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Archive for January, 2010

Batya hosts this month’s Kosher Cooking Carnival.  Check it out.

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The Cap’n and I often hear Jews in America say, “Well, I’d really like to make aliyah, BUT…” and after the “but” give lots of reasons.  Some of them make sense (elderly parents to care for, well-established careers that it would be impossible to replicate in Israel or to continue remotely or by commuting) but some of them are downright ridiculous.  Here is a list of the top 10 dumb excuses people give for not making aliyah:

1. Parnasah. One of the reasons one needs so much money in the US to be Jewish is because a house in the eruv, Jewish day school, Jewish summer camp (if you take advantage), kosher food, shul dues, regular entertaining, and getting hit up for mikvah renovations cost a lot of money.  In Israel, one can save around 95% on tuition.  Real estate (outside the main population centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv) is not nearly as insane as in frum neighborhoods in the US.  Camps are cheap and plentiful here.  There’s a shul (or two, or fifty) in every neighborhood, and dues are a fraction of what they are in an American shul.  Kosher food is available everywhere here, and shopping in a shuk can save a family a lot of money.  The government pays for mikva’ot and their maintenance.  And guess what?  You can AFFORD to have more kids here because of it.  Those who live in America and have to make their child-bearing decisions based on their finances would be free here to choose based on what they want and what Hashem gives them.

2. The rabbinate’s treatment of converts.  As if the American rabbinical establishment loves converts so much.  If certain Batei Din aren’t bad enough in the way they conduct conversions, there have been many American rabbis who have notoriously abused their positions of power with regard to women, children, and converts (including talk of revoking conversions for women who wore pants after conversion—the brazen hussies!).  There are mean people everywhere.

3. Hebrew.  Duh, you’re Jewish.  It’s your JOB to learn Hebrew anyway.  Why not use the Holy Tongue everyday rather than just for special occasions?

4. Fear of terrorism. Ahem.  September 11, London Tube, Madrid commuter train, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur,…  And no one with the name of Umar who paid cash for a one-way ticket and had a bomb stashed in his underpants would have been allowed on a plane bound either to or from Israel.  Period.  It is interesting to note that despite all the awful stories that make it out of Israel, life expectancy in Israel is higher than in America.

5. Fear of IDF service. This sticks in lots of people’s craw.  But there are a few things to consider.  One is that besides gan, this is one of the great social foundations in the life of an Israeli.  Boys become men there, friendships are formed, skills learned, all while ensuring every day that Israel continues to exist.  Everyone wishes that service in the IDF wasn’t mandatory, but no one can deny its necessity.  You may be familiar with the observation credited to Shira Sorko-Ram (in the Maoz Israel newsletter, May 2004), “If the Arabs put down their weapons today there would be no more violence.  If the Israelis put down their weapons today there would be no more Israel.”  Need I say more?  And if someone doesn’t agree with the role the IDF plays in turning settlers out of their homes, there’s nothing like being a fully enfranchised citizen to give weight to one’s opinions.

6. Israel’s hostile neighborhood. True, Israel doesn’t have many friends in the Middle East.  Over time, however, that may change.  In the meantime, thanks to peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, there is a bus that departs from central Jerusalem for Cairo every day, and Petra is only two hours from the border crossing at Eilat.  In addition, beautiful beach holidays in Cyprus and Turkey are available, Europe is only a time zone or two away, and Israel itself boasts plenty to keep a family busy on the holidays.

7. Expectation of downsizing. Many people don’t like the idea of coming to Israel because it may mean having to live in smaller quarters than they have in America.  This is true for some, but certainly not for everyone.  We increased our square meterage from what we had in the US when we made aliyah to a rented apartment, and again when we bought a cottage (semi-detached house with garden).  Some people want to live in a McMansion, however, and there are a number of neighborhoods with such absurdly large houses here in Israel.  Rampant consumerism has gained some traction in Israel for those who wish to adhere to it as a value.  But most people find they can do with less, and the upside of that is that cleaning for Shabbat takes less time.

