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Esther Broner

Lilith Interview 

Esther Broner, writer, playwright, and teacher at Wayne State University, is the author of several works of fiction and drama that draw deeply on the experiences of Jewish woman. Among them are Summer is a Foreign Land, Journal/Nocturnal and Seven Stories, Her Mothers, and The Stolen Legacy: A Women’s Haggadah (with Naomi Nimrod). Her latest work of fiction, A Weave of Women, is scheduled by Holt Rinehart to appear in May 1978. 

SHEBAR: What were the various influences on you—both your life and your writing— literary influences and otherwise? Did the mayseh, the Jewish tale, influence you?

ESTHER: Oh yes, Shebar. When I was very little my father was my Sunday-school teacher, which was both an embarrassment to me and a great piece of luck. He was translating the Singer brothers; he translated them long before they were translated or before they were publicly distributed. So that as a little girl in Sunday school, there I was with these noisy dreadful unappreciative children, hearing my father’s translation of Singer and of the Jewish tale; and with the knowledge that things did not become happy ever after: the prince does not go away with the princess, the apple is not dislodged from the throat. In the Yiddish tale, the apple is always stuck in the gullet. I thought about that land of the Yiddish tale, and out of that came my first work, Summer Is a Foreign Land and many stories in Journal/Nocturnal. Her Mothers uses tales too. And the mayseh is still very important to me in the new book that I’m working on.

I think we all start with a kind of ethnic sentimental tale. Most people start writing that way about themselves. You make a legend of yourself. And you have to do that before you can really make fictions of other things. Summer Is a Foreign Land is about my grandmother, who became a legendary character in the play that I wrote. —And now I don’t know which is my grandmother and which is the legend I’ve invented. It’s a book about the power of a grandmother who is both a power for good and maybe for mischief, and believes that she has inherited certain powers from an ancestor, and can also pass on this power. All of this, of course, is part of my own family legend; I would never think of something so outrageous as fiction.

The thing that excited me in writing it was that in the cold snow of Russia, she was a passionate and useful woman; and in the overheated four-family flats of Detroit, she felt that she lived in summer, and that summer was a foreign land. And everyone ignored her as she became older, but, as her end came, her children began courting her, begging for her to pass on this magic which they’d ridiculed to their children—each begging, one for the daughter that she could find a good boy, one for the grandson that he should finish medical school. And she finally uses it selfishly, in a really sweet and lovely way. And she’s a good lady: she fights death off, which I think we all have to do daily, if not actually.

Summer Is a Foreign Land says very passionate things. It cries, it screams, it giggles, it makes connections between sisters who are cooking and spreading the dough and making strudel. But it does things that I don’t do so much anymore: it honors the grandson and not the granddaughter. The granddaughter gets married, and there are several songs sung to her—and she’s kind of an idiot who only thinks about pink-and-white flowers and pink-and-white dresses and matching flower girls. The grandson gets a longer line. But this was 1966.

SHEBAR: How did you come to write Journal/Nocturnal?

ESTHER: Journal/Nocturnal came out of another kind of feeling, and another time in my life. And it came out of the Vietnam war, and a sad realization of what a woman was. She was sort of tabula rasa. She was this totally passive person, and whoever possessed her body possessed her mind. My character keeps a daytime life and a nighttime life going simultaneously, never seriously questioning herself about who she really is—is she the one that runs between two lives? In the daytime she’s a dutiful wife and she agrees with her husband, who is against the war. At night, she is a cat that roams; she has a lover of another religion and of another political viewpoint, and she agrees—just as sincerely, just as wholly, with him. It had to do with the fact that our country didn’t know what it was doing, that it was split, and that women didn’t take control of their lives, either. It is a strange book but, I think, I felt that way about the role of women in 1968.

SHEBAR: That’s just a part of the book. It’s also a number of short stories. For me, besides the woman’s viewpoint—and, specifically, the Jewish woman’s viewpoint, which is hard come by in fiction—it was important to me for its discussion/exploration of Jewish-Negro relationships in the United States.

ESTHER: Yes. It was very important to me. I say “was” because, sadly, we limit ourselves and our concerns, and my concerns now are of my body and of what I call my native land, which I think of as Israel. So I have less and less energy for other battles. But the Jewish-Black relationship was a both difficult and sweet relationship, both tentative and exploring, both distant and very different and very close; it was a relationship that enriched and was important to both sides, even though now we’re somewhat asunder.

