Tag : fiction

The Lilith Blog

April 23, 2020 by

A New Translation of a Yiddish Comic Gem

If you crossed Helen’s Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary with Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, you might end up with Diary of a Lonely Girl, or the Battle Against Free Love (Syracuse University Press, $19.95) written by the Yiddish writer Miriam Karpilove and recently translated by Jessica Kirzane. Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to Kirzane about how she stumbled upon this singular writer and why her work still matters today. 

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April 14, 2020 by

A Novel About Women, Science, Ambition— and Love

A wish for readers in 2020: May we finally and fearlessly engage with the persistent and insidious trope of the “unlikeable” female character. You might recognize these women – they have complicated desires and emotions and sometimes they make decisions that make the reader gasp and gnash her teeth and are desperate to find out what happens, and why. In other words, “unlikeable” female characters should probably just be called “characters.

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March 28, 2020 by

The Light After the War: Jews in Caracas

Two best friends jump off a train heading for Auschwitz, leaving their mothers still on board.  They survive the rest of the war in hiding, and when peace is finally declared, make their way to Naples, then Ellis Island and finally Caracas, trying to rebuild their shattered lives. This actually happened to Anita Abriel’s mother, and she used it as the basis for her newest novel, The Light After the War (Atria Books, $27). She talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how and why she transformed fact into fiction. 

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March 24, 2020 by

Real Life Mysteries: A Lost Voice and Communication With the Dead

Everyone loves a great mystery on the page, but what about in real life? Victoria Zackheim decided to ask a group of writers exactly that question and she collects their answers in the new volume, Private Investigations: Mystery Writers on the Secrets, Wonders and Riddles in Their Lives (Seal Press). Caroline Leavitt’s mystery began with her losing her voice, and the endless medical quest she embarked on to find out why. Hallie Ephron was prompted to write about a friend’s belief that she could communicate with her dead brother. Both of these writers talk to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how their essays were informed by their experience as Jewish women.

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March 16, 2020 by

The Fraught and Frayed Bonds of Sisterhood

The fraught, frayed bonds of sisterhood is a subject beautifully explored by Lynda Cohen Loigman in The Wartime Sisters (St. Martin’s Press) a WWII-era novel that probes the connection between Millie—beautiful, impractical—and Ruth, pragmatic yet desperate to protect the life she’s carved out for herself.

Loigman talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she found her way to their story and where it took her.  

Yona Zeldis McDonough: What attracted you to the subject of the Springfield Armory and how did you go about doing your research?

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December 26, 2019 by

A Jewish Girl’s Summer Among New England WASPs

It’s 1987 and Eve Rosen, a young aspiring editor, abruptly leaves her lackluster job in New York City and decamps to Cape Cod. Once there she becomes the assistant to a well-regarded older male writer and is ushered into the kind of heady literary life she’s only been able to dream about. Author Karen Dukess talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about The Last Book Party (Henry Holt), her witty and tender debut novel.

YZM: Does Eve feel intimidated by the largely non-Jewish crowd she finds herself in withkaren dukess that summer? 

KD: Eve is definitely intimidated by this crowd, but the aspect of their difference from her own background that most unsettles her – and also attracts her – is not that they are not Jewish, but that they are writers and artists. Eve believes that if she had been born into a literary world instead of the conventional, upper-middle class, professional world of her family, her path to becoming a writer would be smoother. She’s comfortable with people like her parents who read The New Yorker (or just subscribe and let it pile up) but she is intimidated by people who write for The New Yorker. Everything about this crowd is “other” to Eve – they are accomplished, sophisticated and worldly in a way that Eve yearns to be. That they are mostly WASPy is just one more factor of difference.

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November 6, 2019 by

Fiction: Diamonds and Ashes

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The water is a silk sari, pleating, unraveling beneath us, falling away. Eucalyptus trees blink in the morning sunlight. I am on a boat on the Sea of Galilee, with my aunts Esther and Hannah. With their short dark hair and stocky figures, they make it hard for me to believe that they are—were—my mother’s older sisters. 

