For Beginners: Israel in Conflict

July 18, 2014

The situation in the Middle East grows more and more grim as Shabbat approaches. A couple of thoughts, especially for those readers who are beginners in Judaism:

1. Those of you who are feeling upset and disturbed, this is a time to reach out to your teachers and your community. Go to services this Shabbat. Contact your rabbi, or your teacher, and let them know what’s going on with you. Simply be in Jewish space; it will help.

2. One way to feel less helpless is to do something to help innocents who are suffering.  The International Committee of the Red Cross has an an “Israel and Gaza Appeal Fund” to assist those who are suffering in the current conflict. It coordinates and assists both Magen David Adom (The Red Star, in Israel) and the Palestine Red Crescent Society. The International Rescue Committee also works in this area. Every gift of tzedakah, no matter how small, will help sufferers and will also help the giver feel less helpless.

3. If you are just beginning to study about Judaism, let this be a time to learn, not a time to attempt to teach others. Some may approach you and ask you to explain the conflict, knowing that you are interested in Judaism. If you don’t want to engage on the topic, say so. All you need do is say, “The situation in Israel and Gaza breaks my heart. Can we talk about something else?”

4. Another things you can do is study. A popular recent book on the subject is My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit. Another excellent book is Israel is Real, by Rich Cohen. He is not a scholar, and I have some quibbles with details, but it’s readable and honest. Or ask your rabbi for a recommendation!

5. Do not believe everything you see on the Internet.  Again, if something disturbs you, contact your teacher or rabbi. Also, be careful what words and images you spread. Unsubstantiated rumors do not help the situation, no matter whom they allegedly favor.

I wish you a Shabbat of peace and learning, of goodness and grace, of light and love. Shabbat shalom.


Reflections on Israel, July 2014

July 9, 2014

My heart is in the east, and I am at the farthest west.

How can I taste food? How shall it be sweet to me?

How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while

Zion lies beneath the fetters of Edom, and I in Arab chains?

It seems to me a small thing to leave all the good things of Spain,

Seeing how precious in my eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.

                                              – Yehuda HaLevi, 12th c.

This 12th century poem is the best way I know to communicate the relationship of Jews to Israel. The poet who wrote it was a Jew who spent much of his life as a refugee from various regimes that were unfriendly to Jews. He was born in Spain, but he was never able to put down roots anywhere. If you asked him, he would tell you that Israel was his home, even though he had never seen it.

He disappeared en route to Israel. We hear the last of him in Cairo, where he could have stayed. He was a celebrity in the Jewish world of his time, a superstar poet and philosopher, but he wanted to go home. He insisted on going, despite the fact that Jerusalem was in the hands of Christian armies who slaughtered every Jew they found. We don’t know if the old man was on a boat that sank at sea, or was taken by pirates, or whether he did indeed reach the holy city and was (as legend has it) trampled to death by a Crusader’s horse.

My heart is in the east right now. I have heard from friends and colleagues who have scrambled to bomb shelters again and again over the past week. I am worried about friends from whom I haven’t heard. It has also stirred my memories of being in Israel during another difficult time, 12 years ago. I moved to Israel to learn Torah, and wound up learning more about bomb shelters and gas masks than I ever wanted to know.

I am angry at the handling of this story by the news media. The rockets and bombs hitting Israel for ten days were not deemed newsworthy. Only when Israel at last began to defend herself again the bombing did anyone take notice, and then it was to talk about “escalation.” What escalation? What other country on earth would be asked to sit quietly and accept bombardment? One million Israelis will sleep in or near bomb shelters tonight.

And yes, I am aware that there have been a terrible number of Palestinian civilian casualties. Their leadership has chosen to shelter their rocket launchers and military facilities in civilian settings, using their own people as human shields. That’s why Israel held off for so long. But I do not apologize for the fact that my people have chosen to keep military targets away from civilians. I do not apologize for the fact that Israel does not use old people and children for human shields. I wish that Hamas would do the same.

Not all the “photos of Gaza” published in social media right now are actually photos of Gaza, or of the current conflict. For more information about that, go to Grasswire.com or follow them at @grasswirefacts.  I am angry at the lies, at the manipulation of public perception.

