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November 25, 2015 by

The Ethics of Hanukkah Gelt

geltThe complex flavor profile of sumptuous chocolate has finally made it to Hanukkah gelt. Cookbook author and Jewish food expert, Leah Koenig, hunts out only “top notch chocolate, products that put the chocolate first.” Koenig, who has savored several gelt tastings, looks for a high ratio of cocoa solids to the other products. For Koenig that means, “more flavor than sweet.”

Additional palatable chocolate gelt choices include ethical ingredients that are certified Fair Trade. Fair Trade standards prohibit the use of child and slave labor, a problem particularly in cocoa sourced from West Africa. Ashira Abramowitz’s project for her Bat Mitzvah at Kol Haneshama synagogue in Jerusalem seeks to insure that Strauss, the biggest chocolate company in Israel, sells only Fair Trade chocolate. To support Ashira’s campaign to bring Fair Trade chocolate to Israel, sign her petition. Ashira learned about Fair Trade from her older sister, Hallel, who traveled with American Jewish World Services to Ghana. There Hallel learned about child slavery on cocoa farms. Hallel returned to Jerusalem a committed Fair Trade consumer.

Ashira reported the following to me in an email on November 24, 2015, just moments after her first formal conversation with the Strauss company about the issues:

I spoke with Daniela Prusky-Sion who is the International Corporate Responsibility Manager at Strauss Group. She was very friendly and assured me that they are using ethical chocolate but that their corporate social responsibility essentially ends at the suppliers of the cocoa … I spoke about the importance of not supporting child slavery, especially for Passover chocolates. She thanked me for wanting to help and wished me Mazal Tov on my Bat Mitzvah. Ashira invited Strauss Company chairwoman, Ofra Strauss, to her Bat Mitzvah where challot with Fair Trade chocolate caramel bars mixed in will be served in tribute to Ashira’s childhood favorite. Fair Trade Chanukah gelt will also be distributed.      

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November 24, 2015 by

Talking in Shul

TheBookofFaithSmart yet tender, funny yet deep, The Book of Faith, is a sly, witty send-up of squabble-filled synagogue politics deftly penned by Elaine Kalman Naves.  At the heart of the novel are Faith, Rhoda and Erica, three bosom buddies, not young but not old either, affectionately known as the Three Graces. When Rabbi Nate announces that he wants a new building to house their congregation, he sets the community into a small uproar, and each of the women—well-drawn, sympathetic and complex—have a role to play in advancing or impeding the conflicting agendas that emerge. Will Rabbi Nate get his heart’s desire?  Can Erica appease the whims of a rich and unpredictable donor? What does Rhoda learn and what becomes of Faith?  Below is a teaser; you’ll just have to read the book to find out more. 


Erica backed out of her driveway on Saturday morning in some haste. It was five past ten—she would have to hustle to make it. Since Faith’s investiture as president, this had become their routine. Instead of lingering over the fat Saturday paper, catching up on phone calls, or doing the groceries, they were off to shul together.

Erica had learned to be on time for these outings; Faith was starchy if kept waiting. “On time,” though, meant a calibrated degree of lateness. Services started at ten, but being there for Mah tovu, the first of the morning prayers, showed greater eagerness for religion than Faith deemed necessary. On the other hand, she considered arriving after 10:20 bad form for her new presidential status. A decorous entrance before the Amidah, the standing prayer, was just right.

Erica pulled up in front of Faith’s brick and stone split-level on Rosedale, just as Faith, who’d been watching for her from inside, came sailing down the stairs.

“A new outfit?” Erica asked her as she buckled up.

“Rhoda and I found it on sale at BCBG. It was a steal.”

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November 19, 2015 by

“Greatest Generation Women”


Eva Zeisel. Photo by Ellen Wallenstein.

Eva Zeisel. Photo by Ellen Wallenstein.

