Letter to Our Son: A Thought on International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Each year, Young Judaea Year Course asks parents of participants to write a letter to their child to read before their trip to Poland. He went a few months ago. Today, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am sharing the letter my wife and I wrote to our son.

Dear Yadid

It feels like just yesterday we were holding you in our arms in an apartment in Manhattan. Before any of your siblings were born. And long before you became the man you are becoming. It is hard to believe that you, our bachor –– first born, are off in Israel for your gap year. Where did the time go? Just yesterday, we were telling you bedtime stories about our adventures in Israel, and now you are there on your own coming-of-age pilgrimage in the Promised Land.

Amid this exploration of Jewish life in the Jewish homeland, you are going to Poland to visit a place where many Jews lived, and to the death camps where many Jews died. It can sometimes be overwhelming to come face to face with the experience of evil. We want to give you permission to feel whatever it is that you are feeling, even if your instinct is to not let your guard down because you will likely be playing your usual role of caring for others who are breaking down. You should allow yourself to be in the moment and to process what you are seeing and how it informs your view of yourself, your community, and of humanity.

Mami and I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of six million Jews and five million additional human beings until we held you as a baby. In our hands was infinite potential. It was only when we understood our responsibility to one life in a real way that we could imagine the real cosmic pain of killing 11 million people. Each of those people also had mothers or fathers who held them. And as you consider the magnitude of such a genocide on humanity, remember that this targeted, systematic, and calculated near-annihilation of a specific group, namely, our people, is what makes the Shoah particularly horrific.

In going to Poland, we hope that you come to contemplate a basic human flaw — that we all must contend with the evil in the world and the reality that we are either perpetrating it or not doing nearly enough to stop it. As we learned in Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.” We must be witness to the existence of evil to remind ourselves to do everything we can to fight it. 

But still, that is not the whole reason for going. As Jews, we do not go to fetishize death. While our people have been hunted, we are not prey. As Jews, we celebrate life; despite or maybe because of all the horrors we have experienced in life, we know how to laugh and get the most out of life. We go to Poland to remind ourselves what life is worth living for. The long history of antisemitism is as old as the day is long.

Open your heart to the pain of others and open your mind to Jewish practice. Living a Jewish life is a whimsical act in being counter cultural. Open your hands to Jewish life and you will take flight, and nothing will get in your way. Our sending you on a pilgrimage to Poland is not because of our desire to imprison you in the shackles of Judaism’s victimhood, but to help you realize this precious tradition you have inherited. You are the keeper of the faith. The future is in your hands.

Let this unspeakable tragedy and manifestation of gross injustice further fuel your commitment to right the wrongs in this world to be a rodef tzedek — pursuer of justice. From the moment we held you in our hands, we realized the infinite potential you have. You will have many choices to make throughout your life and all will be an expression of who you are as an individual, as an inheritor of a deep legacy and tradition, and as a citizen of the world. We hope that your choices are personally meaningful, universally relevant, and distinctively Jewish.

Aba and Mami

-My wife posted this today in the Times of Israel

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Between Toil and Work: Meaning Making in Our Effort

commercial from the Dutch mail-order pharmacy Doc Morris has left the internet in tears by showing the reason behind a grandfather’s drive to get in shape for Christmas with his family. What would inspired this elderly man to take on this bizzare fitness regimen with a rusty old kettlebell? Everyone thought he has gone crazy. Why would he be exercising at his age? And why these exercises? It seemed pointless until the end. It is worth a watch:

Watching this I got thinking about the end of Shmot, last week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites are enslaved to Pharaoh working tireless in his building projects. Moshe shows up to liberate them from their back breaking work. He asks Pharaoh to let them go three days into the wilderness and sacrifice to God, lest God fall upon them with pestilence or the sword. Pharaoh asked them why they caused the people to rest from their work, and commanded that the taskmasters lay heavier work on them and no longer give them straw to make brick but force them to go and gather straw for themselves to make the same quota of bricks. (Exodus 5: 4-11) The people scattered to gather straw, and the taskmasters beat the Israelite officers, asking why they had not fulfilled the quota of brick production as before.

