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Faith in Place: Isaac Bashevis Singer in Israel

Faith in Place: Isaac Bashevis Singer in Israel

ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER — the famed Yiddish creator who in 1935 moved from Warsaw to New York and in 1978 gained the Nobel Prize for Literature as an American-Jewish writer — made his first go back and forth to Israel within the fall of 1955, arriving simply after Yom Kippur and leaving about two months later. His dating to Israel used to be sophisticated to mention the least. He have been born right into a strictly non secular circle of relatives of rabbis and rebetzins in Poland, for whom the land of Israel used to be the holiest of non secular symbols. However he additionally lived an earthly lifestyles in 1920s Warsaw, witnessing Zionism overtake Jewish Enlightenment and Bundism as a viable 20th-century political drive. In additional private phrases, Israel used to be additionally where to which his son, Israel Zamir, have been introduced by means of his mom, Runya Pontsch, in 1938, rising up partially on Kibbutz Beit Alpha and later combating within the Struggle of Independence. But Singer had all the time have shyed away from each more or less -ism — from Zionism to communism — and so his standpoint at the younger state of Israel used to be in large part freed from the ideology and dogmatism that used to be prevalent right through the rustic’s early days.

All over his go back and forth, Singer printed a number of articles a week within the Yiddish day by day Forverts, recording his consult with. Whilst those articles occasionally learn like touristic travelogues, they mirror Singer’s advanced relation to the land of Israel, as each an concept and a spot. Israel have been in Singer’s awareness since his youngest days as a boy rising up in non secular setting, and it made its method into his paintings, together with a few of his earliest fiction, which used to be printed in Hebrew. When he used to be nonetheless residing in Warsaw, Singer wrote a novella titled The Means Again (1928) a few younger guy filled with the Zionist dream who travels to the Land of Israel and returns 5 years later after struggling starvation, malaria, and poverty. In 1948, only a week earlier than the state of Israel used to be declared, he ended The Circle of relatives Moskat with a number of characters leaving Warsaw and transferring to pursue the Zionist dream. In 1955, simply weeks earlier than his go back and forth, he printed an episode of In My Father’s Court docket (1956) titled “To the Land of Israel,” a few native tinsmith who strikes his circle of relatives to the Holy Land, then returns upset to Warsaw, however then, regardless of the whole lot, is going again. In his memoirs, Singer writes that he thought to be transferring to British Mandate Palestine within the mid-1920s, and in The Certificates (1967), he fictionalizes this in a story that ends with the protagonist as an alternative going again to his shtetl. As past due as 1938, in a letter to Runya despatched from New York, he used to be nonetheless fantasizing concerning the thought: “My plan is that this: once I’ve least sources, and I’m hoping they arrive in combination temporarily, I can commute to Palestine.” However by means of mid-1939, those goals appear to move into a special view on truth: “For me, within the intervening time, getting a visa to Palestine is unattainable.” For Singer, it sort of feels, Israel remained, in each the symbolic and literal sense, the street now not taken.

And but, in past due 1955, Singer made his first go back and forth to Israel, accompanied by means of his spouse Alma, on a boat referred to as Artsa touring from Marseille by the use of Naples to the port of Haifa — now not as a non secular kid or an idealistic younger guy however as a middle-aged Yiddish creator who used to be starting to make his title at the American literary panorama. And his journalistic project used to be to seize the go back and forth briefly articles that might give Yiddish readers throughout america a way of what the younger state of Israel used to be like. His son, Zamir, used to be in New York running as a Shomer Ha’Tsair consultant, and each letters and memoirs recommend there used to be no query of his assembly Runya. Singer used to be left to his personal gadgets — touring right through Israel with Alma, however writing about it as though he have been there all by means of himself.


