Sometimes, NYC looks…

…dark green, illuminated in red light

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Horst Wessel & Other Nazis (Trump)

 

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(Coronavirus) Writing/Reading Remote Learning (Zoom)

 

I may end up deleting this post as it is too early to tell for sure, but it could be that direct eye-contact and visual cues are unnecessary for a large undergrad class on Zoom; because the students are bored, i.e. listless and depressed. I spent a lot of time using the Whiteboard function on the share-screen to organize the flow of the lecture into byte size units.

The effect was [1] a lot of talking while also writing/typing on the WB (actually more like writing while talking!) with [2] an intentional pause between units, and [3] soliciting feedback via chat (more writing) (and then talk). The writing while lecturing seemed to satisfy the machine-like learning of remote learning. The Whiteboard, I’m hoping provided the students the visual information with which to organize the data (i.e. course content).

The trick is to move across and between screens.

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Hudson River End of Summer (2020)

 

In lieu of all the human grime and machinic glory that is the New York State Fair at the end of the summer.

 

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(Moses & Israel & Monuments) The Political Theology of Deuteronomy (Hertz Commentary)

 

The introduction to the last book of the Pentateuch in the iconic Hertz Pentateuch commentary (1936) comes as something of a surprise, maybe. Of course, there are those banner lines from this biblical book, its anthem, the Shema Yisroel, extolling that The Lord is our God, the Lord is One; and the exhortation to love God with all your heart, soul, and might. But aren’t there more important books in the Bible than Deuteronomy? Genesis and Exodus or Psalms and the Song of Songs come immediately to mind. For the Hertz, though, it is Deuteronomy whose influence on “both the domestic and personal religion in Israel” has “never been exceeded” by any other biblical book throughout millennia.” Part of the attraction is the “literary aspect,” its oratory “unsurpassed in its rush of rhythmic sentences, its ebb and flow of exalted passion, its accents of appeal and enunciation.” The speech of Moses is aesthetic. It shines like his face in the expression of “whole-souled love and devotion to God, and large-hearted benevolence towards man, and indeed towards all sentient beings” (intro. to Deuteronomy, emphasis added). The other big part of the attraction is political.

Putting poetry aside, I would point to the monumentality of Deuteronomy and the monument that is Moses that are key to the aesthetic register of the Hertz. These are what gives Deuteronomy such standout totality in the Hertz. That marble-like quality –I am thinking here obviously of Michelangelo–  mirrors the Hertz, which is a monument to conservative-liberal Jewish religious patriotism in the face of the combined force of assimilation and anti-Semitism across Europe circa 1936.

Palestine and landscape frame that patriotic ethos. Spanning the “goodly hill country” from the other side of the Jordan, Moses’ view of the whole of “W. Palestine” is of “one compact mountain mass,” “a thing of surpassing natural beauty.” In this aesthetic apologetic, the “deep love of mountains and mountain scenery” is now claimed for the Bible, to psalms,” unsurpassed in Greek and Roman literary sources which show no such interest in this kind of scenery. Written in his spirit, the Hertz invokes John Ruskin, “supreme in modern times among the revealers of the glory and mystery of mountain landscapes.” We learn from the Hertz that Ruskin drew this inspiration from the Hebrew Bible, “which his mother taught him to read daily” (note to Deut. 3:25). Referring to Herder’s paean to Palestine, the Land is a place set apart, surrounded by mountains, seas and deserts. Indeed, Israel should have been a brave and hardy mountaineer people had only Israel fulfilled the will of Moses (note to Deut. 33:29). The “clear air of Palestine” is a part of that mountain spirit (note to Deut. 34: 1).

In this patriotic ethos, Israel stands out as an exceptional people. Quoting one Cardinal Faulber, Israel turns out in the Hertz to be nothing less than “the super-people in world history” (note to Deut. 4:8). A note to this comment refers us back earlier in the Hertz, where Tolstoy is marshalled and from whom we learn that, “The Jew is that sacred being” who is “the religious source, spring, and fountain out of which all the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their  religions” (note to Gen. 12:2).

