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"Now this is rich' she said as they approached their destination. "Here I am a Jew, and you're the one who wants to go to synagogue. Maybe you've got Marrano blood in you, Abel," Ariella quipped.
"You never know," Abel replied quietly.
Migrant Soul: The Story of an American Ger is the heartwarming tale of Abel and Ariella Gomes and their extraordinary, unrelenting search for truth.
TARGUM / FELDHEIM ISBN 0-944070-45-0
"Something's pulling me toward your religion. I can't explain it, but I feel I'd be ignoring destiny if I pretend it's not real. I feel like my soul has been sort of wandering and it can finally smell the smells of home."
When Abel Gomes, a dark-skinned descendant of full-blooded Mohawk and Narragansett Indians, makes up his mind to become a Jew, he has no idea of the complicated, winding path that lies before him. Raised Catholic, he has been mysteriously drawn to Judaism even as a teenager. By the time he decides to convert, he is married to an assimilated Jewish woman and his two daughters are enrolled in a Conservative day school.
Encounters with a Reform rabbi quickly convince him that there must be more to conversion than reading a few books and joining Jewish organizations. Instead, Abel becomes Ovadyah, a committed Conservative Jew, a gabbai in his synagogue, and something of a nuisance with his incessant questions and unrelenting distaste for hypocrisy.
Finally, Ovadyah and his wife, Ariella, who eventually joins him on his spiritual odyssey, meet an observant Jewish family. They soon realize that, far from being the insular and intolerant sect they had always believed it to be, Orthodoxy offers them the Jewish fulfillment they have sought for so long.
Migrant Soul is the true story of an endearing and unforgettable family. Like the Gomeses themselves, this account of their spiritual quest is frank, funny, and extraordinarily inspiring.
A TARGUM PRESS BOOK
I don't know how to adequately thank Ovadyah and Arietta Gomes for allowing me to intrude upon their lives. It was almost a year after I approached Ovadyah about this project that he finally acquiesced to it. It was not a decision he or his wife took lightly; they relented only because of the good I convinced them might come of this book.
While the bulk of the countless hours of interviews I conducted were spent with them, I owe a substantial debt of gratitude as well to all the others who agreed to interviews and shared their homes and recollections with me.
LMy deep thanks, too, to the entire staff of Targum Press for their encouragement, constructive criticism and efficiency, and especially to Tzvi Shapiro, my editor, for his always
Above all, though, my greatest debt in this project, as in so many things in my life, is to my wife, Gita. It was no easy task for her to juggle her many and constant responsibilities to our family and to others with serving as my proofreader and first editor. Her corrections (in life as well as in writing), suggestions and boundless encouragement have exemplified the sublime nature of a true eizer k'negdo.
A Message from the Publisher
When Ovadyah Gomes decided to become a Jew, he had no idea of how many halachic issues would arise. Critical questions dealing with the laws of conversion and family life were eventually posed by Ovadyah and his wife, Arietta, to recognized Torah authorities. The issues they faced, and the answers and guidance they received, are faithfully and sensitively recorded in Migrant Soul. The reader is cautioned, however, that these issues are complex and very often depend on individual circumstances. Therefore, this book cannot be used as a halachic guide. Any questions of this nature must be referred to a competent halachic authority.
A Note on Veracity
Migrant Soul is based on the lives of Ovadyah and Ariella Gomes, though those are not their real names.
While a modicum of imagination was employed in reconstructing the time, place and details of incidents and conversations, everything described here actually occurred.
Likewise, all the characters in Migrant Soul are based on real people, though most names have been changed. Certain characters, moreover, are composites of more than one individual, so no real person should be seen as the absolute model for any character herein, and any resemblance between a character in this book and any actual person, living or dead, should be regarded as coincidental.
Having been invited to the Rosens' for a Rosh HaShanah meal, my wife, Gita, and I knew we would not be their only guests. Ron and Dina Rosen always seemed to be hosting others in their home, near-strangers as likely as close friends. Themselves baalei teshuvah, or "returnees" to Jewish tradition — though having long since made the transition to a wholly Orthodox lifestyle — the Rosens were always especially anxious to share their lives with anyone they felt might benefit spiritually from seeing Jewish observance up close.
The New England city in which we lived at the time
As we strolled back from shul, Gita remarked, and I concurred, how nice it was that the Rosens had taken us and our five small children on for a meal. They had insisted we bring the entire family. And our suspicion that our hosts had not limited their guest list to our family for this holiday meal was confirmed soon enough.
Just as we reached their house, we saw the Rosens arriving from the city's other Orthodox minyan. With them were two adults and two nine-year-old twin girls. The twins were striking beyond the mere cuteness of pre-adolescent girls. There was a special, nebulous charm about them. The word "modest" came to mind, for they were unusually quiet and well-behaved and carried themselves like much older young ladies. But the word did no justice to their demeanor. Something else seemed to emanate from their endearing, entirely identical smiles. We smiled back, though our smiles were no match for theirs, and then looked up at their parents as Dina introduced us.
The mother was a stately, handsome woman who seemed in her middle thirties. She was fair-skinned, with determined, intelligent and penetrating eyes. Inches beneath them, a polite smile articulated the requisite pleasantries.
Her husband exuded what in Yiddish goes by the word "eidelkeit," an amalgam of nobility, kindness and grace. He, too, smiled — a wide, warm and irresistible smile. His features were pleasant and well-proportioned, and he wore a dark suit on his trim frame and a colored kippah on his head. He seemed about his wife's age (though he was, as we later found out, several years younger), and other than his milk-chocolate complexion and subtly exotic features, there was nothing outwardly remarkable about the man who had just wished us "Gut Yomtov" and was introduced as Ovadyah Gomes.
