The Lilith Blog

June 24, 2018 by

A Bold Photographer Who Captures Social Justice Movements

For as long as she can remember, photojournalist Natalie Keyssar has been interested in the causes and casualties of violence and civic unrest. But it took years for her to muster the courage to pursue this particular angle; first, she covered metropolitan news and youth culture for the Wall Street Journal and a wide array of online and print outlets. Over her career, she has covered major neo-Nazi rallies, Kosher soup kitchens, tragic accidents and Occupy protests.

As the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Emerging Photographer Award winner, her eclectic work now appears regularly in Time, Bloomberg Business Week, the New York Times newspaper and magazine, and California Sunday, and has won plaudits not only from the ICP, but from the Aaron Siskind Foundation, PDN30, The Pulitzer Center, and the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Nailing 33-year-old Keyssar down for an interview took months—she is on the road for much of the year—but she and reporter Eleanor J. Bader recently met at a Brooklyn café where they spent several hours talking about Keyssar’s career, its unlikely trajectory, and her interest in covering movements for social justice at home and abroad.

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June 22, 2018 by

On “Disobedience:” Threesomes, Friendship and Queer Families

 Although Director Sebastian Lilio’s recent film Disobedience is about a forbidden lesbian love between Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Ronit (Rachel Weisz), the most compelling scenes are when the characters are either in solitude, or united as a threesome with Dovit Esti’s husband (Alessandro Nivola),

This oddity might be because Esti and Ronit’s queer coupling is so unrealistic; their sex, for all of the constraints they face in their frum Orthodox community, is lustless: a sequential love-making performed while the two women remain halfway-clothed. Oddly enough, the Forward published a takedown of the film by an Orthodox woman, claiming that she is sick of being fetishized. But this piece notably omits of the word queer, and similarly sidesteps any discussion of what is also fundamentally fetishized in the film: lesbian sex.

The much-discussed sex scene falls flat. When Ronit and Esti are finally alone in a secluded hotel room, the first covering removed is Esti’s wig, an act which is reflected in a type of naked desire from Rachel McAdams. Except: the two basically keep their clothes on for the rest of the hookup, as the camera makes calculated cuts. In what feels like a “How To Have Lesbian Sex” guide, ejaculation is symbolized when Esti spits into Ronit’s mouth, too forced to be erotic, especially given the mood-killing classical music soundtrack.

The tension never fully crackles between Esti and Ronit, despite the high stakes of repression’s stronghold on the Orthodox community, despite the narrative arc of separation and reunion, despite the strong performances.

But there is another tension in the film worth exploring. The film is a story of expedition, as it follows Ronit’s return to a London Orthodox community after the death of her father, a venerable rabbi, from whom Ronit was estranged. She arrives in London from New York, and is surprised to find Dovit, her former best friend, married to Esti, her former forbidden love.

Weisz’s most enticing acting is when she is alone, scenes that offer entrances into her complex internal emotional landscape as she travels or is carried from place to place: on the plane, in the taxi. Weisz displays a plaintive quality; the choices she has made for her life perhaps still unsettle her.

Even more revealing are the scenes that feature the three childhood companions. In the first moment when the three are alone, Ronit attempts to open up a shared space of vulnerability between them, asking: “Is it good? To be married?” Esti is almost unable to answer, while Dovit smiles, responding positively. Here is where we find the tension that is absent in the queer coupling: the ripeness of what is unsaid, what is implicit, what is offered, what is refused. Ronit seeks a vulnerability that neither Dovit nor Esti can offer her, and it is in this tripling that we see how no one can fully satisfy each other’s longing.

Perhaps this is what Lilio wants us to pay attention to the entire time —the unit as trio instead of dueling duoes. In fact, the film begins with a trifecta framework. The first scene of the London Orthodox community is in synagogue, Ronit’s father giving his last sermon on the Torah’s three archetypes: angel, beast, and human. He muses on free will; humans “hang suspended between angel and beast; we must choose the tangled life.” 