Now, I think, we stereotype each other. The Blacks think of Jews as slumlords, and if they think of Israelis they think of them as oppressors. The Jews think of Blacks as lawless people in cities, unemployed. Something very sad has happened. What’s important—that which was important to each of us, the other finds unimportant. To the Blacks, having jobs, and having real law and order, in which the police did not persecute the Blacks, in which they were not allowed, in a sense, to hurt each other, which is how most crime had occurred— and, after all, I live in Detroit, so I’m very aware of crime—that was not very important to the Jews, that particular fight. And the Jewish fight for their identity and their homeland was something quite alien and unimportant to the Blacks. So the justice that the Blacks searched for, and the roots that the Jews searched for—each of these was unimportant to the other. And I think that that has split us apart. Those early stories did deal with that tentative, painful, sometimes shameful, but at least civilized attempt to reach each other from different cultures. And sometimes it was very successful. Sometimes we died for each other— if that’s success, I don’t know. I think that we’re not reaching for each other at all anymore, but I hope it happens again.

SHEBAR: In Journal/Nocturnal what stereotypes led you to put your anti-war involvement into the male character?

ESTHER: That’s a really good question. I felt freer writing as a man. This book was written in 1968. I had written another book earlier (or was it after?), called The Jewish Viking, which I could not place. Again I was a man. I could free myself more as a man, I thought; I didn’t know yet how freeing it was to make your own self-data.

In one very hard section for me in Her Mothers, the woman looks in the mirror and sees what society would see, and she has to see herself as society would see her: the breasts, the hair that grows around the nipples, the thick patch of pubic hair, maybe stretch-marks…. She doesn’t think of it as a useful body. I used to go to the bathhouse in Jerusalem, and I discovered that there were all these arms and legs walking up and down stairs—fat, skinny, they were eating borekas, cheese-filled pastries, they were lying on the roof in the sun, and that these bodies were of many sizes and shapes, with markings, without markings. All were doing the same things, and they were doing them wonderfully well. But, when we judge ourselves, and our nipples become those strange eyes of society looking at ourselves in the mirror—ach!, we’re so full of defects, it’s Gulliver and the Brobdignags! Oh, the breasts are so hideous! The hair on the chin! We can never be beautiful enough, Shebar, if we look at ourselves as others see us…. I think that earlier I felt stronger if I dealt with my adventures and my passions as a man. But now, I write as a woman, and adventures befall my women.

I’m writing a book now about women: they talk about themselves, their pains, their connections, sometimes they talk about men—I mean, we’re in the world together, we love each other, we dislike each other, we love women, we dislike women— but it cannot be that a woman’s world revolved around a man, just as it would be absolutely stupid for a man’s world to revolve around a woman or around women in general. So my women talk about many things: they talk about ceremonies, and holidays, about making exodus. They have special ceremonies with each other. A baby girl is born: on the eighth day, which is the time of the circumcision, they pierce the baby girl’s hymen—there’s a hymenotomy, so that all orifices are open, so that she will be delivered intact to no man. We must be delivered with experience, or we must not be delivered. There must not be some terrible piercing that occurs to us late in life, that causes us to bleed uncontrollably. They have other ceremonies. They light candles, and they pray to the Lady of the Candle—Friday night. They have a ceremony in overcoming passion, if that passion makes them forget themselves and each other.

SHEBAR: Shall we talk about the “Exodus” and Her Mothers?

ESTHER: How did that come about? I knew a thin, strange lady who was making movies and doing things that I thought were quite hysterical. And one day she said to me, “I had six mothers.” I thought she said, “I had sick mothers!”, I didn’t understand; and she said, “No, my father married frequently: I had six mothers!” I began thinking about this woman, and her mothers, and how she was disconnected from them.