8. No Sunday. When can you go to the mall/make day trips/get together with friends from out of town?  I know, this is a tough one.  But if a family can be shopped by Wednesday and cooked by Thursday, then Friday (especially in the warmer months) is a great day for that.  People usually only work half-days during chol hamo’ed (if they work at all then), and life is short enough that everyone bailing on work and school once in a blue moon could be nice.

9. I already spent a year in Israel.  Why should I live there? Because you probably came as a young person and enrolled in one of the many fine programs that allow young people to experience life in Israel in a well-structured, guided, sheltered environment.  Those are great, but to ask why you should live here, especially if that program year was a great year for you, is like asking, “I went on a date with this great guy.  But why should I marry him?”  Because he’s great.  Because he is your soulmate.  Because Hashem created him just for YOU.  And because he loves you more than anyone ever will.  How many people can you say THAT about?

And the biggest, all-time dumbest reason not to make aliyah:

10. Concern about the noise of IAF flyovers. (I swear I am NOT making this up.)  I’m afraid I have no response.

I know there are people who will read this and think, “But I still don’t want to go.  I like Israel, but not as much as where I am living.”  Okay.  But let’s break it down a bit more.

For those who believe themselves bound to perform mitzvot, this is a biggie.  So big, in fact, that it’s the one exception to the laws against writing on Shabbat, allowing a Jew to instruct a non-Jew to write in order to purchase property in Israel.

Another blogger (I can’t remember which one; chime in if it was you, and give a link to your post) once wrote about why more people don’t make aliyah.  For every reason listed, she determined that fear was at the root of the reason.  This is compelling.  Even the excuse of inertia, for people who would like to come here to live but never seem to think it’s the right time, is a form of fear.  Some reason that their finances are not in order, or that the kids aren’t the right ages, or their career is just taking off.  These, when examined closely, often boil down to a type of fear.

The Cap’n and I took years to come to the decision to make aliyah.  We had many of the excuses others have, plus perhaps a few more.  But we also had a strong desire to live here.  It was only after a Kol Nidrei d’var Torah given by a friend that we reframed our thinking.  He defined timhon levav in the liturgy as refraining from doing that which one knows to be right because it is easier to stick to the status quo.  When we heard that, we realized that the time had come to look into aliyah seriously.  The following Yom Kippur, we were in Israel.

I need hardly say that Israel is special.  As I’ve said many times, Israel may not be the only place for Jews to live, but in my opinion, it is by far the best place for them to live.  Israel is by, for, and about the Jews.  Nowhere else is.  It is flawed in many ways, and one of the best ways I can think of to find solutions to those flaws is to have bright, principled, well-educated Western technocrats come and build, develop, and improve the country.

When I look at my life in the context of the rest of the world, I felt my existence in America to be very small and inconsequential.  Outside my immediate circle of friends and community, my life made very little difference at all.  Here, however, an individual can rise to make a tremendous difference, both to the country and to the Jewish world in general.  To be part of it is to be part of one of the greatest experiments in Jewish history.  The last time Jews returned to Israel in any numbers from an exile was the return from Babylon in 536 BCE.  Even then, after only 50 years of exile, people were comfortable, established, and totally unmotivated to return to the land where only a half-century earlier the Jews had wept to leave.  Now, after nearly 2000 years of some of the most dolorous years in Jewish history, and some of the most shameful years in human existence, to have this land to return to is (to my eyes) clearly the work of Hashem.  Some might smile and say “thank you” politely, but decline the gift.  To me, though, the right thing seems to me to accept the gift and cherish it.

It is true that coming as adults (as opposed to kids, or young singles), we are limited in some ways in our ability to fully integrate as Israelis.  I can converse in the language, but have few Israeli friends.  But I have a wonderful English-speaking community which feels blessed to live here, and I feel very much a part of society here despite my own limitations.  Our children, however, are one of the main reasons we came here to live, and they feel very much Israeli.  While we are instilling in them the manners and values of Western society, they are fluent in Hebrew, have Israeli friends, and have few memories of America.  They will be the first generation of true Israelis in the family.

Like the old man who planted a carob tree knowing he would not live to see it bear fruit, we have brought our children here to bloom in their own lifetimes.