The Israelites cried to Pharaoh, asking why he dealt so harshly with his servants, but he said that they were idle if they had time to ask to go and sacrifice to God. So the officers met Moshe and Aaron as they came from meeting Pharaoh and accused them of making the Israelites to be abhorrent to Pharaoh. There we read, “May the Lord look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers—putting a sword in their hands to slay us.” (Exodus 5:21) Why are they yelling at Moshe? He was there to liberate them?

Now that Moshe has fomented a revolution- Pharaoh removed the resources needed for the slaved to do their work. Without the straw they needed they are left making crappy bricks. Even as slaves they had a job to do work. Even if they were not valued as human beings, they were the builders of great building. The could take pride in the quality of their work. The hatred to Moshe is because they could not longer see any value of their effort. Slavery was awful, but at the least the had value in their work. Without the needed resources their work was now just toil.

But was that the case? We see later as the Israelites were crossing the Red Sea a different image. They were marching through the mud as the Egyptians were coming for them in their chariots. We know that they water consumed the Egyptians, but how did the Israelited know how to walk across the mud?

All of those years building bricks, even if it was not yielding high quality bricks prepared them for this moment. It was not toil, it was training in how to use their legs to walk through mud. Just as this in the Song of the Sea Moshe says, “In Your great triumph You break Your opponents; You send forth Your fury, it consumes them like straw.” ( Exodus 15: 7) The slaves were no longer “loathsome to Pharaoh” due to their lack of straw to do quality work. What was perceived as pointless toil who lost hope in their own value redeemed their years of servitude. It is not just that they were liberated as people, their effort itself was redeemed. Like the grandfather in the commercial, what was seen as useless toil was actually very holy work of using our to time meaningfully. It is quoted in the name of Bobby Darin, “It isn’t true that you live only once. You only die once. You live lots of times if you know how.” May we all find meaning in our work and live every day with pride, purpose, and dignity.

The Good Book: Bible Ceremony

Libi, our youngest, is having her Chumash ceremony today. Sadly I am missing it for a work trip. Ironically the work trip is in Israel, the Land is the Bible. I hope to make it up to her by bringing her here soon. She does not remember our family trip here a few years ago, she was too young. I love how much she loved the Chumash. I cannot wait for it to come alive for her. It is clear to me that the Good book becomes a great book when you are here.

While I am sorry to miss this milestone with our daughter I am thrilled to return renewed and refreshed in my commitment to this book. I had not been here since Covid. I find this trip is an important step in my own post plague reemergence.

I was thinking about the importance of the Good Book recently when watching the inauguration of Josh Shapiro as the 48th Governor of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It was powerful seeing someone from Akiba be such a Kiddush HaShem. Especially when you know which Bibles he used to be sworn in:

The swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 17 included:

  • A personal family Bible Shapiro has been sworn in on for every public office he has assumed since 2005.
  • A Bible provided by the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History carried by Herman Hershman — a Philadelphian and a Corporal Technician 5th Grade in World War II, who earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart after landing with the First Division on Omaha Beach on D-Day.
  • A Hebrew Bible provided by the Tree of Life Synagogue that survived the massacre that took place there in 2018 and was regularly used on Shabbat mornings.

In Shapiro’s speech he noted the significance of being sworn in as a Jewish governor of a state on a Bible given to him from synagogue which had the worst Antisemitic attack in US history. It is worth listening his speech. Why do people get sworn in with their hand on a Bible?

By placing a hand on the book and then kissing it, the oath-taker is acknowledging that, should they lie under oath, neither the words in the Bible nor their good deeds nor their prayers will bring them any earthly or spiritual profit. In time, this became standard legal procedure—all witnesses swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—and made its way into American courts and then oaths of office. In many ways they are using the Good Book as a standard of the good.