Ellen Wallenstein’s astute and tender eye falls gently upon this group of over-80s, all photographed in the natural light of their homes or studios. The subjects, several of them notable Jewish women, skew towards artists and intellectuals, all born at the beginning of the last century.  “Known as the ‘Greatest Generation’ and coming of age between the two World Wars, the effect of this generation’s contribution is evident in their creative work, which includes books, poems, paintings, photographs, plays and performances,” notes Wallenstein. “My photographs are meant to celebrate these individuals and to inspire admiration by future generations.”

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November 18, 2015 by

Sacred Rights in a Time of Terror

Barely 48 hours after the Paris reign of terror, it feels like a Jew-centric indulgence to show up for Sacred Rights Sacred Song‘s “A Concert of Concern,” billed as “a musical experience to support Israel’s modern Jewish democracy.”

But when Sunday’s New York area premiere changed course to open with full-throated, full-orchestrated ringing tones of “La Marseillaise,” tears came to my eyes. This was the right place to be—in the darkened main sanctuary of Ansche Chesed. The Upper West Side Conservative synagogue had opened its doors for this call to action to us New York Jews.

With the timing of “A Concert of Concern,” I expected an outpouring of Jews—and others—feeling the need to come together to be healed by music with a call to action for democracy. We would find strength and comfort with others to stand up against extremism in the name of religion.

So where was everybody? Barely 50 people were scattered around the dramatic darkness of the sanctuary, the bima bathed in light, two giant six-branch menorahs (symbols of the Jewish State) flanking the 18-person chorus; full orchestra below, under the baton of Cantor David Tillman, silver-haired, in black suit, small knitted yarmulke. (By their headgear you shall judge them.)

Cantor David Tillman conducts Sunday’s performance of Sacred Rights, Sacred Song at New York’s Ansche Chesed Synagogue. On stage in front of chorus, at right, Francine M. Gordon, producer and writer of lyrics and all spoken words, and guest artist Naomi Less. Photo credit: Amy Stone

Cantor David Tillman conducts Sunday’s performance of Sacred Rights, Sacred Song’s “A Concert of Concern” at New York’s Ansche Chesed Synagogue. On stage in front of chorus, at right, Francine M. Gordon, producer and writer of lyrics and all spoken words, and guest artist Naomi Less. Photo by Amy Stone.

Sacred Rights Sacred Song (punning on “rights”) is the creation of lawyer-mother-religious activist Francine M. Gordon. She alternates between giving the facts on the ways that Israel’s Jewish democracy falls short, especially for women, and joining the chorus in music composed to inspire American Jews to push for change in Israel.

She quotes David Ben-Gurion, founding prime minister of Israel, declaring that the State of Israel “will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture.”

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November 16, 2015 by

Susan Brownmiller: Why I Care About Israeli Basketball

On an overcast afternoon in October, I went with a friend to Madison Square Garden to watch Maccabi Tel Aviv play an exhibition game against Armani Milan.  Exhibitions, or “friendly games,” do not count in a team’s standing.  Exhibitions entertain folks who have no other way to see the teams; they are performed for charities; and they give new players on the roster time to adjust and strut their stuff.

I like basketball, and I love Israel.  My Facebook posts are often about Israel, occasionally about sports, and mostly about feminist issues.  The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, an organization which aims—among other things—to reach unaffiliated secular Jews, had emailed me an invitation to celebrate Israel by cheering for Maccabi Tel Aviv in New York.  Tickets ranged from $500 for courtside to $30 for the bleachers.  My friend Evan, also a feminist and a sports and Israel fan, took a look at the seating chart and suggested we buy $100 tickets.  (Oh, how I yearn to sit courtside at the Garden once in my life.) 

Tel Aviv and Milan play in the EuroLeague, the wildly popular European equivalent of our NBA.  Maccabi Tel Aviv won the Euro championship several times, prompting boycott/divest/sanctions activists for Palestinians to win notoriety by disrupting Israeli matches.  These activists even tried–and failed—to get Israel banned by the EuroLeague.  Nothing involving Israel is ever out of bounds, apparently.

Outside the arena on the appointed Sunday, some Hasids in 18th-century garb invited me to shake the lulav and etrog. Huh? I recognized the palms and fruit but was unaware that this was the last day of Succoth. I shook my head no politely.   

