Back in 2008, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about new discoveries surrounding the holiday classic, Handel's "Messiah." Several months later, I followed it up with additional revelations. Given that 'tis its season yet again - it seems like a fine time to repeat the story, as just another of the many holiday traditions. Sort of like a very early, 18th century version of "The Grinch."
But have a glass of nog, as well. Fa la la...
Over the passage of years, we lose track of the conditions that existed when artworks were created. When those years become centuries, the history vanishes, and all that remains is the work itself.That is, until someone researches that history, and puts the piece in its original context.
And that brings up Handel's "Messiah."
By any standard, it's a brilliant piece of music, which has understandably lasted 250 years. Even to those who don't share its religious underpinning, the music is enthralling, and part of the celebration of the Christmas season.
Now comes this detailed, deeply-researched article in the New York Times by Michael Marissen.
"So 'Messiah' lovers may be surprised to learn that the work was meant not for Christmas but for Lent, and that the 'Hallelujah' chorus was designed not to honor the birth or resurrection of Jesus but to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in A.D. 70. For most Christians in Handel's day, this horrible event was construed as divine retribution on Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as God's promised Messiah."
Mr. Marissen does an impressive, scholarly and even-handed job uncovering the history of Handel's "Messiah." If anyone is interested in that history, do read the article. At the very least, read it before stating an opinion on it...
To be clear, this is not about political correctness. This is about correctness.
The truth, we are told, shall set us free. Either we go out of our way to learn the truth in our lives - and embrace it - or we bury our heads in the sand and listen to the sounds of gravel.
People will still listen to Handel's "Messiah" for centuries to come, whatever the reality behind it. The music is glorious. The words? Well, be honest, it's a fair bet that most people don't know exactly what's being sung about anyway - it's 2-1/2 hours, for goodness sake. Most fans wouldn't listen to "American Idol" for that long. People tend to tune out Handel's "Messiah" about six minutes in and let the music wash over them. When the "Hallelujah Chorus" is about to begin, they get nudged and sit up straight. And even at that, the only words most people know are "Hallelujah" and that it will "reign forever and ever." (Some people probably think it's about Noah's Ark.)
So, in some ways, the libretto of Handel's "Messiah" is not of critical importance 250 years after the fact. And that might be the biggest joke on Charles Jennens, who wrote the text and apparently saw the work as a way to confront what he believed was "a serious menace" in the world By having his friend Handel set his pointed tracts to music, Jennens felt that would help get his point across more subtly to the public. The result, of course, was that the spectacular music swamped over the words, and over time they took on a completely different meaning.
This is known as the Law of Unintended Consequences. Or also, be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.
Somewhere up in heaven, or more likely down in hell, Charles Jenniens has been pounding his head against a wall for the last couple hundred Christmases, screaming, "No, no, no! Don't you people get it?!! It's supposed to be about celebrating the destruction of heathen nations, not the embracing love of mankind. You people are so lame!"
And it gets worse, because starting the day after Christmas - until the next Christmas when Handel's "Messiah" starts playing again - Jennens berates himself all year, wondering if he screwed up his work and didn't make it clear. Like maybe he used too many metaphors, or commas. Or perhaps in Scene 6, when he wrote, "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron," he should have explained who "them" was or described a different bludgeon.
No doubt there will be some people aghast by the revelations (no matter how valid) about the writing of Handel's "Messiah." I also have no doubt that almost all those who are aghast have never sat through the 2-1/2 hour work. Nor that most of those ever paid attention to what the precise words actually were. But they will be aghast anyway.
On the other hand, most people who have sat and sat through a 2-1/2 hour performance of Handel's "Messiah" likely welcome having an excuse now not to have to do so again.
Mr. Marissen concludes his study with a thought on the subject.
"While still a timely, living masterpiece that may continue to bring spiritual and aesthetic sustenance to many music lovers, Christian or otherwise, 'Messiah' also appears to be very much a work of its own era. Listeners might do well to ponder exactly what it means when, in keeping with tradition, they stand during the 'Hallelujah' chorus."
And while singing along, they might want to add a "Hallelujah" for the truth, as well.
And that, I thought, was the end of the story. But it wasn't.
