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Ten Months in a Madhouse

On the 23 of August I hopped on a plane in search of self, and study of “the enigmatic seminary girl amid her natural habitat.” Did I assume I had enough courage to undergo the tribulation my mission called for? Could I don features of religiosity like Chanel’s little black jacket; in such sangfroid  that I could  circumvent Rabbi’s and live among  Frummies without  authorities discovering I was only an aspiring Frenchwoman  with a boisterous brown mane, just observing to “take notes”?

Having Obama in mind I answered “yes, oui, כן (ken)!” I supposed I could. I had some faith in my acting skills and thought sacrosanctity could be assumed long enough to complete my task. Could I pass ten months in a West Bank Jewish nunnery? I said I could and I would—and I think I did.

After opening the unexpected email of admittance, I rushed to practice the part in which I was to make my debut the following day. What a difficult task, I thought, to appear before a crowd and convince them that I was a Dosi. I was already unaccepted to one institution because of an uncovered photo of myself with scantily clad arms—I was not about to invite déjà vu. I began to think my task a hopeless one, but it had to be done. So I flew to the mirror and examined my face.

“I am afraid of that wily smile of yours,” quipped my Orthodox friend. “I will smile no more,” I said imprisoning a grin in order to embark on my delicate and, as I found out, ensnaring mission. I was bent on looking at my condition through unsympathetic glasses. It’s just as well to take a last “fond look,” I mused, for who could tell how the strain of playing pious , and being shut up with a crowd of Semgirls eating peanut butter and the Bible, might turn my own brain, and I would never get it back. But not once did I think of eschewing my mission. On the following sweltering August day, I French braided my hair in two, threw on my longest black skirt, my mother’s high collared linen blouse and navy J.Crew cardigan. Far more covered then any of my peers taking group flight, I looked like a gentle little school girl who should have been accompanied by a succoring adult.

Beish Yachov chic

Beish Yachov chic at the airport

I had little confidence in my capacity to deceive the religious experts, and I think my prudent friend had less. Nonetheless, from the moment I entered the settlement, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of piety. I purported and prodded as I do in ordinary life.

Calmly, outwardly at least, I went out to my cockeyed business.

As a fashion habitué, my initial observations were topical at best: I noticed how all Semgirls sported snug Hard Tail skirts with fitted chambrays. How the Anglo Jewess toted her iPhone in a kaleidoscopic LeSportsac cross- body and come Friday, how that small purse morphed before my eyes into a LeSportsac tote available in an even grander salad of prints. I analyzed what each sartorial decision indicated vis-à-vis group dynamics, conformity and economic status of the modern orthodox nymphet. It was only a matter of time before the curious anthropological case, turned into an addlepated excavation of my Dasein.

Semgirl on the prowl; a common activity for the species. Notice how the girls have identified their pray, and are about to attack the young male, under the pretext of “asking for directions”.

Semgirl on the prowl; a common activity for the species. Notice how the girls have identified their prey, and are about to attack the young male under the trite pretext of “asking for directions”.

Which one of these is not like the other? Notice how all are sporting the same American Appeal scrunched skirt and slight variations of a slouchy t-shirt and tennis shoes. Oh, and the answer is none—they are all the same.

Which one of these is not like the other? Notice how all are sporting the same American Appeal scrunched skirt paired with slight variations of a slouchy t-shirt, cross-body bag, and tennis shoes. Oh, and the answer is none—they are all the same.

I imagined myself as a sort of Nellie Bly. In 1887, Ms. Bly revolutionized journalism and most importantly treatment of the mentally ill, spending10 days at Bellevue Hospital while posing as a mental patient for a madhouse exposé. Sociologists, anthologists, psychologists, and all other “ists” call this method participant observation: data collection, where the researcher actually slips into the subjects shoes, taking on the studied role. While I am not calling seminary an asylum, the parallels subsist for your own musing pleasure.

All I had to compare to the Orthodox Jewish world were books. The Beit Midrash appeared to be the gateway to the Yeshiva world. The practices, the uniform, the thoughts were alien— I figured I could at least learn my way into this cerebral circus.