I cannot imagine where this will end, because I know Israelis, and I know how the Jewish heart feels about the Land. No bombardment, no kidnapping, no murder, no harassment, no threat, no propaganda will change the fact that for thousands of years, Israel has been the home of the Jews, the home of our hearts. I wish that the world would not encourage Hamas in its murderous deception, and its use of innocents for military purposes. I wish that there could be two states, and that we could find some way to agree that Israel can exist, and a Palestinian state can exist.

My heart is in the East, and I am at the limits of the West, praying for peace.


We Can’t Have It Both Ways

July 7, 2014
Four Boys

Four Boys

My regular readers have probably noticed that I’ve been unusually quiet for the last week. Events in Israel this past week have left me speechless. I wish I could say something useful about what’s been going on there, but between the storm of my own feelings and the swift winds of events, I’ve been silent.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Rabbi Yitz Greenberg‘s comment about Jewish theology after the Holocaust: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” In other words, words are not sufficient to express the disaster of the Shoah, much less to “make sense” of it. It was senseless, mindless evil.

So, too. was the murder of Mohammed Abu Khieder, another burning child. The Israeli police have arrested several Jews for this crime, and the full weight of the law will be brought to bear. But what has given me as much pain are the comments I have been reading and hearing in the wake of the crime.

  • “The murderers do not represent us.”
  • “They are not real Jews.”
  • “They (the Palestinians) are still worse than we are.”

This, from people who scoff when someone says that pizza parlor bombings are not true expressions of Islam. This from people who would be incensed at the suggestion that the Holocaust was not the action of “real Germans.” This, from people who read the news stories about Jews marching in the streets of Jerusalem, of the Holy City, chanting “Death to the Arabs.”

We, who were so noisy about how Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal were “our children,” are now hastily disowning six other young men who chose to act out what other Jews were saying in the street.

It is easier to be connected with blameless victims; we can grieve, and people will feel sorry for us. We can be angry at the Other. But when the criminals are our own, it is much more difficult. It is hard to say, yes, that child is mine.

We can’t have it both ways. If we are going to hold all Palestinians responsible for the murders of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali, then we must not be surprised if they hold us all responsible for the terrible death of young Mohammed. On both sides, we have innocents, on both, we have the guilty.

Until we are willing to claim both for both sides, and admit both for both sides, there can be no peace.

 


What is the Priestly Blessing?

May 26, 2014

May the Eternal bless you and keep you.

יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ

Yeh-vah-REH-che-cha Adonai v’YISH-meh-reh-chah

May the Eternal cause His face to shed light upon you and be gracious unto you.

יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ

yah-AIR Adonai pan-AV eh-LEHcha vee-choo-NEH-ka)

May the Eternal lift up His face to you and give you peace.

יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

yee-SA Adonai pah-NAV eh-leh-kha v’yah-SEM leh-KHAH sha-LOM.

 This text, from Numbers 6:24-26, is known as the Birkat Kohanim, or priestly blessing. It is one of the most familiar passages of Torah to a synagogue-going Jew. In the synagogue service, traditionally it is pronounced by the adult male kohanim (descendants of Aaron) daily in Israel and on certain days of the year in the Diaspora. (For a video of kohanim giving the blessing at the Western Wall, click this link.)

The priestly blessing is also used for blessings on other occasions. Parents may say it over children on Shabbat evenings, and a chazzan (cantor) or rabbi in the Reform movement may say it on a solemn occasion for blessing, such as a baby naming, a conversion, or a birthday.

It is associated with a hand gesture that is often pictured on the grave markers of kohanim (see photo below).

This text is the content of the oldest Biblical inscription currently known, the Ketef Hinnom inscription, found in 1979 near the Old City of Jerusalem. The words were inscribed in paleo-Hebrew on thin silver strips and rolled into an amulet to be worn on a string around the neck. They are estimated to be from the early 6th century BCE (1st Temple period) based upon analysis of the script.

Earlham Cemetery, Norwich, England, UK

Earlham Cemetery, Norwich, England, UK

 

 Image by LEOL3O, some rights reserved.