A few months later, while reading Volume 9 of Will and Ariel Durant's majestic Story of Civilization, entitled "The Age of Voltaire," I came upon their extensive discussion of Handel. After the passage on "The Messiah," the Durants continue on with the composer's life and eventually reach five years later, April of 1747, when Handel had hit hard times. Not only had he written a string of failures and needed to close his theater, but he went into a sort of retirement, and rumor passed that he may even gone insane, though perhaps it might have been mental exhaustion. (The Earl of Shaftesbury remarked, "Poor Handel looks a little better. I hope he will recover completely, though his mind has been entirely deranged.") However there was yet more to Handel - and to the story relating somewhat to the controversy today about "The Messiah." The Durants write --
"...Handel, now sixty years old, responded with all his powers to an invitation from the Prince of Wales to commemorate the victory of the Prince's younger brother, the Duke of Cumberland, over the Stuart forces at Culloden. Handel took as a symbolic subject Judas Maccabaeus' triumph (166-161 B.C.) over the Hellenizing schemes of Antiochus IV. The new oratorio was so well received (April 1, 1747) that it bore five repetitions in its first season. The Jews of London, grateful to see one of their national heroes so nobly celebrated, helped to swell the attendance, enabling Handel to present the oratorio forty times before his death. Grateful for this new support, he took most of his oratorio subjects henceforth from Jewish legend or history: Alexander Balus, Joshua, Susanna, Solomon and Jephtha. By contrast, Theodora, a Christian theme, drew so small an audience that Handel ruefully remarked, "There was room enough to dance."
No doubt, Charles Jennens, author of the text for "The Messiah," is spinning even faster and deeper in his grave. But quality does win out over time. And so does transcending decency. And that, perhaps, in part, and in the end, may well be what we're left with.
When looking to find the article yesterday that I had written for the Huffington Post, I came across yet another piece that struck a chord with our times today. It doesn’t go back as far as yesterday’s, but was nonetheless written long enough ago while Barack Obama was still president and the Republican Party had only gone partially insane before it began to reject reality.
The subject at hand at that time was Climate Change, and how Republicans were rejecting the science. And not only rejecting science, but doing so because it was incompatible with religion. Now, why in the world that should be a concern to a political party is the question of note – and fits in perfectly with yesterday’s article on how the GOP path to become a religious cult today was set in motion years ago and not something created by Trump.
But what leaped out even more in the old article – most especially today with the GOP near-total rejection of science even in the face of a worldwide pandemic, when you’d think rational people would embrace it all the more with gratitude -- was a larger point that has been totally lost by today’s Republican Party.
So, here then is that article written on September 29, 2015.
Science and Religion – Together Again!
Not long ago, I was reading a book, What Hath God Wrought, an epic, 850-page history about the transformation of the United States from 1815-1848. It won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2007, and is part of the acclaimed Oxford History of the United States series.
I mention this because the other day, I came across a passage that leaped out in the midst of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States and his addressing Climate Change. This was followed by a range of conservative voices outraged that the Pope would delve into matters of science, most notably GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush who said that the Pontiff’s words on Climate Change should be disregarded because “He’s not a scientist, he’s a religious leader.”
(Never mind that the Pope actually is a scientist, with a degree as a chemical technician. And never mind, too, that the Pope is also a head of state, as leader of the Vatican, which is a city/state, and has a council of scientists advising him.)
More to the point at hand is the division we’ve seen in the conservative perspective of distrusting, often even dismissing science as being almost an agent of the devil (I don’t exaggerate, more on that in a moment), instead of trusting the Bible when it comes to matters like Climate Change or evolution or women’s health. Which brings us back to the book at hand, What Hath God Wrought. Discussing Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph (whose first message was the words out of the Bible that serve as the book’s title), the author Daniel Walker Howe writes:
“Morse’s synthesis of science and religion represented the predominant American attitude of the time; only a few eccentrics believed there was any conflict between scientific and religious truth.”
So much for the whole concept of how life progresses and that we learn from the past. I guess not for everyone. This is the natural, expected result of what happens when you deny education, deny science, and retrench your foundation of knowledge, scholarship and reality purely on a system of faith. You regress, as the rest of the reality-based world passes you by. Accepted thought becomes what was once the domain of “eccentrics.”
