Tag : Eryn Loeb

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March 19, 2008 by

Making Noise

The current issue of American Jewish Life magazine has a feature on “Women Who Rock,” including Sophie Milman, Marissa Nadler, Regina Spektor and Neshama Carlbach. In an introductory essay, Mordechai Shinefield writes, “most times the religion and gender of these singers are incidental. When I listen to Sophie Milman I’m not thinking of synagogue or Hebrew school; I’m reminded of smoky jazz clubs and speakeasies. Which is to say, these artists are more than the sum of their categories.”

The just-released album from Yael Naim — who’s so far best known forher song “New Soul” being used as the soundtrack for a ubiquitous Mac commercial — features a “piano-driven” cover of the Britney Spears song “Toxic.” The new album’s booklet is printed in both English and Hebrew, and the songs are sung in both English and Hebrew, with some French thrown in. Naim is the first Israeli to make it to the Billboard Top 10.

Basya Schechter has just released her fifth studio album under the name Pharaoh’s Daughter. “Haran gets brazen and thumpy, with
infectious melodies providing excuses for post-punk girly abandon,” says the Jerusalem Post. Despite this, somehow “at least four of the disc’s tracks are based on traditional Sabbath table hymns….Overall, Haran feels like a return to Schechter’s earlier, more Suzanne Vega-influenced songs, but at the same time, the album probably reaches further into the bag of ethnic tricks than any Caucasian-developed song cycle has before.”

On the more canonical side of things, New York magazine profiles Bette Midler upon the opening of her Vegas extravaganza, The Showgirl Must Go On: “Midler knows she doesn’t possess the instrument that would allow her to just stand at a microphone in velvet and diamonds, like, say, fellow Semitic icon Barbra Streisand. ‘She sings like a bird. I don’t,’ Midler once told a friend.” . The New York Times is pleased to find that the former Miss M has “lost little of the verve, bawdiness and originality that first captivated gay audiences back in the early 1970s.”

Off in another medium, NJ painter Janet Boltax’s exhibit The Jewish Identity Project: Portraits and Commentary is on display at the West Orange JCC through May 4th. Feeling conflicted about her religious identity, Boltax decided to explore what Judaism meant to other people. The resulting 18 portraits include Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews; African-American Jews, Jews by choice, an Iranian Jew, and two self-portraits, displayed alongside interviews with the subjects.

– Eryn Loeb

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March 12, 2008 by

How 'Bout a Reading List?

“Be warned,” Ellen Litman writes in Ha’aretz. “The Book of Dahlia is not the kind of book in which a girl gets an incurable brain tumor and learns an important lesson….[T]he cancer fails to reform her. She remains her nihilistic, wisecracking self – an antihero of sorts – unwilling to fight for her life the way everyone expects her to.” Though slightly less enamored, the LA Times admires author Elisa Albert’s “relish for poking fun and puncturing stereotypes.” Nextbook also has a podcast with Albert.

At Radar, Emily Gould talks to Sloane Crosley about Crosley’s forthcoming book of personal essays, I was Told There’d Be Cake. “Reading the book is like having an incredibly engaging conversation with a charming quirky girl,” Gould writes. “But there’s a problem: The blurbs are really good….the kind of praise that makes backlashes begin months before publication, especially when the author in question knows everyone in publishing and is young, attractive, and famously nice.”

Speaking of such backlashes, you can expect one when Rivka Galchen’s novel Atmospheric Disturbances comes out in June. (I thought the book was pretty great.) You can read an excerpt here. And here’s a lovely essay Galchen wrote for the NY Times last summer.

In Rachel Pastan’s novel Lady of the Snakes, protagonist Jane Levitsky tries to balance a tenure-track position (and her in-depth research into the fictional Russian novel from which the book takes its name), with being a wife and mother. It may be telling that the Washington Post finds that “Nineteenth-century Russia doesn’t hold a candle to the contemporary story of this two-career marriage full of dirty dishes, student papers and a screaming baby.” But “Pastan’s writing is fluid and frank, and her characters are luminescent. Many women will recognize this as a realistic portrayal of the rewards and the pitfalls of trying to have it all.” The Washington Jewish Week explores the Jewish side of the book and its author.

