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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesChildren Of The Ghetto: A Study Of A Peculiar People - Book 1. Children Of The Ghetto - Chapter 7. The Neo-Hebrew Poet
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Children Of The Ghetto: A Study Of A Peculiar People - Book 1. Children Of The Ghetto - Chapter 7. The Neo-Hebrew Poet Post by :Samoyedman Category :Long Stories Author :Israel Zangwill Date :May 2012 Read :2670

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Children Of The Ghetto: A Study Of A Peculiar People - Book 1. Children Of The Ghetto - Chapter 7. The Neo-Hebrew Poet

BOOK I. CHILDREN OF THE GHETTO CHAPTER VII. THE NEO-HEBREW POET

He came through the open street door, knocked perfunctorily at the door of the room, opened it and then kissed the _Mezuzah outside the door. Then he advanced, snatched the Rebbitzin's hand away from the handle of the coffee-pot and kissed it with equal devotion. He then seized upon Hannah's hand and pressed his grimy lips to that, murmuring in German:

"Thou lookest so charming this morning, like the roses of Carmel." Next he bent down and pressed his lips to the Reb's coat-tail. Finally he said: "Good morning, sir," to Levi, who replied very affably, "Good morning, Mr. Pinchas," "Peace be unto you, Pinchas," said the Reb. "I did not see you in _Shool this morning, though it was the New Moon."

"No, I went to the Great _Shool_," said Pinchas in German. "If you do not see me at your place you may be sure I'm somewhere else. Any one who has lived so long as I in the Land of Israel cannot bear to pray without a quorum. In the Holy Land I used to learn for an hour in the _Shool every morning before the service began. But I am not here to talk about myself. I come to ask you to do me the honor to accept a copy of my new volume of poems: _Metatoron's Flames_. Is it not a beautiful title? When Enoch was taken up to heaven while yet alive, he was converted to flames of fire and became Metatoron, the great spirit of the Cabalah. So am I rapt up into the heaven of lyrical poetry and I become all fire and flame and light."

The poet was a slim, dark little man, with long, matted black hair. His face was hatchet-shaped and not unlike an Aztec's. The eyes were informed by an eager brilliance. He had a heap of little paper-covered books in one hand and an extinct cigar in the other. He placed the books upon the breakfast table.

"At last," he said. "See, I have got it printed--the great work which this ignorant English Judaism has left to moulder while it pays its stupid reverends thousands a year for wearing white ties."

"And who paid for it now, Mr. Pinchas?" said the Rebbitzin.

"Who? Wh-o-o?" stammered Melchitsedek. "Who but myself?"

"But you say you are blood-poor."

"True as the Law of Moses! But I have written articles for the jargon papers. They jump at me--there is not a man on the staff of them all who has the pen of a ready writer. I can't get any money out of them, my dear Rebbitzin, else I shouldn't be without breakfast this morning, but the proprietor of the largest of them is also a printer, and he has printed my little book in return. But I don't think I shall fill my stomach with the sales. Oh! the Holy One, blessed be He, bless you, Rebbitzin, of course I'll take a cup of coffee; I don't know any one else who makes coffee with such a sweet savor; it would do for a spice offering when the Almighty restores us our Temple. You are a happy mortal, Rabbi. You will permit that I seat myself at the table?"

Without awaiting permission he pushed a chair between Levi and Hannah and sat down; then he got up again and washed his hands and helped himself to a spare egg.

"Here is your copy, Reb Shemuel," he went on after an interval. "You see it is dedicated generally:

"'To the Pillars of English Judaism.'

"They are a set of donkey-heads, but one must give them a chance of rising to higher things. It is true that not one of them understands Hebrew, not even the Chief Rabbi, to whom courtesy made me send a copy. Perhaps he will be able to read my poems with a dictionary; he certainly can't write Hebrew without two grammatical blunders to every word. No, no, don't defend him, Reb Shemuel, because you're under him. He ought to be under you--only he expresses his ignorance in English and the fools think to talk nonsense in good English is to be qualified for the Rabbinate."

The remark touched the Rabbi in a tender place. It was the one worry of his life, the consciousness that persons in high quarters disapproved of him as a force impeding the Anglicization of the Ghetto. He knew his shortcomings, but could never quite comprehend the importance of becoming English. He had a latent feeling that Judaism had flourished before England was invented, and so the poet's remark was secretly pleasing to him.