In Gush Etzion , darkness lands precociously. It dangles in the morning air like the sword of Damocles; then in the midafternoon a pewter blue vesper descends, and the Jerusalem stone houses and aluminum caravans bare a somber expression. Yet high atop a steep Judean hill, across from the passing shepherd with his flock, and contiguous to Beit Fa Jay jayFajjar, an elevated pentagonal roof accompanied by a great triangular window emanate hoards of light, shattering the fat darkness of moonless, starless nights. Through the first few weeks at Migdal Oz, a gossamer menace of assumptions, ignorance, and Lilliputians, startled me, drying my hands, grating my apprehensions, making me eat saccharine, budget halva disintegrating with human touch (the only kind  Migdal Oz provides) too often. I would pace to and fro; my palms gulped by the long sleeves of shirt a friend had lent me too fit in.

In my first night-learning period’s, which  leading up to Yom Kippur were all about atonement, I wanted to escape  and tread towards Efrat through the twilight in order to touch the twinkling Jerusalem lights, but each time I tried , I became entwined in some wild, vociferous Talmudic dispute drawing me back, as if with corroded chains, into my seat.

“Ben Azai answered ‘What can I do? My soul desires Torah! Others can make babies’ (Yevamos 63b).” Sing-sang Shira, my Chavruta.

“Who does this Azai guy think he is? Is that a valid pretext for pussyfooting the Cultural Mandate?  Following creation, God tells man to be fruitful and multiply— except for those who fall in love with texts?!” I roared at my Chavruta, struggling to match my tone and gesticulations to the notorious Talmudic melody.

Our Oz-like, green roofed seminary’s stream of glowing windows must have added our share of mortal mystery for the passing spectator in the dimming mountains. I was her too, watching the light and speculating. Was I walking up the wrong yellow road from the closest settlement of Efrat? Should I search for bricks? Was The Great and Powerful Oz really inside? Was that a flying monkey I spotted in the corpulent night?  Would I pull aside a curtain, revealing the Wizard to be an old illusionist who would only prove that the brainless Scarecrow, heartless Tinman and spiritless Lion, each had what he wanted all along; that all I needed was a pair of scintillating red stilettos to take me home? Entranced and disenchanted by a surfeit of information, I had one foot in, one foot out; at once I stood inside and outside the wonderful Beit Midrash of Migdal Oz.

Drawing her chair closer to my perspiring body, Shira released a torrent of warm breath justifying Ben Azai’s deviant conduct.

The following mornings, evenings, and afternoons in the Beis, I quaffed a Talmudic sugya, and one more, and one more, and one more, and one more, and just one more, until I became loudly intoxicated with knowledge, struggling to maintain my balance with an indifferent Gemarah glued to my hand. I was addicted. Talmud satisfied all my needs. She challenged me with legal battles, aphorisms, literature, philosophy, bible, questionable biology, math equations, sex advice, table manners, philological challenges, Persian history, and fashion tips. Nonetheless,  I was simultaneously  terrified by the truth she was left behind on each daf.

Sitting alone in a strange territory, far from my wardrobe, house, family and everyone I knew, a sensation waylaying, finally attacked. It was like remembering something I’d never known before or had always been waiting for— but I didn’t know what. Maybe it was something I’d overlooked or something I’ve been missing all my life. All I can say is that I felt, at the same time, pleasure and repulsion. But not too much pain, because I felt alive. That was the moment I fell in love with the Gmarah’s pages, and I felt the Gmarah fall in love with me.

But acting the part of a Dosi was one thing; becoming one was my biggest fear. I snubbed the thought of morphing into just another religious girl when I had no one at home encouraging me to trim my negatively free wings. At all costs, the investigator undergoing participant observation must circumvent ‘going native’: becoming a full-time group participant ruins the entire experiment. Thus, I had lots of fun comparing myself to the Tannaic scholar who’s “tongue was never tired of singing Greek songs” (Jerusalem TalmudMegillah 9), the sage who infamously thought his student R’Meir Torah while illicitly riding a horse on Shabbat (Hagigah 15b), the “Other one”—otherwise known as Elisha ben Avuya.