In the Forward, Eli Rosenblatt interviews Leela Corman about her forthcoming graphic novel, Unterzakhn. Corman explains, “I think that if you set out trying to make people confront something, the work will be at very best one-dimensional and probably intolerable.”

Rachel Shukert, who wrote the Heeb article about Jews and blowjobs that I mentioned awhile ago, has a book of autobiographical essays coming out at the end of April, called Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories. It is awesome. From her account of being a precocious Holocaust-obsessed kid, to a piece about watching helplessly as her beloved grandmother dies, Shukert’s stories are almost bizarrely relatable. She captures the experiences of Jewish adolescence (youth group, heritage tours, Bat Mitzvahs and so on) with amazing accuracy. Really: I laughed out loud through most of it, until the final essay actually made me cry.

– Eryn Loeb

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March 6, 2008 by

Hideous Kinky

The other night, a friend and I went to a reading at the East Village’s cozy KGB Bar, part of the KinkyJews
reading series (KinkyJews bills itself as “the next generation of Jewish kinksters”). It was pretty packed. The lights were turned way down, and there were condoms with the “KinkyJews” logo sticker on them scattered across the tables and the bar. There were also slim wooden paddles emblazoned with the KinkyJews URL. Yeah, woo, kinky!

The reading was decidedly unsexy, too self-conscious to be much more than yet another erotic reading series (and New York has plenty), this time for a specific demographic. Even after listening to six readers, I’m not sure what it is that separates kinky Jews from any other group of vaguely artsy people who like their happy hour(s) sexually charged. The readers didn’t seem to be sure, either. More than one paused after their story mentioned a bialy or something similarly symbolic, saying something to the effect of “ha ha, that’s the Jewish part.” Sure, the readers themselves were all Jewish – the organizer told the audience that KinkyJews welcomes all kinds of Jews, and all kinds of kinks – but I’m not sure why kinky Jews need their own space. Unless the hope is that bringing together kinky Jews will result in kinky Jewish couplings (and isn’t it always?). Also: one of the advantages to being Jewish is that you have lots of venues like this in which to promote your work, as long as you’re willing to do so under the Jewish
umbrella.

There were some cool stories: Will Heinrich read his hilariously understated “Stalin’s Mustache,”, Margot Leitman had a funny piece about mistakenly believing that she was pregnant after she, as a 7th grader, made out with a boy in a vacant lot (desperate, she turned to the Tampax helpline for answers). There was a generic story about masturbation, a stunningly unfunny account of visiting a sex club, a quick tirade about playing strip dreidel, and Sam J. Miller’sdependably provocative short story “Auschwitz Blowjob.”

Aside from the continuing reading series (the next installment of which will be back at KGB on May 22nd), KinkyJews are hosting a Purim Striptease Extravaganza later this month (“Come revel in post-Purim merriment as we imbue ourselves with the spirit of King Achashverosh’s grand striptease feast”), and their Third Annual Kinky Seder in May: “While maintaining key elements of tradition…we have a humor and hedonism infused chocolate themed Seder with four cups of chocolate milk, chocolate covered matzah, Hillil S’mores, and more. Have a wild time with the search for the chametz kit (candle, feather and wooden spoon), Passover erotica, maggid show and tell, re-enactments [of] slavery and redemption, floggings a-plenty, new friends and fun!”

I dunno. I’m not denying anyone their kinks, but this sounds sorta like the kind of thing that was supposed to entice us to join the Temple
youth group as teenagers.

Interestingly, the seder is $30 for couples (of any gender) to attend, $25 for single men, and only $10 for women and students under 25. This seems to say a lot about the general make-up of the KinkyJews, and what kind of people are missing and therefore greatly desired (hint: people with vaginas). Or maybe they’re just compensating for the wage gap.

– Eryn Loeb

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February 27, 2008 by

Achievements in Inclusiveness

In all the post-show analysis of this year’s Oscars, someone has finally noticed that the traditional gender-segregation of awards is not, well, natural. Sarah Churchwell writes in the Guardian, “Although supposedly we no longer believe that separate is the same as equal, we still segregate entertainment awards along gender lines. Imagine the uproar if we had Oscars for best performance by a black man in a supporting role, or best leading performance by a Jew.”