“Can you believe this is what he tells me?” Aunt Esther gestures at the older of the crew members. The men wear black t-shirts emblazoned Holyland Sailing. “He says last year a group of billionaires are coming from Texas with the ashes of their loved ones. They mixed them with, how you say? yaholamim.

“Diamonds,” Aunt Hannah helps out. Like her sister, she has a strong Israeli accent.

“Yes, diamonds, and they throw them in the water.”

“So they are used to it, even though it is not so Jewish. People scattering ashes.”

“Really?” I ask. “Are these stories true?”

I shake my head in amazement. Tucked under my arm is the box labeled Rose Williams: Cremated Remains. Hudson and Son, Bath.

“Of course,” says Aunt Esther. “By the way, your mother’s name was Shoshana Ullmann. We never called her Rose.” History hangs in the air between us, my aunts’ skin darker than my mother’s as if 40 years of disappointing English summers had drained her of any color. She was also slimmer than her sisters, and more reserved.

For two weeks in Israel, my head has been spinning with questions. Why did my mother leave Israel when she was twenty- one? Why did she never return? Why did she distance herself from her parents? Why did she anglicize her name and deny her Judaism? Why did she make a monthly payment to her sisters? And most curiously of all, why did she request her ashes to be scattered on a lake she never visited?

My aunts have introduced me to so many cousins that I have struggled to remember which children and grandchildren belong to which aunt. I have been conscious that my white skin and cautious demeanor must seem as alien to them as their effusiveness appears to me. Now that both sisters live again in the family home, Esther (widowed) and Hannah (divorced) fill their days with family. They eat at a large dining table, served by their Arab maid Mimi, who limps slightly as she carries plates of food in. I am intrigued by her.

Mimi looks like a woman in her twenties, dark hair twisted into a bun, her nearly black eyes downcast, her brown skin smooth. Beautiful and silent. The aunts thank her for her service, but she does not reply, just nods her head slightly in response.

Wrapped around this stone house in Herzylia like a sash, the garden bursts with mangoes, pomegranates gleaming red; passionfruit and guavas concealing their moisture beneath rough skins. Banana trees with wide leaves; palms with golden dates stored high like jewels; olive trees fluttering their silver foliage and a single rose bush, its pink flowers blushing at their incongruity in this exotic terrain.

‘We grow this for your mother,’ says Aunt Esther as she shows me their garden. Aunt Hannah walks silently on.

The days spent with them have been filled with love and warmth but I have sensed that they are holding something back. We have eaten many meals together in their pleasant home: books straight on the shelves; fruit in wooden bowls; framed black-and-white photos, including one of my teenaged mother and her sisters, Mum in a short skirt and beaming surprisingly broadly. In her later work as an administrator in the hospital, she always looked smart, her skirt below her knees, her shoes flat, nothing Mediterranean about her apart from the slight Israeli accent she could not lose. Her dark hair and eyes often led to questions she just waved away with the reply: ‘I was born in Israel but left many years ago. England’s my home now.’

My aunts have opened my eyes to Israel: Jaffa, its yellow stone and bobbing boats in the Mediterranean; Tel Aviv, its busyness and sophistication a surprise to me; Ashdod, a new city gleaming with pride in the white light; Haifa, its harbor spread below us like a feast; Jerusalem, where I laid my hands on the hot, golden Western Wall; and the Druze market where I bought my father a silver coffee pot with tiny espresso cups on a matching tray.

But with all the pleasures has been a tension. Not only the soldiers carrying guns and security at every mall and train station. Not only the stories of Orthodox spitting at secular girls because of their immodest dress. Not only the way that Israelis are overtly political in a way that the British are not. My aunts scan the papers daily for news. One day while I am there the headlines tell of an Orthodox Jewish man who has stabbed a young woman in a gay pride parade in Jerusalem. A Palestinian family with a baby daughter is burned alive in their own home. Jews and Arabs live their lives against a backdrop of fear.

The tension has been closer to home, too. Hannah and Esther have been constantly bickering, slipping into Hebrew to do so, excluding me from the conversation, glancing in my direction and then looking away. They return to English when they are calmer, and I am included again.

