A cartoon in an Israeli newspaper depicts a rickety biplane nose-diving and a nervous passenger warning the pilot they are hurtling toward a certain crash at 220 kilometers per hour.
"That's only 132 miles per hour," observes the unflappable pilot. When the passenger increduously asks if that calculation was intended to make him feel better, the unconcerned pilot responds, "Sure, same principle as the shekel."
Many Israelis are thinking the same thing these days as they peel off crisp new banknotes whose fewer zeros seem to make routine shopping less painful but actually do not buy any more value than the old currency.
Introduced two months ago with much fanfare and hope that it would jolt Israel's deteriorating economy out of triple-digit inflation, the shekel so far has been less than a spectacular success.
Israelis traditionally have taken an almost perverse pride in devising their own methods of keeping ahead of inflation, and the appearance of the biblical shekel has done little to inspire new public attitudes toward inflationary spending, economists say.
The Bank of Israel has managed to overcome formidable logistical obstacles in converting the currency from the pound to the shekel, the ancient tender of the Patriarch Abraham.
Two-thirds of the total value of outstanding notes has been replaced by the new shekel notes, putting the central bank well ahead of schedule in the conversion. The switch of notes is expected to be 90 to 95 percent complete in a month or two, although the old pound notes can be redeemed at banks over the next 20 years.
But the psychological impact the government had hoped would motivate an increasingly materialistic society to spend less has failed to develop, and the government has shown little sign of setting an example by trimming its outlays.
As a result, the annual inflation rate is still running at more than 100 percent, spurred by a record $10 billion budget and steadily rising inflation-linked salaries for most employes.
"People will see something they want and say to themselves that the price is too high. But they are thinking at the same time that it may actually be a bargain, because the next day the price will be higher. They complain and buy," said Aharon Gilshon, deputy director of the Bank of Israel's banking department.
Immediately after the announcement of the conversion on Feb. 24, many Israelis converged on banks and Arab money changers in the Old City to convert their currency into American dollars. British sterling and even Jordanian dinars, although that hedge has dropped off with new restrictions on foreign currency holdings.
Many inflation-beaters put their money in time-deposit accounts, where it grows as the cost-of-living index grows. If an investor deposits the equivalent of $1,000 and prices double in a year, he is credited with having $2,000. In addition, he pays taxes only on the 3 or 4 percent interest paid on the account, not on the growth of his principal.
Others have opted for the "index-linked" bonds issued by the government, whose value is also tied to the consumer price increases, with an additional yield, or for tax-free stocks.
Many people simply postpone payment on loans or goods, figuring penalties will be more than offset by the inflation loss hedged, and some fall back on the old Israeli practice of persuading their employers to provide under-the-table perquisites that are as good as cash -- allowances for nonexistent travel, company payment of utilities, unsecured loans and even clothing allowances.
Parliament member Gad Yaacobi recently warned his colleagues, only half-facetiously, that the Israeli pound is not being replaced by the shekel; it is being replaced by the U.S. dollar.
"The way things are going -- with the government itself issuing dollar-linked loans -- the 'dollarization' of our currency will soon be complete, and we will have no need for a national currency," he said.
Introduction of the shekel, which is being exchanged at the rate of one shekel for 10 pounds, was a technical device involving no devaluation of Israeli's currency. But its purpose, Finance Ministry officials said at the time, was to create a smaller scale of figures involved in ordinary transactions and to generate public respect for money.
The new-found respect, it was theorized, would stem partly from the shekel's strong biblical association. The ancient denomination was used more than three milleniums ago in the First Temple, and Abraham used it to purchase the Machpela cave for the burial of his wife, Sarah, according to the Bible.
But Israelis have been slow to give up their attachment to the pound, or lira, as it is commonly called.
Gilshon and Shmuel Aviezer, head of the Bank of Israel's currency supply unit, said in interviews that the psychological effect of the shekel has yet to be felt.
"It's too early to pass judgment yet, but the currency conversion itself won't accomplish the job. There have to be other measures the government was meant to take," Gilshon said. "The most important was the intended budget cut. We in the bank are skeptical. We think the government hasn't lived up to its expectations."
Originally, the government intended to complete the conversion in three months, but it extended the program until Oct. 1 to give banks time to shift their computers to the new denominations.
Another problem created by the shekel is that tourists and new immigrants are subjected occasionally to confusion and fraud because the currency's identification as shekelion is printed only in Hebrew. As a result, someone unfamiliar with the colors of the portraits on the new bills -- which are identical to the old -- may pay 10 shekels instead of 10 pounds.
"The big question now is what will happen to prices in the next few months. If we can keep inflation to 5 percent a month, maybe the psychological effect will work. But if it goes to 10 percent, maybe the purpose won't be achieved," Gilshon said.