The secret of Israel’s “greatness,” according to the Hertz, is the example it sets; the sudden rise of a horde of slaves, to a state of well-government (sic), prosperity, security, and tolerance. After Alexander’s conquest, enlightened Greeks looked upon the Jews also as monumental figures, “philosophers of the east.” The secret of Israel’s greatness was and, of course, remains their unique monotheism, fidelity to the will of God (note to Deut. 4:6), the “nearness of man to his Maker,” themes found in prophets and psalms and deepened by the rabbis (note to Deut. 4:7). The poor laws, rights of labour, and the administration of justice are stood up in the Hertz against “Nazi detractors of the Hebrew Scripture.” About the religious tolerance ascribed here to the ancient Israelites, the claim is composed of two parts. First and about the Bible, the claim is that pagan cults were rejected in Scripture because of their “savage cruelty,” not because of their dogma or ritual. Second rabbinic sources provide evidence of positive attitude towards “their contemporary heathens” in Roman and Persian empires. Relying on Malachi and rabbinic sources, it turns out that what we call paganism today was more simply a set of rules of conduct maintaining the existence of human society and that morality is the only standard upon which to judge these ancestral traditions (note to Deut 4:14).

What then about the “jealous God” of Deuteronomy? For the Hertz, I am suggesting that this theme is a monument in its own right, what early sociologists of religion would have recognized as a totemic image of ancient Israelite society. The first mention of the jealous God is to an iron furnace, hot enough to melt iron. It is a “symbol of intense suffering and bitter bondage (note to Deut. 4:20). Looked at sociologically, the zeal of God is a mirror image of human suffering, the burning image of Israelite suffering correlated to the inalienable relation between the people and its God, the picture of human suffering in the image of God’s devouring fire, “[c]onsuming whatever rouses His indignation.” Zealous and jealous are both the God and God’s people, a people steadfast in entire sincerity and complete self-surrender. According to the Hertz, the jealous God was the concept that kept Israel from “going under in the days of ancient heathendom, as well as in the days of Greece and Rome.” And not just then. The idea of “the jealous God” resists modern “neo-paganism,” the false gods and false ideals of the today and the tomorrow of the commentary from the 1930s. Under what Jan Assmann will call with not much charity “the Mosaic distinction” is the stubborn notion that truth makes no concession to untruth, that the “one unique universal God of Israel” is the only living God and that other gods of the day, aligned against and threatening to overpower the Jews and Judaism, are mere “figments of the imagination.” Citing Solomon Schechter, the glory of Abraham is revealed in the Hertz in fighting opposition to the whole world (note to Deut. 4:24). 

A jealous force of powerful pathos, the jealous God carries into the discussion of the Shema as an expression of divine power and support. “Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One.” or “Hear O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One.” Against the world and also before the world, a witness to the suffering and fidelity of Israel, the Shema is nothing less than the “keynote of all Judaism,” “watchword and confession of faith throughout the ages,” “fundamental Truth,” “fundamental Duty” (intro. to Deut. 6:4-9). Here readers of the Hertz are now introduced to the Tetramgrammaton, evoked in terms of the “The Father and Sustainer of the lives and spirits of all flesh, the everlasting Power Who guides the destinies of men and nations” (note to Deut. 6:4). Like the base of a pedestal, the “basis of the Jewish creed” is nothing if not the “noblest spiritual surrender and love of God,” the devotion to “live and act toward our ‘fellowman’ as to make God and God’s Torah beloved in their eyes.” This bit, the Hertz takes from the rabbis.

Like a statue, the tradition of Judaism is erected in the Hertz commentary to Deuteronomy as a monument against the world and before the world. Warm and watered down pietistic sources are brought to the biblical text to convey the spirit of nearness to and delight in God. Moses Chayim Luzzato and Eleazar of Worms and Bachya ibn Pakuda make their appearance alongside the martyrdom of R. Akiva (note to Deut. 6:5). The nostalgic refrain from the hoary past is intended to make a modern point. We are to know that the Shema belongs to a historical saga that relates to the spiritual courage of Israel, and brought to bear at the precise moment of intense spiritual battle contemporary to the Hertz in Europe and the rise of Hitler. Brought together are the Shema and Jewish history as a saga of resistance, defending the Jewish God idea against the “unutterable terror” of a “long night of suffering and exile.” Writing to stir his own compatriots, the Hertz takes up “long arduous warfare” against “advanced non-Jewish writers,” “liberal Christian theologians,” and modern polytheism that turn out to be nothing other than slavery and human sacrifice hidden under the guise of “joy of life and nature, and religious tolerance” (Additional Notes to Deut., pp.920-4).