And I thought of something else that had happened when I was living at UCLA: I had a roommate who became pregnant fairly late in life and called her mother, who was a simple woman, and she said, “Mother, I’m pregnant!” And the mother said, “Have a girl.” And my friend said, “Why should I have a girl?” And the mother said, “A girl should have a girl.” Well, I started laughing, and I did not understand why I was laughing, and periodically, through the years, I would repeat that line. But I think what the mother said was that there is a special connection between the mother and the daughter: the same body being reproduced, the same problems that will face you that will be quite different from the problems facing the young man. There is such a connection: the fingertips meet, the eyes connect, the heart leaps! You may cause each other unbelievable pain and sorrow and, hopefully, joy. And I think I had to write about that search for that disconnection, that pain that we cause, and, hopefully, the joy that we can also bring to each other.

SHEBAR: In Her Mothers there’s the main character as a mother, and her mother, and her grandmother in some places and her friends’ mothers, and her friends becoming mothers….

ESTHER: Yes, yes. The woman is trying to find out what it is to be a mother. You know, we’re not really taught what it is to mother or to be a mother. We are really taught: “Here, you have a doll, you’re going to grow up and—poof!—you’re going to give birth to a Barbi and it’s not going to hurt you or anything, ’cause she’s made of plastic and it’s gonna slide right down.” We’re not taught how to mother and how to care and how to connect. And this woman had to learn very painfully—because she was very disconnected in every way—how to connect to other women and, most of all, to herself. And then, to connect to her daughter, because the women had very painfully disconnected from each other.

SHEBAR: Did you write your Haggadah after Her Mothers!

ESTHER: Yes. I wrote the Haggadah in 1975 with Naomi Nimrod in Haifa. We are both women who have had religious upbringings. Hers is much more intense than mine, but everyone in Israel—religious and atheist alike—is enormously informed on their cultural past. Naomi, who had been raised in B’nei Akiva, the religious youth movement, whose father was a cantor, whose mother was a profoundly religious woman, found out that her religion had no use for her. And that was unbearable for a religious woman of great passion. For myself, it isn’t enough to be Esther or E.M., there have to be great, surging, epic events that occur; I have to connect myself to some kind of passion which is beyond the bed and anger. But if our religion would like to kick us out of it, I think that we have to carefully elbow our way back in and make a new tradition. Rewrite ourselves and correct that tradition….

SHEBAR: But the Jewish religion is a patriarchal religion in which women have no place! Except for maybe a few isolated groups here and there around the country, you can’t be counted in a minyan, you won’t be a rabbi or a—

ESTHER: Wrong, wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

SHEBAR: —cantor, or you can’t dance with—

ESTHER: Wrong! Wrong, wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong! The Reform women have been in minyanim, the Conservative movement now has women in the minyan. There are many women rabbis. Do you know that a third of the class at [the Reform] Hebrew Union College in Israel are girls? The Orthodox will not change, I think, although I don’t know—I have Orthodox friends in Israel, deeply, deeply Orthodox women, who also want what I want, dignity and a share….

On my parents fiftieth anniversary, the synagogue honored them in the morning, because they’re very active in it. The rabbi there is a very reactionary rabbi. My sons were called up to read from the Torah, my two brothers, my husband. “Mom,” I said, “Daddy, I want to go up and honor you. I want to read, too. I can read Hebrew as well as they.” The rabbi would not allow it. I thought of not going to the synagogue to honor them, but my brothers said, “You would only hurt your parents.” And so I went, but I didn’t stay for the whole time. But I will go up there, I will be a priest, I will dance. I will not be elbowed out of my religion. There’s room. I have to turn it around; we have to rediscover our mothers. It’s a political thing.

But, on the other hand, there are an awful lot of gutsy, mouthy Jewish women! I mean, they were very active in forming the whole women’s Movement! How did that happen, out of this patriarchal religion? Several things: we were never really dishonored and disgraced. There was some dignity given to us. You’re just not allowed to have the source of power! And you’re ashamed of your body. But we will change things. It’s only been a few thousand years!

SHEBAR: Could you say more about how you wrote the Haggadah?

ESTHER: I think the interesting thing in writing it was that working with women is quite different from collaborating with men —and I’ve done both. Women allow life to enter their work; men carefully remove life from their work. When Naomi and I were working, every day we would speak first of our lives, and then we would speak about the research that we had to do. We did not separate one from the other.

Naomi was bearing a child; we spoke of that. She had made a political decision not to marry; her mother, who was a religious woman, was very upset about that. But ultimately, because Naomi’s late father had a fine library, we decided to work in her mother’s house. And the mother, at first upset at seeing her pregnant daughter, seeing us enter to work on this strange—maybe sacrilegious—thing, became more and more interested in it. Her name was Rivka, and this Haggadah is dedicated to her, because she nourished us in more ways than one. And from the great worry that we were breaking rules, she became quite militant!

