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Even as They Die Out Everywhere Else, Telegrams Persist in Israel

Despite their embrace of technology, when Israelis care enough to send the very best, they still do it the old-fashioned way

Gil Shefler
August 06, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos )
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos )
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos )
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos )

The call-center operators who work at the Israel Postal Company’s nerve center, housed in a big brown Mandate-era building in central Tel Aviv, spend most of their time providing a variety of standard mail services. But they also devote as much as 40 percent of their shifts to sustaining another communications technology that seems increasingly outdated: the telegram.

If you’re lucky a particularly dedicated representative might even help craft a greeting. “You already have the word ‘love’ in the message itself so I wouldn’t sign off with that, too,” an operator advised last week. “Keep that at the end but add ‘wishing you lots of luck’ in the body of the text instead.”

Last month, India’s decision to shutter its state-run telegram service after 163 years set off waves of nostalgia, even among people who hadn’t sent or received telegrams in decades, if ever. In New Delhi, crowds of people gathered outside customer centers to send souvenir messages and witness the end of an era. India was only the latest to join a growing group of countries—including the United States, U.K., Canada, Germany, Australia, and Pakistan, to name a few—where telegrams are a thing of the past.

But in Israel, a country famous for its embrace of technology, the antiquated form of communication stubbornly and rather improbably lives on, sustained by social customs shaped by both Jewish tradition and Israel’s history as an immigrant nation. Every day, dozens of couriers fan out across the nation on mopeds delivering telegrams to wedding halls, private residences, banks, hospitals, army bases, and courtrooms. More than 45,000 telegrams were sent in the past six months, according to Maya Avishai, a spokesperson for the Israel Postal Company—an overwhelming 60 percent of them letters of condolence, making death the telegram’s most successful business.

Jewish tradition frowns on sending flowers to mourners, but telegrams are both tangible and fast—perfect for people too far away to make a shiva call in person. One Jerusalem-based nonprofit uses the service whenever longtime past or present employees, or their immediate family members, die. “It’s respectable,” said Mazal, the organization’s office manager, who asked that her last name not be used because she was not authorized to speak on behalf of her organization. “I would never send an email like that. Sometimes just one or two lines can mean a lot.”

The other 40 percent of telegrams sent in Israel are either celebratory in nature—weddings, bar mitzvahs, brises, and Jewish holidays—or litigious, like debt-collection notifications and court summons. The postal service even offers greetings tailored to the event-filled Jewish calendar. “One of our more popular telegrams is printed on a card with a shofar that reads happy new year,” said Tehila Garasu, the deputy manager of the call center in Tel Aviv. The tradition reaches back at least to the 1920s, when Western Union routinely announced that Jews sent more telegrams of congratulations than any other group. A 1928 item run by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency notes that some rabbis received as many as 500 messages for Rosh Hashana that year.

Telegrams were also the best way for Jews living in Mandate Palestine—most of whom had family abroad—to send short bursts of information to faraway places quickly and affordably, in an era when international telephone calls were rare luxuries and even airmail remained too slow for urgent messages.

“I remember we would often send telegrams to my husband’s parents who lived in Brussels in the 1950s,” recalled Batsheva Dagan, now 88, a Holocaust survivor from Poland who lives in Holon. “Later, when I was living overseas in Mexico, I was sent telegrams from Israel on occasions like my birthday.”

Today’s telegram operators still take calls seated in the same room their predecessors did 70 years ago. “Back then they would write down messages word for word using a pen and pad and call clients back confirming the content of the message,” said Garasu, the manager, who has spent more than three decades with the post office. “Then they would take the messages upstairs to another department where they were transmitted by Morse code.”

The so-called “singing wires” carrying messages coded in Morse were replaced by teleprinters—essentially early fax machines—in the 1960s. In the 1990s they were replaced, in turn, by computers. The postal service has experimented with ways of modernizing the service, though some ideas have caught on better than others: One automated service that generated generic messages for customers who could not be bothered to write them themselves was suspended after families in mourning started complaining about getting telegrams that said “mabruk,” Arabic for congratulations, according to an operator.

The Israel Postal Company has worked to bring the telegram service into the 21st century. One of the most popular ways of sending telegrams today is, ironically, over the Internet: Customers fill out a form online and the telegram is printed out at the recipient’s nearest post office branch and sent out to its destination with a messenger.

But while telegrams offer a sense of dignity, familiarity and a personal touch in a world where human interaction can seem increasingly scarce, they can never compete with phone calls, text messages, or emails for speed. The postal service swears telegrams are delivered within four hours, but three telegrams sent recently all took longer to be delivered, and one arrived at its destination—just a 10-minute drive from the call center in Tel Aviv—six hours late.

Telegrams were removed from an ”essential service” list of products that are subject to government regulation two years ago, leaving the postal company free to raise or lower the price—a flat rate of about $11 for 46 words—or to pull the plug altogether. The Israel Postal Company responded by doubling its price and limiting same-day deliveries to mid to large cities, but it still lost roughly $700,000 in 2011, according to a report in Haaretz last year. “If I’m being honest, we’ve noticed a drop in the use of the product they call ‘the telegram’ for a long time,” said Yigal Levi, the director of Postal Regulation Division. “There’s no way of stopping it or ignoring the appearance of newer technology.”

But the telegram’s biggest fans point to the enduring perception that the telegram will always offer added value over newer modes of communication. “It shows somebody paid money and invested time and effort sending it,” said Garasu. “People want to personalize their message and a text message simply isn’t a telegram—and it never will be.”

Gil Shefler is a journalist covering international affairs with a focus on the Middle East and religion.