"You know very well," went on Pinchas, "that I and you are the only two persons in London who can write correct Holy Language."

"No, no." said the Rabbi, deprecatingly.

"Yes, yes," said Pinchas, emphatically. "You can write quite as well as I. But just cast your eye now on the especial dedication which I have written to you in my own autograph. 'To the light of his generation, the great Gaon, whose excellency reaches to the ends of the earth, from whose lips all the people of the Lord seek knowledge, the never-failing well, the mighty eagle soars to heaven on the wings of understanding, to Rav Shemuel, may whose light never be dimmed, and in whose day may the Redeemer come unto Zion.' There, take it, honor me by taking it. It is the homage of the man of genius to the man of learning, the humble offering of the one Hebrew scholar in England to the other."

"Thank you," said the old Rabbi, much moved. "It is too handsome of you, and I shall read it at once and treasure it amongst my dearest books, for you know well that I consider that you have the truest poetic gift of any son of Israel since Jehuda Halevi."

"I have! I know it! I feel it! It burns me. The sorrow of our race keeps me awake at night--the national hopes tingle like electricity through me--I bedew my couch with tears in the darkness"--Pinchas paused to take another slice of bread and butter. "It is then that my poems are born. The words burst into music in my head and I sing like Isaiah the restoration of our land, and become the poet patriot of my people. But these English! They care only to make money and to stuff it down the throats of gorging reverends. My scholarship, my poetry, my divine dreams--what are these to a besotted, brutal congregation of Men-of-the-Earth? I sent Buckledorf, the rich banker, a copy of my little book, with a special dedication written in my own autograph in German, so that he might understand it. And what did he send me? A beggarly five shillings? Five shillings to the one poet in whom the heavenly fire lives! How can the heavenly fire live on five shillings? I had almost a mind to send it back. And then there was Gideon, the member of Parliament. I made one of the poems an acrostic on his name, so that he might be handed down to posterity. There, that's the one. No, the one on the page you were just looking at. Yes, that's it, beginning:


"'Great leader of our Israel's host,
I sing thy high heroic deeds,
Divinely gifted learned man.'


"I wrote his dedication in English, for he understands neither Hebrew nor German, the miserable, purse-proud, vanity-eaten Man-of-the-Earth."

"Why, didn't he give you anything at all?" said the Reb.

"Worse! He sent me back the book. But I'll be revenged on him. I'll take the acrostic out of the next edition and let him rot in oblivion. I have been all over the world to every great city where Jews congregate. In Russia, in Turkey, in Germany, in Roumania, in Greece, in Morocco, in Palestine. Everywhere the greatest Rabbis have leaped like harts on the mountains with joy at my coming. They have fed and clothed me like a prince. I have preached at the synagogues, and everywhere people have said it was like the Wilna Gaon come again. From the neighboring villages for miles and miles the pious have come to be blessed by me. Look at my testimonials from all the greatest saints and savants. But in England--in England alone--what is my welcome? Do they say: 'Welcome, Melchitsedek Pinchas, welcome as the bridegroom to the bride when the long day is done and the feast is o'er; welcome to you, with the torch of your genius, with the burden of your learning that is rich with the whole wealth of Hebrew literature in all ages and countries. Here we have no great and wise men. Our Chief Rabbi is an idiot. Come thou and be our Chief Rabbi?' Do they say this? No! They greet me with scorn, coldness, slander. As for the Rev. Elkan Benjamin, who makes such a fuss of himself because he sends a wealthy congregation to sleep with his sermons, I'll expose him as sure as there's a Guardian of Israel. I'll let the world know about his four mistresses."

"Nonsense! Guard yourself against the evil tongue," said the Reb. "How do you know he has?"

"It's the Law of Moses," said the little poet. "True as I stand here. You ask Jacob Hermann. It was he who told me about it. Jacob Hermann said to me one day: 'That Benjamin has a mistress for every fringe of his four-corners.' And how many is that, eh? I do not know why he should be allowed to slander me and I not be allowed to tell the truth about him. One day I will shoot him. You know he said that when I first came to London I joined the _Meshumadim in Palestine Place."