We asked her to help us look for photographs of women who had made the Exodus, and she went to the Maritime Museum in Haifa, and said, “I would like old pictures of the sea”—artwork depicting the Exodus — “and if there are any prints, especially of women, like Miriam the prophet.” And the archivist said, “Oh, madam! There are no prints of women crossing the sea! What do you mean?!” And she said, “Sir! If women didn’t cross the sea, you wouldn’t be here today!”

She also, with Naomi, took this women’s literature class that I was teaching. She came every week, she read all of the assignments, she spoke up about Doris Lessing’s book The Summer before the Dark, where the older woman has to make some kind of arrangement with life when she is no longer needed by children or husband. Rivka spoke about that—that problem was very close to her. One day I said, “Mothers, have we learned anything from our daughters?” Because we were always talking about what we had learned from our mothers. And Rivka said, “I learned a new tolerance for life from my daughter.” They had not been able to talk to each other before this.

In the course of our writing of the Haggadah, which was several months, Rivka had a heart attack. We were in the middle of the introduction, which we wrote after we’d finished the first draft, and we rushed to the hospital with her. And we just finished it when she died. She, I think, lived with us to make her own final exodus.

SHEBAR: How did you feel as a woman in Israel?

ESTHER: Wonderful, Shebar, wonderful I never felt so good as a woman! I was teaching women—we formed such a strong relationship in the six months of this class that, even though these women ranged from 20 (after the Army) to 60, and politically from Communist to Land-of-Israel-Interventionist and reactionary, from religious to atheist, we found out that within six months we had everything in common—everything! We made such a tight and loving union that it was a kind of sacred thing. We didn’t even know if we should greet each other after class, we said such intense and painful and revealing things in class.

Israelis are very formal, they’re not American Glib Autobiographical. I’d asked them to write about their insanity, and we were reading Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, and I said, “Now you write about your insanity.” “Oh,” they said, “what do you mean? Only the weak are insane.” One or two religious women said, “You can will yourself not to be insane!” I said, “Nonsense! Every day we are insane.” Well, that was a hard assignment for them; they could not write about that. (Later I learned they would write about assignments long after, that they couldn’t write about them at the time I’d asked them to write.)

Finally, one woman rose, and said “I am insane. My husband left me this weekend, and I went to his apartment. And I stood there—he took my dog Whiskey—and I stood outside his door calling to Whiskey for two days and two nights. I never went to bed; I never washed. And then Whiskey leapt out of the window into my arms, and I went home and bathed, and came to class. My friends told me, ‘If you tell the class, they’ll lock you up, they’ll say you’re insane!’—I am insane, class!” said she. And there was a great pause. No one had really said anything to anybody; we’d been in class for weeks. And one woman who’d suffered a very humiliating divorce said to her, “You weren’t insane! It wasn’t Whiskey you were calling… we’ve all had terrible losses.” Afterwards, the women knew what it was to be insane. Then we could write about it.

That embracing, that touching, that loving, that kissing—that’s an amazing thing! People don’t have time to do this in a cold climate: we have winter in our hearts and in our bones here. In Israel, I was meeting women all the time and they try pioneering hard things to do. It’s very hard to leave one’s land to go to another land, to learn a language, to try to forget death camps, to escape a South American dictatorship— that’s what all these people were doing, trying to make a life. So… there were hardships—real hardships. And yet they were very brave.

It’s still a family society. It is a society that’s so beset by war that it’s always thinking, desperately, about replenishing itself. That’s very hard on the women, in a way, because it always returns them toward their biological role rather than to any kind of expanding role. All the women in Israel are pregnant. The soldiers were given leave to make sure that the women were pregnant. I can’t condemn that, though: so many young men are killed. What I do think would be very good is for the women to go into the front lines. I think women are as brave as men—and I know they’re braver, in fact! And as skilled. And they would have to be less coy; they would not have to stay at home, waiting for the visitor; they could be there as the warrior. That’s a very different role.