On the other hand, when your education is based solely on what you believe, it makes passing tests in school so much easier. Unless your teacher believes in grading on a curve.
“Revelation and reason alike, Americans were confident,” Howe continues, “led to knowledge of God and His creation.”
Go figure. Back in the 19th century, in the midst of the greatest period of religious revivalism in U.S. history, Americans believed that education actually increased one’s understanding of the Bible. Not just did religious leaders accept science, but “Evangelists welcomed technological advances along with mass education,” he writes, because science helped them “spread the good news of Christ.”
Compare this to the religious Far Right of today who view the work of scientists as evil. Who want to push science out of the classroom, or at the very least obfuscate it with things like Creationism.
Compare this to when Scott Brown tried to pander to the religious Far Right and snarkily demeaned his then-Senate opponent Elizabeth Warren by continually referring to her as “Professor.”
Compare it to the pronouncements of people like Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) who actually serves on the Science Committee of the House of Representatives, saying – not that “Religious awakening, expansion of education, interest in science and technological progress all went hand in hand,” as Howe describes national and religious thought in the mid-19th century, but rather – “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.”
Life changes. Opinions change. Values change. But life is supposed to move forward. Otherwise we’d all be living life in reverse like Benjamin Button or Merlin. Starting with all our knowledge, and then forgetting it day-by-day, getting more stupid by the hour. Which is a theory that does appear to work for some people. But fortunately, not for Mankind.
What’s interesting is that long ago, the very opposite reality reigned. Back in 1615, the scientist Galileo was the eccentric, found guilty of heresy by the church’s Roman Inquisition for daring to suggest that the Earth revolved around the Sun, rather than the other way around. He was found guilty. Belief ruled the day. Two hundred years later, the reality of science was accepted, and it was only the “few eccentrics” who didn’t understand that science and religion were seeking the same thing – the truth.
Unfortunately, when some people intentionally pander to the worst instincts of others in order to stir up fear in a base to score political points, the result tends to be falling backwards towards ignorance – which is the very opposite of that whole “mass education” concept. But then, that’s what happens when one looks to politicians for religious and spiritual guidance.
You know, here’s one way I look at it – if God had intended Man to ignore the discoveries, teachings and advances of science, He would never have created scientists.
As we officially move past the midway point of Hanukkah, that's a good time for my annual tradition of my New Tale of Hanukkah, along with the tale behind it.
A New Tale for Hanukkah: The Legend Begins
Several years back, a mixed group of writer friends was discussing religion, when it veered off track a bit. "A bit" as in, someone whimsically bemoaned that Christmas got all the good colors, while Hanukkah was pretty much stuck with blue and white.
I'm guessing that this wasn't the kind of debates Spinoza or Moses Maimonides ever got into. Though you never know.
Another person decided to raise the holiday spirits, suggesting that since there was an actual, physical limit of primary colors in the world, and therefore nothing could be done about that at this point, perhaps instead a new fable could be created. A few days later, this second fellow and his wife came up with the Twin Dalmatians of Hanukkah, Pinkus and Mordechai. The pups scour the earth to bring hats of joy, filled with treats, to the children on the first night of Hanukkah. Pinkus, the cheerful one, would load them up with tasty goodies, while practical Mordechai with a bell on his collar would leave practical gifts, like slide-rules.
The benefits of this new legend were clear to see. For one, it meant that that you could add a whole new color scheme to the Hanukkah celebration palate for displays across the land and trimmings in stores everywhere - black and white, the Dalmatian decorations! And also, Pinkus and Mordechai "pug helpers" would prance throughout shopping centers to the joy and happy laughter of those with childhood in their hearts. And of course, when you're competing with Rudolph, Frosty, the Little Drummer Boy, Scrooge, Magi, Santa, and so many more, it never hurts to have as many fables as possible to pass down through the generations.
He and his wife wrote a few verses to show what he meant, and I thought an unfinished poem was no way to celebrate the season of holidays, and therefore completed it.
Like all good stories of the season, this one ends with a miracle. My friend went on to create a network TV series a few years later, and then another one for different network. So, it's good to know that poetry and warm spirit in his heart (along with a touch of lunacy in their heads) had such a positive impact on their lives. He also now has a reputation to protect and by request shall remain nameless.