Singer’s ordinary standpoint — with such advanced private historical past at the back of it, and such pragmatic objectives earlier than it — offers his writing from Israel its distinctive tone. It’s all the time concerned about the large image but stays targeted at the small image. That is obtrusive from the primary moments of his go back and forth, even whilst he used to be nonetheless at the send. “I take into consideration Rabbi Yehuda Halevi and the sacrifices he made to set his eyes at the Holy Land,” he writes whilst the send sails from France to Italy. “I take into consideration the primary pioneers, the primary developers of the New Yishuv […] How is it that there’s no hint of any of this in this send? Are Jews now not trustworthy with center and soul to the speculation of the Land of Israel?” Singer is in search of evidence of the religious greatness that the Land of Israel represents, and he desires to look it within the other folks on board with him — however he quickly involves keep in mind that Israel isn’t a spot of creativeness, it’s a spot that in fact exists. “No, issues aren’t all that dangerous,” he writes. “The hearth is there, however is hidden […] The Land of Israel has change into a truth, a part of on a regular basis lifestyles.”

He starts a willing description of truth nonetheless on board the send. Gazing the more youthful passengers, he describes a now acquainted image: “The younger women and men who sit down beneath my window on folding living room chairs have in all probability fought within the conflict towards the Arabs. The next day they is also despatched to Gaza or some other strategically important location. However nowadays they would like what another fashionable younger other folks need: to have a great time.” He identifies, earlier than even arriving on shore, the consistent negotiation in Israeli society between conflict and freedom.

At the send, he additionally identifies cultural tensions between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, non secular and secular:

There’s a tiny shul right here with a holy ark and a couple of prayer books mendacity round. However the one other folks praying there are Sephardic Jews who’re touring in 3rd elegance or within the dormitories […] It is going to quickly be Yom Kippur, however the send’s “Chaplain” […] informed me there are handiest 3 Ashkenazim who wish to pray in a quorum.

Singer turns into connected to this workforce of Sephardi Jews from Tunisia, following them along with his eyes and ears:

On Friday night time I sought after to wait prayers. It used to be nonetheless daylight. I went into the little shul and there I noticed a kiddush cup with a bit wine left within, and a couple of items of challah laying within reach. It appeared that that they had already introduced within the Sabbath. The Tunisian Jews need to consume at 6 o’clock and wish to pray first.

Later, he is going once more, and sees a person praying in some way that strikes him. “There, in that little shul, I first discovered the spirituality for which I searched. There, amongst the ones Jews, it felt like shivat tsion — the Go back to Zion.” He later watches the younger Tunisian Jewish ladies with their head coverings down at the decrease deck.

I search for the commonalities between me and them. It kind of feels to me that they, too, have a look at me to look what connects us. From the point of view of our our bodies, we’re constructed as otherwise as two other folks may also be […] However so far as one is also from the opposite, the roots are the similar […] There, in Tunisia, they seemed Jewish, and for this they have been persecuted.

What binds Jews from other corners of the sector in combination, it sort of feels, is their separate however shared enjoy of distinction, even of their local nations.

Singer experiences that the temper adjustments in Naples, the place a number of hundred extra passengers board the send. Now there’s additionally making a song and yelling — the fireplace he used to be in search of. However right through this a part of the go back and forth he additionally meets a German-Jewish couple who whinge bitterly about their lifestyles within the Yishuv.

The husband stated that letting the Oriental Jews in with none variety, with none inspection, had totally thrown off the ethical stability of the rustic […] The spouse went even additional than the husband. She stated that, regardless of how a lot she needed, she may just now not stand the corporate of Polish and Russian Jews. She used to be aware of Eu (German) tradition […] she may just now not stand the Japanese Eu Jews.

Singer pushes again towards her snobbery. “‘You already know,’ I requested her, ‘that your so-called Eu tradition slaughtered 6 million Jews?’” And he or she responds: “I do know the whole lot. However…”

Prior to he even units foot in Israel, Singer identifies one of the social difficulties that its electorate face. “It’s onerous, very onerous, to convey in combination and bind in combination a people who find themselves as some distance from each and every different as east from west […] Conserving the Trendy Jew in combination manner keeping in combination powers that may at each and every second come aside. Herein lies the issue of the Yishuv.” This statement is much less a grievance than a analysis. Regardless of how a lot binds Jews in Israel — the roots all of us percentage — we need to, on the identical time, navigate our variations. On this, Singer recognizes one of the vital biggest demanding situations of a Jewish state.