But I loved being a woman! My body felt wonderful to me! The sun was on it, even during the winter. I wore fewer and fewer clothes, I felt more and more voluptuous, more and more aware of my skin, the way you do in summer. I protected myself less and less from emotion. It was the first time where I felt so mobile—and I was living there with part of my family (after a while my daughter showed up; my husband was with me also, teaching).

But I would get a call from Tel Aviv, from a wonderful friend, a singer, having a very hard time as singers do everywhere on this earth, for we are bound to still the notes that rise above ours—and she would say, “Come to me! My heart hurts.” Well—if, here I am in Detroit, if someone in Chicago or Cleveland says, “Come to me, my heart hurts,” I would say, “Oh, gee, do you think you could manage for two or three months? I mean, I could probably get away during the Thanksgiving break or something!…” “Oh,” I said, “Arrella, I’ll come to you!” And I’d make this very arduous trip! Now, if people say “Come to me,” in New York or somewhere else, I do go to them.

So, you are freer to love each other, because it’s a land that loves. It’s less clothed. They stare, with enormous interest as well as with arrogance and conceit, and concern. It’s a very open kind of society. I felt very good being with women, and I was almost exclusively with women. But it was a time of having a very rich and wonderful society of women, and out of it I wrote a really good play, “The Body Parts of Margaret Fuller,” that won a nice award, so it was lovely that women had even given me this.

SHEBAR: Do you want to say more about women writers?

ESTHER: You know, one comes late—or I came late— to women writers. I loved Willa Cather when I was in graduate school. I read all of her books and all of the existing research, criticism, on her, which was really quite limited. You couldn’t even get her books in paperback! She was very important as a model to me. In Song of the Lark she said, “Career is hard work. Career takes courage, and enormous intelligence, and hard work.” I learned from Willa Cather about work. And yet, you know, when I wanted to do a large paper on her, I was told, “well, she’s a second-rate novelist because she didn’t know how to handle men.” But, you know, think about Hemingway— he couldn’t handle women; think about Bellow, the greatest stylist—he knows nothing at all on this earth about women, despite the Nobel Prize! So we really have quite a double standard in judging literary worth….

It took a long time to discover the women, and it took a long time for them to come out, too! Tillie Olsen, for example, coming out very recently. Many women are just getting courage now. But women poets have taught me for years. They said, “This is my body,” and they pointed to the places in their body that were just like the places in my body, and they pointed to the places in their hearts that were like the places in my heart. And, lo and behold, we had the same map! That is an amazing thing—you can’t always go over the desert by yourself. The children of Israel wandered for 40 years because they were stupid. You have to say, “Which way is north? Which way is south? Which way is pain, and which way is joy?” And women writers have provided me with that model.

SHEBAR: Do you want to say more about the Haggadah, about what that came out of and what uses it’s had, what the response to it has been?

ESTHER: The male response to it is very angry. The women are a little nervous, some of them. Some women brought me in to New York last Passover to make an exodus, the group consisted of about 19 women—I think eleven were Jewish, the others weren’t, the group was lesbian and heterosexual. I asked them to come with the tales of their own exodus. I was just exhausted from cooking for the holidays for my family; I said, “Women cannot wear themselves out for each other. Let us come with salads, and fruits and nuts, and let us carry our tales.”

And when it began, I said, “We are making connections with our mothers. Who are your mothers? Let’s go around the room; please give me the names of your mothers.” They gave us their names, and then their mothers’ names—which were often different from their names. “What were your grandmothers’ names?” Many of them didn’t know; their grandmothers’ names were lost. It was really an objective lesson in how separated society makes us, forcefully, from our mothers and our grandmothers, by giving us such different names.

Then I asked, “Who are your real mothers?” One woman said: her art teacher at the Art Students’ League. Martha Graham was somebody’s real mother. A few husbands were mothers! Some of the women were each other’s mothers! Some of the women had never had any mothers, had no idea what it was to mother or to be mothered.

We followed the form of the male Haggadah, only we replaced the male prophets with the original female prophet, Miriam. And I said, “She was our prophet!” and I told the tales—and we had to dig deep for those tales. We looked for women, who were not mentioned in the Haggadah, but who had lived at the same time that the men who are in the traditional Haggadah are mentioned, and we traced their lives.

