This Year We're Gonna Party - Like It's 1999

With Jacob Frenkel back at the central bank and a '90s talk show back on the air, Israel has taken 'retro' to a whole new level.

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Move over Noughties, it's official: the nineties are coming back! With the announcement this week that Jacob Frenkel will soon be back at the helm as governor of the Bank of Israel, Israelis responded with a gasp of astonishment, not unlike the one Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly made when he realized he'd just traveled back in time to the 1950s in the first "Back to the Future."

We must all, as a country, have traveled back in time. What other explanation could there be for the fact that it seems life has reverted to an era when crop-tops were fashionable?

Despite the international credentials he accumulated over the last decade – not all positive, as vice chairmen to bailed-out behemoth AIG the financial crisis totally caught him by surprise - Frenkel is mostly known to Israelis as the austere, stern-faced governor of the Bank of Israel from 1991 to 2000. Back then Israel's economy and markets were much smaller, banks were still owned by the state, inflation was a huge problem and Startup Nation was in its infancy.

Frenkel's first two terms as governor sum up the multitudes of problems afflicting Israel's tumultuous economy in the '90s. Frenkel fought with finance ministers, battled valiantly with inflation, was criticized for his performance during the stock market crash of '94, and continued his predecessors' work of transforming Israel's economy from a government-controlled socialist mess to something more reminiscent of a liberalized free market state.

Things have changed tremendously since then, for Israel's economy and for Frenkel himself. In Israel's collective memory, Frenkel is kind of like that uncle who moves abroad – every couple of years he comes to visit, and you hear from your mother that he's doing well- and then comes back after 13 years, reclaiming his favorite spot on the couch as if nothing had changed.

But the return of the Frenkel isn't the only blast from the past that Israelis are dealing with. Just last week, we were told that the '90s talk show "Live with Dan Shilon" (also broadcast, strangely, 1991-2000 and informally called "The Circle"), is making a rather confounding comeback. Like Frenkel, the show has been off the air for 13 years – an eternity in television terms.    

Back then the show had an almost mythical power over Israelis from all walks of life: from prime ministers to pop stars to everyman. Hosted by noted journalist and TV personality Dan Shilon, "The Circle" gushed unfathomable-but-classic TV moments, the last true cultural staple that united all Israelis. On any given show you might see surreal things like the finance minister (Avraham Shochat) dancing in a Turkish fez with a transvestite and a popular TV star, or the prime minister (Yitzhak Rabin) mending fences with a rebel-icon pop star (Aviv Geffen). You might see bitter political rivals (Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu) singing a duet "You and I are going to change the world" (these moments have been preserved for digital eternity on YouTube).

"The Circle" was a unique phenomenon, one that defined the first days of commercial television in Israel. The same kind of magic cannot, thankfully, be reproduced in these cynical and media-saturated times. So why even try?

Maybe because Israel has never really left the '90s. Israeli radio still plays '90s favorites Black Hole Sun and Nothing Compares 2 U and likes to pretend the Alanis Morissette of "Jagged Little Pill" and the REM of "Automatic for the People" are still alive. The Pet Shop Boys perform here regularly, forgotten '90s acts like Skunk Anansie and K's Choice still play sold-out gigs, and Israeli prime time TV offers a popular Israeli version of "The Golden Girls".

A year ago, there was also an Israeli remake of "Marriedwith Children". Even platform shoes, perhaps the most atrocious of '90s fashion trends, are coming back. Not to mention that Benjamin Netanyahu is prime minister again, Aryeh Deri is still a political force (albeit now an oppositional one), and the most burning issue of the past week is – again – the question of whether businesses should be allowed to open on Shabbat.

Of course, to be fair, Israel has always been fond of retro – any retro. Any semi-popular 80's act can still fill stadiums in Israel – Paul Young, anyone? – and the hottest band of this summer is no other but '70s supergroup Kaveret. Israelis adore nostalgia, no matter the decade. Eskimo Limon, one of the most popular Israeli films of all time (and a huge hit in Japan), was a nostalgic '70s love song to the 1950s.

Yearning for a simpler time

But the '90s hold a special place in our hearts. Those were simpler times, before the Second Intifada. We were hopeful even in the darkest moments, like the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The peace process still existed, houses were affordable, suicide bombings were still seen a shocking new development and not a calculated risk you take every time you board a bus. The spirit of social solidarity that characterized Israeli society in its socialist era was still not entirely bankrupt.

Nostalgia can be triggered by unhappiness with the way things are. The peace process is for all intents and purposes dead, the cost of living is soaring. Hope seems to have been supplanted by apathy.

No wonder we'd like to recreate the 1990s, when "Oslo" wasn't a dirty word, pop music was still fun, reality TV had yet to pollute our screens, and every other day we could curl up in front of the newly established Channel 2 and watch ministers and professors dancing and having fun with transvestites and escorts like it was the most natural and beautiful thing in the world.

Maybe life then didn't seem that great, but good. Just good. And you know what? As it turned out, that was more than enough.

Pop star Aviv Geffen singing at a memorial for slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. The two had previously met on a Dan Shilon show.Credit: Dan Keinan
Jacob Frenkel, who was governor of the Bank of Israel between 1991-2000, was forced to withdraw his candidacy following allegations that he was caught shoplifting a garment bag in a Hong Kong.Credit: Bloomberg
Dan ShilonCredit: Ofer Vaknin

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