“What kind of studies you are doing, Claire?”

“I’ve started a Ph.D. at Bath University.”

“Near your home?”

“Yes. Near where I’m living with my father.”

“We met him when we came to England once. Do you remember we came to see you when you were still at school?”

“Yes I do.” I recall, aged 14, that my mother’s two sisters briefly entered our lives.

“What you are studying?” “I’m researching literature, culture and identity.” The next morning, Esther gives me T. Carmi’s At the Stone of Losses and his words reduce me to tears. She lends me poems by the poet Rachel, “In My Garden” and “Will you hear my voice?” She takes me to see Rachel’s grave in the Kinneret cemetery, and the single, simple name on her headstone: Rachel. I place a stone on her grave.

I have been emotional on this trip, which would surprise Hugh, his ongoing complaint about me that I don’t connect. In spite of liking him, I have been unable to commit, scared of the age gap, my 25 to his 38. Worried about what kind of mother I might be. I have felt homesick here, missing Hugh, missing my father’s soft, genial kindness, missing our English garden and cottage, the honeysuckle which curls around my bedroom window. Missing my mother, who when she passed away in September, was not fighting the cancer but letting it take her at 62, submitting to it as if she felt that she deserved it.

Ours was a quiet, understated family, my sweet doctor father with rumors of an early unsuccessful marriage before my mother, which no one really spoke about. And my mother, dutiful, always supportive of me, attending every concert and play at my girls’ school tucked genteelly away in the hills. And yet when it came to the bear hugs I witnessed other families exchanging…it didn’t happen with us. My father would pat me on the shoulder if I did well; my mother would put her arms around me but almost without touching. If I asked about her past in Israel, the details were sketchy.

“I grew up in Herzylia, a lovely house with my parents who ran a pharmacy and two older sisters. I went to the army, and then a kibbutz for voluntary work and came here to study. That’s all.”

And then she would turn away, a clear signal that she didn’t want to talk about it. When I was asked my religion at school, my mother would tell me to state “No religion,” as I was brought up with no Judaism at all. We did not light candles on Shabbat; we did not go to synagogue on the High Holy Days or any days; we did not have a Chanukiah; we did not dip apples into honey on Rosh Hashanah. I learned about these festivals in school but they remained theory, not practice. At home, we celebrated Christmas modestly, a small tree with white lights and not overly lavish presents, as if she was ashamed of celebrating a Christian festival.

I learned more about her after she died. She left me money to continue my Ph.D.; she made a bequest to the Centre for Peace Studies in Jaffa, and to the Divan orchestra. She requested a humanist funeral to include music by Louis Armstrong and Bach. And most curious of all were these lines in her will: “I would like to be cremated and for my ashes to be scattered on Lake Kinneret.”

It took me months to face sorting out her wardrobe. I put her copies of Country Life magazine in a pile for recycling. I folded her clothes—the sensible skirts, the flat shoes, the beige cardigans, the long cotton nighties and white underwear—into bags for Oxfam. All the while, I fought back tears and felt that I was handling the costumes of a young actor who plays an older character, as if she had assumed a false identity. I felt overwhelmed with regret that only after she had gone had she really come to me.

And in the darkness at the bottom of the wardrobe a wooden box inlaid with purple anemones and a bag of poems she had written. I knew she liked reading poetry, especially Keats, Shelley and the Romantics but I did not know that she wrote it herself. I read her words:

Once we walked at the lake’s edge,
Purple anemones tucked in our hair
And there my dust will settle.
I am the lake. I am the fish.
I am the leaves that float.
I am a part of whatever grows.
There is no other eternity that I desire.

Even seeing the word desire shocked me. My mother, who never expressed her wishes and did not seem to demand anything, not even a biscuit to go with her tea.

I phone my father a few times. I keep in touch with Hugh, whose replies to my emails are always warmer than mine to his. Something restrains me. Would it be right to open myself like a book at its center? To let him completely in?

I think of the times we have had, watching the swans puff themselves up on the river; the meals in our favorite trattoria; the nights where I have opened myself physically to him even while emotionally I have been closed.