“Justice, justice, shalt thou follow.” The Hertz presents as a non-contradiction, as fully congruent, the pathos-laden relation between the jealous God of monotheism, on the one hand, and institutions of social justice, on the other hand. In a long note, the repetition in the biblical text of the word “justice” in v. 20 boils down to “passionate words,” aligned in the Hertz with humane legislation and social righteousness, human equality in the image of God, the spirit of holiness and the practice of lovingkindness. (note to Deut.16:20). Justice in the Bible is defined in terms of the worthiness of individual life, “awe-inspired respect for the personality of others, and their inalienable rights” in every human being regardless of social station (citing Felix Adler and in italics). Justice is inter-personal, intra-communal, and international, protecting the respect for all people, the members of every social class, and “each and every national group” in the spirit of the League of Nations (note to 16:20). The theocratic constitution of the “Jewish State” is introduced at the bottom of the chapter in the rule against idolatry, the full political implications to all this being laid out in the Additional Notes where monarchy and freedom sit side by side. Because God is the “real King,” sovereign human power is limited under God and law and the right of the subject and human community. The ethical foundations of justice, the dignity of labour, even democratic institutions in the state are all embedded in the prophetic tradition of self-government (pp.926-30). Viewed historically, laws of marriage and divorce are included among the humane institutions of ancient Israel, and so on and so on.

Whether or not what is perceived today as the anti-monarchical strand in the biblical tradition matches up with democratic models of limited sovereignty, of note in the Hertz is its own critique of European colonialism and empire. This is the tension. On the one hand, in the grand apologetic of the Hertz, these fine principles of social and international justice are extended (to the point of incredulity) to the laws warfare, with special notice paid to the capture of heathen cities and to the destruction of trees (cf. comments to Deut. 20). On the other hand, there is this. Returning to the theme of the violent ban against the Canaanites, (earlier broached, with more subtlety, in the commentary to Numbers), the Hertz will note, in an apologetic move, the universality of the phenomenon. There was Rome and Mexico, and, closer to home, the politics of England, the Saxons who banned the Romanized Celts and who, in turn, were “harried” by the Normans. Having drawn these historical analogies, the Hertz moves on to complete the apologetic, pointing out that ancient cruelties pale in comparison before modern ones. Here he points with considerable directness to the extermination of indigenous peoples and the institution of chattel slavery in the Americas. “Even more dreadful” than anything in the Bible “was the enslavement or extermination of the native races by both Catholic and Protestant settlers in their Overseas possessions.”

Wanting to separate them from the example set in Scripture, for the Hertz, these modern atrocities were with no justification whereas the Israelite ban of the Canaanites was “moral,” based not on false belief but upon what are imagined to have been the vile actions of human sacrifice, foul immorality of gruesome cults,” and so on and so on. For the Hertz, this divine violence constitutes moral feeling and progress, while noting that Israel stands under the exact same threat of violent divine judgment (long comment to Deut. 20:18). Regarding slaves and fugitive slaves, the Hertz goes on to note, with a misplaced pride that is characteristic of its time, that no slave markets are mentioned in Scripture. And there is no record in Scripture of slave rebellions, or laws abandoning the rights of runaways slaves, unlike in the Hammurabi Code and in Greek, Roman, and U.S. law (comment to Deut. 23:16). These are the liberal blind spots about the Bible and Judaism that define and limit the moral vision of the Hertz. In the next chapters, the Hertz returns to more comfortable terrain, these being those excellent laws that protect strangers and widows and orphans, that prohibit excessive punishment while promoting generosity to the landless and kindness to animals (Deut. 24-25).