The plot triangulates from there; the camera offering windows into moments when each Ronit, Dovid, and Esti reveal themselves to be, in turns, angel, beast, human. In one of the tensest scenes, the three light Shabbat candles, and McAdams (after butchering the Hebrew prayer) exchanges loaded looks with both Weisz and Nivola. Here is the tension, at last. A domestic family Jewish ritual that explodes with the pressure of a tangled friendship-romance-romance.

Later, when Ronit attempts to extricate herself from the tangles she has made for Esti (members of their community catch the two kissing at night), she shares at the dinner table that she will be leaving before her father’s funeral ceremony. The domestic family scene is again disrupted: and we see Dovit at his most beast-like, cruel, rabid: asking Esti if she’ll go with Ronit.

At the film’s climax when Esti asks Dovit for freedom, it is, again, a trilateral interaction. This exchange swells too; instead of what is unsaid, we are finally given what is said; Dovit silences Ronit; Esti maintains that she wants to raise her child in a world of choice, instead of religious obligation. This interaction has all the magnetism that is missing between Esti and Ronit: devotion offered, deferred, unrequited. So why do the scenes of the three of them crackle so beautifully when the queer coupling fizzles? Despite critics’ emphasis on the sex scenes, perhaps what the film really spotlights is friendship. We see how the easy, angelic intimacy of our younger lives gets shattered, not just by communal and religious  repression, but also by that beast, desire, which brings with it exclusion, taboo, unspoken needs, anger and loss. The scenes that offer us access to the trio’s friendship–or perhaps, even, into their thwarted queer family–are the ones that showcase the rawest emotions, the best exchanges.

The most embodied and evocative shot of the film occurs after Dovit has given an attempt at a eulogy for the rabbi —ultimately publicly refusing to step into his role as successor —claiming, “I do not have enough understanding.”

When Esti meets him outside after he has fled the bimah, they embrace; Ronit appears in the background, and, miraculously, Dovit opens his arms to her, too.  As the three friends hug, Ronit and Esti’s hands meet around Dovit’s back, holding one another, clutching, in carnal grip. It is this meeting of flesh-on-flesh-on-flesh that is most provocative; the threesome: part angel, part beast, tangled human.

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June 21, 2018 by

The Cloth Mother and Trauma at the Border

As you read this, more than 11,000 children captured while trying to enter the U.S. across the border with Mexico are warehoused in more than 100 facilities in 17 states. The thousands of children separated from their families in recent weeks are scattered across the country, and there is no coherent plan apparent to reconnect them with their relatives.

I keep thinking about Baby 106.

In the 1950s, American psychologist Dr. Harry Harlow used baby rhesus monkeys for groundbreaking research on childhood attachment. One of his subjects, Baby 106, was taken from its mother at birth and placed in a cage. Eventually it was introduced to two “mothers,” that were actually wire cylinders. One had a protruding nipple connected to a bottle of milk. The other, with no nipple, was covered in cloth. The baby monkey initially went to the wire mother and suckled. Then it went, and stayed, with the cloth mother, the one that offered some tactile comfort.

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June 20, 2018 by

Stop Arguing About Holocaust Analogies and Do Something

Refugee Children in Immigration Detention Protest BroadmeadowsPlease, let’s not lightly throw around Holocaust analogies – but perhaps equally important, let’s not argue about whether or not we need to throw around the Holocaust analogies. The Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy which has led to internment camps for children is truly horrifying. On this point, thankfully, many, many people seem to be in agreement.

But are they “concentration camps” “just like the Nazis had for the Jews”?

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June 20, 2018 by

At the Border, We’re Seeing Exactly What America Is

It’s impossible not to see the pleas plastered on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram: “We are better than this.” “This is not who America is.” “This is not the America I know!”

But it is who we are: what the United States is doing to families and children, specifically families and children of color, by ripping them apart at the U.S. border is part and parcel of an ongoing history. It is horrific and unbearable and inhumane. But it is exactly what America is and continues to be.

We do not like when these injustices become so evident. We prefer our cruelty to remain in the shadows. You know, like lack of access to safe and legal abortion. Or barring women, especially low-wage workers, from paid family leave, or perpetuating a medical system that continues to allow Black women to die during pregnancy and childbirth at three times the rate of White women. So, yes, this new policy is an emergency, but the oppression is definitely not new.