What turns out to actually strike Singer when he in spite of everything arrives in Israel is the truth that, whilst constructed on fashionable organizational foundations established because the mid-19th century, the rustic seems as though it have been built out of not anything. His get admission to to this truth is, funnily sufficient, side road indicators:

Israel is a brand new nation, there’s a combined inhabitants, for probably the most section beginners, and so they want data at each step. Indicators in Hebrew — and continuously additionally in English — display you the whole lot you wish to have to grasp. […] The indicators don’t simply be offering data, they’re additionally filled with associations. . . Each side road is known as for somebody who performed a task in Jewish historical past or tradition. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, Ibn Gvirol, J. L. Gordon, Mendele, Sholem Aleichem, Peretz, Bialik, Pinsker, Herzl, Frishman, Zeitlin are all a part of this position’s geography. Phrases from the Pentateuch, from the Mishnah, from the commentaries, from the Gemara, from the Zohar, from books of the Jewish Enlightenment – are used for a wide variety of business, business, and political slogans.

What Singer turns out to love about that is that it makes even much less sympathetic Jews have to stand their connection to Jewish historical past and tradition. “The German Jew who lives right here may well be, in his center, a little of a snob […] however his deal with is: Sholem Aleichem Boulevard. And he will have to — ten instances or 100 instances an afternoon — repeat this exact same title.” In those indicators, Singer sees one thing that is going a lot deeper into the truth and paradox of Jewish identification: its obvious inescapability.

Singer temporarily connects those prosaic ideas with the very core of Jewish religion: “Because it as soon as did at Mount Sinai, Jewish tradition — in the most efficient sense of the phrase — has introduced itself down upon the Jews of Israel and referred to as to them: you will have to take me on, you’ll be able to now not forget about me, you’ll be able to now not conceal me along side your self.” In Israel, spirit and faith aren’t ephemeral emotions; they’re viscerally provide.


On his method from the port in Haifa to Tel Aviv, Singer stops at a Ma’abara, or transit camp, set as much as space masses of hundreds of Jewish immigrants and refugees, basically fresh arrivals from Arabic-speaking nations throughout North Africa and the Center East. “It’s true that the little homes are some distance from at ease,” he writes.

It is a camp of deficient other folks, those that have now not but built-in into the Yishuv. However the position is dominated by means of a spirit of freedom and Jewish hopefulness. Sephardic Jews with lengthy sidelocks stroll round in turbans, linen gowns, sandals, ritual fringes. There’s a bit marketplace the place they promote tomatoes, pomegranates, grapes, bread, buns, cheese […] It’s true that there aren’t any baths right here or different such comforts. However the creator of those strains and our readers have been additionally now not all raised in homes with baths.

The poverty in those camps does now not alienate somebody like Singer, who himself grew up in poverty.

Singer acknowledges each the desperation and the prospective in those refugee camps:

The Jews right here glance each hopeful and offended. They’ve quite a few lawsuits for the leaders of Israel. However they’re busy with their very own lives. Any individual is considering them within the Jewish ministries. Their youngsters find out about in Jewish faculties. They’re already a part of the folk. They’re going to themselves quickly sit down in workplaces, discuss within the Knesset.

It’s as though Singer may just see the lengthy and tough street forward of somebody like Yossi Yona — the instructional student and Hard work Celebration baby-kisser who used to be born within the Ma’abara of Kiryat Ata and now sits within the Knesset.

At each step, Singer displays on his dating to the truth of being within the fashionable Jewish state: “Moses, our nice trainer, didn’t advantage coming right here. Herzl didn’t have the success to look his dream discovered. However I, who laid now not a unmarried finger towards constructing this state, stroll round like I personal where.” His focal point, at this early level of the go back and forth, is basically at the unbelievability of Jewish sovereignty. The query of its sustainability — the position of Palestinian Arabs inside this mission and the consistent danger of conflict — continues to be to return. Within the intervening time, Singer basks in what he sees because the Jewishness round him: the historical past and tradition with which he grew up, persecuted for centuries in Japanese Europe, had in spite of everything risen and are available to reign over a whole land and other folks. This impossible truth leads him to focal point now not on Israel’s family members with people or states — its Arab inhabitants, the Palestinian refugees, the enemy international locations throughout its borders — however slightly on Israel’s nationwide dating to itself.

“There can’t be a Kibbutz Galuyot — an ingathering of the exiles — with out the absolute best tolerance,” he warns.