I wish the best to Josh in his leadership in Pennsylvania. May he live up to the good of his family, our people fighting for the good, and overcoming tragedy. I also hope the same for Libi. At 7 she is starting to wrap her head around becoming a good person. May she too live up to the standard of the Good Book. No one is perfect , but in the Bible we find our collective aspirations for being our best. i am still sorry to miss it, but deeply proud of our daughter.

Vulture Culture: A Thought on Tzipporah

As some might know the pantheon of ancient Egyptians  was a proverbial menagerie. They personified many of their major gods as birds.  Why they did is open to considerable debate.  Perhaps it was because birds could fly and thus be in areas unattainable by humans or perhaps maybe they were viewed as being powerful for being able to live in the harsh desert conditions.

One of these bird gods of Ancient Egypt was the vulture. The vulture was sacred to the goddess Nekhbet, the goddess of upper Egypt and also Mut, the ‘mother’ goddess.

The vulture represents eternal power and protection.  This makes a lot of sense, since vultures are scavangers by nature, it is no surprise that they had become associated with eternity.  As they eat the flesh of the dead, it can be assumed that they consume the soul of the departed.  When finished the vulture soars off into the sky, carrying the departed soul to heaven. 

The Egyptian dynastic mythology was caught up into immortality, it makes sense that the vulture was very often depicted in association with the many rulers of Egypt.

I was thinking about this culture of vultures when reading Shmot, this week’s Torah portion. There we meet the woman who will become Moshe’s wife Tzipporah. She was one of the seven daughters of Jethro, a Kenite shepherd who was a priest of Midian. There we read:

Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock; but shepherds came and drove them off. Moshe rose to their defense, and he watered their flock. When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?” They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.” He said to his daughters, “Where is he then? Why did you leave the man? Ask him in to break bread.” Moshe consented to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Tzipporah as wife.

Exodus 2:16-21

She has two children with Moshe, but she seems to be an NPC, barring the incident in the inn just before Moshe goes back to Egypt to liberate the Israelites. There we read:

At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Tzipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!” And when [God] let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.”

Exodus 4:24-26

Many interpreters depict Moshe as being “lazy” in not circumcising their sons. It is interesting in that a Bris and eating of the Korban Pesach are the two positive commandments for which not doing gets you koret- “cut off” from the Jewish people. In the case of Moshe this was the last thing he needed to do before going to Egypt and for the Israelites the Korban Pesach was the last thing they needed to do before leaving Egypt. In many ways both represent our version of Hernán Cortésburning the ships.

But we should get back to Tzipporah. Why is this her role in the story? We all want life partners who help us succeed and keep our commitments, but what does this have to do with vultures? Well , Tzipporah means bird. And just as the Egyptian vulture goddess represented eternal power and protection, she did this for Moshe.

May we all blessed with a Tzipporah in our lives.

Weird Fish: The Blessing of Diversity

According to National Geographic Animal Encyclopedia, all fish share two traits: they live in water and they have a backbone—they are vertebrates. Apart from these similarities, however, many of the species in this group differ markedly from one another. Fin fish like salmon have gills, are covered in scales, and reproduce by laying eggs. Eels, by contrast, have worm-like bodies and exceedingly slimy skin. Lungfish gulp air. Whale sharks, the largest fish, give birth to live young and eat only tiny fish, squid, and plankton. Some species, the Blobfish, see below, are so bizarre they seem almost unreal. Here is a list to the 20 weirdest fish in the world.

Fish have developed special senses, too. Because water transmits sounds, disperses chemicals, and conducts electricity better than air, fish rely less on their vision and more on their hearing, taste, and smell. Many can detect motion in the water using a special row of scales with sensors known as the lateral line. Others can find their prey and even navigate by detecting electrical charges.