"Well, he had at least some foundation for that," said Reb Shemuel.

"Foundation! Do you call that foundation--because I lived there for a week, hunting out their customs and their ways of ensnaring the souls of our brethren, so that I might write about them one day? Have I not already told you not a morsel of their food passed my lips and that the money which I had to take so as not to excite suspicion I distributed in charity among the poor Jews? Why not? From pigs we take bristles."

"Still, you must remember that if you had not been such a saint and such a great poet, I might myself have believed that you sold your soul for money to escape starvation. I know how these devils set their baits for the helpless immigrant, offering bread in return for a lip-conversion. They are grown so cunning now--they print their hellish appeals in Hebrew, knowing we reverence the Holy Tongue."

"Yes, the ordinary Man-of-the-Earth believes everything that's in Hebrew. That was the mistake of the Apostles--to write in Greek. But then they, too, were such Men-of-the Earth."

"I wonder who writes such good Hebrew for the missionaries," said Reb Shemuel.

"I wonder," gurgled Pinchas, deep in his coffee.

"But, father," asked Hannah, "don't you believe any Jew ever really believes in Christianity?"

"How is it possible?" answered Reb Shemuel. "A Jew who has the Law from Sinai, the Law that will never be changed, to whom God has given a sensible religion and common-sense, how can such a person believe in the farrago of nonsense that makes up the worship of the Christians! No Jew has ever apostatized except to fill his purse or his stomach or to avoid persecution. 'Getting grace' they call it in English; but with poor Jews it is always grace after meals. Look at the Crypto-Jews, the Marranos, who for centuries lived a double life, outwardly Christians, but handing down secretly from generation to generation the faith, the traditions, the observances of Judaism."

"Yes, no Jew was ever fool enough to turn Christian unless he was a clever man," said the poet paradoxically. "Have you not, my sweet, innocent young lady, heard the story of the two Jews in Burgos Cathedral?"

"No, what is it?" said Levi, eagerly.

"Well, pass my cup up to your highly superior mother who is waiting to fill it with coffee. Your eminent father knows the story--I can see by the twinkle in his learned eye."

"Yes, that story has a beard," said the Reb.

"Two Spanish Jews," said the poet, addressing himself deferentially to Levi, "who had got grace were waiting to be baptized at Burgos Cathedral. There was a great throng of Catholics and a special Cardinal was coming to conduct the ceremony, for their conversion was a great triumph. But the Cardinal was late and the Jews fumed and fretted at the delay. The shadows of evening were falling on vault and transept. At last one turned to the other and said, 'Knowest them what, Moses? If the Holy Father does not arrive soon, we shall be too late to say _mincha_."

Levi laughed heartily; the reference to the Jewish afternoon prayer went home to him.

"That story sums up in a nutshell the whole history of the great movement for the conversion of the Jews. We dip ourselves in baptismal water and wipe ourselves with a _Talith_. We are not a race to be lured out of the fixed feelings of countless centuries by the empty spirituality of a religion in which, as I soon found out when I lived among the soul-dealers, its very professors no longer believe. We are too fond of solid things," said the poet, upon whom a good breakfast was beginning to produce a soothing materialistic effect. "Do you know that anecdote about the two Jews in the Transvaal?" Pinchas went on. "That's a real _Chine_."

"I don't think I know that _Maaseh_," said Reb Shemuel.

"Oh, the two Jews had made a _trek and were travelling onwards exploring unknown country. One night they were sitting by their campfire playing cards when suddenly one threw up his cards, tore his hair and beat his breast in terrible agony. 'What's the matter?' cried the other. 'Woe, woe,' said the first. 'To-day was the Day of Atonement! and we have eaten and gone on as usual.' 'Oh, don't take on so,' said his friend. 'After all, Heaven will take into consideration that we lost count of the Jewish calendar and didn't mean to be so wicked. And we can make up for it by fasting to-morrow.'

"'Oh, no! Not for me,' said the first. 'To-day was the Day of Atonement.'"