Everybody on this position must be authorised: probably the most orthodox Jews and the best apostates; the blonde and the dark-haired, the ingenue and the pioneeress, the Russian baryshnya, the American omit, and the French mademoiselle, the rabbinical Jewish daughters, and the other halves that put on wigs with silk bands, or even the German Jewish fraulein who complains that Jews stink and that she misses the mortal threat of German tradition.

This sentence is in all probability tricky to swallow these days, and but the divisions in Israeli society have handiest grown since Singer wrote this over 60 years in the past. He may just now not have recognized where that the Extremely-Orthodox would occupy in these days’s Israel, or the nice cut up in public opinion that might expand over territories occupied within the Six-Day Struggle, or the sturdy shift to the suitable that the Israeli inhabitants has exhibited because the past due 1970s. What he noticed earlier than him have been Jews from other backgrounds, in several apparel, with other ideals and convictions, all residing in combination in one nation. He straight away discovered that, with out tolerance for one some other, the mission can be doomed from the start.

It’s price scrutinizing this idea. Israeli society will have to deal relatively with others, however Israelis will have to additionally be able of dealing relatively with each and every different. Appreciate for the unfamiliar starts with admire for the acquainted — having the ability to see oneself in people, and others in oneself. The place anger, destruction, and violence rule, they accomplish that each inwardly and outwardly. If Jews can’t be just right to Jews, this turns out to indicate, how may just they ever be just right to any person else?


In his writing on Israel, Singer additionally repeatedly contemplates non secular historical past and private enjoy. On this spirit, he writes: “Ahavat Israel, loving fellow Jews […] has a magical importance.” Singer can’t keep away from associating where along with his personal non secular training as a kid — being a Jew in Israel additionally manner, for him, being repeatedly in contact with the myriad of Jewish texts he has internalized.

Status on the foot of Mount Gilboa, he writes:

This used to be the place Saul fell, this used to be the place the final act of a divine drama used to be performed out. Now not some distance from right here the Witch of Endor, the spiritist of the previous, bewitched Samuel the Prophet. I have a look at this exact same rocky hump which used to be noticed by means of the primary Jewish king, who had made the primary giant Jewish mistake: underestimating the powers and evil of Amalek.

Having a look out from the balcony of a resort in Safed a couple of days later, most likely at Mount Meron, he writes: “This isn’t a mountain for vacationers, or runaway fugitives, however for Kabbalists, who made their accounting with our little global. There, via the ones mountains, one can go from this global into the sector to return.” He continues:

At this very mountain gazed the holy Ari [Rabbi Isaac Luria], Rabbi Chaim Necessary, the Baal-Ha’Kharedim [Rabbi Elazar ben Moshe Azikri], and the writer of Lekha Dodi [Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz]. Right here, on this position, an angel confirmed itself each and every evening to Rabbi Joseph Karo [writer of the Shulkhan Arukh] and performed nightly conversations with him. The best redemption-seekers seemed out from this position for the Messiah. Right here, in a tent or a sukkah, deeply mild souls dreamed about an international of peace and a humanity with one objective: to worship God, to change into absorbed within the divine spirit, in a spirit of holiness, of attractiveness. That is the place the Ari [Rabbi Isaac Luria] composed his Sabbath poetry, which used to be filled with divine eroticism, and which had a intensity with out a equivalent within the poetry of the sector.

In visiting Mount Zion, he in a similar fashion reveals himself transported to a magical previous:

I glance right into a cave the place you’ll be able to supposedly to find King David’s grave. I stroll on small stone steps that result in a room the place, in keeping with Christian legend, Jesus ate his final meal. […] That is some other form of antiquity than somewhere else. The antiquity right here smells — it sort of feels to me — of the Temple Mount, of Torah, of scrolls, of prophecy.

And somewhere else: “In this very hill there began a non secular experiment that continues to this very day. On this position, a other folks attempted to guide a divine lifestyles on earth. From right here there’ll at some point shine a gentle to the folk of the sector and to our personal other folks.” And it sort of feels that his sense of ethical selection, raised by means of the chance of Jordanian squaddies having a look down on him from the wall above, additionally reveals expression: “What’s these days a desolate tract may just the next day to come change into a the town, and what these days is a the town may just the next day to come change into a desolate tract. All of it relies on our movements, now not on bricks, stones, or methods.” Strolling during the Valley of Hinom, the historic website online of Gehenna which he reveals coated in greenery, he even jokes: “If the actual Gehenna seemed anything else like this, sinning wouldn’t be one of these horrible factor.” The pictures and symbolism of the Bible are really provide at each step.