Here’s how to make sense of it all—use a reproductive justice lens. Through that lens, we can easily see the links between the host of injustices the state perpetrates on families and women, right up through this despicable separation policy.

Reproductive justice looks at the ways marginalized people, including immigrants and women of color, are particularly abused by the state, especially when it comes to parenting, reproduction, and control over one’s body. Forward Together’s Reproductive Justice media guide explains:

The reproductive justice framework is rooted in the recognition of the histories of reproductive oppression and abuse in communities of color…The central theme of the reproductive justice framework is a focus on naming and eliminating the control and exploitation of women’s bodies, sexuality, and reproduction as an effective strategy of controlling people, particularly women of color, trans and GNC people of color, and their communities. 

rj-media-guide-1024x539

The policy of tearing children from their parents who come to the United States seeking a better way of life or fleeing untenable violence is an extension of the control and exploitation of women’s bodies and lives the state has wrought since its founding on genocide and slavery. 

Eugenics policies—the practice of controlling breeding to “improve” the human race, most often when it comes to women of color–are practically embedded within the history of this country. For example, the United States carried out tens of thousands of forced sterilizations of Black, Latinx, and Native American women throughout the twentieth century on the basis that some Americans were “unfit” to reproduce. According to Our Bodies Ourselves, a 1965 survey of Puerto Rican women revealed that close to one-third of all mothers between the ages of 20 and 49 years old had been sterilized without their informed consent. In other words, this country has embraced the narrative for over a century that it women of color should not have children – do not deserve to have children. 

We’ve vilified the bodies of immigrant women also, and used the propaganda to inflict harmful state policies: recall our national conversation about “anchor babies.” This phrase was created in an absurd attempt to keep immigrant women out of the United States and was based on the idea that women were coming to the United States illegally to give birth in the hopes that they would then be able to stay in the U.S. legally. The phrase itself has been called dehumanizing and racist. not to mention that The Washington Post also debunked it as “largely mythical.” In 2007, reproductive justice advocate and attorney Priscilla Huang, writing about a conservative think-tank’s study of single motherhood among immigrant women as the “downfall of America,” shared:

The irrational stance of anti-immigrant advocates echoes that of 1990′s welfare reformers. Both assume that childbearing by immigrants or poor women of color creates a cycle of poverty and dependence on the government. Immigrant women and women on welfare are depicted as irresponsible mothers and fraudulent freeloaders. 

What we are facing today is a continued thread of oppression against women of color at the hands of the state. This policy is undeniably a reproductive justice issue, just as it is when we deny a person the right to end a pregnancy or the right to parent free from institutionalized police violence. Just as it is a reproductive justice issue when we criminalize aspects of pregnancy and motherhood. Turning a blind eye on these other issues, from maternal mortality to abortion access being eroded to locked-up moms, has led us to this moment. 

This current immigration policy is yet another abuse in a long line of them. If you consider yourself “pro-choice” and pro reproductive justice, it’s time to connect the dots and let people know this is exactly what America is and has been for immigrant women of color for a long time.

 

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June 20, 2018 by

The Bitches of the 1990s Weren’t Villains After All

90sbitch“Jews are really good at knowing our history,” says Allison Yarrow, author of the new book 90s Bitch, which casts a critical eye on the gender politics of the Clinton years, from Monica Lewinsky to Marcia Clark, examining how the rise of the 24/7 media landscape turned them into villains, pushing sexism and silencing into the air we breathe today.

“We need to know the real history of what happened in the 1990,” Yarrow told Lilith, during a chat that covered Bill Clinton’s non-apology, the limits of nostalgia, the Sex and the City anniversary and of course, the word “bitch.”

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June 19, 2018 by

Dispatches From an Anxious Life

Little Panic CoverThe world never made any sense to Amanda Stern–how could she trust time to keep flowing, the sun to rise, gravity to hold her feet to the ground, or even her own body to work the way it was supposed to?