One reason fish are so diverse is that 70 percent of the planet is covered in water. They live in a variety of habitats ranging from coral reefs and kelp forests to rivers, streams, and the open ocean. The variety of fish is also due to the fact that fish are very old on the evolutionary scale. According to fossil records, they have been on Earth for more than 500 million years! The total number of living fish species—about 32,000— is greater than the total of all other vertebrate species (amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) combined.

I was thinking about the diversity of fish when reading Vayahi, this week’s Torah portion. There Yaakov is at the end of his life and blessing his children and grandchildren. There we read:

And he blessed Yosef, saying, “The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day— The Messenger who has redeemed me from all harm— Bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled, And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, vayidgo- And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.”

Genesis 48:15-16

What is this vayidgo– teeming about? On this Rashi quotes the Gemara:

vayidgo-– like fishes (דגים) which are fruitful and which multiply and which the evil eye cannot effect (Berakhot 20a).

Rashi on Genesis 48:16

Why fish are beyond the glare of the evil eye, is a conversation for another day. The simple meaning is that they should be blessing with descendants that are teeming like the fish of the sea. This gives new meaning to God’s blessing to Avraham: “I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes.” (Genesis 22:17) From the shore to the sea. This is evocative of the male Jawfish from the Philippines, see blow. This species is a “mouthbreeder”. After they mate the female lays the eggs in the males mouth.

Genesis 22:17

While we could just stay there and see that our number is the blessing. I think there is something else being conveyed in this blessing. The blessing is not just to have the numbers, but also to have the biodiversity. Like the fish of the sea, the people of Israel should be blessed to behold the divinity of diversity and the dignity of difference. We are an ancient people, but we are still evolving. We should never shy away from being weird.

Empty Seat: A Thought for Asarah BeTevet

I often ponder what Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said to Dr. Robert Pollack when he wrote about about science and religion. Rabbi Steinsaltz said, “If you know someone who says the Throne of God is empty, and lives with that, then you should cling to that person as a good, strong friend. But be careful: almost everyone who says that, has already placed something or someone else on that Throne, usually themselves.” Even if the idea of God is very distant, we can realize the deepest Torah in knowing that none of us are God. Being a religious person in a secular environment makes it easy to slip from seeing oneself as a beneficiary of God’s message to judging everyone who does not live according to your lifestyle.

I was thinking of this idea today we commemorated the Tenth of Tevet – Asarah BeTevet. This fast day is observed in mourning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia—an event that began on that date and ultimately culminated in the destruction of the First Temple and the conquest of the Kingdom of Yehudah. In many ways this is the beginning of the long slog to our diaspora that only ended in 1948.

Nebuchadnezzar camps outside Jerusalem.  Petrus Comestor‘s “Bible Historiale”, 1372

I was thinking about what Rabbi Steinsaltz said in the context of the etymology of the word siege itself. It comes to us from the early 13c., segge, “a seat, chair, stool; ceremonial seat of a king”. When Nebuchadnezzar II  besieged Jerusalem one could only imagine it challenged the Israelites foundational belief in their God as King. Was God’s Throne empty?

It is hard to make meaning out of this fast day. If nothing else I remind myself in not eating or drinking today, even if that seat remained empty, if nothing else, I am not God.

My Travels Have Changed Me: Kafka’s Doll and Yosef

As the story goes, Franz Kafka was walking through a park one day in Berlin when he met a girl who was crying because she had lost her favorite doll. She and Kafka searched for the doll unsuccessfully. Kafka told her to meet him there the next day and they would come back to look for her. The next day, when they had not yet found the doll, Kafka gave the girl a letter “written” by the doll saying “please don’t cry. I took a trip to see the world. I will write to you about my adventures.”

During their meetings, Kafka read the letters of the doll carefully written with adventures and conversations that the girl found adorable. Finally, Kafka brought back the doll (he bought one) that had returned to Berlin.

“It doesn’t look like my doll at all,” said the girl. Kafka handed her another letter in which the doll wrote: “my travels have changed me.” The little girl hugged the new doll and brought the doll with her to her happy home.

A year later Kafka, who never married and had no children, died.