Why I am a Zionist

May 5, 2014

I am a Zionist.

I wasn’t always sure about that. I am not quite as old as the State of Israel, and during the first part of my life, before I was a Jew, I watched from a distance, detached, as Israel struggled for survival. There was no reason to feel invested: I was not yet a Jew. Some things I thought inspiring, some disturbing.

Then I became a Jew. That meant I could not be neutral on this subject; I am invested. So I studied.

In the year 136 of the common era, the Romans put down the Bar Kokhba Revolt in Judea. The Roman Emperor Hadrian decided to make an example of the Jews, lest any other subject nation get the idea of revolution. The majority of the population of Judea was killed, exiled, or sold into slavery. Torah law and the Hebrew calendar were prohibited. Torah scholars were executed in droves. In an attempt to obliterate the memory of the Jews, the Roman province was renamed Syria Palaestina. Jerusalem was destroyed, and the new Roman city of Aelia Capitolina was built on its ashes. Jews were forbidden even to enter the city except on Tisha B’Av, the Jewish day of mourning for the lost Temple. 

So the Jews were scattered across the world: some to Europe, some to Asia, some to Africa, a stateless people clinging to a memory of home. Periodically individual Jews and small groups would decide to go home to join the small, stubborn remnant that persisted in the land, the Old Yishuv. Some Diaspora Jews sent their bodies home for burial. Particularly after a disaster, like the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, there would be movements to return in larger numbers.

History took a vicious turn in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even the most enlightened and scientific societies of Europe had an ugly and growing tendency to Jew hatred. In the rest of the world, there was enough of this hatred that doors began slamming. Theodore Herzl, a journalist, read the writing on the wall in the Dreyfus Affair. By the time the Jews of Germany realized what the Nazi regime would bring, there was nowhere for Jews to go, because nowhere in Europe or America or South America or Asia or Australia was their home.

I don’t need to tell you the rest of that story.

Zionism is the belief that there needs to be somewhere on the face of the earth where Jews are in charge of their own destiny. Through the actions of Jews, and through the agreements of the nations of the world, as well as through history, that place has been the small plot of land at the far east end of the Mediterranean, bounded on the north by Mt. Hermon, and at the southeast by Egypt.

There were other people, Muslims and Christians, with homes there when the Jews went home. There were nations with interests in seeing to it that they and the Jews did not live peacefully together. There have been great wrongs done on all sides. But there have also been moments of promise, moments when we could glimpse the possibility of what could be.

I am left, at the end, with the conviction that there needs to be an Israel. I believe that the 7 million Jews living there, many of them born there, have a right to be there. And I believe, as well, that the Palestinian people have a right to live in peace. I believe that as impossible as it seems to find peace, after all the years of war and bitterness, that there is nothing to do but keep trying and keep living.

This week we are observing Yom HaZikaron – the day that we remember the 23,169 who have died defending Israel and in acts of terror. Then, when the sun goes down, we observe Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. This is the week for remember that nothing can be taken for granted, least of all freedom and dignity.

This week we pray for the strength of spirit to do those things which need to be done. We pray for leaders on both sides who can see past their own self-interests. And most of all, we pray for hearts that can transcend cynicism and despair to lead us all the rest of the way home.

 

This article was slightly amended for clarification. See comments for details. Thank you to my readers for helping me express myself clearly!

 

 


What are “the Yoms?”

April 29, 2014

Declaration of State of Israel 1948

David ben Gurion reads the Declaration of the State of Israel, 1948


Every spring, after Passover, the Jewish calendar marks four days to commemorate events in modern Jewish history:

Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day  usually on 27 Nisan (click on the link for more info on Yom HaShoah)

Yom HaZikaron – Israeli Memorial Day usually on 5 Iyar (yom ha-ZEEK-a-rohn)

Yom HaAtzma’oot – Israeli Independence Day the day immediately after Yom HaZikaron, usually 6 Iyar (yom ha-atz-ma-OOT)

Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day, marking the day in 1967 when the city was reunited, on 28 Iyar (yom Yair-oo-shah-LIE- eem)

Israeli Memorial Day and Israeli Independence Day are always paired. In Israel’s short history (less than 70 years, at this writing) the price of independence has been the deaths of too many of its citizens. Unlike Memorial Day in the United States, which is seen as many as “the first day of summer vacation,” Yom HaZikaron is a true day of mourning in Israel, because nearly every citizen spends the day remembering one or more loved ones who have died in defense of their country.