Of course, the trouble doesn’t stop there. As Churchwell notes, the alternative to gender segregation isn’t too appealing, either, since “awards which do not segregate on the basis of gender tend to overlook women altogether.” Case in point? The Nobel Prize in literature, which women have won only 10 times in 107 years. If there were only one Oscar category for “Achievement in a Leading Role,” it’s a good bet that women would be underrepresented.

The University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication released a study last week evaluating the gender balance in Oscar-nominated films of the past thirty years. Overall, it found that for every speaking female character in a movie, there were about three speaking males, and for every non-white speaking character, there were roughly four white speaking characters. The factor that had the most impact on these numbers? “With a female director, the amount of female speaking characters jumped from 27 percent to 41 percent.” Only three women directors have ever been nominated for an Oscar, and none has ever won the award.

This has been a pretty crappy time for women and film in general (and no, the wild success of Juno, and Diablo Cody’s shiny new Oscar, do not make up for it). It only adds to my love of Helen Mirren that she said as much to the intolerable Regis Philbin during their brief tete-a-tete on the red carpet. The roles being written for women are not as rich and interesting as those being written for men (see the forthcoming The Other Boleyn Girl, which may star two bankable actresses, but is all about them competing for a man). I loved (loved) No Country for Old Men, and greatly admired There Will Be Blood, but those are only two of the most obvious examples of prestige films that imagined worlds that were basically devoid of women. These are legitimate visions, to be sure, but let’s look at the flip side. A movie that focused so relentlessly on women would be read as a deliberately feminist statement; it would be about women. These movies that hone in on men’s lives and experiences are understood to just be about people.

Really, it sort of blows my mind when I think about the odd stab at gender parity represented by having awards for Best Actor and Best Actress. I’m actually less interested in what this says about equality than in the very basic idea that, apart from “leading” versus “supporting,” there are two kinds of people who act in movies: men, and women. I’m certainly not advocating the creation of acting (or any other) awards based solely on identity, and I’m not in favor of abolishing gendered categories at the Oscars (not yet, anyway). But I do like when the lines start to get a little blurry. Consider Cate Blanchett’s “Best Supporting Actress” nomination for her portrayal of Bob Dylan. How do you begin to categorize it in these terms? And really, what’s the point in trying?

– Eryn Loeb

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February 14, 2008 by

The Vagina Monologues

This week marks the tenth anniversary of V-Day, Eve Ensler’s international movement to end violence against girls and women. In its lifetime, V-Day has raised $50 million, and the organization gives away more money than any other group to fight violence against women (still, what they give annually amounts to what’s spent on about ten minutes of the war in Iraq).

It all started with a play: the now ubiquitous Vagina Monologues, which Ensler wrote and performed off-Broadway beginning in 1994. V-Day was founded 2 years later, on Valentine’s Day, when a star-studded benefit performance brought in plenty of dollars and attention. Since then, the play has been translated into 45 languages and performed in 120 countries. “The most radical play I ever wrote was the one that was accepted into the mainstream,” Ensler told an audience at the New School last week.

To me, that’s the most inspiring part. My mom and I first saw Ensler perform the Monologues at a tiny New York City theater in 1999 or 2000. Afterward, I went home and taped Ensler’s headshot up on my wall, and wrote my college admissions essay that same year based on the premise of the play. I’ll confess to having become somewhat disillusioned with V-Day in recent years, probably due mostly to having overdosed on its particular style of hot pink enthusiasm back in college. I’m also uncomfortable with the idea that to keep women from being violated, we have to treat our vaginas like the eighth wonder of the world instead of, you know, a body part. But that doesn’t mean I don’t admire what Ensler has done, and is doing. Listening to her triumphant pep talk last week (part of a speaking tour aimed at rallying the troops for the tenth anniversary, and encouraging everyone to come to New Orleans in April for a super-deluxe V-Day event that will “reclaim the Superdome“), I was struck by the way The Vagina Monologues has managed to become a mainstream sensation without sacrificing its edginess (though the degree of it has certainly changed, and not only because its content has become more accepted).