Since 'tis the season, then 'tis appropriate to bring the story out of its dusty pages where it has annually passed from glowing face to glowing face of the few lucky children to hear it told, and when a few years back on the Huffington Post I presented the new fable to the world.
Okay, maybe there haven't been all that many glowing faces, and maybe it's halfway through Hanukkah this year (man, it came so early this year!!), but it's the holiday season and time of miracles, so anything's possible.
'Twas the night before Hanukkah,
And all through the shul,
Not a creature was stirring,
The meshpocheh was full
With latkes and brisket
And kugel and more.
Through the heads of the kinder
Spun dreidles galore.
But I in my yalmulka,
And she in her wig,
Settled down in our beds
With warm milk (but no pig).
When up on the roof
I heard such a bark
That I yelled "Oy, gevalt"
(To the goyim that's "Hark").
And I knew with a jingle,
Then a second great "woof,"
That jolly ol' Pinkus
Was up on our roof.
Though t'wasn't just Pinkus,
But Mordechai too,
The Hanukkah Puppies--
Those Dalmatian Jews.
So I sprang to my feet
And quick threw on a shmotta.
And I saw our kids' hats
Were now filled with a lotta:
Toys and candy from Pinkus
And from Mordechai, socks.
And for me and the Mrs.
Some bagels and lox.
The dogs silently worked,
As if studying Torah
(Though Pinkus got playful).
Mordechai lit the menorah.
Then straight up the chimney
Pinkus leapt from the floor.
Mordechai politely went out
the front door.
It's hard to explain
The joyous nakhes I felt
As I saw the Dalmatians
Go to hand out more gelt.
And I heard Pinkus bark,
"Kids can have all they want if."
"Happy Hanukkah," said Mordechai.
"And to all a Good Yontif."
As we finish Yom Kippur, which ends tonight at sundown, I thought I'd get this in under the wire. It's the song "Avinu Malkeinu" which comes at the very end of the service.
This was one of my mother's favorite songs for the High Holidays, and it's sung wonderfully here by 13 cantors from around the world. I find some of the visual editing a little distracting, but not the singing.
Avinu Malkeinu means "Our Father, Our King," and the prayer itself is basically one of supplication, while also asking God for compassion whether or not it's deserved. It can be recited throughout the year, though the prayer is an important part of 10 days of the High Holidays starting with Rosh Hashanah and notably sung at the end of the service atoning at the start of the new year.
Or something like that. There are many variations, and even verses, whose order I think maybe can even be flexible, and the different denominations handle it their own way.
Mississippi now has highest COVID per capita rate in the country. And how is the Magnolia State taking it all? Well, according to their Republican governor Tate Reeves, as he told an audience in Tennessee (a cynic might suggest that Reeves felt it safer to be in a state other than his own…), southerners are “a little less scared” of the coronavirus because of their religious faith.
No, I’m serious.
Gov. Reeves actually said, "When you believe in Eternal Life -- that living on this earth is but a blip on the screen then you don't have to be so scared of things," And then he added, just to be safe perhaps that he didn’t come across like a total lunatic,: "God also tells us to take necessary precautions."
Yes. Necessary precautions. Like vaccines and masks. And listening to doctors. And listening to experts. Necessary precautions like that.
By the way, left out of the Most Reverend Gov. Reeves sermon on Eternal Life and not being scared of the coronavirus is any mention of his Gulf Coast Mississippi faithful not being scared of Hurricane Ida. No doubt, though, he’s telling them that what with Eternal Life and that blip-on-Earth thing, it’s okay to not worry about the 160 MPH winds and storms and just go on as if it’s business as usual. Though, of course,, take those...well, necessary precautions.
Other necessary precautions that many people take, apparently because God thinks they’re good ideas –
Heavy winter coats.
Child safety seats.
Guard rails on bridges
Hepatitis A and B vaccines
Because, and this is just a guess, God doesn’t want people just relying on Him to protect them about everything, but having personal responsibility and social responsibility. So that people know not to jump off a skyscraper and think they’ll be fine because they have “religious faith.” Or not get out of a moving car on the highway and think they’ll be fine because they believe in God. That’s why God created “necessary precautions.”