On the boat, the men have taken us to the centre of the lake where no shoreline is now visible, and have stilled the vessel. My aunts say Kaddish together, which they tell me is the mourner’s prayer. Then together we take the bag from the red box, our hands overlapping, and scatter Mum’s ashes on the water. They remain on the surface for an instant, then dissolve and vanish.

The tears come fast and my aunts hug me close, so that I can feel their breasts rest on mine, in no hurry to run away. “Thank you,” I whisper. “Thank you for your kindness.”

‘She is at peace now,’ says Hannah.

I finger the locket around my neck my mother gave me, her tiny photo trapped inside. I wonder why she asked to be scattered on this lake?

Esther and Hannah exchange glances. “I want to tell you,” says Esther. “You deserve to know.”

Hannah glares at her. “Esther, remember what we agree.”

“No,” says Esther. The boat has begun to sail again and the motion seems to spur her on. “I will tell you, Claire. This is your history.”

Hannah moves to the other side of the boat, turning her back to us and staring out at the water, disapprovingly.

“Your mother,” begins Esther carefully, “was very clever at school and our abba—our father—was very proud of her. He has high hopes. After the army, she does not know what job to do so she, Shoshana, goes to the kibbutz there.” And as if on cue, the community comes into view. I can see sugar-cube houses in the distance, clinging to the hills.

“When she is there she meets a young man, an Arab, Ibrahim, from Um-el-Fachem. They fall in love. He was a carpenter for the kibbutz.”

I recall the wooden box with the anemones on its lid. “What happened then?” “Abba finds out. He is very angry.”

Hannah turns to stare at Esther, calls out something in Hebrew which I don’t understand. “I have said enough.”

“Please. I need to know.”

“Your mother got….” She mimes a round stomach.

“Pregnant? My mother was pregnant?” 

“Yes. Abba, angry, come to the kibbutz, says Shoshana must not have the baby. Must get rid of it. Your mother said no.”

“My mother had a child before me? With Ibrahim?” I feel my heart thump in my chest and my legs quiver.

“Yes. A girl.”

“I can’t believe it. What happened to her?”

“She go to…how you say?” “An orphanage?”

“Yes. She is not well. And your mother sent away to England to study. Abba says she must not return. But the child is not happy in the home so we help out. Hannah and me.”

“What was the child called?”

Esther pauses. “Mimi,” she says.

The bottom of the boat collapses beneath my feet and I am falling through water.

“Mimi? The Arab girl who works for you?”

“She is half-Arab,” says Esther. “She helps us in the house and we support her. Your mother always sent us an allowance for her, too. She likes to draw.”

“Mimi is my sister?” I think of the dark-haired girl who stumbles into the dining room carrying a jug of water, a plate of watermelon.“Does she know her story, who her parents are?”

“No,” says Esther. “She does not.”

“But surely she is curious?”

Hannah is still staring at the water, searching for answers there.

“She is a quiet girl. She asked once who her parents were and we just said that we didn’t know. It’s easier that way, less complicated.”

The lake and land spin. There is nothing beneath me. I think of my parents, about my strong sense that they loved me, in spite of their secrets, their understated ways. It seems wrong that Mimi does not know who she really is.

We leave the boat and thank the crew. I wonder what they think of me: cheerful at the start, weeping in the middle; stunned at the end.

In a restaurant in Tiberias we order salad and fish. Porcelain dishes are brought to the table. They form a ceramic patchwork on the cloth: hummus, tahini, pickles, salads, yogurt, roast cauliflower with sunflower seeds, eggplant dip, chopped beetroot stained by its own juices.

We eat in silence, the sisters angry with each other. “Does my father know about Mimi?” I ask. The aunts shake their heads.

“I am pleased you told me,” I say quietly. “It is a shock, but now I know my mother’s history.”

On the last day of my visit, my aunts go shopping for gifts for me, but I ask to stay at the house. I have packing and washing to do.

Once they have gone, I walk through their garden to the small house where Mimi lives. I knock and wait, watching the olive leaves shift in the breeze. At last the door opens tentatively and she peers round the frame.