It’s easy to forget that there are lots of places where “vagina” is still a dirty word. Luckily, every once in awhile someone comes along to remind us that some of those places are major U.S. cities! This year it was the Seattle Times, which refused to run an ad for the Monologues because the vulva-centric artwork was not “appropriate” for its audience.

The best part? The ad — which seems pretty tame to me — was created by the National Council of Jewish Women’s Seattle office, which is co-sponsoring performances of the play. And the poster version had already been hanging in several area synagogues without protest.

A tenth anniversary edition of the Monologues is out now from Villard. Unlike the slim, deckled edge volume I once bought in a theater lobby, this substantial paperback reads like a primer on the V-Day ethos, with a new introduction from Ensler, sections outlining the history of the movement, testimonials from those involved in it, and a timeline of victories. There are also five new “spotlight monologues,” composed in response to particular kinds of violence against women in specific places and situations: transwomen, the Comfort Women of Japan, women in Islamabad who have had acid thrown in their faces. It sometimes feels like Ensler is writing the same monologue over and over again, and the tone of them — pain and despair, tinged with hope — becomes a little predictable.

Stories of abuse may not always translate well to the page (they probably fare better onstage), and I realize that’s not the point. In her talk last week, I was mostly encouraged to hear that Ensler has chosen a new word to impress upon the public: femicide. “Femicide” acknowledges that violence against women is not random; it is systematic, a pattern. “Naming femicide allows us to treat the issue fundamentally rather than remedially,” she said. The word may be even
more controversial than vagina. One high-level UN official already told Ensler it made him “uncomfortable.”

– Eryn Loeb

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February 8, 2008 by

Happy Birthday, Judy!

Judy Blume turns 70 next week, and The Guardian profiles the author for the occasion. “I’d imagined her as a busty Jewish mamma, dishing out advice in gigantic, homely portions,” writes Melissa Whitworth. “But in person she’s delicate and small, with the body of a ballet dancer. She’s wearing a loose-fitting turquoise shirt and black capri pants. Her hair is in a short, girlish bob. With her high cheekbones and wide, easy smile she could be mistaken for Jessica Lange.”

When I was a kid, I had some interesting ideas about what some of my favorite authors looked like. But I never had any illusions about Judy Blume. On the back of my 1981 edition of Tiger Eyes (a hand-me-down from a favorite babysitter) was a black and white photo of the beaming author, with what I assume is the Sante Fe desert to her back. The portrait was sort of an odd juxtaposition with the painting on the book’s cover, which featured a sallow-cheeked girl, looking seriously haunted.

I read that amazing, unsettling book about a thousand times. Actually, I don’t think I read any of Judy Blume’s books just once. I studied the tense friendships in Just As Long As We’re Together until the yellow paperback fell apart. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, with its paranoia and Holocaust ghosts, spooked me deliciously. I read and re-read Deenie and Iggy’s House under my covers with a flashlight. Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret may be considered Blume’s ultimate classic, but it didn’t have the same impact on me as the others. It featured characters memorably chanting, “We must, we must, we must increase our bust,” which sure resonated with me as a kid, but all the stuff about menstruation didn’t shock me as much as it might have. By that point I’d already learned about periods from some other novel that I was too young to really understand.

I pored over the famous sex scenes in Forever; spent tent cents on a copy of Wifey, one of Blume’s “adult” novels, at a garage sale, but never got around to reading it: my well-meaning mother thought it was a little too advanced for a ten-year-old. I was lucky that there were plenty of other steamily intriguing paperbacks in the swivel rack at our local library. Thanks to Norma Klein, there were books even more unabashed in their sexuality than Blume’s, with titles like Beginner’s Love, Love Is One of the Choices and It’s Okay If You Don’t Love Me. I didn’t know at the time that Klein had died in 1989 at the age of 50, after a brief and somewhat mysterious illness. And I’m not sure how conscious I was that both of these masters of Young Adult fiction were Jewish.