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A little rhyme popped into my head when I read the headline in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post which quoted Obama as saying, “I misjudged the will for peace.”  (Read with a broad Boston accent.)

Look at Obama sitting in his cawnuh

Eating his humble pie.

“Had they not been intractible

Or I so impractical

Peace mightn’t be pie in the sky.”

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Kiddush Hashem

We are blessed in our neighborhood to have many wonderful rabbis and the opportunity to hear them teach regularly on Shabbat mornings at an English language shiur after davening.  One of our regular speakers, Rav Binny Freedman, spoke yesterday about yitziat Mitzrayim (the exodus from Egypt), kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name through deeds) and seizing the right moment.

He opened the shiur by dedicating the day’s learning to the memory of Yosef Goodman z”l, a son of Efrat who was killed in an army training accident in 2006.  During a low-flying parachute exercise, his parachute became entangled with that of his commander.  In a second or two (the drop is very rapid and chutes must be opened within a few seconds of the jump) Yosef recognized that either he or his commander had to cut loose and fall to save the other.  He pulled out his knife and, despite the desperate shouts of his commander not to do it, smiled up at his leader, and cut loose his parachute.

Recognizing that need to make a split second decision, not least because things are so dire, is at the root of many instances of kiddush Hashem.  Rav Binny points out that the moment at which Hashem chooses to take the Jews out of Egypt is not when they have done anything to merit it, but when they are at the absolute  nadir of their existence as a people.  There are the stories of the heroics of the midwives, and of Miriam scolding her father for signing up as a card-carrying member of Zero Population Growth, and of Pharaoh’s daughter rescuing an obviously Jewish Moshe from the Nile.  But the Jewish people, Rav Binny says, were at that time more Egyptian than the Egyptians, having lost nearly all sense of themselves as a distinct people.  And tradition says that despite all the signs and wonders created by Hashem to assert His existence and to punish Pharaoh for hardening his heart and refusing to let the Jewish people go, when Pharaoh finally gives in and allows the Jewish people to leave, only a fifth of them choose to do so.  (More on that another time.)  Those 20% seem to recognize that this is their window, and while they must undergo many hardships to bring themselves back up to a level worthy of being Hashem’s Chosen, they may not get another opportunity.

Despite the many hillulei Hashem (desecrations of God’s name) that go on in Israel these days, one kiddush Hashem that no one can deny is the work of the IDF field hospital that was sent to Haiti to aid the people there in the work of rescue and medical treatment.  There is a wonderful post on American Thinker about Israel’s “disproportionate response” to this disaster and the acts of chesed they’ve performed.  What’s particularly telling, though, is that Israel in this situation seems more like Lot in Sodom or Noach in the world–righteous perhaps mostly by comparison.  The larger, wealthier countries of the world have sent little or nothing, including the United States.  (Only this week, two weeks after the disaster, is a large hospital ship due to arrive from the US.)  So while the Israeli team may be working all hours and saving many lives, the number of lives that could have been saved had others acted better, and sooner, is staggering.  (It’s also important to remember, as Rav Binny points out, that when they return from the horrible sights, smells, and decisions they’ve had to make–whom to save, and whom to let die–these Israeli doctors, nurses, civil engineers, search and rescue teams are all going to need counseling for post-traumatic stress.)

We can’t control the forces of nature, or the many accidents or misfortunes that come our way.  But once they present themselves, how we respond–especially in the first seconds, hours, or days afterward–is what defines who we are, and either sanctifies (or fails to sanctify) Hashem’s name.

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Cleaning and nostalgia

Well, not really.

But I do remember the dean of faculty at my high school telling me (after learning that I’d sweated through the previous summer at McDonald’s for minimum wage) that whenever he saw restaurant experience on a teaching candidate’s resume, he was always favorably impressed.  He told me, this is someone who is used to being overworked and under-appreciated.

I was reminded of this not because I’m working in a restaurant right now, but because I actually think the cleaning profession rivals that of slinging chow for bone-crushing misery and thanklessness.  I gave the Crunch house the first good clean in a long time this morning, and as I had ample time for thinking (hands are occupied, but mind is free), I found myself recalling some of the more disgusting jobs I’ve done.