I love this story. It speaks of our inherent desire to make sense of the world. But the doll was clearly a news one. Did the girl actually think that it was her well-traveled doll?

I was thinking about this story when reading Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion. Here we read about Yosef revealing himself to his long lost brothers. Even with all of the years and all of the Egyptian costumes how did they not recognize their little brother? Just like Kafka’s doll, Yosef was well-traveled and it had changed him. This is evident by what he says to them, “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” (Genesis 45:5)

Interesting enough, the story about Kafka and the girl did not end there. Many years later, the now-adult girl found a letter inside the doll. In the tiny letter signed by Kafka it was written, “Everything you love will probably be lost, but in the end, love will return in another way.” We learn from this story about Kafka, the doll, and Yosef that we all need to embrace change. It’s inevitable for growth. Together we can shift pain into wonder and love, but it is up to us to consciously and intentionally create that connection.

On Yehuda & Tamar: Crafting a Culture of Consent

In VaYeshev, this week’s Torah portion, we learn the side story for the Yakov’s children. Most of it follows the trials and tribulations of Yosef. We take a break from this narrative and we learn about Yehuda’s family. He has three sons Er, Onan, and Shelah. His eldest marries a women named Tamar. Er dies and then Onan marries her only to die as well. Yehuda believes she has killed two of his sons, and subjugates her so that she is unable to remarry. However, she ultimately tricks Yehuda into impregnating her and therefore secures her place in the family. There we read:

So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil, and, wrapping herself up, sat down at the “entrance to eyes” which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife. When Yehuda saw her, he took her for a harlot; for she had covered her face. So he turned aside to her by the road and said, “Here, let me sleep with you”—for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. “What,” she asked, “will you pay for sleeping with me?” He replied, “I will send a kid from my flock.” But she said, “You must leave a pledge until you have sent it.” And he said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your seal and cord, and the staff which you carry.” So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she conceived by him. Then she went on her way. She took off her veil and again put on her widow’s garb.

Genesis 38:14-19

Yehuda then sent his friend to redeem the pledge only to not be able to find the mystery harlot. Three months later, it becomes clear that Tamar is pregnant. It was an embarrassment to the family that despite being in mourning after the death of Onan she would have stepped out and is pregnant. Yehuda proclaims that she should be burned. When they bring her forward, she presents his cord and staff which he gave her as collateral. Yehuda recognized them, and says, “She is more in the righteous than me, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” ( Genesis 38: 26). And Yehuda was not intimate with her again.

There is a ton to unpack from this story. For now I just wanted to offer a reading of this story through the lens of Dr. Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan’s book Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power, and Assault on College Campus. This book transforms how we understand and address sexual assault. Through intimate portraits of life and sex among today’s college students, they present an entirely new way to understand sexual assault. Their insights transcending current debates about consent, predators in a “hunting ground,” or the dangers of hooking up. Sexual Citizens reveals the social ecosystem that makes sexual assault a predictable element of life on a college campus. The powerful concepts of sexual projects, sexual citizenship, and sexual geographies, provide a new language for understanding the forces that shape young people’s sexual relationships. The result transforms our understanding of sexual assault and provides a new roadmap for how to address it.

How does focusing on sexual projects, sexual citizenship, and sexual geographies impact our reading of the Yehuda and Tamar story? Different people have sex to satisfy a diversity of interests. This is what Hirsch and Khan mean by sexual project. Clearly Tamar and Yehuda consenting to have sex together, but it is very clear that they did share the same sexual project.

Sexual citizenship is the assumption that their are basic rights that both parties have regardless of the situation. At the start Yehuda has power and Tamar does not. She is stuck. Clearly Yehuda did not see the harlot for who. But this underscores that even without the costume he did not did not see Tamar for who she was. It is also telling that he “buys” sex with his cord and staff, the symbols of his citizenship. When she presents him with these he has to admit that she is more righteous than he is. He has to admit that they both need their rights as sexual citizens.