The mourning of Memorial Day turns to exuberance at sundown, when Yom HaAtzma’oot, Independence Day begins. Israelis and Jews worldwide celebrate the birth of the Jewish State with speeches, picnics, fireworks, and general celebration.

Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, also marks a dramatic moment in modern Jewish history. Under the 1947 UN Partition Plan, Jerusalem was to be a “international city” for ten years, after which the citizens of Jerusalem would vote to decide whether they would be part of Israel, or part of a new Arab state. While Jewish leaders agreed to this plan, Arab leaders rejected it. Immediately after the signing of the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948, armies from all its Arab neighbors invaded. By the end of the War of Independence, Jerusalem was a divided city, the western portion in Israeli control and the eastern portion and the “Old City” under occupation by the Jordanian Armed Forces. No Jews were allowed to remain in the Jordanian-controlled areas, the synagogues were demolished and the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was plundered.

Such was the situation in Jerusalem until 1967, when increasing hostility between Israel and its Arab neighbors boiled over into the Six-Day War. Israel sent word to King Hussein of Jordan that it would not attack Jerusalem or the West Bank  unless provoked. With encouragement from Egypt, the King ordered the Jordanian army to shell civilian locations in Israel; Israel responded by opening a new front against Jordan on June 6. The next day, Israel succeeded in capturing the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, bringing the holy site back under Jewish control for the first time since 70 CE. Yom Yerushalayim marks the reunification of the city.

The four “Yoms” (Days) recall the dramatic course of Jewish history in the 20th century.

Image: Rudi Weissenstein, in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

All in the Family

April 24, 2014
Different flavors of Jews on the streets of Jerusalem.

A wild diversity of Jews shop at Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem.

Tonight in “Intro to Judaism” class the topic was Ashkenazi history and culture. It’s a big topic for just 90 minutes.

Ashkenazi Judaism is that portion of world Jewry with its roots in Europe, except for Spain and Portugal. It is partly an ancestral thing, but also a category of ritual, custom, and Jewish law. The vast majority of American Jews are Ashkenazim (more than 80% by conservative estimates.) There are many subgroups and topics within the big umbrella of “Ashkenazi,” but one thing I noticed was that we kept wandering off topic.

One minute we’d be talking about Askhenazi customs, and then a student would ask a question that was more about Sephardic Judaism.  A few times there were questions about Mizrahi Jews, and other, smaller groups. And it hit me: we really are Am Echad, one People. As diverse as we are, it was impossible to talk only about Ashkenazim. The other groups, the other threads just kept creeping into the discussion.

Here in the United States it is particularly impossible to separate the ethnic groups. The first Jews in North America were Sephardim, Jews with roots in Jewish Spain, even if they actually arrived from Brazil, or England, or the Netherlands. While they are today a minority of American Jews, it was they who set the tone for Jewish life in America, who served in the Revolutionary Army, who were well-regarded by George Washington.  They built the first synagogues here.

Not all individuals with Sephardic ancestry go to Sephardic synagogues, either: I know several Reform rabbis of Sephardic descent, and many more families who claim both a Sephardic heritage (or a Mizrahi heritage) and attend Reform or Conservative synagogues.

As our discussion went on tonight, I stopped trying to drag the discussion back to the Ashkenazim. It was clear that the topic would wind up back there soon enough. I watched what we were doing, and realized that this is what we always do: you just can’t talk about one corner of Jewry without eventually talking about all of Judaism.  If we talk about something Reform, sooner or later someone will reference “the Orthodox” (which drives me crazy, since Orthodoxy is hardly a monolith – there are divisions within it, too.)  Next week, when we talk about the Sephardim in class, I’m sure we’ll be back to the Ashkenazim before I make it out of the 16th century. If we talk about American Jews, sooner or later the topic will come around to Israel, and if you talk about Judaism in Israel, here comes the Diaspora! And this past week, everyone’s been worrying about the Ukrainian Jews!