And why God created doctors. And created vaccines.
But no, Tate Reeves – and remember, this is the elected Republican governor of the State of Mississippi, sworn to protect the people of his state. This is not your local pastor giving his flock the annual Easter sermon (though how many of those have we already seen die of COVID-19 after telling their parishioners not to take “necessary precautions” because if they believe in God, they’ll be safe) – the governor of Mississippi is saying that the people of his state are less afraid of the coronavirus because they have “religious faith.” Telling the people of his state that life on earth is just a “blip” – so, hey, why not take that leap off the building and enjoy the exhilaration of it until you hit the ground because it’s all just part of Eternal Life.
Mississippi has the highest COVID-19 per capita rate in the country. I’m going to make another pure guess that people in his state are a whole lot more scared that Gov. Reeves (R-MS) thinks. And if not, probably a whole lot more stupid.
Seriously, and this can’t be repeated enough, this is the Mississippi governor saying you’ll be safe from an infectious disease causing a worldwide pandemic if you only have religious faith.
This reminds me of the parable.
A man is in his house when a police car drives by and tells him that a flood is coming and he should take cover. The man says he believes in God and so he’ll be safe because God will protect him.
Later, the flood swells the area so deeply that it fills the streets, and a neighbor paddles by in a canoe. The neighbors says that the flood is rising, come in his canoe. But the man says he believes in God and so he’ll be safe because God will protect him.
The water gets so high that it’s filling his house, and the man has to get on his roof. A helicopter flies overhead and drops a rope. The pilot calls out that the flood is out of control, grab the rope, and they’ll fly off to shelter. However, the man says he believes in God and so he’ll be safe because God will protect him.
Eventually, the flood rises so much that the man drowns. When he’s in heaven, he goes to God and says, “God, I believe in you. I told everyone you would protect me. Why did you let me drown??” And God said, “I sent you a police car, a canoe and a helicopter. Why didn’t you get in any of them?!!”
The Very Reverand Tate Reeves, governor of Mississippi says he and the minions of his state have total faith in God protecting them because they believe in God and Eternal Life. What he and they are missing is that God has sent them doctors and vaccines and masks.
Why didn’t they all use any of those gifts from God??!
And just to show the whimsy of life – Eternal or otherwise -- it’s not Tate Reeves (with the highest per capita infection rate in the country as he relies on faith), but rather Gov. Gavin Newsom of California -- whose state is the only one in the union where infections are decreasing over the past 14 days -- who is the facing a recall election.
It turns out that God does indeed work in mysterious way. Though at the same time, He also tells us to take necessary precautions.
Like about the blip you elect governor.
In its article on an anti-Semitic ad from the Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) campaign, the article in The Raw Story twice references an apology. What I'd love is for Raw Story to point to where in the world the Perdue campaign "apologizes."
All the Perdue campaign says is it was a mistake and not intentional, The word or concept of "Sorry" doesn't exist.
Following on the footsteps of Congressman Ted Yoho (R-FL), I believe that this is a new phenomenon that my partner at the Apology Institute of America Nell Minow and I may have to hold a seminar on -- the press stating that someone has apologized who hasn't. Hey, at least Mr. Yoho *used* the word apology, even if inaccurately.
In fact, though the headline says that Perdue himself "apologized," not only was there no apology, as noted -- but the statement was released by a spokesperson who didn't even quote the senator, but just made a general comment about Perdue's record.
If you can find the "apology" in this, you will get credit towards entry into your fellowship program. Here's the statement --
“In the graphic design process handled by an outside vendor, the photo was resized and a filter was applied, which appears to have caused an unintentional error that distorted the image. Obviously, this was accidental, but to ensure there is absolutely no confusion, we have immediately removed the image from Facebook. Anybody who implies that this was anything other than an inadvertent error is intentionally misrepresenting Senator Perdue’s strong and consistent record of standing firmly against anti-Semitism and all forms of hate.”
Further, we look forward to a release of David Perdue's many strong condemnations of anti-Semitism...
Here's another song from Cantor Azi Schwartz, who I posted here the other day his joyous bat mitzvah version of the sacred prayer Adon Olam sung to the music of "You'll Be Back" from Hamilton. He is a lead cantor at Park Synagogue in New York.