Our seats, when we finally found them, were right above the press box; the binoculars in my bag could have stayed home.  A bunch of Israelis in front of us unfurled a huge Star of David banner for waving; they promised to sit down when the action started. Some native New Yorkers behind us were gushing about “Dragon.” Who or what was “Dragon”? 

We all stood up to sing the national anthems. I held my own for “The Star Spangled Banner.”  Next came “Hatikvah.” Despite childhood lessons three times a week at the East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn, plus Jewish summer camp in the Poconos, the only lines I recalled were Kol ‘od balevav penimah at the beginning and the rousing Eretz-Tziyon viyerushalayim at the end.  I was mortified by how much in between I‘d forgotten.  But hearing the beautiful “Hatikvah” float over Madison Square Garden was thrilling.  Exalting. A smattering of Milan fans in the house raised their voices shyly for the Italian Anthem. 

Tel Aviv was in yellow and blue. Milan was dazzling in red and white dotted with sparkles—I guess that was the Armani touch. From the first toss I sensed trouble: Milan scored an easy five points. True, I am a worrywart with a critical mind but I am not an ignoramus about basketball. I’d played it at summer camp, chafing under the sexist rules of the era that didn’t let girls dribble—one bounce was the limit. Decades later I used to watch the Knicks on TV.  I know about defense, turnovers, two-pointers, three pointers, fouls and free throws, rebounds and assists, jump shots and dunks.  I know the fourth quarter can be a twist of fate.

Milan’s players were taller and quicker. They completed their passes. Their layups seldom bounced off the hoop. To my horror, Tel Aviv seemed hesitant on offense and kept turning over the ball. “DE-fense, DE-fense,” I shouted. Do I have to tell Israelis about “DE-fense”?

And “Dragon”? An 18-year-old from Croatia, Dragan Bender is a tall, lanky, fluid, undeniably adorable power forward for Tel Aviv whom the NBA is scouting. EuroLeague teams can have a few players who aren’t nationals on their rosters.   Some are starting their careers, like the hottie Bender, while others—Americans from the NBA—are stretching their careers as long as they can. Maccabi Tel Aviv employs some aging Americans.

Tel Aviv lost, 72-76. Two days earlier in Chicago they beat Milan in a squeaker. If ever there was a venue outside Israel where an Israeli sports victory would have been greeted with pandemonium, it was Madison Square Garden. “Next year,” someone said.

I’ll be there. And I’ll know all the words to “Hatikvah.”

 Susan Brownmiller is an American feminist journalist, author, and activist best known for her 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. 

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November 12, 2015 by

Standing Again at Sinai, Again: Jewish Feminism and Transgender Jews



When we think about the achievements of feminism in the US, we usually think about how feminist political activity has changed, and continues to change, the status of women. But in demanding that American Jewish communities and institutions reconsider women’s place and status in them, Jewish feminists have also laid the groundwork for inclusion of transgender Jews by teaching the Jewish world to think about gender.

Marshall McLuhan said that whoever discovered water, you can bet it wasn’t a fish. Before feminism, in most Jewish communities, gender was like water to fish: an invisible, omnipresent medium that permeated every aspect of Jewish identity, from family life to religious practice to social roles to institutional priorities. Jewish families and communities automatically sorted their members by gender, assigning them radically different roles, responsibilities, resources and possibilities; everywhere, Jewish tradition, ritual, liturgy and sacred texts assumed and reinforced the idea that gender divisions were a natural part of Judaism and Jewishness.