The land as a complete has a powerful impact on Singer, however his go back and forth to Safed, as somebody raised at the Kabbalah, made an extremely sturdy impact. “I will say that right here, for the primary time, I gave myself over to the sense that I used to be within the Land of Israel.” Those are moments when Singer’s sense of grievance, doubt, heresy, intellectuality, and the entire different advanced impulses that to find their method into his fiction, takes 2d position to a deep sense of piety and religion. That is no much less tough in his paintings, the place his characters reach it infrequently or in part, and, even if they do, with nice issue.

Singer doesn’t come to this religious magazine simply both. In Safed, he additionally encounters the truth of the brand new state. There he meets a Jew who speaks Galician Yiddish, however who is a part of generations of Safed citizens. “The Arabs of the previous have been just right to Jews,” Singer quotes the person.

They let the Jewish traders become profitable. Whilst you purchased grapes from them, they’d upload an additional bunch. Any other guy stated: the whole lot used to be just right till the English got here. They incited the Arabs towards the Jews. Any other guy stated: Neatly, might there quickly be peace. That is atkhalta d’geula — the start of the redemption.

A few of the mysticism and magic of where are politics, colonialism, and historical past.

Later, in Tel Aviv, Singer visits a courthouse. Within the first court, Singer sees “a tender guy from Iraq who had allegedly falsified his paperwork so as to not have to visit the military.” Within the subsequent court, a Greek Orthodox priest is taking the stand, talking Arabic, which is being interpreted into Hebrew:

At the bench sit down a number of Arabs […] They’re suing to get again their homes, which the state of Israel took over after the Jewish-Arab Struggle […] Jews have taken over their houses. However now the Arabs have made up our minds to sue for his or her assets again. They now not have any paperwork, however they’re bringing witnesses to testify that the homes that they personal belong to them. The previous Greek priest is the sort of witnesses.

In a 3rd court, Singer observes a Yemenite Jewish thief who’s accused of assaulting the police, however who claims the police in fact assaulted him. The younger thief finally ends up being acquitted. Ashkenazi Jews are conspicuously absent from this complete consult with to the courthouse.

Singer quickly observes different varieties of struggling and injustice. At the southern facet of town, it’s much more obtrusive:

Right here in Jaffa you’ll be able to see that there used to be a conflict on this nation. Tens and in all probability masses of homes are shot up, ruined […] Nearly all of Arabs fled Jaffa, and within the Arab residences reside Jews from Yemen, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia. They reside in unmarried rooms virtually with out furnishings. They cook dinner on transportable burners. […] The placement in Israel is usually tricky, however in Jaffa the whole lot is laid naked — the entire poverty, the entire issue.

Singer is, as that passage and maximum of his writing suggests, virtually singularly targeted at the new Jewish inhabitants of the state. The previous Arab tenants of those condominium constructions stay invisible to him.

Singer is so completely targeted at the introduction of the brand new state and the brand new Jewish settlers, that even if confronted with the Arabic inhabitants, he slightly recognizes them. He writes, “In Beer Sheva, greater than in different towns, you are feeling that you simply’re amongst Arabs. […] Arabs aren’t black but in addition now not white. […] What stands out to the attention maximum is the nice quantity of clothes that Arabs put on on the freshest of days. […] Infrequently do you spot Arab ladies in the street.” What’s placing is the stage to which Singer sees Israel’s Arab inhabitants as an impenetrable different. He seeks no interplay with them, no try to perceive them. He places it it seems that in some other textual content: he simply desires them to let Jews reside their lives. Later, when he visits Jaffa, he writes: “So long as the Arabs depart properly on my own, there will probably be building-fever right here like in Tel Aviv and in the remainder of the rustic.” It is a tricky opinion to listen to, but it surely has in fact come to endure. Jaffa, greater than 60 years later, is now going via a significant revolution of gentrifying Jewish development.