“Shalom. Salaam,” I say. “May I come in please, Mimi?”

She looks uncertain but she lets me in. Her home is functional: a wooden table and chairs, one settee, tiled floors, beautiful sketches on the walls. It strikes me that her home may be simple but her history is not. In the corner of the room is a chair and desk with a half-finished drawing upon it. Then I realize that the framed pencil drawings adorning the walls are by her: the serrated edges of shells; the outside and inside of tropical fruits; mountains delicately drawn. No portraits, only nature.

“These are really good,” I say, pointing to them, and although she does not comprehend the words, I am sure she understands the message.

Mimi goes to the kitchen, limping slightly and returns with juice for me. I take it, “Todah rabah,” I say and drink. I taste guavas and passionfruit, the sweetness I need.

I nod and smile. She seems pleased. We sit together on the sofa and I search her face for my mother’s likeness. The downcast eyes, the modesty, the translucent skin. Yes, my mother is there within her, and in a strange way, I feel my mother’s presence. I may have scattered her ashes but she is here with me.

I hold out my hand and take hers. I wonder whether she will resist and refuse, but to my amazement she even curls her small fingers upon my skin. I am surprised at how comfortable I am with her and she with me. Before, when I have had to hold hands with a stranger at a dance, or even when someone has brushed by me in a crowd, I have felt uncomfortable but not here. We sit like this for several minutes in silence and I feel that I could stay in this position forever, but I don’t want the aunts to come back and find me here.

I take the locket of my mother—our mother—from my neck and place it around Mimi’s. Our faces are so near I can feel her soft hair. The gold catches the light as she moves.

Mimi lifts her face and her dark eyes are, without doubt, the eyes of our mother. We half smile while I drown in those eyes.

She gives me one of her delicate sketches, mangoes and lemons. I convey my thanks with an embrace.

By the time the aunts return, I have packed. They have brought halva for my father and books of poetry for me, which I will treasure.

At the airport, I ask:

“Isn’t Mimi lonely?”

And Esther says no, she likes to be alone to draw. They use the money Sho—Rose—sent to buy her materials.

“May I carry on sending her that monthly allowance?” I ask, and they agree. “And may I visit you all again?’ They smile and we hug again.

On the airplane I notice my gently tanned skin, as if I am edging closer to Mimi. I text Hugh, “I love you. I want you,” switch off my phone and close my eyes, opening them again only when I glimpse through the small window the thin green skin covering England.

Tamar Hodes’ latest novel is The Water and the Wine (Hookline Books).

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July 9, 2019 by

Inside the World of a Pregnant Ultra-Orthodox Grandmother

On Division by Goldie Goldbloom (FSG, $26) is a novel about a 57-year-old ultra-Orthodox woman in Williamsburg, mother of 10 and grandmother of dozens, who is shocked to discover she is pregnant with twins. Surie Eckstein is embarrassed by her condition and unable to share the news with her husband. Month after month, as her secret creates more of a gulf between herself and her family, it also allows Surie to uncover her own hidden reserves of strength and vulnerability, and to cultivate a skill and sensitivity that lead her beyond the enclaves of her own insular community.

Surie Eckstein’s entire life has been defined by her family. She loves and appreciates her husband of 41 years, a scribe who raises chickens in their yard: “His work with the holy scrolls had engraved itself on his body. His shoulders were rounded, his hips ached, he had arthritis in his ink-stained fingers. He had varicosities and a belly from so many hours of sitting. But his work had marked him in positive ways too. Yidel could concentrate on a single thing for hours. He never lost his temper. His face was calm and innocent as an angel’s.” She is very close with her in-laws, Dead Onyu and Dead Opa—“dead,” we learn, is the Hungarian word for great-grandparent, though the appellation never loses its humor—who live on the ground floor. And she is deeply involved in the life of her children, including her holier-than-thou daughter Tzila Ruchel and her own many children, who live one flight down. Surie’s children, grandchildren, and in-laws constantly wander in and out of her home, and it is only rarely that she has time to sit in her favorite spot in her bedroom overlooking the East River alone with herself.