In her memoir Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life, Amanda describes this feeling. Deep down, she knows that there’s something horribly wrong with her, some defect that her siblings and friends don’t have to cope with.

Growing up in the 1970s and 80s in New York, Amanda experiences the magic and madness of life through the filter of unrelenting panic. Plagued with fear that her friends and family will be taken from her if she’s not watching—that her mother will die, or forget she has children and just move away—Amanda treats every parting as her last. Shuttled between a barefoot bohemian life with her mother in Greenwich Village, and a sanitized, stricter world of affluence uptown with her father, Amanda has little she can depend on. And when Etan Patz, the six-year-old boy down the block from their MacDougal Street home disappears on the first day he walks to school alone, she can’t help but believe that all her worst fears are about to come true.

Stern spoke with Lilith Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the peculiar terror that dominated her childhood, and how her eventual understanding—and acceptance—of these early fears has finally earned her a measure of peace.

YZM: Why do you think it took so long for anyone to diagnose what you were suffering from? 

AS: The landscape of focus wasn’t the same as it is today. The adult world was much more attuned to what they could see rather than what they couldn’t. Bad grades: visible; mental anguish: invisible. My teachers and testers seemed to recognize my anxiety, but no one spoke to me about it. Adults have the power to keep a child from knowing herself, and without forecasting how the end result might play out (badly), they withheld who I was from me. It was a different time; our parents didn’t parent the way they do today. Not to mention, anxiety and panic weren’t part of the cultural conversation, so the signature features that today would be so obvious weren’t taken as seriously.   

YZM: You wrote that in middle school, you were exposed to a kind of casual anti-Semitism; how did this contribute to your anxiety and sense of yourself as an outsider?  

AS: That was my first experience with anti-Semitism, and quite honestly, I thought it was narrow-minded and sad. But it did alert me to a difference to which I hadn’t been entirely aware. I never considered that I looked Jewish, and when I realized that I became a bit more self-conscious of myself, but for reasons I can’t quite explain, it didn’t exacerbate my anxiety. It simply made me more attuned to prejudice and heightened my awareness that fearing difference was one more thing I didn’t have in common with the general population. “Otherness” is home to me. It’s what I’ve always gravitated toward, so in a sense, it helped me define who I was; that I was not a person who shamed others, or who cared for that matter whether a person had cancer, was deaf, wore a prosthesis, or was another race or religion. It simply cemented my connection to those who, to me, seemed most real and alive.

YZM: The memoir is constructed as a series of small essays, moving back and forth in time.  Was this your overall vision for the book from the start or did you write the essays first and only later see them coming together in book form? 

AS: I set out to write an autobiography of an emotion; to chart the lifecycle of anxiety as it moved through me since I was an infant. My overall vision for the book was to have the IQ tests and personal evaluations play a bigger role than they ultimately did, and while the shape came together as I wrote, when I finished I felt very much as though the feeling inside me matched the final product.

YZM: You’ve written a novel for adults and eleven children’s books as well as this memoir; can you comment on writing across genres?  

AS: Writing books for children is like taking your brain to a playground. It’s incredibly freeing, and while it’s a bit less spontaneous than writing for adults, because there are more restrictions, it’s really helped flex my thinking. In the beginning it was a bit of a struggle. I would carry the kids voice over to the adult work and then I’d fear I’d lost the ability to write a sophisticated sentence. It reminded me of a guy I dated who was a serious actor who was cast in the Cirque du Soleil. He worried relentlessly that the cheesiness of the show would erase everything he’d ever learned about being a classical actor. That’s sort of how I felt, but that goes away, and you learn that your skillset doesn’t get erased.

YZM: What would you like readers to come away with after reading this book? 

AS: My hope is that readers with anxiety will come away feeling less alone, and less ashamed to feel what and how they do, and that readers who don’t suffer from anxiety will realize that mental illness is not something to be fixed. It’s a condition of being human. Despite our opposing political viewpoints, and values, we’re all in this together. There is no one right way to be a human being, and if I can get any point across it’s that being ashamed of your or anyone else’s humanness will weaken, not strengthen who you already are.