There’s no doubt that Singer’s tale of Israel is a Jewish tale. His writing can deepen our figuring out of various varieties of Jewish realities, even though, in relation to Palestinians, his evaluations are completely unexamined and unconsidered. Singer can give a contribution, then again, a fascinating standpoint at the want for tolerance amongst other varieties of Jews: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, previous global and new. That is particularly the case in relation to fashionable Jews figuring out the mindset of the previous global. And it units out a trail for tolerance that may then be prolonged past Israel’s Jewish inhabitants.


“I actually need other folks to talk to me in Hebrew,” Singer writes in one in every of his previous articles.

However once any person hears that my Hebrew sounds international, they begin talking to me in Yiddish, and so the result’s that I most commonly discuss Yiddish. Other folks right here discuss Yiddish at each step. […] Even Sephardim be informed some Yiddish within the military. It’s additionally in model for Hebraists to throw in Yiddish phrases to be lovely.

Time and again, Singer’s needs and imaginings of this position bump up towards the truth. On a regular basis lifestyles — the feel of day by day truth — pushes again towards the large questions that appear to all the time be handy. “A just right cup of espresso is uncommon,” Singer writes. “You’ll be able to get a just right black espresso, however when you like a cup of espresso with cream like in New York, you are going to most commonly be upset.” He additionally issues out that “yogurt could be very common, as is a form of bitter cream referred to as lebenya.” And some other factor: “You notice balconies all over. Other folks sit down on their balconies, consume on their balconies, entertain visitors.” He issues out that there are lots of chic other folks at the streets however that well-dressed persons are a unprecedented sight. He even spends a paragraph on trisim, the heavy sunglasses that are supposed to stay out the Mediterranean solar. Regardless of the historical past, there may be all the time actual lifestyles to barter.

A significant a part of this actual lifestyles, as Singer issues out, is the consistent danger of conflict. “The enemy can assault from both sides: from north, from south, from east,” Singer writes, reflecting on his go back and forth as much as Kibbutz Beit Alpha. “However the customer in Israel is inflamed with a mysterious bravery that belongs to all Jews in Israel. A type of braveness that’s tricky to provide an explanation for.” On Tel Aviv, he writes: “The enemy isn’t some distance. When you in New York have been as with reference to the enemy as we’re right here, you’d shiver and shake and take a look at to run away. However within the streets the place I to find myself there reigns a atypical quiet, a serenity having one thing to do with the bodily and non secular surroundings.” In Jerusalem, he once more has the similar idea: “It’s onerous to consider that you simply’re shut, extraordinarily shut, to the enemy.” And at the method as much as Mount Zion, he once more issues to the mysterious braveness: “I’m no hero, however I don’t have any concern. I’d would say that Israel is inflamed with bravery. In another nation, this type of stroll, subsequent to the very border of the enemy, would arouse concern in me.” Violence is a truth that Israelis face always — and there is not any doubt that over the a long time it has affected and in all probability additionally inflamed our society, each how Israelis deal with non-Jews and the way we deal with each and every different. However the truth stays that, to reside right here, all of us want an inherent more or less bravery, towards out of doors threats a minimum of our personal neighbors.


In one in every of his articles, by which Singer considers the entire other folks he met right through his go back and forth, he tells the tale of Benjamin Warszawiak, an previous good friend from Bilgoraj who moved to Israel. Benjamin discovered lifestyles tricky, moved for a time to South The united states, however ultimately got here again to reside out his lifestyles running on a kibbutz. His tale is gloomy, and but Singer sees a redemptive facet to this guy’s lifestyles — that there’s nowhere else however the Jewish state for him to reside. “You don’t need to essentially be an ordinary particular person to have deep religious wishes,” he displays. “Easy other folks continuously sacrifice their private happiness to strengthen their religious surroundings. Israel is filled with such other folks, and also you to find them particularly within the kibbutzim. I will say that virtually all the kibbutzniks are in their very own method idealists.”

In the end, Singer suggests, the anomaly of Jewish lifestyles in Israel lies within the center of the Jews who proceed to make Israel their house. “Religion on this position, just like the Sabbath, is reasonably automated and instinctual too,” he writes. “The mouth denies, however the center believes. How may just other folks reside right here differently?”


David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem.

The publish Faith in Place: Isaac Bashevis Singer in Israel gave the impression first on Los Angeles Review of Books.

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