What I learned tonight in class is that while Jews are diverse, we are also truly one big noisy sometimes dysfunctional family. We are so much One that we are truly inseparable, living in relation to one another.

Am Echad – One People.

Image: Emmanuel Dyan, some rights reserved.

 


My Promised Land – A Question

March 8, 2014

shavitThis week I’ve been reading a book  much more slowly than usual. I’ve been distracted by some conversations about the book that have me running back to reread sections. The book is Avi Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

Ari Shavit is a columnist who serves on the editorial board of Haaretz, the Israeli equivalent of the New York Times. The man can write; sections of the book are almost poetry. He uses anecdotes from his family history as a framework to look at the State of Israel.

I began reading the book on the recommendation of my rabbi. He said that the writing was excellent and that it was a book that would “make everyone talk.” He’s right on both counts.

You can Google the reviews, if you want. What fascinates me is that Shavit seems to have found a “sweet spot” in which he’s bothering everyone. One reviewer will say that he leaves out too much Palestinian wrongdoing; another will say that he’s leaving out too much Israeli wrongdoing.  Often they cite the same chapter, Chapter 5, “Lydda.” Again and again, informal commenters and reviewers seem to insist that he left something out. The problem is almost always what he failed to say, some element that for the reviewer is essential.

It leaves me to wonder how big a book would need to be to satisfy everyone, to truly address the bitterness on both sides. I wonder what would happen if we were to assemble such a book: a book that both the most passionate Palestinian and the most passionate Zionist could read and say, “Yes, everything is there.” No reasons, no excuses, this book would list the bitter facts, lay them all out so that everything is acknowledged.

Would it help, or would it make things worse?  I do not know.


Who’s the Most Jewish?

October 6, 2013
René Molho

René Molho

If you’ve been around the Jewish community for a while, you’ve probably seem some version of the game, “Who’s the Most Jewish?” also known as “More Jewish Than You.” It’s one of our less attractive things.

For example, if you are a convert to Judaism, sooner or later someone is going to try to tell you that you’ll never be really Jewish. (My standard answer: “Take that up with my rabbi.”) Others may try to tell you that you’re more Jewish because you had to study and learn.  Either way, it’s unpleasant.

This used to bother me a lot more before I heard the story of René Molho (of blessed memory.) René was a survivor of Auschwitz and one of my teachers. He devoted his last years to retelling his story to combat the rising tide of Holocaust denial. René and his brother grew to young manhood in Salonica, a Greek island with a famous Sephardic community.  Just as Ashkenazi Jews spoke Yiddish, Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino, a language closely related to Spanish. When René and his brother arrived at Auschwitz, the Jews there refused to believe the two young men were Jewish because they didn’t speak Yiddish. It was quite a while before they stopped treating the Molhos with suspicion.

René was in Auschwitz with a yellow star on his chest, and there were Jews who thought he wasn’t Jewish enough.

This sad, stupid business has many roots. The Jews René met in Auschwitz had been terrorized. Many of them had never met Sephardic Jews, and it must have seemed like some new and horrible trick. From the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages, it was often illegal for Jews to convert Christians or Muslims to Judaism, so a ger tzedek [convert] could bring huge fines or violence down upon the community. Jews are obligated by Jewish law to welcome and assist fellow Jews, so frauds were not welcome.

But in my experience, most of the “More Jewish than You” game in modern times comes from insecurity. Jews who worry about their own legitimacy salve that insecurity by finding someone to look down upon. It’s not just converts to Judaism, either: I have heard people say that someone is less Jewish than so-and-so because:

  • he doesn’t “look Jewish.”
  • her last name is Smith.
  • he goes to a Reform synagogue.
  • she doesn’t keep kosher, or doesn’t keep kosher enough.
  • so-and-so is a decendant of the Baal Shem Tov.
  • so-and-so looks SO Jewish.
  • so-and-so goes to such-and-such a synagogue.
  • so-and-so speaks Yiddish.