 

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June 19, 2018 by

Who Is A Radical Feminist?

The radical feminists were giggling at the images of their younger selves on screen: holding signs that demanded equality and pay, the youthful leaders projected at the front of the auditorium exuded power and hope.Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 1.50.43 PM

Decades later, these same women were onstage and in the audience, celebrating the release of Joyce Antler’s book, Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices From the Women’s Liberation Movement. The book itself, referred to by Antler as “an excavation” of Jewish women’s history, reads as much as a vital encyclopedia as it does a narrative history. It tells the stories of the dozens of Jewish women whose “participation in [the women’s liberation] movement has been hidden for several decades.”    

In the front row, the Jewish women who ushered the women’s liberation movement into the future—Blu Greenberg, Judith Plaskow, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and others—sat in the audience and made comments on their past glories. From behind them, the feeling of friendship was palpable: these women, in the business of pursuing freedom for decades, and found solace and camaraderie with each other. They asked about grandchildren and reminisced about the protest lines.

Before long, Antler took the podium. She spoke to some of the highlights of her forthcoming book, and discussed the hidden Jewish identities of many radical feminists who defined the future of American feminism. The most surprising of this discussion? That eight of the nine original members of the “Our Bodies, Ourselves” collective were Jewish. Jewish identity was not overt in “Our Bodies, Ourselves” activism, nor was it a discussion piece in most of the women’s liberation movement.  Nevertheless, standing against oppression and engaging in the work of liberation itself, Antler argues, likely shaped the values of Jewish women as they performed the cultural work of activism.

The intergenerational panel of four Jewish women after Antler’s address discussed at length Antler’s book, and the intersections of their own identities as Jews and feminists. They showed more pictures of the women in the audience at protests and marches in the 1960s and 1970s, and celebrated the “movers and shakers” of women’s liberation. A young Heather Booth walked at a demonstration in Chicago advocating for affordable childcare in May 1971, her toddler son clutching to her as she smiled for the cameras. These photographs are more than windows to the past: the Jewish women represented in the book merged the personal and political to campaign for reproductive rights, LGBT rights, and Jewish rights on a communal and national level.

A telling moment of the night for me was the discussion of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In light of the new documentary about her life, “RBG,” an audience member asked what her place was in the radical feminist movement. “She didn’t consider herself a radical feminist,” one of the panelists said, “She didn’t like protests. Her work was in the law. She preferred to enact change quietly.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not hold signs on the front lines of protests. Her approach to dismantling systems of oppression was not to reject the system, but instead to work within it. But she was a key part of a massive generational shift.

The radicalism celebrated at this event was explicit, front-lines work of consciousness-raising and protesting. And that work is admirable—some of these women have persisted through forty, fifty years of activism. But it also made me wonder about the Jewish women who made change in quieter ways, in tandem with the protests and gatherings.

I thought of Ginsburg, who used the Constitution to gain equal rights and protection for women. That she does not consider her career as a lawyer and judge radical makes sense, but it depends on how you define radicalism. And I also thought of the women who could never make it to a protest. The women who were busy raising children, who would lose their jobs if they tried to defend the rights which the women’s liberation organizers were fighting for. These women could not call for the reordering of society, because they had too much to lose if they rejected it. But they may have made their own quiet changes in their workplaces, or through how they raised their kids, that pushed society along just as surely as the marches did. 

The women profiled in Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices From the Women’s Liberation Movement were radical in that they actively pushed against social structures, whether in the family, the workplace, or the synagogue. The celebration of the forty women in Antler’s book is important, and she has done crucial work for history by recording their stories. As we use this history to look forward, we should do so with the knowledge that there is more than one way to express desire for change. It can come from dismantling norms, or from working within them—and both approaches can be radical in their own way.

 

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June 15, 2018 Alexis Tomarken

Suicide Survivorship: The Risks of Silence and Shame

people-2597622_640This week, one cherub-faced, auburn-eyed child of seven asks me, “Why doesn’t anyone talk to me about my dad?”  Precocious and pained, this little girl became a suicide survivor last year when her father ended his life.  

