Oy Gevalt! Yiddish cell phone launches in Israel

JERUSALEM Mon May 9, 2011 12:51pm EDT

1 of 3. Kosher cellular phones, imported and distributed by Israeli Accel Telecom, are displayed at the company's offices in Tel Aviv May 2, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Nir Elias

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's kosher cellular phone market has a new model, a device with a Yiddish interface to help devout Jews combine tradition with modern technology.

Hundreds of thousands of mobile phones, popularly dubbed kosher because they block access to services frowned upon by ultra-Orthodox rabbis, have been operating in the Jewish state for years.

Last month, Israel's second largest mobile provider, Partner introduced what it hailed as the world's first Yiddish cell phone, manufactured by Alcatel-Lucent.

Marc Seelenfreund, CEO of Israeli Accel Telecom which imports and distributes mobile phones to all Israeli operators, had a special team of translators work for months to develop an interface entirely in Yiddish.

Yiddish, a mixture of medieval German and Hebrew, was the spoken language of millions of European Jews for centuries, but it is now spoken mostly by elderly Jews and in ultra-Orthodox communities.

Yiddish words such as chutzpah, schmaltz or schlep, may have entered the English language, but Seelenfreund said ultra-Orthodox Jews would appreciate terms like "outgoing call," "ringtone" and "vibrate" translated into Yiddish.

Seelenfreund said the market for Kosher phones was substantial, estimating there are up to 400,000 users in Israel and another 500,000 in the United States.

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While handsets have become ever more sophisticated, offering increasingly high-tech features, kosher cell phones have no text messaging capabilities, Internet access or camera and block calls to sex lines.

Concerns about erotic phone services and forbidden text messaging between members of the opposite sex prompted leaders of Israel's ultra-Orthodox community to set up a rabbinical committee on Internet and cell phone use several years ago.

The words "kosher" and "approved by the rabbinical committee for telecommunications" appear on the screen when a kosher cell phone is turned on.

"There are many problems with today's phones, many temptations," said Rabbi Baruch Shraga, a member of the committee.

"One can reach very immodest places on the Internet and people will write in a text message lewd things which they would not dare say aloud. Some laws prohibit hearing a woman sing, so ringtones are also restricted," Shraga said.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews are believed to make up about 8 to 10 percent of the population of 7.7 million in Israel.

"We sell thousands of Kosher cell phones a month which also offer special features like a Jewish holiday calendar and Hassidic ringtones," said Estie Rozen, a spokeswoman for Cellcom, Israel's largest mobile operator.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)