Blume is maybe best known — and people are most grateful to her for — her frank talk about sex, which many of us read before we knew quite what we were reading. In that spirit, Rachel Kramer Bussell recently interviewed Rachel Shukert, whose memoir Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories comes out in April. They talk about a piece Shukert wrote for Heeb about Jewish women and blowjobs, which can now be found in Best Sex Writing 2008, edited by the ever-prolific Bussell. Shukert reflects, “I don’t necessarily subscribe to the theory that if you eat like a pig, that must mean you’re great in bed, but I think there’s some kind of link. I think it’s appetite, and more than that, it’s a kind self-determination that Jewish women have, which I think we actually acquired from never being part of high society, from never really being seen by men as these kind of dainty flowers.” The whole thing is worth a read.
–Eryn Loeb

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January 30, 2008 by

Checking the Boxes

A new collection of Hannah Arendt’s writings on Jewish subjects is about to be published, cleverly titled “The Jewish Writings.” Arendt
wasn’t known primarily as a Jewish writer (even though Eichmann in Jerusalem may be her best known work), but she wrote a lot about Jewish themes and issues, maybe even more than she wrote about anything else. In the current issue of the Boston Review, Vivian Gornick considers this group of Arendt’s articles and essays. It’s an interesting piece overall, but I’m going to skip right to the end. Gornick describes the letter Gershom Scholem wrote to Arendt after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, famously accusing her of having “no love of the Jewish people.”

Here’s Gornick’s assessment of Arendt’s response:

“[B]eing a Jew had been a given of her life. Not only had she never wished to be anything else, but being Jewish had made her appreciate, as nothing else could have, the significance of being allowed to be what one is: ‘There is such a thing as a basic gratitude for everything that is as it is: for what has been given and not made.’

This regard for the givens of individual human existence had led her to think deeply about everything she had thought mattered during the previous thirty years. What she loved was the experience of the Jewish people: it had taught her how to consider the human condition at large. How much more Jewish did she have to be?”

How much, indeed? I came across Gornick’s piece while poking around for stories that dealt in some way with both Judaism and feminism. It’s the “and” where things get tricky. For something to qualify as “Jewish feminist,” do both boxes have to be checked? And how do we go about checking them?

This question is hardly new to readers of Lilith, or to other folks who identify as feminists, Jews or any combination of the two. But it’s one I can’t get away from, and it’s thrown in sharper relief when I’m sifting through other people’s material and trying to figure out what fits. “Jewish feminism,” is seems to me, can be awfully specific.

Identifying whether or not something is feminist has always been easy for me; even if the definition of that word remains in question, my “test” for feminism is basically a version of what the Supreme Court said about obscenity back in 1964: “I know it when I see it” – and just as importantly, when I don’t (though the gray areas are where things get the most interesting, anyway).

Judaism is more specific. There are basically two “tests” to determine whether a book or movie or whatever else is Jewish enough to be discussed in terms of its Jewishness: does it involve or address Jewish ideas? And, is the author Jewish? To get the attention of the Jewish press, the answer to one of these questions generally has to be yes. Of course, it depends who’s doing the answering.

The second question would seem to be the easier one to determine, but really, neither is all that straightforward. There’s a basic way to know whether or not a person is Jewish: is her mother Jewish? But lineage rarely tells the whole story. And when publications like the Jerusalem Post keep score of every Oscar nominee who’s even remotely connected to Judaism (references to Daniel Day Lewis being the son of “British Jewish actress” Jill Balcon particularly smack of desperation), I’m not sure what value the easy definition really has.

Which is not to say I’m in favor of a stricter one, one that would mean the Post ignored actors of Jewish descent unless their
Judaism was, in Arendt’s terms, made as well as given. For the purposes of my nascent blogging here, it can be tricky to avoid using overly simplistic tests when deciding what counts as Jewish feminist arts and culture. It drives me crazy.

–Eryn Loeb

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January 24, 2008 by

But Really, How Jewish IS Amy Winehouse?

Q. Amy Winehouse…

a) makes pretty great music.
b) is a crack-smoking trainwreck.
c) is Jewish.