Promoting human goodness, while the Hertz condemns human cruelty, the kinds of suffering, the ones that come from God, the ones that matter most to the Hertz are “moral” in nature. The bloodcurdling chapters in Deuteronomy relating prophesies of doom and curses are followed by a simple statement on free will (30:15-20). Earlier in the commentary to Deuteronomy is a brief remark regarding what the rabbis called “chastisements of love” being the pathway of suffering paving the necessary road to the “beatitudes of the higher life” (note to 8:5). Now returning at the end of the commentary to the theme of suffering is the morality of free will. With reference to Maimonides (Hil. Teshuva), the Hertz is confident in our status as free agents with the capacity to choose between good and evil. To be sure, the individual is limited by heredity and environment, unable to control “even a half of his own destiny.” While recognizing that the individual “man” is part of larger national and cultural orbits, scaled down to the sphere of individual conduct, “he” remains largely a creature of his own making (long note to 30:19).

Relating human freedom to the theme of reward and punishment in the Additional Notes to Deuteronomy, the focus turns from the Bible to the rabbis. In the banal, bourgeois theodicy of the Hertz, suffering is not an absolute evil. Suffering educates and purifies, righteousness being its own reward, and so on and so on (p.925). I’ll note here that these type of themes about human suffering run throughout the entire modern Jewish tradition, from Kaufman Kohler through Martin Buber, Joseph Soloveitchik, and Mordecai Kaplan. And then it bangs up against the post-Holocaust moment, the exact moment (also on the cusp of the sexual revolution) when the Hertz, along with “modern Judaism,” begins to fall so incredibly out of date.

As it follows the path set out in the biblical text, the Hertz comes to the death of Moses and returns the commentary back to poetry and to mountain settings. The death of Moses in the Hertz commentary is an elegiac reflection on the “lot of humanity,” the fleeting human condition in contrast to those mountains at whose feet Israel wandered, and the eternity of “Him” who existed before ever those mountains were brought forth”  (intro. par.to chp. 31). This is the “majestic Farewell Song, distinguished by fire, force, and the sweep of its rhetoric,” a “didactic ode” (introductory note to 32:1-44). The poetic conclusion (intro to chapter 33) marks the secret burial place of Moses in some mountain range of the Pisgah as “the seal” of his self-effacement (note to 34:6). Combined with the wisdom of Egypt, the preeminence of Moses was “to lead into freedom a people long crushed by tyranny, etc. etc.” Quoting Henry George, the Hertz says that drew his strength from “the depths of the Unseen,” from “something more real than matter,” and so on (note to 34:10).

One final word:

Having now finished what amounts to a super-commentary here at the blog, I want to say one last thing. In no way a living commentary, the Hertz is a product reflecting all of the bourgeois proclivities and social prejudices of its place and time, including those that touch upon gender and sexual orientation. In parts ridiculous, in parts offensive, in parts sublime, even affecting, with historical distance, one can set the Hertz aside to look upon the text as a historical monument in its own right. In my own posts I have entirely omitted the apologetic-polemical war with Biblical Criticism. Just not worth the bother today, this part of the commentary tells us nothing very interesting or only a little interesting about the Hertz. Out of date and old fashioned, there is, for all that, an art to this precious period piece.

Based on personal memory, an older person might very well imagine how the Hertz shaped how bored Jews in the pews might have come to think about Judaism, one way or the other, as they leafed through its pages. That at least was my experience, such as it was, growing up. But compare the Hertz to the new Conservative Movement commentary, the Etz Hayyim. What the Hertz has that its flat successor lacks is style. There is no verve in the new commentary, no feel for poetry and pathos. Like an antique lamp or dining set or doorknob from the turn of the twentieth century, the Hertz remains a class act. It belongs to the history of nonsense that is the scholarly study of modern religion. There is so much to learn from it, not about the Bible, but about the sitz im Leben of modern Judaism in western Europe circa 1936, about the Bible as an iconic book in relation to the history of style that shapes modern religion. For those of us who are not necessarily scholars and to the degree that the reader of this post is not simply and only a scholar, one would maybe like, at the very least, to imagine what a worthy successor would even look like out there in the pews.