When Surie manages to find time alone, her thoughts inevitably turn to her beloved son Lipa, whom she last saw four years ago when he died of AIDS in San Francisco: “He did not have his payos. He had a tattoo on his chest and a metal ring through one nipple. Around his neck was a dark purple line that came to a V in the front, like the neckline of an undershirt, and in the gray flesh of his neck there were dozens of small cuts.” Surie remains tortured by her love for Lipa and haunted by his death. She carries his green glasses around with her everywhere, as if now, after he is lost to her forever, she might finally learn to see the world through his eyes. Lipa is the one subject she and Yidel do not speak openly about, until the pregnancy becomes another secret between them. To Surie the two secrets are bound up in one another—until she comes to terms with what happened to the child she lost, she cannot bring herself to tell her husband about the new children she is carrying.

Author Goldie Goldbloom, a Hasidic mother of eight, is not the first to expose the inner world of ultra-Orthodox Jews, but she does so with a rare sensitivity to nuance and a resistance to stereotype. Surie’s community is close-knit and suspicious of outsiders—Surie worries that her seventeen-year-old son may be hiding a forbidden “lep tup” in their basement— but she is aware of and engaged with “the outside world,” to cite the title of a Tova Mirvis novel about a similar milieu. Surie develops a close relationship with Valerie, the senior midwife in the high-risk clinic where Surie travels by bus for her check-ups (“Where are you from?” a woman on the bus asks her, eyeing her nylon wig and scarf. “You don’t look like anyone I know.”) She grows resentful of the know-it-all male doctor who cannot understand her resistance to invasive testing: “She wished a sweet death—being run over by a sugar truck—upon obstetricians who used the collective ‘we’ when they really meant ‘you.’ The doctor wasn’t pregnant… It didn’t matter what happened to her or to the babies. Their births, her own health, it was all in God’s hands. Only those without faith worried about such things. Either there would be a disaster, or there wouldn’t, and stressing oneself, worrying about it, wouldn’t change a thing.”

The midwife Valerie appreciates the culture clash between the doctors and their Williamsburg clientele, and soon she hires Surie as her assistant to counsel other ultra-Orthodox patients, including a thirteen-year-old girl who is banished from the community a er she is tragically impregnated by a trusted adult. Surie decides she wants to be a nurse—an unusual decision for any late-middle-aged woman, let alone a Hasidic grandmother expecting twins—and she borrows textbooks from the clinic that she secretly studies at home. Surie Eckstein surprises herself, but she also confounds our expectations of a character like her. The fact that she remains, throughout, a sympathetic and convincing heroine is a testament to Goldbloom’s masterful skill as a storyteller. This is a novel that moves and affects us on so many levels—as a witness to the unremitting pain of losing a child, as an exploration of the dance of intimacy and interiority in a marriage that is nearly lifelong, and as a celebration of our endless capacity to create new life, and to create new lives for ourselves.

 

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June 7, 2019 by

“Jade Lily” Imagines Jewish Refugees Who Found Home in Shanghai

Song of Jade LilyVienna, 1938.  It’s clear to the Bernfelds that they are no longer welcome in their city and they have to flee.  But where? No one wants or will accept the refugees…no one except the Chinese that is, and so the family, or what remains of it, heads for Shanghai.   Novelist Kirsty Manning talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she accidentally stumbled upon this bit of Jewish history and what she did to bring it to life in The Song of the Jade Lily.

 

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April 3, 2019 by

Fiction: The Orphans

Still slender, short, and small-boned as adults, the orphans rush the buffet table at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and office parties–even when they know there will be dancing. In their good heels and Lord & Taylor dresses they form a line but sway from side to side while waiting, peeking around the person in front of them to see if there will be plenty of roast beef because there is never enough roast beef.

There is never enough roast beef, never enough chicken Kiev, smoked salmon, shrimp scampi, broccoli with hollandaise, pommes au fromage, those flaky miniature croissants, even the warm, gummy pasta in a pink sauce that has been a feature at these events lately.

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