This is his tribute to the Leonard Cohen on the Yahrzeit of his death. Though the music is Cohen's "Hallelujah," the words are Psalm 150 in Hebrew. He wrote for this video --
"The first Yahrzeit (anniversary of the passing) of Leonard Cohen, one of the greatest Jewish poet-songwriters of the 20th century, will be observed on November 7th 2017.
"As a tribute to his legacy, here is one of his most famous songs, Hallelujah, with the Hebrew lyrics of Psalm 150 which is recited daily in Jewish prayer.
"May the memory of Leonard Cohen be for an eternal blessing."
I don't care what your plans are for the rest of the day. Include "Watch this video" in them. You'll just feel better as you go about doing whatever else is on your schedule.
What we have here is a bat mitzvah service in temple for a young girl Zoe Cosgrove. As part of that service, the cantor Azi Schwartz sings Adon Olam, an important and sacred prayer in praise of God that's sung on the Sabbath and at many other services. A famous whimsy of the prayer is that the words are written in a meter that fits a great deal of other music and so it is occasionally sung to other tunes, including those of popular songs
Let me reiterate what I noted above -- I love this video.
And as good as it is, and as glorious a voice as Cantor Schwartz has, which gives this such warm, joy and texture, it's taken to another level by the surprise the young girl -- sorry, since this is her Bat Mitzvah, now young woman -- shows when she realizes what he's singing, and her utter joy through the whole prayer, with an ear-to-ear smiile throughout, and eventually singing along. Perhaps only topped by the two little girls who later start exuberantly dancing in the aisles.
I wouldn't be surprised if you all might want to join them.
I love this video, not just for the joy and fun of it, but for how touching and adorably moving it is, mixed all together, and sung so wonderfully..
Posting it now fits perfectly, as well, since -- as you can see by the title -- it's a piece of music from the stage musical Hamilton, which of course had its movie premiere last week. A big thanks to Adam Belanoff for sending this to me.
And stick around after for a fun sort-of bonus I've included after.
But first -- the bat mitzvah. And again, this is not a Hebrew translation of a song from Hamilton. This is the sacred Jewish prayer Adon Olam set to the music of a song from Hamilton.
If you look closely at the end as she leans over to Cantor Schwartz, the now young woman softly and joyfully mouths the words "Thank you so much." I can only imagine her joy.
The bonus is that here below is the English translation of Adon Olam -- alongside the Hebrew transliteration. (And the Hebrew itself, for those who can read it and want to show off.) So, crank up the video once again, and this time with the music playing and cantor singing in the background and all joining in, you can sing along, as well, and see that this is no Hebrew version of "I'll Be Back," but how the words of Adon Olam actually really truly do fit perfectly.
I didn't post this above, since it's best first to watch the thing itself, but this is a treat, on its own.
This video is very surprising – it’s funny and very touching at the same time. I had recorded James Corden’s show the other day and got around to watching it last night. I was fast-forwarding through to the guest I had wanted to see, when I noticed he was talking to his father by Skype, so I stopped to check it.
It turns out that Corden’s father Malcolm actually had sold Christian books and Bibles for his career, so he did a little video on the proper way to hold a Bible, rather than the awkward way Trump had handled it in front of the church as his PR photo op stunt. And though the video was done as a joke, you realized that Malcolm Corden was very serious about the different ways to hold a Bible depending on the situation. And he was great. But then the segment took a totally different turn that you could tell made James Corden wary because it was unexpected, but ended up absolutely wonderful.
I thought this would be a nice way to dive into the new year. On Monday, CNN re-ran an episode of Anderson Cooper 360 where he interviewed Stephen Colbert for a full hour. (Without commercials, it runs about 38 minutes.) It's really terrific, and it seemed right to repost here. It's smart, funny, geeky at times, insightful, and then for almost 20 minutes -- which they get into in large part because Cooper's mother Gloria Vanderbilt had passed away about two months before -- and they talk about grief. This is a subject that Colbert notably got into with Joe Biden, and it's just as interesting and moving here, but takes on its own dimension because of how raw the subject clearly is to Cooper. All in all, it was just really good conversation.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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