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(Weird Dream) My Dad Is Anthony Fauci (Coronavirus)

fauci

A weird dream last night. In the dream, I  had a warm and affirming encounter with my Dad, who died some 10+ years ago. He kissed me on my forehead. But wait, what?! My Dad is Anthony Fauci?!!  A little confused, I woke up.

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Delmore Schwartz Reads Finnegans Wake

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James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake published #OTD May 4, 1939 Here are a few pages from Delmore Schwartz’s (heavily annotated) copy of the book; to see more, complete work digitized (642 images) bit.ly/2ZRRUjV

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Time Happened to the 20th Century (An American Pickle)

sarah silverman

This bit caught my attention concerning the passage of time and cultural time-consciousness here from A.O. Scott’s review of the new Seth Rogen, American Pickle. It suggests something true about contemporary American Jewish awareness. The set up of the film is basic. Rogen plays an old-timey Jewish immigrant named Herschel from the Ukraine who falls into a vat of pickle brine which preserves him. He comes back to life and meets his assimilated great-grandson Ben, also played by Rogen.

About the passage of time conveyed in the film, Scott writes, “The century that separates Herschel from Ben allows the story to leapfrog over quite a lot of history, including the Holocaust, Israel, socialism, and the complicated process of upward mobility, acculturation and self-preservation that is the movie’s very condition of possibility. The drama of Jewish male selfhood that preoccupied so many in the middle generations — the whole Philip Roth-Woody Allen megillah — is all but erased. Herschel had his beloved Sarah. Ben has no apparent sexual or romantic interests, or even any friends that we know about. There’s no room for women in this pickle jar.”

Scott’s comment here suggest an interesting thought experiment for those of us still interested in the recent past. What does it mean now at this still relatively early point in the 21st century to leapfrog a hundred or so years and be done with all that meshugas? At what point does it happen that a century whose struggles and values viscerally shaped the lives of so many of us alive today, having shaped both us and our parents and grandparents, when all these finally fade away into the background? What if that was all torn away? Different things matter today.

What’s left in the present from the past is not lived life so much as more or less empty placeholders, these being the reconstruction of traditions and vague appeals to spirituality in the face of death and our own family loss. Is this problem and its perception defined by gender? Would Sarah Silverman have made a better, more compelling, less lonely version of this early 21st century Jewish shtick?

 

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NYC Moon

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(Outside In) The Jews and Jewishness (Parochial)

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At this exhaustion point in American life, at this tipping point of American Jewish life, it might be a good time to reflect on how little the Jews matter in the world today. By this I mean something specific. After a long century during which Jews and Jewish things were at the front and center of everything, 2020 might very well be the year that, suddenly, they’re not. The Jews and Jewishness are not at the center of a global pandemic, not at the center of the plague of anti-black racism and the struggle for BLM, and the scourge that is everything Trump. The Jews are no longer universal; they never were, even if seemed that way to some. More and more, the perspectives brought by Jewish voices to the world will be increasingly parochial, beside the point.

Thinking about the new Jewish parochialism, I’m re-visiting the thesis by Yuri Slezkine in The Jewish Century (2006) about the Jews and Jewishness (if not Judaism) as quintessentially modern, about the 20th century being the “Jewish century.” Setting aside the grand narrative contrast between Mercurial service people versus the cloddish Apollinian host culture, service nomads with unique sense of superior separateness, and how in modern times Appolinans (i.e. gentiles) become like Jews (urban, mobile, etc.). In Russia, Nazi Germany, and America, it seemed that the Jews and Jewishness were everywhere at the center of everything. Jews were exemplary, uniquely exposed at the center of things. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the Arab-Israeli, Israelo-Palestinian conflict represents something by way of an epilogue on the world stage.

