone would have limited appeal – because of both the lack of data services and the lack of Yiddish speakers – but according to Seelenfreund, “we began selling these phones right before Pessah, and in the past three weeks we have sold thousands.”
The language packs are exclusive to Alcatel phones, which Accel imports. Alcatel, by the way, is the fifth-largest seller of phones in the world, having recently surpassed both Motorola and Sony-Ericsson in the number of units sold on an annual basis, says Seelenfreund. “It’s an innovative and aggressive company, as evidenced by the fact that they were willing to take a chance on Yiddish – even though we had to do a lot of convincing before they agreed.”
Getting the Yiddish glossary loaded onto the phones Accel is importing (based on an Alcatel T-701 handset) presented its own set of challenges, says Seelenfreund – and as it was difficult enough working with one company, he doubts that they will be approaching competing companies with the project.
For now, the Yiddish cell phone is offered only by Orange, although it will be available to customers of other companies in the coming months, says Seelenfreund – and there are even plans to export it. But the Yiddish language pack will only go on kosher phones.
“It’s a nice gimmick,” says Reb Lazer. “If I were in the market for a cell phone and the salesperson showed me two phones – one with Yiddish and one without – I’d probably go for the Yiddish one. It couldn’t hurt!”