American Jewish feminists were fish who discovered water. Though their names and writings were rarely mentioned in the upstate New York Jewish world I grew up in, the work done by Judith Plaskow, Esther Broner, Rivka Haut, Alicia Ostriker and so many others prompted even our backwater congregations to think about gender rather than to assume it, and to recognize that the automatic gendered allocation of roles (the most public, of course, went to men, and the most laborious largely were given to women) was not an inherent, unchangeable aspect of synagogue life, but choices we were making every day. As women in our communities started to question those choices and work toward changing them, everyone, even those defending traditional gender roles, found themselves thinking and talking about gender – and realizing that different members of same community often had very different ideas about what it means to be a Jewish man or a Jewish woman. Feminist theory, queer theory, and gender studies were never mentioned, but as synagogue members debated whether women could be rabbis and presidents, and whether omnipresent male pronouns needed to be changed in prayer books (do we really have to buy new prayer books?) and policy statements (isn’t it clear that “man” means “everyone”?), they were learning that maleness and femaleness and the language and customs that go with them are not fixed by biology or divine decree, but, like so much else in Jewish life, are subject to negotiation.

Thanks to the work of Jewish feminists, Jewish communities across the United States found ideas of gender multiplying like frogs in Pharaoh’s bed. Gender divisions were becoming a source of controversy, disruption, an endless font of inequity and grievance. Many non-Orthodox congregations responded by eliminating gender distinctions in ritual, institutional roles and prayers, creating forms of Judaism and Jewishness that don’t require Jews to be defined as, or to define ourselves, as male or female. (I saw how far we had come when my young son, who grew up with Sheila Peltz Weinberg as his rabbi, asked me one day if men could be rabbis too – a question that demonstrated both how much feminism had changed Judaism, and how hard it is to overcome our tendency to think of Judaism as bound up with and divided by gender.)

Thanks to feminist work, American Jews are now used to thinking about, debating and redefining gender, and developing ways of being Jewish that don’t depend on gender. For transgender Jews – Jews who don’t fit traditional definitions of male and female, either because our gender identities don’t match the sex of our bodies, or because we don’t identify as male or female at all – feminists’ ground-breaking, and often back-breaking, work is a gift that keeps on giving.

Thanks to feminist defiance of traditional definitions of what it meant to be a Jewish woman, Jewish communities wrestling with inclusion of transgender members already know that gender is not just a matter of communal practice, but also of individual self-definition. By insisting that Jewish women need not be bound by traditional feminine gender expression – that women may come to shul in pants as in skirts or dresses, may be carpenters or insurance adjusters or stay-at-home moms, may be gay or bisexual as well as straight – feminists have prepared Jewish communities for members who don’t fit communal ideas of maleness and femaleness.

Similarly, by explaining how alienating it can be for women when male pronouns are presented as universal (“The Jew is a man who…”), a practice that was once the rule in Jewish public speech, feminist thinking has prepared Jewish communities to consider how gendered language sounds and feels to transgender Jews, to understand that language that assumes that everyone is either male or female can inadvertently wound or exclude – and to translate this understanding into thoughtful revisions of liturgy, prayer, and institutional policies. Jewish feminists have shown us what assumptions and practices we need to reconsider, what policies we need to re-examine, and even what committees we need to form, when our communal understanding of gender grows. They have also taught us that in many cases we can avoid hurt feelings and extra committee meetings by eliminating gender distinctions altogether, turning our synagogues and institutions into places that are safe, respectful, equitable and inclusive for everyone, whether we identify as male, as female, or in ways that don’t fit traditional terms at all. 

I remember when debates inspired by feminist protest about the roles of women were dismissed as wasteful distractions, irrelevant to and disruptive of the spiritual and religious life of the Jewish people. But Jewish feminists have demonstrated that rethinking gender in Judaism can enrich our understanding of God and Torah. They’ve shown us that conceptualizing God in masculine terms associates God with oppressive patriarchal social systems and misogynist social practices, and thus reflects not God’s nature but human nature, a form of mental idolatry that reduces the incomprehensible mystery of the Divine to narrow human terms. By shattering this idol – by demonstrating that representing God as male is a choice rather than a theological necessity – feminists have prompted liturgists and theologians to recognize and build upon the many other ways Jewish tradition represents God, including images that associate God with femaleness, such as prophetic references to God as “crying out like a woman in childbirth,” and passages that portray God as beyond gender, as the disembodied Source of Creation.

But feminist challenges to the association of God with masculinity have changed more than theology and liturgy. Because Jews believe that human beings are created in the image of God, freeing our conceptions of God from the limits of human gender expands our conception of what it means to be human as well as what it means to be God.