It is not like I do not think that the Jews and Jewishness, including Judaism, were ever not deeply imbricated in the world. As the starting topic-subject-point of academic Jewish Studies, itself a discourse of modernity, this entanglement meant a lot to and for the Jews and Jewishness and less so to the world. Where and how in the world the Jews and Jewishness were remains an open question. But let’s assume that the 20th C. was anomalous, even a lot like the 1st C. CE when ancient Judea and Roman Palestine, its political revolts and religious movements were at the center of things, at the center of empire. What if for most of their history, the Jews and Jewish things, Jewish ideas and Jewish texts included, were never really at the center of things, but were always caught in between or just off on the side? The 21st century might be more like that. It will not be “the Jewish century,” not even “a Jewish century.”

That the Jewish textual tradition puts the life of Israel at the center of cosmic drama is part of the Jewish self-delusion that the Jews and Jewishness are at the heart of everything. A critical view suggests otherwise. Un-Christ-like, Judaism, for its part, tends not to take on the weight of the world. More often than not, a Jewish thing gives up on itself when it goes out into the world. In life, Judaism tends to tend closely to its own little corner.

The Jews and Jewishness could never really rule the world, no matter what the anti-Semites say. As worldly as they might be, Jews are not a “world people.” With no critical demographic, there are simply too few Jews in the world to matter all that much. I’m thinking of my father and grandparents now whose own lives spanned almost the entire 20th century. Always the small part of a large whole, the Jews never filled a continent. (I’m assuming here, not tongue in cheek, that a culture can’t make a claim to being “universal” if it can’t control at least one continent.) Closeness and intimacy are the Jewish virtues par excellence, alongside a religious culture whose very logic is built upon a splintering logic and points of disconnection. As a small pariah people, the Jews know that world does not come together as a rounded whole. Against what Freud thought, there is no logic of sublimation in Judaism. If its logic is de-sublimated. The Jews and Jewishness, Judaism itself, never really get off the ground

Once upon a time, Christians could blame the Jews for plagues and pandemics. Once upon a time the Jews were at the forefront of revolutions in Russia, the object par excellence of European hatred, the movement for Civil Rights in America. Today they are barely relevant on the national and international stage. Even in the Middle East, Israel hardly matters, and Palestine even less so. Caught up in larger networks, the Jews sought a place of its own. On Twitter, they remain an irritant to white and Black anti-Semites alike in this country and in Europe. That paranoiacs given to conspiracy theories want to kill Jews and pick up arms to do so enters into and out of the general consciousness.

Readers of continental philosophy and critical theory will recognize the cardinal configurating of Jews, the Jews, and Jewishness in works by Benjamin, Kafka, Adorno, Sartre, Arendt, Marcuse, Levinas, Lyotard, Derrida, and Agamben. On the American scene one would count Roth, Bellow, Mailer in literature and the Black-Jewish simpatico and tensions in culture and politics represented by iconic names like King, Heschel, Baldwin, and Fanon along with Cornell West, bell hooks, and Henry Louis Gates. All of that was once upon a time. Today the Jews and Jewishness hardly matter and do not appear in more contemporary theory (object-ontology, new materialisms, affect, critical race). Subsumed under the blanket of whiteness, their difference, their ship has long since sailed.

The 20th C. was unique in Jewish history. In the due course of time and its turns, it has itself become historical. What makes the contemporary situation unique in its own right is the modicum of real power and relative privilege Jews secured for themselves in America and Israel, after the Holocaust, and also the broadening of its internal horizons, especially in Israel. As Caryn Aviv and David Shneer note in a 2006 book about “the end of the Jewish diaspora,” what they call “the new Jews” are a global people, interconnected at an intensity of scale unique to Jewish history. Jews were always in the world, especially today, but were Jewishness and Judaism of it or were they just something ex-centric? In the history of Jewish religion things like Bible, Talmud, and Kabbalah turned away from the world. Their creators, their operators, their users looked out at the world when they did through their own particular and resistant prisms. Jews and Jewishness “have always” marked out a place for itself in a world that is largely indifferent and intermittently hostile to Jewish things.

[[The extraordinary images from a “fake photo studio” at the top of the post are by Stephen Berkman, Predicting the Past—Zohar Studios: The Lost Years  about which you can read here at Hyperallergic]]

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