And finally Hirsch and Khan discuss sexual geographies. How do simple things like the lay of the land advantage or disadvantage people regarding their entering into a sexual experiment. Tamar clear put herself out there at a place called “entrance to eyes”. Clearly this whole affair was an eye opening experience for Yehuda. There is so much to explore here. The nuances of this entire story of Yehuda and Tamar and the ideas shared in Sexual Citizens is eye opening to all of us as we work on crafting a culture of consent.

IRL: A Blessing for Connecting

This past week Foundation for Jewish Camp ran an amazing conference in Atlanta. This year we hoped to have 600 camp people at Leaders Assembly. We had 900. Beyond the programming and all the coordination, it was just so good being with old friends and new ones in person. My colleague Briana Holtzman who brilliantly put the event together asked me in advance what blessing we should say on this occasion.

We learn in the Gemara in Berakhot, ” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who sees his friend after thirty days have passed since they last saw each other recites: שהחיינו -Blessed…Who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this moment.  And one who sees his friend after twelve months recites: מחיה מתים  Blessed…Who revives the dead. “(Berakhot 58b)

It had been some time. It was really great seeing all of these people in real life. It had been more than 30 days and more than 12 months. For many people there I had not seen them in real life for three years. But would one really think seeing each other constitutes revival of the dead?  

The Gemara in Berakhot continues saying that Rav learns this from the notion we consider something that we lost 12 months ago,” like a lost vessel” we consider it abandoned (Psalms 31:13). (Berakhot 58b)

Martin Buber wrote, “Every You in the world is doomed by its nature to become a thing or at least to enter into thinghood again and again”  In our lives we have Human “I-Thou” relationships and Transactional “I-It” relationships. Over the last few years we have allowed many of our “I-Thou” relationships to lapse into “I-It” relationships. Reconnecting with your lost friend creates the occasion to transform an I-It into an I- Thou relationship.  Emerging from Covid we need to intentionally reconnect with people. Camp-friends are best-friends because at camp we can be totally present and most aligned to our I-Thou relationships. We all went to Atlanta to come together to escape Zoom and get revived. Moving forward we need to keep connecting. The last few years has made me realize that being together in real life is critical. Our presence is a blessing.  

So Popular: On Lavan and Ye

I saw it reported this week that Kanye West, who now goes by Ye, appeared on Alex Jones’ InfoWars show to speak about his recent remarks and said, “people in high school didn’t know what antisemitism meant until I made it popular.” Wow, just wow.

The spike in acts of hate speech and even hate crime against Jews over the last few years has made me ask the question about origin of Antisemitism. Why is there such a long history of people hating us? Where did that all start? Was it really Ye who made it popular or is he just late to the party?

In Vayetze, this week’s Torah portion, we meet Lavan the OB Anti-Semite for the second time. Jacob shows up and he is on the run from his brother. Jacob falls in love with Lavan’s younger daughter Rachel. Lavan makes Jacob work for 7 years for her but then tricks him into marrying her sister Leah instead. When Jacob confront Lavan he says:“It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older.” (Genesis 29:26)

Why would local customs override such an agreement? Again we see something interesting in the Or HaChaim. On this he comments:

Actually, Laban argued that the local inhabitants had protested what he had agreed to. Inasmuch as the inhabitants were the majority and he was only a single individual, he Laban, had to bow to their wishes. This is why he spoke about במקומנו, “in our place.”

Or HaChaim on Genesis 29:26

Lavan Rivka’s sister and Jacob’s uncle. How is this place our place and not also Jacob’s place. Here we see Lavan reminding Jacob that he did not belong there. He was a stranger in a strange land. This is why the Passover Hagadah holds up Lavan as the paradigm of antisemitsm

What do we learn from this? Ye is late to the party and being a semite does not mean you can not be an Anti-Semite. We should be liberated to experience empathy of the “other”. We need to remember that even if we do not agree or get along, from its origins, we are still family and we should strive to understand each other.


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