When we insist that God is male, we define women as a lesser form of humanity, in which the image of God is blurrier, less perfectly realized, than it is in men. When we recognize that God, who existed before humanity was a glimmer in God’s eye, who will still be there after the universe itself has vanished, cannot possibly be just male or female, we recognize that everyone created in God’s image is also vaster, more complicated and more mysterious than any gender can encompass. And when we realize that neither God nor humanity fits within the terms of gender, we recognize that being male or female is not essential to being human, an insight that helps us see that transgender people too are created in the image of God. 

When Jewish feminists began to challenge the association of God with masculinity, they demonstrated the limitations of all the readings of Torah that depend on that association, and invited all Jews to “stand again at Sinai,” as the title of Judith Plaskow’s ground-breaking book put it: to rethink, reinterpret and reimagine the Torah in new ways. This prompted a flood of readings highlighting the roles of women and the politics of gender in traditional Jewish texts, and inspired an extraordinary outpouring of new midrash, reimaginings of the Torah in story and song, picture and dance, that help us recognize in the Torah a dazzling array of voices, perspectives and possibilities that traditional male-centered readings marginalize, exclude and erase.

The Jewish feminist challenge to stand again at Sinai has empowered transgender Jews to re-read Torah from our own perspectives, to articulate how these ancient texts look to those who, like God, exist beyond the usual categories of male and female, and to highlight aspects of the tradition that speak to transgender experience – like the midrash that imagines that Abraham and Sarah were childless because they were neither male nor female, and that God transformed them sexually so that Sarah could become pregnant – and to create midrash of our own.

As a transgender Jew, I benefit every day from the wisdom, work and courage of Jewish feminists. Without them, the idea of a Jewish world that welcomes all Jews, regardless of gender identity and expression, would seem like a Messianic dream. Thanks to them, in congregations and communities across the U.S., that dream is beginning to come true. 


Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University, is the author of National Jewish Book Award finalist Through the Door of Life: a Jewish Journey Between Genders. A former Lilith cover girl, she has spoken and published widely on Jewish and transgender identity.

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October 28, 2015 by

“We Want to Save Lives With This Book”

HADESIn 2013 (the most recent year for which full data are available), there were 41,149 suicides reported in the U.S. Someone in this country died by suicide every 12.8 minutes, and suicide was the tenth leading cause of death for Americans. And while there was a slight decline in suicides from 1986 to 2000, over the next 12 years the rate climbed steadily.

Given these sobering statistics, Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide and Feeling Blue, edited by Amy Ferris and just out from Seal Press couldn’t be more timely.  The 34 essays represent a wide range of perspectives ranging from writers who reveal their own failed suicide attempts to survivors struggling to make sense—if not peace—with the wreckage left by the suicides of loved ones. Fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough asks Ferris about how she came to compile these accounts and what she hopes readers will take away from them.


YZM: What inspired you to assemble this collection?

AF: Robin Williams’s death. Just like most folks, I was in deep, deep sad shock that he had committed suicide, and I felt this urge, this need to do something. I’m a writer. I write. I also had never come out about my very own suicide attempt when I was a young woman. And so I decided to write a post about that, which was doubly inspired by a friend sending me an email, and the subject line read: did you ever try it? I knew exactly what she was asking. So, I sat down and wrote a piece about my greatest failure—my suicide attempt, and it went viral, and folks shared it, and it sort of circled the globe and then I had that ‘aha’ moment—I wanted to put together an entire collection of stories, essays, pieces from other writers, artists, authors, creators who experienced all shades of blue: depression, attempted suicide, family members who had both depression and or attempted suicide, postpartum depression.

YZM: Did you find writers eager or reluctant to talk about their experiences with depression?  

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October 21, 2015 by

A Novel About How Blogs Have Changed Our Lives

the good neighbor final coverThere are approximately over 152 million blogs on the Internet and incredible as it may seem, more blogs are going up all the time. In fact, a new blog is created somewhere in the world every half a second, which, if you do the math, means that 172,800 blogs are added to the Internet every day.  So is it any wonder that the art and science of blogging has worked its way into the pages of contemporary literature?