The one that takes the cake is the one I did two summers after McDonald’s.  For both summers I worked at Camp San Luis Obispo–not at all a summer camp, but a National Guard training facility.  Groups of Guardsmen would come through, check in, and go play war games in the hills each day.  Even the lowest grade of soldier was given the option of paying a little extra per day to have his bed made, floor swept, bathrooms cleaned, and ashtray dumped.  Ordinarily, this was a simple enough procedure.  Once my back muscles had gotten in gear from all the hovering over unmade beds and unscrubbed toilets, the work became fairly straightforward.  I had some great supervisors, especially the second summer (when there were fewer smokers on staff), including one who used to talk about “warshing the floor,” then “rinching out the rag,” and another who would guzzle down a case of Tab a day.  (Remember Tab?)  I learned one or two valuable skills, too, like when one of my coworkers, a burnt-out hippie named Tom, showed me for the first time in my life how to fold a fitted sheet.  (The Cap’n still can’t figure out how I do it.)

There were a few bad days, though.  Like the week each summer when one group would come through and invariably accuse us of stealing their stuff.  (That meant we were observed by a supervisor the whole time we did our chores, which slowed us down significantly.)  Or the day some wise guy decided to defecate in the shower.  When one of my co-workers found it, she was actually worried we’d be expected to clean it out.  Fortunately, our supervisor was as disgusted as we, and simply reported the incident.  Despite the fact that the toilets and sinks hadn’t been finished, she said, “Leave the rest of the bathroom undone.  See how the bastards like it.”  Or the time I picked up an ashtray, expecting to wipe it out, and saw someone’s Biblical “seed” swimming in it.  (Grossed out yet?  I sure was.)  My supervisor told me to throw if away and not give him another.

I don’t care for untidiness.  I like a good clean if it makes life more comfortable.  And it always amazes me when people don’t appreciate that from others who clean up after them.  The old Ethiopian man who swept the sidewalks in my neighborhood in Beit Shemesh (a thankless job if ever there was one) didn’t speak much Hebrew, but I think he understood enough to know I was thanking him when I would pass him on the street walking Peach to gan in the morning.

My favorite story, though, is about Rav Moshe Feinstein.  When he was in the hospital near the end of his life, he would chat with the Black woman who would come in every day to tidy his room and empty the trash.  He asked her about her family, her health, and was genuinely interested in her answers.  At his funeral, this woman stood outside the innermost circle, silently paying her respects.  The Yidn at the funeral were puzzled about what a Black woman would be doing at Rav Moshe’s funeral.  When some of them asked her what she was doing there, she told them about Rav Moshe and his kindness.  I hope they learned that one final lesson from Rav Moshe that day.  It may be the most important one they ever learn.

There have been a number of divrei Torah in the last year given by the rabbis in our neighborhood about the importance of hakarat hatov (showing gratitude).  Having been on the soapy side of the cleaning/cleaned-up-after relationship myself, I always try to thank those charged with the task of cleaning for my benefit, and to tip them when appropriate.

Because as we all know, cleanliness is next to godliness.

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To be a convert

It’s not easy to be a convert to Judaism.  If the slow, existential transformation one undergoes isn’t enough pain and drama, then the Beit Din is.  Or if the Beit Din is a pleasant bunch (I hear some are, actually), then the Jews themselves make up for it.

I haven’t had as rough a time as some.  My father is Jewish, though my mother tells me I look like her own sister.  (A blond New England Protestant.)  But in the American Jewish world, where European Ashkenazim reign supreme, pale skin and light brown hair fit right in.  On the other hand, if I were Persian, Moroccan, Ethiopian, Bnei Menashe, or Cochini, no doubt I’d be told, “Gee, you don’t look Jewish.”  Seriously!  An Ethiopian Israeli woman who lived in Crown Heights reports having been rejected by the Jewish community, but embraced by the goyish Black community.  How do you like them apples?   (Hey wait, King David was a redhead.  Was he Jewish enough?)