The answer, as you probably know, is all three, and the media is obsessed with each of these factoids. After the release of a video of Winehouse doing various drugs was greeted with requisite shock and a reprise of “is she or isn’t she in rehab?”, I started thinking a little more about (c). In the face of the singer’s unraveling (about which there’s hardly need for yet another commentary), it’s become impossible to ignore just how psyched everyone seems to be that Amy Winehouse is Jewish.

There are different motivations behind this, of course. Both the ravenous press and Winehouse herself have joyfully portrayed her Jewish identity as a bizarre contrast with her bad girl image. The Jewish community, ever-eager to claim a celeb for the team, has managed to boast and sneer about her at the same time. Winehouse is the proud – and in many ways, welcome — antithesis of the “nice Jewish girl,” but since she does tend to identify with two out of the three elements of that little saying, both she and the media like to keep her options open.

Here are the oft-repeated basics. Back in 2004, The Guardian was one of many publications to pin her as “a slight 20-year-old Jewish girl from north London” and The Telegraph wrote, “Done up to the nines (lustrous lipstick, dark mascara, long black eyelashes, thick black hair), Winehouse looks every inch the Jewish princess.” In March of 2007, Rolling Stone‘s blog noted that “Ms. Rehab might in fact be the highest-debuting-female-solo-British-tall-Jewish-black-haired-tattoed-with-a-birthmark-on-her-left-arm artist ever to make the U.S. Billboard charts.” In May, the Toronto Star chimed in: “The beehived, heavily tattooed Winehouse might be a wee Jewish girl from North London, but she can snarl and wail like Etta James or Eartha Kitt.” From a Rolling Stonecover story that same month: “Those who have only heard her voice express shock upon seeing the body that produces it: The sultry, crackly, world-weary howl that sounds like the ghost of Sarah Vaughn comes from a pint-size Jewish girl from North London.” And from the Washington Post: “Winehouse has an exceptional voice that’s even more striking when you catch a glimpse of its source: a wispy, heavily tattooed young Jewish woman with a mile-high beehive for a hairdo and a Gothic level of mascara caked onto her face. It almost doesn’t compute.”

What a study in contrasts!

When she’s prodded to comment on her bad girl ways, Winehouse tends to bring up her Jewishness herself, offering it as a reassuring counterpoint to the rest of her image. “She says what she really wants to do in 10 years’ time is to settle down and be a good Jewish mum,” Australia’s Sunday Times reported last summer. The paper went on to quote the singer as saying, “I would like to uphold certain things, but not the religious side of things, just the nice family things to do. At the end of the day, I’m a Jewish girl.”

The news that Winehouse planned to have a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony and (bonus!) convinced her husband to convert, had the press slobbering.

After music producer Mark Ronson laughed off rumors that he and Winehouse were having an affair, he shared this highly pertinent information: “Amy makes a really nice meatball dinner. She’s good at making Jewish mother food.” More recently, he announced that he and Winehouse may team up to do a holiday album that will include ditties with names like “Kosher Kisses.”

Because all of this is not enough, the Jewish Chronicle recently posted a short write-up entitled “How Jewish is Amy Winehouse?”**

In what I can only assume is a very (very, very) lame attempt to be funny, the piece manages to embrace stupid stereotypes in the name of policing Jewish identity. In the “pro” column, “Amy is on record as saying she loves her grandma, she likes to make roast chicken on a Friday night and looks forward to a matzah and edam sandwich after an evening out.” On the con side, she has all those tattoos “(of naked ladies, no less)” and, you know, drinks a lot. The verdict? “Once she comes out of rehab, we’ll have her back,” the Chronicle reassures. “So we say she is 78% Jewish.”

What a relief! Now we know.

**”How Jewish is…” looks to be a recurring feature at the Chronicle, which also put French President Nicolas Sarkozy* on the hot seat. The results? His grandfather was Jewish (before he converted to Catholicism – but “we have made a halachic decision not to recognise it,” says the Chronicle)! He can boast of family members who died in the Holocaust! And woah, his girlfriend Carla Bruni once recorded a song written by Serge Gainsbourg, a bonafide Jewish person!!!

–Eryn Loeb

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