The Good Neighbor (Griffin Books, October 2015), Amy Sue Nathan’s second and latest novel, introduces us to Izzy Lane, Jewish, recently divorced and still reeling from the break-up of her marriage. The newly single mom moves back to the Philadelphia home she grew up in, five-year-old Noah in tow. On a whim, she starts a blog and with the help of her close friends—and her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Feldman—begins to feel like she’s stepping closer to her new normal. Until her ex-husband shows up with his girlfriend. That’s when Izzy invents a boyfriend of her own.

Blogging about her “new guy” provides Izzy with a way to entertain herself Noah’s asleep. After all, what’s the harm, right? But then her blog soars in popularity and she’s given the opportunity to moonlight as an online dating expert. How can she turn it down? Soon everyone want to meet the mysterious “Mac,” someone online suspects Izzy’s a fraud, and a there’s a new, real-life guy who seems pretty interesting. Nathan’s sharp-eyed look at how the blog culture has changed our lives is a smart, stylish read; here’s an excerpt below. 

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October 20, 2015 by

Ethel Rosenberg Reimagined in “The Hours Count”

jillian cantorAlthough it’s been more than 60 years since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed, their horrifying story still has a powerful hold on the public imagination.  As recently as August, 2015, the two sons of the couple wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times that concluded with these words:

Our mother was not a spy. The government held her life hostage to coerce our father to talk, and when that failed, it extracted false statements to secure her wrongful execution. The apparent rationale for such action—that national security demanded it during a time of international crisis—has disturbing implications in post-9/11 America. It is never too late to correct an egregious injustice. We call on the government to formally exonerate Ethel Rosenberg. 

And now there is the publication of The Hours Count, a novel that focuses squarely on the last five years in the life of Ethel Rosenberg.  Author Jillian Cantor hewed closely to the facts, but added several fictional characters, including a neighbor, Millie Stein, her Russian husband Ed and her son, David, who at age three is still not talking.  Millie is the lens through which we are able to view Ethel in a wholly unexpected way: as wife, mother and friend.  Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talked to Cantor about why she chose to write Ethel’s story and how she was able to blend the factual with the fictional.

YZM: What drew you to the subject of Ethel Rosenberg? 

JC: I came across the last letter Ethel (and Julius) wrote to their sons in an anthology of women’s letters that I’d checked out of the library. One of the last things they wrote is for their sons to always remember that their parents were innocent. Before I read this, I hadn’t thought of Ethel as a mother (her sons were six and 10 when she was executed – very similar to the ages of my own sons) or even as potentially innocent. So I did a little research, and I began to believe that she might actually have been innocent. I wanted to reimagine her as a mother, as a woman who was unjustly taken from her family.

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October 19, 2015 by

From the Lilith Slush Pile to a Sarah Silverman Film Deal

sarahsilEver since I discovered the work of Amy Koppelman winking up at me from Lilith’s slush pile I’ve kept her on our radar.  We published her short fiction a few years ago. She’s a novelist of astonishing depth and power, with a dark and haunting voice that is both lyrical and fearless. The rest of the world seems now to agree, as the film based on her novel I Smile Back, starring—yes—Sarah Silverman in a dramatic role, opens commercially later this month after being received enthusiastically at Sundance.

hesitation woundsIn her new novel, Hesitation Wounds, Koppleman introduces us to Dr. Susanna Seliger, a renowned psychiatrist who specializes in treatment-resistant depression. Skilled and compassionate, Susa is always ready to discuss treatment options, medication, and symptom management but draws the line at engaging with feelings. Her own damaged past is made present by one patient, Jim, whose struggles tear her open, revealing her latent guilt that she could have saved the people she’s lost, especially her adored, cool, talented graffiti-artist brother. Spectacularly original, gorgeously unsettling, Hesitation Wounds is a novel that will sink deep and remain—like a persistent scar or a dangerous glow-in-the-dark memory.

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