No one can deny that converts are an undisputed boon to the gene pool.  And Jewish law commands Jews to love the convert (which some Jews do particularly well by marrying some of us).  But no matter how accepted we may be in our new community, there are certain reminders converts get during the course of our existence that we haven’t grown up with this stuff.

One is to do with food.  For many Jews I know, it’s a mitzvah d’oraita to consume meat on Shabbat.  I don’t understand this.  I know meat was special, especially during the Middle Ages, but dairy can be special too.  Do you know what a potchkee making a classy Indian meal can be?  All that peeling, chopping, dicing, and measuring out spices—slapping a chicken on a pan and putting it in the oven is the work of a few minutes.  (Gee, I should remember that when I’m pressed for time.)  I came of age religiously in beautiful Newton, Massachusetts, where it was a little out of the ordinary to serve a dairy Mexican, Indian, or Italian meal on Shabbat.  But Newton is pretty cosmopolitan, with plenty of culinary adventurers in the community.  I pushed the envelope a little too far, though, when I made a gorgeous Indian spread for a friend and her frum, rabbinical New Jersey relatives on a Friday night.  I checked with my friend to make sure everyone could eat Indian and she assured me they would eat whatever was put in front of them.  Well, the wife was a little surprised, but ate the food politely.  The husband, on the other hand, didn’t venture past the challah.  I have never attempted anything that ambitious again for an all-Jewish guest list.

I also cook with sage.  I understand some Jews in England grow up on sage ’n’ onion stuffing, but in America, Jews cook with dill, not sage.  My mother-in-law, when she came for Thanksgiving one year, said, “You cook with sage?  But that’s such a goyish herb.”  Perhaps in some people’s minds, but I don’t think herbs affiliate officially with any religion.  I would never presume to pick up a jar of nigella in the grocery store, peer through the glass, and ask, “Pardon me for asking, but are you Jewish?”

Aside from culinary Judaism, converts may have a fresh take on attire.  I grew up wearing pants and shirts to school.  (In fact, in 9th grade, I wore denim jeans every single day.)  It’s a little odd to me, helping my daughters put together outfits that involve shirts, leggings or pants, and skirts or dresses over them.  I think I owned five skirts my entire childhood, and maybe four dresses.  Where there was no Shabbat, there were no Shabbat clothes.  The dress my mother bought me (which matched my sister’s) to wear for my brother’s bar mitzvah (don’t ask) was the first dress I’d owned in years, and the last for many more.  Now I find myself having to be cognizant all the time of making sure my girls look sufficiently feminine to get past the tzniut police at school, but still able to run or climb a jungle gym without their skivvies showing.  It’s all too weird to me.

Kol isha is another one.  In secular American culture, what Disney princess doesn’t sing?  Or female lead in a show?  Or kid with a solo in the Christmas concert?  Davka, it’s the women who sing more than the men in secular American society.  (Boys would redden and mouth the words rather than be caught doing something as girly as singing.)  Even someone who spends time in a non-Orthodox shul has to be confused by this, since a good number of their cantors nowadays are women.  The more liberal frummies pair up women singers or combine them with men.  I still can’t stop asking, “Who cares?”

In my experience, married converts are expected to cover their hair.  I’ve written plenty on this subject already (here and here).  In short, in my former community, the only women who covered their hair during the week were a handful of women from out of town, and converts.  As I have written, I gave it the old college try, but in the end that particular madrega was not a comfortable perch for me.

The dunk in the mikvah (“Today I am a doughnut” was the subject line on my announcement to friends) was not the end of the process of becoming Jewish.  Just as I find myself clinging to much of the Weltanschauung I was raised with, I also find the absorption of my yiddishe neshama (Jewish soul) to be a gradual one.  Where frum-from-births ingest the Jewish holidays with their mothers’ milk, I find myself slowly, year by year, working out my thoughts about each one.  Pesach has always had a strong hold on me.  Shavuot appeals to me as a convert, and Chanukah as a Zionist.  But Purim, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and the rest are still works in progress.  Year after year, I read about them, ask friends about how they relate to them, and slowly find a way to fit them into my spiritual cosmos.  And I’m not the only convert I know to shake my head during the lulav parade at Sukkot and say, “I can’t believe I’m doing this!”