What they wore

What they wore

What we wore

What we wore

I had successfully dissected every theological statement, verse, concept, and precept into something psychological, tangible, human, not to mention, deprecatingly rational. Probing to such an extreme, I sucked the numinous, the whole Godliness out of religion. According to my philosophy, I could easily break down what the Talmud meant stating that God cried, that when one enjoys without blessing, he steals from “the assembly of Israel”, and that on Shabbat you cannot separate the unwanted bits in your salad from the wanted bits. I was left in Migdal Oz singing the Tinman’s “If I only had a soul, dudu dudu dudu.”

Maimonides teaches that we learn in order to know what God isn’t, in order to love God: “In proportion to one’s knowledge is his love of God.” I could finally speak the language of the Talmudic man, but so what? Drowning in pilpul, I forgot learning’s raison d’être— love.

Of course it took the other gender’s touch to wake me from my surreptitious slumber. “My god” was not “his God” and that could cause a problem when building a life together, because “we don’t live on Islands.” I was still barred from the Orthodox coterie. I knocked, pushed, pulled, and clouted those overbearing doors but no one would let me in.

That’s when like an uninvited guest, decision time had arrived. I could no longer play the part of the jaundiced spectator; the trial was over. I could leave the madhouse, or join the patients. A double life would leave me unhappy, confused and entangled in a plethora of possibilities. But thankfully Judaism is a religion rooted in action; salvation through faith alone is like saying “salvation through pork alone” to a Williamsburg Hasid. Members in the same synagogue may be reading the same prayer, bowing at the same time, and wrapping the same phylacteries, but what goes on in each person’s head is his own business. Belief is dubiously even a precept.

So I dived headfirst into the theological furnace, hoping to make it out alive—notwithstanding with a few valiant scars. The plan was that by acting like a religious woman, I would become a religious woman.

Weeks earlier a phalanx of students amassed in Sacher Park. Two commanders arrive on stage. Beats explode; debris blankets the ground beneath me; smoke shields the sky; shots scream from every direction. Instead of ducking for cover, the young polluted bodies convulse, bounce, pulsate, roll, grasp, and clasp. Enflaming, propulsive grunts and truculent synthetic rhythms put prospective doctors, lawyers and engineers at the mercy of the Infected Mushrooms. Music permeates the cracks between strangers, and I can almost feel the melody’s moisture in my ear, like a whisper from my neighbor’s lips. Whispers erase the masses leaving only my ear and his mouths condensation. Before my eyes, the whispers transformed the public affair into a private ear-to-ear.

My strongest sparks of human connection this year have been in moments like that concert, or sitting around with my Dosi peers on Friday nights singing after dinner. I found holiness in the absence of words, in the intellectual abyss, in the serene sea of song. In fact, the singsong tune accompanying Torah learning is sine qua non for the fullest study experience. In Judaism, the musical pronunciations associated with the cantillation marks used for ritual Torah reading are called Taamim— taste or reasons. The tune to which each words is sung reveals more than the limited word itself, they let you consume the idea, savoring each succulent note. If God created the world in ten sayings (Pir’kei Avot 5:1), then accordingly, the moments beyond words should allow us to surpass this world, letting man sneak a peek at the transcendental essence like a shaky Skype tryst between long-distance lovers.

The Negev hills are alive with the sound of Torah

The Negev hills are alive with the sound of Torah

At Migdal Oz I learned not to learn.  My obsession with knowing propelled me into a vortex of unbridled intellect. Flooded with cases in which the less erudite are appointed to higher positions than the experts, the Talmud proves that unlike my presumption, knowledge does not conquer all (Brachot 4,Rosh Hashaana 25,Horiot 14,Ktubot 103).In Brachot, the prophet Eili concedes to a legal point made by his student Samuel, but forewarns that one who renders a halachic decision in the presence of his teacher warrants death (5:35). If one can keep his intellect and ethics as tight a Hardtail skirt on a Semgirl— he will succeed. However, if the intellect overpasses ethical boundaries, damage will indubitably ensue.

Who am I to think I can acquire it all like a cheap Forever21 knock-off? The wisest King of Kings himself confessed that “all this I tested with wisdom; I said, ‘I will become wise,’ but it was far from me” (Ecclesiastes, 7).  Befuddled by this statement, many commentators purport that Solomon alludes to the paradoxical Red Heifer. How could the same substance purify the defiled while defiling the pure? If a golden cow defiled the nation at Sinai, how can a red one bring atonement? As a gilded man made construction, the Golden Calf represents a conviction of total comprehension, making the Red heifer the perfect tikkun (fix) as she is bewilderment incarnate.