All laughed, the Reb appreciating most keenly the sly dig at his race. He had a kindly sense of human frailty. Jews are very fond of telling stories against themselves--for their sense of humor is too strong not to be aware of their own foibles--but they tell them with closed doors, and resent them from the outside. They chastise themselves because they love themselves, as members of the same family insult one another. The secret is, that insiders understand the limitations of the criticism, which outsiders are apt to take in bulk. No race in the world possesses a richer anecdotal lore than the Jews--such pawky, even blasphemous humor, not understandable of the heathen, and to a suspicious mind Pinchas's overflowing cornucopia of such would have suggested a prior period of Continental wandering from town to town, like the _Minnesingers of the middle ages, repaying the hospitality of his Jewish entertainers with a budget of good stories and gossip from the scenes of his pilgrimages.

"Do you know the story?" he went on, encouraged by Simcha's smiling face, "of the old Reb and the _Havdolah_? His wife left town for a few days and when she returned the Reb took out a bottle of wine, poured some into the consecration cup and began to recite the blessing. 'What art thou doing?' demanded his wife in amaze.' I am making _Havdolah_,' replied the Reb. 'But it is not the conclusion of a festival to-night,' she said. 'Oh, yes, it is,' he answered. 'My Festival's over. You've come back.'"

The Reb laughed so much over this story that Simcha's brow grew as the solid Egyptian darkness, and Pinchas perceived he had made a mistake.

"But listen to the end," he said with a creditable impromptu. "The wife said--'No, you're mistaken. Your Festival's only beginning. You get no supper. It's the commencement of the Day of Atonement.'"

Simcha's brow cleared and the Reb laughed heartily.

"But I don't seethe point, father," said Levi.

"Point! Listen, my son. First of all he was to have a Day of Atonement, beginning with no supper, for his sin of rudeness to his faithful wife. Secondly, dost thou not know that with us the Day of Atonement is called a festival, because we rejoice at the Creator's goodness in giving us the privilege of fasting? That's it, Pinchas, isn't it?"

"Yes, that's the point of the story, and I think the Rebbitzin had the best of it, eh?"

"Rebbitzins always have the last word," said the Reb. "But did I tell you the story of the woman who asked me a question the other day? She brought me a fowl in the morning and said that in cutting open the gizzard she had found a rusty pin which the fowl must have swallowed. She wanted to know whether the fowl might be eaten. It was a very difficult point, for how could you tell whether the pin had in any way contributed to the fowl's death? I searched the _Shass and a heap of _Shaalotku-Tshuvos_. I went and consulted the _Maggid and Sugarman the _Shadchan and Mr. Karlkammer, and at last we decided that the fowl was _tripha and could not be eaten. So the same evening I sent for the woman, and when I told her of our decision she burst into tears and wrung her hands. 'Do not grieve so,' I said, taking compassion upon her, 'I will buy thee another fowl.' But she wept on, uncomforted. 'O woe! woe!' she cried. 'We ate it all up yesterday.'"

Pinchas was convulsed with laughter. Recovering himself, he lit his half-smoked cigar without asking leave.

"I thought it would turn out differently," he said. "Like that story of the peacock. A man had one presented to him, and as this is such rare diet he went to the Reb to ask if it was _kosher_. The Rabbi said 'no' and confiscated the peacock. Later on the man heard that the Rabbi had given a banquet at which his peacock was the crowning dish. He went to his Rabbi and reproached him. '_I may eat it,' replied the Rabbi, 'because my father considers it permitted and we may always go by what some eminent Son of the Law decides. But you unfortunately came to _me for an opinion, and the permissibility of peacock is a point on which I have always disagreed with my father.'"

Hannah seemed to find peculiar enjoyment in the story.

"Anyhow," concluded Pinchas, "you have a more pious flock than the Rabbi of my native place, who, one day, announced to his congregation that he was going to resign. Startled, they sent to him a delegate, who asked, in the name of the congregation, why he was leaving them. 'Because,' answered the Rabbi, 'this is the first question any one has ever asked me!'"

"Tell Mr. Pinchas your repartee about the donkey," said Hannah, smiling.

"Oh, no, it's not worth while," said the Reb.

"Thou art always so backward with thine own," cried the Rebbitzin warmly. "Last Purim an impudent of face sent my husband a donkey made of sugar. My husband had a Rabbi baked in gingerbread and sent it in exchange to the donor, with the inscription 'A Rabbi sends a Rabbi.'"

Reb Shemuel laughed heartily, hearing this afresh at the lips of his wife. But Pinchas was bent double like a convulsive note of interrogation.