It was very painful, what we discovered; we had no idea when we were writing, Naomi and I, that we would find out the things we found out. We had no idea that we had been so hated, and for so long. But you have to know not to be embittered; you have to know, yes, to be horrified, and angry, and then to use that. If you say, “I was hated, and I hate back,” it’s a crippling step. You have to say, “I was hated”; you have to trace that back: how terrified they were!; what were they terrified of! They were terrified of our blood; they were terrified of our wombs; they were terrified that we gave birth. Maybe they thought that we could also kill. They suppressed our magic. After all, Tsiporah, the first wife of Moshe, knew magic, knew special rites that she learned from her father, who was a priest; she performed rites, but they are written about very cryptically in the Exodus—we don’t exactly know what she does, but we know that it refers back to a special blood rite. She touches Moses’ feet to save him from the Angel of Death, and she touches his feet with blood, maybe circumcision blood—we’re not sure, it’s not clear, but something very curious is happening. Women were the first priestesses….

I said, “They are the traditional plagues —and I identify with those plagues. But I have my plagues; and we as women could identify with those plagues,” and I wrote some; and I said, “Please give me your plagues,” and the women went around the room and talked about that which plagued them.

There’s a section in the HaggadaJi where I said, “These are the promises that the Lord kept: He led us over the Red Sea, and He gave us manna, and He gave us, most of all, the great land.” I said, “Ah, but He did not keep the promises to women. What are the promises that were not kept?” and all of the women had tales….

I think when we make ceremony together, Shebar, we are more connected to each other than through just quick, easy conversation. I’m doing something that’s thousands of years old, that people every year sit down and do. There must be something to draw us back into that earth—it’s a symbolic holiday, and we’ve all made some kind of exodus.

SHEBAR: Is there any need to say any more than what you’ve said about being a Jewish feminist and about a sort of growing Jewish feminist sense of community?

ESTHER: We, I think, are becoming conscious of being Jewish for the very sad reareasons that Jews have always been conscious of being Jewish: it’s a heightening time of anti-Semitism.

When Arafat appeared at the U.N., with gun, I was alone. Well, “alone” is a funny word, but I felt alone, at MacDowell Colony, a writer’s retreat. It was evening, we were getting ready for dinner, there was one small television set in a little room, people were waiting for the election returns, and I saw Arafat on television. I was the only one that cared! There were one or two Jews in the group who were not terribly interested in this sort of thing. The Christians didn’t realize what was happening, when Arafat appeared; they didn’t know what happened to my soul! It was unbearable! Only I, I felt, could connect to those who trembled and had ancient memories of pogroms instilled into them. It’s like the Black child who is taught always to know, and to sense the white person’s mood and anger, and always treads with some caution in the world of the white person. So the Jew treads very cautiously in the world of the non-Jew —which is most of the world.

If Jews are discovering each other, if we dance together, and make ritual together, it may be because we are afraid that another Holocaust is upon us. I worry about that a lot. It does not to me seem so unlikely. I think the world is being very carefully trained to think of us as disposable. Cars are disposable, diapers are disposable, bottles are disposable—really, Jews are also disposable.

I think that you connect to the people that you are afraid will be destroyed, who are like you. You connect to people who have the memories that you have. That’s why women are doing things together.

Now, how connect myself as a woman with my own sense of body as well as some sense of land? I cannot go in and say the prayers that are the traditional prayers, either at Yom Kippur or at the other holidays. I can’t pray to a male god. I have my own name for God—I call Her the Shechi-nah, the female spirit of God. I think I have to say that some parts of the Bible are sexist and were written politically, and I cannot connect to them.

In a way, it’s lovely to connect to women, and to make holiday, and joy, and dancing. Then, in a way, it’s very sad to feel that you are forced to look for each other because you may all be destroyed. But you come to it with the strongest part of you; you don’t go to it with the weakest part of you. If you have to be a warrior, go to it with your knowledge, with your physical strength, with your passion, with your love, and maybe, sadly, if need be, with your hate.

Shebar Windstone, writer, artist and bibliophile, works for Pacifica radio in Berkeley, and authored a bibliography of out-of-print books and pamphlets about women. 

This interview, in longer form, was broadcast as part of Windstone’s Lesbian-Feminist series “That Witches Rising in Ur Ear” on KPFA/Pacifica Radio in Berkeley, August 8 and 22, 1977.