Knowledge is a Red Heifer, a double edged sword. Its power can be used for defilement or purification. Taken to an extreme, and sans proper intentions my intellectual pursuits turned into a pernicious game.   Consuming every little morsel of information, gluttony overcame me, igniting an insatiable appetite bound to burst. It took a destructive romantic quake to save me, but now the reconstruction is up to me.

I came to Israel in costume, on a mission, and under the assumption that I would leave in a few months to spend the other half of my year studying French, piano, math, and “smart people stuff” in Paris or at my local community college. At the moment, I’m writing to you under a spoon chandelier (wondering if it comes in spork) from a cramped hipper-than-thou Jerusalem café, deciding if I should spend the next year here in the holy land. I came to prepare for college life and sharpen my mind through Talmud study, but all I gained was an ice coffee obsession, a nose ring, cheap second- hand treasures,  ugly-pretty Naots, war time nightmares, love stories I fear to repeat, newfangled values, and an oversize purse full of questions. Hope my closet back at home has space.

Israeyes

Israeyes

Oops We Wore it Again: Imitation as the Finest Form of Fashion?

“Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”

– Pablo Picasso

An artist knows that at  the very  moment he completes a sculpture, a painting,  a song, or a poem and lets it out into the vast abyss we call the world, his work is  immediately subject to criticism, approbation, and of course imitation. But when Monet released Water Lilies, I doubt the following is the type of reproduction he had in mind. Googling “Monet dress” led me to discover I had more in common with Gayle King, Diana Argon and a few other celebrities than expected. Turns out we all sported my graduation dress, the en plein air “Revisited Impressionist Dress” by Tracy Reese which was once available at Anthropologie for the relatively affordable price of $298.

Now that I’ve exhausted the attempt to establish what is fashion/beauty in my previous post I can speculatively say, this artistic frock seems to qualify, certainly passing Hume’s test of time. What other dress can be worn with dashing élan by me, a young orthodox Jewess, a 16 year old movie star, a 26 year old silver screen icon, and a news anchor on the cusp of the big 6-0? But as usual, the obvious question on all the editors’ glossed and augmented lips is –WHO WORE IT BEST?

Let’s approach this chronologically; this is fashion we’re talking about and despite the constant kerfuffle  it is supposed to be an orderly, beautiful discipline. June 4th 2012, I walk into the auditorium wearing the dress.  Black Steve Madden platforms— an extra six inches never hurt anyone—as well as the edge of a black JCrew studded belt provide the perfect foil to the ultra-feminine print and darting. And the well-chosen modest addition– say, a white long-sleeved undershirt— made the ensemble all the more seductive.

Next on June 18 of that same year, Caroline Sunshine stayed true to her name illuminating the faces of fans and photographers at the premiere of Brave. The 16 year old kept the look chic pairing the busy garden number with nude pumps and a complimenting pink minaudière, channeling the focus where it should be. Usually au natural makeup and hair in addition to simple accessories equates to BORING, but Sunshine made a smart choice as the dress is a chef-d’oeuvre in and of itself.

The very next day a Glee-full Dianna Argon stole the show at a Coach party in New York City adding high fashion to the high Line. Diana sported the dress with a black belt featuring a filigree buckle, blue and black ombre Coach Legacy sunglasses, a Coach Legacy Clutch, and glittering Miu Miu  Sandals, landing her a spot on oodles of best dressed lists. Has she forgotten that less is more?! That the wise Coco once said “before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off”? The dress’s grassy digital embankment, and painted girly garden print are already verging on an eye sore— the over accessorizing and filigreed belt do not do the fin de siecle Impressionists any justice.

As you all have eyes and a growing fashion sense from reading my posts, I’ll let you be the judge of the last two contenders; nonetheless, I must interject one point—boy does that bright print look great in contrast to Gayle King’s dark complexion, 10 points to the Oprah camp!

Entre Moigayleyoung and restless

Since this whole gap year thing has made me adopt an I think therefore I philosophize modus operandi I must ask – Is all this imitation eating away at the vehicle of individual expression known as fashion? Is the fifth times the charm when it comes to this sartorial masterpiece?