If something about your status as a Jew worries you, talk to a rabbi and figure out what you need in order to feel legitimately Jewish. If only an Orthodox conversion will do, go for it! If in your heart of hearts you feel you really ought to be keeping kosher, do it! If you need to do more mitzvot in order to feel legitimate, run to do those mitzvot! If you feel sorta-kinda-Jewish and wish you had papers to prove you are really, absolutely Jewish, talk to a rabbi about conversion or some other way to ritualize your identity.  Learn Hebrew, learn Yiddish, learn Ladino. If general insecurity is the problem, get some therapy. But don’t let stupid words from insecure people make you miserable.

But whatever you do, don’t find someone to label “Less Jewish than Me” so that you have someone to look down on, too. We can all be tempted by this at times – to say that well, so-and-so is Orthodox and all that, but she’s really a hypocrite (thus not as Jewish as Me.) We might be tempted to throw around some Hebrew when we know that some of the people at the table don’t speak Hebrew, because hey, it may make them feel bad but Can You See How Jewish I Am? You’ve seen the game played – just make sure you are never the player.

And may the day come soon when we are all kind and wise, and there is no more insecurity, and no temptation to cruel games or defenses against them! Amen.


Can We Talk?

November 18, 2012
Children in Town Under Fire by Rockets from Gaza

Children in Town Under Fire by Rockets from Gaza (Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces)

I walked out of a movie this afternoon (Lincoln, it’s good), flipped my phone back on, and was greeted with a personal message on Twitter:

“All nations regret that they cannot exterminate 15m jews 40 times for killing 600m their nationals in all wars and revolts”

I had to read it a couple of times before I could understand what it said. I run across anti-Semitism all the time on the web, but it is not often addressed personally to me. When I investigated further, I realized it wasn’t personal, not really: the person sending it had sent the same message to dozens of Jews or Jewish-sounding people on Twitter. I reported him and blocked the account. Yuck.

It’s been a rough week. I lived in Israel for a year, ten years ago, and I formed an attachment to the country and its people that will never leave me. I was there at a hard time – the 2nd Intifada – and that cemented my respect for Israelis. They live through times that most of us cannot imagine, and the vast majority of them carry on their lives with grace. I listen to Israeli radio, and was aware of the rockets raining down on Sderot and other communities in the south, and noticed that no one in the media outside of Israel seemed to give a hoot. The BBC never mentioned it, CNN never mentioned it, and it was not mentioned on Al Jazeera, either. Were I not “tuned in” to Israeli sources, I wouldn’t have known about it, because no one else cared to report it.

Then, ten days ago, the Israelis finally retaliated. Had France been shelling Britain for months, we’d have seen some fireworks from the Brits before now. Had Mexico been shelling Texas — well, it’s Texas. Of course they’d shoot back. But when the Israelis finally shoot back they’re the bad guys?

For more about Pillar of Defense, better thought out and with great links, take a look at Rebecca Einstein Schorr’s A Few Thoughts About Operation Pillar of Defense.

For ten days now, I’ve been watching Jews argue over this and my heart is breaking. I listen to Jews call one another names, fail to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and read things into each others words. If one says he’s praying for peace, there are half a dozen folks ready to have his head because he wasn’t enthusiastic enough about war. If she speaks up for Israel’s right to defend herself, a different half dozen are ready and waiting to descend with words of flame.  And all I want to do is scream, “STOP IT!”

My fellow Jews: we do not need to be enemies against one another. There are plenty of people in the world that hate us, like the creep who sent me that tweet. He has read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other lies, and he’s ready to exterminate us all. He doesn’t care whether we belong to AIPAC or J Street. He doesn’t care if we love Israel or deplore its existence. He just hates Jews.

If you want to talk about your position, I will listen. I may not agree, but that is not a condition of my listening. If you want to talk about your position, will you listen to me as well? Can we talk about our fears? Can we talk about our hopes?

I love the Jewish People. I really, really, really like Jews. And this is breaking my heart.


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