The clock on the mantelshelf began to strike nine. Levi jumped to his feet.

"I shall be late for school!" he cried, making for the door.

"Stop! stop!" shouted his father. "Thou hast not yet said grace."

"Oh, yes, I have, father. While you were all telling stories I was _benshing quietly to myself."

"Is Saul also among the prophets, is Levi also among the story-tellers?" murmured Pinchas to himself. Aloud he said: "The child speaks truth; I saw his lips moving."

Levi gave the poet a grateful look, snatched up his satchel and ran off to No. 1 Royal Street. Pinchas followed him soon, inwardly upbraiding Reb Shemuel for meanness. He had only as yet had his breakfast for his book. Perhaps it was Simcha's presence that was to blame. She was the Reb's right hand and he did not care to let her know what his left was doing.

He retired to his study when Pinchas departed, and the Rebbitzin clattered about with a besom.

The study was a large square room lined with book-shelves and hung with portraits of the great continental Rabbis. The books were bibliographical monsters to which the Family Bibles of the Christian are mere pocket-books. They were all printed purely with the consonants, the vowels being divined grammatically or known by heart. In each there was an island of text in a sea of commentary, itself lost in an ocean of super-commentary that was bordered by a continent of super-super-commentary. Reb Shemuel knew many of these immense folios--with all their tortuous windings of argument and anecdote--much as the child knows the village it was born in, the crooked by-ways and the field paths. Such and such a Rabbi gave such and such an opinion on such and such a line from the bottom of such and such a page--his memory of it was a visual picture. And just as the child does not connect its native village with the broader world without, does not trace its streets and turnings till they lead to the great towns, does not inquire as to its origins and its history, does not view it in relation to other villages, to the country, to the continent, to the world, but loves it for itself and in itself, so Reb Shemuel regarded and reverenced and loved these gigantic pages with their serried battalions of varied type. They were facts--absolute as the globe itself--regions of wisdom, perfect and self-sufficing. A little obscure here and there, perhaps, and in need of amplification or explication for inferior intellects--a half-finished manuscript commentary on one of the super-commentaries, to be called "The Garden of Lilies," was lying open on Reb Shemuel's own desk--but yet the only true encyclopaedia of things terrestrial and divine. And, indeed, they were wonderful books. It was as difficult to say what was not in them as what was. Through them the old Rabbi held communion with his God whom he loved with all his heart and soul and thought of as a genial Father, watching tenderly over His froward children and chastising them because He loved them. Generations of saints and scholars linked Reb Shemuel with the marvels of Sinai. The infinite network of ceremonial never hampered his soul; it was his joyous privilege to obey his Father in all things and like the king who offered to reward the man who invented a new pleasure, he was ready to embrace the sage who could deduce a new commandment. He rose at four every morning to study, and snatched every odd moment he could during the day. Rabbi Meir, that ancient ethical teacher, wrote: "Whosoever labors in the Torah for its own sake, the whole world is indebted to him; he is called friend, beloved, a lover of the All-present, a lover of mankind; it clothes him in meekness and reverence; it fits him to become just, pious, upright and faithful; he becomes modest, long-suffering and forgiving of insult."

Reb Shemuel would have been scandalized if any one had applied these words to him.

At about eleven o'clock Hannah came into the room, an open letter in her hand.

"Father," she said, "I have just had a letter from Samuel Levine."

"Your husband?" he said, looking up with a smile.

"My husband," she replied, with a fainter smile.

"And what does he say?"

"It isn't a very serious letter; he only wants to reassure me that he is coming back by Sunday week to be divorced."

"All right; tell him it shall be done at cost price," he said, with the foreign accent that made him somehow seem more lovable to his daughter when he spoke English. "He shall only be charged for the scribe."

"He'll take that for granted," Hannah replied. "Fathers are expected to do these little things for their own children. But how much nicer it would be if you could give me the _Gett yourself."

"I would marry you with pleasure," said Reb Shemuel, "but divorce is another matter. The _Din has too much regard for a father's feelings to allow that."

"And you really think I am Sam Levine's wife?"

"How many times shall I tell you? Some authorities do take the _intention into account, but the letter of the law is clearly against you. It is far safer to be formally divorced."