Being the good Semgirl that I am, I first turned towards the Bible for clarification. After a good scratch on the head and mental “control f” of all the midrashim, agadot, sugyot,mishnayot, and halachot I’ve encountered, “imitation” received a bright yellow highlight in a most unexpected context: God.

Imitatio Dei, man’s obligation to imitate God is a central doctrine stemming from the biblical account of the creation of man in the image of God, acknowledging a resemblance between man and his Creator. Yet man is to imitate God, not impersonate Him (Gen. 3:5). Biblical sources for the injunction, call man to walk this way: in the command to be holy as God is holy and to walk in God’s way (Lev. 19:2; Deut. 10:12, 11:22, 26:17). Man is to be God-like in his deeds, but not aspire to be God, differentiating the biblical notion from the pagan attempts to achieve apotheosis or absorption in the deity. Man is to imitate God in resting on Shabbat (Ex. 20:10–11); loving the little monster stranger (Deut. 10:18–19); and in other ethical moves. Surprisingly I’m not the only one mulling over the faux facet. In rabbinic literature Ḥama bar Ḥanina, expounds on the verse, “after the Lord your God you shall walk” (Deut. 13:5): “How can man walk after God? Is He not a consuming fire? What is meant is that man ought to walk after [imitate] the attributes of God. Just as the Lord clothes the naked, so you shall clothe the naked. Just as He visits the sick, so you shall visit the sick. Just as the Lord comforted the bereaved, so you shall also comfort the bereaved; just as He buried the dead, so you shall bury the dead” (Sotah: 14a).

Among medieval Jewish philosophers, Maimonides dealt most extensively with man’s copy rights when dealing with the ultimate Creator. The Spanish polymath enumerates “emulating God in His beneficent and righteous ways to the best of one’s ability” as part of the sacred commandments (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment 8). For Maimonides the commandment intertwines with his famed fetish for the middle way. In his Guide of the Perplexed, the philosopher stresses that the acquisition of academic knowledge, especially that of God, should be the goal of human life, but in the final chapter of the Guide he holds that such knowledge leads to the imitation of God:”Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving kindness, justice, and righteousness and thus to imitate the ways of God” (Guide, 3:54).

In contrast to paganism, Judaism propounds copying not counterfeit: we should walk in the way of God, not strive to be God. Similarly in fashion, counterfeit is certainly unacceptable, illegal, and a highly punishable crime, but the borrowing of ideas, concepts, techniques, is sine que non for fashion. By its very definition, the French for fashion –mode—is mathematically understood as “the value that appears most often in a set of data”. Essentially fashion favors frequency over function, ubiquity over uniqueness.

Musicians, filmmakers, painters, and even Lady Gaga are legally protected against copying, under the premise that leaving work up for grabs, translates into ‘au revoir innovation’. But despite the recent retail rivalries like the red sole lawsuit between shoe king Christian Louboutin and the father of le smoking suit YSL, to the shock of many, copyright laws barely protect the fashion field. Yes, some couturiers have lost sales to knockoffs, but design replication has not been a serious menace to the survival of the chicest. Au contraire, much of the development and ingenuity of the industry hinges upon imitation.

Why the exception oh fashion gods? Well, it seems to be a corollary of what an English playwright picked up on back when women still frolicked in farthingales. As Shakespeare said, “the fashion wears out more apparel than the man.” Meaning, most of us go shopping not to satisfy a need, but to quench the thirst of staying au currant, a la mode, and away from societal jeers.

Sans patent fetters (no not the patent leather kind), companies can modify a design as they please and join the bandwagon of a projected profit reaping style. Mix it all together and what do you get? The industry’s holy doctrine: the trend. Imitation produces trends and trends sell fashion. Each summer-spring, winter-fall, Ready-to – Wear, Couture ,Cruise or however many ways you can divide time and styles to maximize production, design houses “get inspired” by each other(I’m taking to you Dior, we notice how you seemed to forget in your advertisements and products that you’re not Chanel). Chanel summed up the cycle echoing Hume’s on aesthetics as follows, “fashion fades; style is eternal.” Trends become “hot”, “not”, then a relic of seasons past until they’re revived with the kiss of a handsome editor or somehow lucky enough to earn the coveted title “vintage.” We all know this circle of clothes, this wheel of fashion, but we often turn a blind smoky eye to the fuel behind this fire— the freedom to fake.