She is just beginning to unravel the details of what happened to him. At the same time, she has had to absorb the collateral damage from the loss of family and friends that often accompanies news of a suicide.  She is discovering too young that people turn away from suicide and suicide survivors. As a grief specialist, I know vividly this story of social isolation ––and the little girl’s longing to be heard and held.

In the last week, our world lost two beloved celebrities to suicide, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.  Following the shock of this news came important information on how to help the suicidal and how to prevent the contagion effect of suicide. But in our effort to thwart the reality of suicide in our culture, overlooked is a very simple idea that each of us can carry out: talk to suicide survivors.

Suicide survivors are the forgotten family and close friends of those who ended their own lives. They are the ones left to live with the broken pieces their loved one has left behind, trying to fathom the incomprehensible.  These are the people most at risk for the dangerous effects of contagion, as their exposure to suicide is the closest. 

In the past, suicide was, and sometimes still is, viewed as shameful, something that must be hidden. This secretive shame is carried forward by loved ones.  

In the last two decades, suicide rates have risen 25% nationwide (United States Center for Disease Control).  Previous studies have found evidence of increased rejection, shame, negative judgments, and loss of social support in people bereaved by suicide when compared to those bereaved from other types of loss. The degree of social blame coupled with personal guilt and shame can evolve into emotional withdrawal, social isolation, and hopelessness.  Research has demonstrated that social isolation and hopelessness increase with suicide risk.

Evidence that suicide can run in families has been found in both case reports and epidemiological studies. This means that suicide is most contagious within families and circles of close friends.  With the suicide rate increasing and the silent spreading of risk in suicide survivors, we are overlooking a significantly large group of vulnerable parents, siblings, friends, and children.

No science, therapist, family, or friend can predict who is going to commit suicide, as this is often an impulsive and secretive act, but the legacy of suicide in these survivors is undeniable, with some studies estimating as high as a 65% increase risk of suicide. 

Survivors are left to hold their shame, sometimes to the point of hiding that a suicide happened in their family, bearing the secret through multiple generations of lies and distortions.  These loved ones may feel marked and branded, which may keep potential supporters from getting too close. 

Yet there is something each of us can do today.  

Speak with––and listen to––someone who has lost a loved one to suicide.  Listen to them about their pain, or their shame, their guilt, their fear and dread. Suicide survivors need to feel recognized and understood for the burden they carry. It’s not uncommon for suicide survivors to wonder what they could have done to save their loved one, how they could have missed so much secrecy and darkness, and even desperately try to decipher the message of the suicide itself. In suicide, it’s not only the dead who haunt us, but the secrets left by them. 

It is not easy to find the words to acknowledge the reality of suicide, but the more we can accept its existence and help survivors speak openly about fears and powerlessness, the more we actually protect ourselves and each other from the silent darkness that leads people to dangerous and sometimes deadly acts against themselves.   

The dead are already painfully gone.  

Now it’s the living who need us.

Alexis Tomarken, MSW, PhD writes personal essays that relate to psychotherapy and mental health, and she is a suicide survivor. She is a psychoanalytic candidate at NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, a grief specialist, and a member of the advisory board for the American Mental Health Foundation. 

 

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June 14, 2018 by

Dana Schwartz on Humor, Rejecting the “Guilty Pleasure” Label and Terrible Jews

Choose your ownDana Schwartz has a knack for getting the internet’s attention. Whether it’s impersonating the pretentiousness of the aspiring male literati for her wildly popular “Guy in Your MFA” fictional Twitter account or taking on Jared Kushner for enabling anti-Semitism—while he was her boss at the New York Observer—Schwartz knows how to harness the zeitgeist by being herself.

Next week, she’ll release her memoir disguised as a personality quiz, “Choose Your Own Disaster.” At the seasoned age of 25, Schwartz plumbs the depths and heights of her college and post-college life to bring us poignant hilarity about travel, angst and eating disorders–as well as finding romance and the elusive adult self. She spoke to Lilith recently about stereotypes around women’s writing, where her sense of humor comes from, and the worst Jews in public life. 

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