I’m sure it was a relief to my parents when I remained someone they could recognize after all this “Orthodox mishegosn” (as my father called it).  Contrary to their fears, I did not drift away, cease contact with them, or stop eating in their house.  I think I’m very much what I once was, with some major and some minor changes.  Judaism has added the richness of community, wisdom, life cycle events, and important character development to my life.  And it has taken away some of the loneliness and isolation I have felt in the past, and directed my search for meaning in a way that has borne unexpected fruit.  As difficult as it is sometimes (and sometimes I imagine what it would be like to live in a seaside Tel Aviv apartment and eat cobb salad and pepperoni pizza), I wouldn’t really want to go back.  And slow as it is to settle in, I have my whole life.

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Whenever the Cap’n and I go to a mall, one of the stops we always make is to a Steimatzky’s book shop.  The Cap’n likes to see what sci fi books are out in English (or Hebrew) that he hasn’t read yet, and I usually wander over the rest of the English language book section.  The part that always depresses me, though, are the several shelves dedicated to Middle East peace.

It’s usually three or four shelves full of books describing the baby steps, the photo-ops, the missed opportunities, and the myth-making that have gotten in the way.  When people talk about the many successes Israel has enjoyed in its young existence as a state, one of them is the publishing industry.  Israel publishes 6,866 books per year, compared to 3,686 in Lebanon, 2,215 in Egypt, 1,800 in Syria, and 511 in Jordan (based on this Wikipedia page.)  But of those books published, I sometimes wonder how many are about the failed peace process.   It seems that many more people have cashed in on the lack of peace here than have gotten their hands dirty trying to make some.

My father recently sent me the syllabus of a Williams College professor who teaches a seminar on “historical narratives of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”  His books include such reads as Hillel Cohen’s Army of Shadows which claims to document the collaboration and exploitation of Arabs who sympathized with the Zionist cause, Ilan Pappé’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Sa’di and Abu-Lughod’s Nakba, and Yael Zerubavel’s Recovered Roots, about how Israelis have taken the historical events of Masada, the Bar Kochba rebellion, and Tel Hai and transformed them from bloody defeats into heroic national narratives.  In other words, this course is dedicated to a “they said, they said” version of events (which at best, in the end, suggests they’re both employing myths, lies, and half-truths to serve their own interests).  Texts appear chosen for their polemical value on both sides (with Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel pitted against Rashid Khalidi’s The Iron Cage) and are no doubt intended to “spark discussion.”  (This rationale, it should be noted, also contributed to Jimmy Carter’s insistence, despite others’ efforts to discourage him, on giving his recent libel the title Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.)

As I wrote my father, I am deeply concerned about the sort of discussion that is likely to take place after reading texts that shed plenty of heat, but no light, on something as complex as the conflict here.  I’ve written before that anyone who seeks to understand the Middle East would do well to read fact-filled, coolly written books and articles in order to understand not only the claims made by the combatants, but also the events and deeds they neglect to mention when making their cases.  I like to think that higher education is in the service of teaching people to think, research, get the facts, and love and pursue truth.  Taking a class like the one at Williams does none of those things, and at a cost of  $39,250 per year (excluding room, board, and fees) is a colossal waste of money.

And like that Williams professor and his syllabus, all the books like the ones on the shelves at Steimatzky’s, and the journalists and professors who write them, seem more interested in rehashing the same tired claims, repeating the same old myths, rather than putting forward any new information.  Professor Shlomo Sand has made waves recently in his book, The Invention of the Jewish People, by recycling the old, long-discredited claim that all the Jews are descended from the Khazars, and therefore have no historical claim to this land.  Academics Ilan Pappé and Neve Gordon both traveled abroad to encourage academics in America and Britain to boycott Israel.  And Haaretz’s editor, David Landau, told former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Israel “wanted to be raped.”  With media moguls and professors like these, I’m reading the Jerusalem Post and sending my kids to NYU!  (Not Columbia, which employed the great mythmaker Edward Said until his death and invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to speak.)

I will still go to Steimatzky’s with the Cap’n, but in future  I’ll stick to the sci fi.  At least there, there’s always something new under the sun.

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