Despite a recent punch to some designers thanks to the recession, overall since World War II the American fashion industry enjoys solid progress; clothing businesses accrue over $300 billion a year, employing millions. Undoubtedly some designers suffer losses from copying, but increased copyright ‘protection’ would bring prices up, the creative cycle down and ultimately lead to the torpid ungainly death of the industry we all love to hate, hate to love, but fund anyways— fashion.

Out of Control or Instyle?

Has technology created monsters or an industry by the people for the people? Take a look at the mini-doc featuring Tim Blanks on the Fashion phenomenon brewing in the past decade.

What do you think about the ever growing burst of bloggers: coco or coocoo?

Sem Girl Wears: An insider’s look into the Long Year of Short Skirts

Meet your average seminary girl. Indigenous to Teaneck or New York, the sem girl migrates to Israel for a year in pursuit of edification, spirituality, Torah, conspicuous consumption, a husband and Aroma iced coffee. She can be found on Ben Yehuda Street or Emek Rifayim eating, asking for directions, catching up with camp friends, dodging the light rail, shopping, and did I mention eating? But not all Sem girls are created equal. While some breeds will focus on learning Chumash, Navi, or Hilchot Nashim, others will be perfecting the art of  getting ripped-off in  Mahane Yehuda, making a spectacle at karaoke, and going out for the perfect birthday dinner (then there are those audacious enough to open a Gemarah). While some girls will only sport the Hard Tail pencil skirt, others will settle for its more economical but déclassé Forever 21 counterpart.

When deciding to dedicate a year to learning in the Holy Land, I realized could not give up on my blog Coocooforcoco: thus, A Sem Girl Wears was born. In addition analyzing the great texts of the Ramabam and Solveitchick, this year I will be studying the enigmatic seminary girl in her natural habitat, through the lens of one of the most powerful forms of self-expression: fashion.

first sem girlsem girl 2

Confessions of a Fashion Intern Part Deux : Comment Te Dire Adieu?

The Farewell letter — a pain in the tuchus to write, an even greater pain to read.

We’ve all had our inboxes invaded cyclically by missives that merely get the job done. These letters cordially thank coworkers and supervisors, adumbrate upcoming plans (or the lack of), and invite us to all keep in touch. Nonetheless, once in a cobalt Chanel 2.55, we are graced with a gem that does a bit more.

With this in mind, at the end of my whirlwind of a tenure at Zac Posen, in lieu of a trite Bon Voyage, I felt compelled to share a few lessons learned, littered with inside jokes (so just laugh when something seems out of place).

Zac's confidant Coco Rocha makes quite the exit at the Spring/Summer 2013 show

Staying true to my promise to give you the “inside scoop” on what happens behind the seams, while maintaining unwavering professionalism, here are some considerations every intern should take to heart (for the one who still has hers intact).

1.Play hard (Work hard): Not many people like sitting at a desk, but if you sing a little opera, and hide some vodka in the freezer; you can easily get the job done – while still being able to roister at the Turtle Bay.

2.Life is better with an accent: Who does not love French-accent-Fridays, R getting on his inner sugar momma, and M’s charming southern accent?

3.Forgive and forget , always see the best in people: I probably should not remind you all, but I was the intern who by only her second day on the job, left her wallet, complete with the ZP credit card, in the taxi – after being booted out by the driver (fortuitously, all was returned the same night). Nevertheless, you looked beyond this early gaffe and continued to present me with riveting assignments.

4. Hydration is key: Be it Diet Dr. Pepper, green tea, or a medium iced coffee with half-and-half and two Splendas, find your signature drink that will help you get through the styling appointments, clothing pulls, painting projects, and plethora of interns.

Zac's love Tina Turner

5. Finally, fashion fades — only friends remain: In life one must build two great items: a multifarious wardrobe and genuine relationships. Effective networking is sine que non for success.

Zac with his loyal ladies Coco Rocha,Karolina Kurkova and Naomi Cambell

For those of us who can’t even muster up the standard email, here’s an alternative way to say goodbye by the beloved Francoise Hardy.

Spotted…After Hervé Léger

Photo by Eliora Katz

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