"Then if he were to die--"

"Save us and grant us peace," interrupted the Reb in horror.

"I should be his widow."

"Yes, I suppose you would. But what _Narrischkeit_! Why should he die? It isn't as if you were really married to him," said the Reb, his eye twinkling.

"But isn't it all absurd, father?"

"Do not talk so," said Reb Shemuel, resuming his gravity. "Is it absurd that you should be scorched if you play with fire?"

Hannah did not reply to the question.

"You never told me how you got on at Manchester," she said. "Did you settle the dispute satisfactorily?"

"Oh, yes," said the Reb; "but it was very difficult. Both parties were so envenomed, and it seems that the feud has been going on in the congregation ever since the Day of Atonement, when the minister refused to blow the _Shofar three minutes too early, as the President requested. The Treasurer sided with the minister, and there has almost been a split."

"The sounding of the New Year trumpet seems often to be the signal for war," said Hannah, sarcastically.

"It is so," said the Reb, sadly.

"And how did you repair the breach?"

"Just by laughing at both sides. They would have turned a deaf ear to reasoning. I told them that Midrash about Jacob's journey to Laban."

"What is that?"

"Oh, it's an amplification of the Biblical narrative. The verse in Genesis says that he lighted on the place, and he put up there for the night because the sun had set, and he took of the stones of the place and he made them into pillows. But later on it says that he rose up in the morning and he took _the stone which he had put as his pillows. Now what is the explanation?" Reb Shemuel's tone became momently more sing-song: "In the night the stones quarrelled for the honor of supporting the Patriarch's head, and so by a miracle they were turned into one stone to satisfy them all. 'Now you remember that when Jacob arose in the morning he said: 'How fearful is this place; this is none other than the House of God.' So I said to the wranglers: 'Why did Jacob say that? He said it because his rest had been so disturbed by the quarrelling stones that it reminded him of the House of God--the Synagogue.' I pointed out how much better it would be if they ceased their quarrellings and became one stone. And so I made peace again in the _Kehillah_."

"Till next year," said Hannah, laughing. "But, father, I have often wondered why they allow the ram's horn in the service. I thought all musical instruments were forbidden."

"It is not a musical instrument--in practice," said the Reb, with evasive facetiousness. And, indeed, the performers were nearly always incompetent, marring the solemnity of great moments by asthmatic wheezings and thin far-away tootlings.

"But it would be if we had trained trumpeters," persisted Hannah, smiling.

"If you really want the explanation, it is that since the fall of the second Temple we have dropped out of our worship all musical instruments connected with the old Temple worship, especially such as have become associated with Christianity. But the ram's horn on the New Year is an institution older than the Temple, and specially enjoined in the Bible."

"But surely there is something spiritualizing about an organ."

For reply the Reb pinched her ear. "Ah, you are a sad _Epikouros_" he said, half seriously. "If you loved God you would not want an organ to take your thoughts to heaven."

He released her ear and took up his pen, humming with unction a synagogue air full of joyous flourishes.

Hannah turned to go, then turned back.

"Father," she said nervously, blushing a little, "who was that you said you had in your eye?"

"Oh, nobody in particular," said the Reb, equally embarrassed and avoiding meeting her eye, as if to conceal the person in his.

"But you must have meant something by it," she said gravely. "You know I'm not going to be married off to please other people."

The Reb wriggled uncomfortably in his chair. "It was only a thought--an idea. If it does not come to you, too, it shall be nothing. I didn't mean anything serious--really, my dear, I didn't. To tell you the truth," he finished suddenly with a frank, heavenly smile, "the person I had mainly in my eye when I spoke was your mother."

This time his eye met hers, and they smiled at each other with the consciousness of the humors of the situation. The Rebbitzin's broom was heard banging viciously in the passage. Hannah bent down and kissed the ample forehead beneath the black skull-cap.

"Mr. Levine also writes insisting that I must go to the Purim ball with him and Leah," she said, glancing at the letter.

"A husband's wishes must be obeyed," answered the Reb.

"No, I will treat him as if he were really my husband," retorted Hannah. "I will have my own way: I shan't go."

The door was thrown open suddenly.

"Oh yes thou wilt," said the Rebbitzin. "Thou art not going to bury thyself alive."

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