His wife's name was Ariella, and the girls were identified as Ruth and Daphna.
Ron, to whom openness was a high ideal, continued his introduction with the observation that Ovadyah belonged to Beth Am, the largest Conservative congregation in the city, and that he had not been born Jewish, but had been converted by that synagogue's rabbi, Franklin J. Shoman. Implicit in Ron's words was the fact that Ovadyah's conversion was, to Orthodox Jews like Ron, Dina, Gita and me, no conversion at all.
As it happened, Ovadyah himself was well aware of that fact, as I suspected even then and very soon confirmed. Indeed, within hours, I would learn that not only was this dark-skinned man aware of his status in Orthodoxy, but he bore nothing in common with the all-too-typical Conservative or Reform convert. This was no gentile fiance seeking acceptance from prospective Jewish in-laws, no armchair Judeophile casually seeking to add affiliation to affection. Ovadyah was something entirely different, and he acknowledged the addendum to his introduction with quiet comprehension in his eyes and a grace I would come to know well in his smile.
Jewish or not, he was a pleasure to meet.
The meal was lovely, the unbroken rule for meals at the Rosens', and our conversation spanned a wide range of topics. The meaning of Rosh HaShanah occupied us at the outset; we discussed the idea of temporal "beginnings" in Judaism, and how they so potently determine the character of what follows. We spoke about the problems and joys of raising children, as our own and the Gomeses' joined the Rosens' and together transformed the adjacent living-room area into a playroom carpeted with toys. But what we spoke of most was the "pluralistic" state °f the modern Jewish experience.
Ovadyah and Ariella were full of questions — and good ones.
"Why does Orthodoxy claim the only authentic interpretation of Jewish law? Isn't the Talmud full of differing approaches to all sorts of legal issues?" Ariella asked, starting the pinball rolling.
"Well, there's actually a fundamental difference," I began, hoping I wouldn't lose these endearing new friends so soon. "The very bedrock of the Talmudic system is the Divinity of Torah as given at Sinai in the ultimate revelation of God to man. The Talmudic rabbis argued not over what they felt the law should be, but over what God's will is for us. The Conservative movement doesn't even insist on a belief in the Sinaic revelation, much less an ultimate concern for its demands on us."
"But it does," injected Ovadyah. "It claims no less a concern with tradition than Orthodoxy does. It has a halachic process, complete with scholars who consult the traditional texts when deciding legal questions."
"Does it really, though?" I interrupted. "Is the Conservative movement really concerned with what the Torah wants from us, or with what it wants from the Torah? Is its 'halachic process' an objective, honest one, or a sham? I'll tell you one thing, it's as predictable as fireworks on the Fourth of July."
"What do you mean?"
One of my many faults is trying to claim more than my proper allotment in conversation, which is, after all, supposed to be a two-sided business. Unfortunately for our new acquaintances, I wasn't out of character that afternoon.
"Let me tell you a true story about my teacher and mentor, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, may he live and be well, who is a prophet."
Puzzled looks all around, as I had expected.
"In the mid-'70s, Rabbi Weinberg predicted that the president of the Mormon Church would soon receive a 'Divine' directive to abolish the ban on black priests. He claimed that, without a doubt, the Elder would hear from 'Above' that blacks were now welcome in the priesthood. And in 1978, that's exactly what happened. Spencer Kimball heard from 'God' that the previously "accursed' race was suddenly in every way acceptable."
What Rabbi Weinberg was saying, I explained, was that religions which are essentially opportunistic will be embarrassingly predictable when it comes to their legal rulings. Nearly two decades of successful struggle for civil rights was a fact the Mormons simply could not ignore. They suddenly found their religion hopelessly outdated and, in the emerging public mind, quite ugly. The only solution was for their god to "change his mind," which was, conveniently, just what happened.
'The picture is not terribly different," I continued, "when you look at the Conservative record. When, for example, the agitation for what our society calls 'equality' for women became unbearable, the Conservative leadership resolved not to be left 'behind the times,' lest it erode the movement's entire attraction. Instead, it allowed women to play roles that Halachah has always clearly considered those of men alone. The 'halachic' justification, such as it was, came only afterward, as a way of legitimizing what had all along been a foregone conclusion. That's not man seeking God's will; that's man using God to further his own."
Another of my faults, one no less evident that afternoon, is pontificating. The Gomeses were generous, though; they ignored any excesses of mine and seemed concerned only with the argument at hand.
"Do you mean to say," Ovadyah asked quietly, without the slightest hint of offense at my soliloquy, "that Orthodoxy doesn't take the social milieu into account? That the realities of the modern world are of no concern to Halachah?"
I took a deep breath. These people, bless 'em, weren't interested in the usual line-drawing in the sand; they actually wanted to understand.
I proceeded to describe the subtle but critical difference -en factoring reality into a halachic equation, and seeing Halachah as a mere game to be played before granting automatic legitimacy to every passing societal fancy. The first approach was "God-centered"; the second, "man-centered."
Ariella asked, earnestly and without defensiveness, why Orthodoxy wouldn't recognize a Conservative conversion that included all the requisite halachic elements. At this point, I was forced to introduce the subject of standards for witnesses, a decisive factor in, among many other things, the halachah of conversion.
"Can affiliates of a movement that does not even demand acceptance of the millennia-old bases of Judaism actually be considered candidates for the role of 'witness,' a role with clear and stringent requirements, including full acceptance of Jewish belief?"
That led us into a digression about exactly what constitutes Jewish belief, and about the historicity of the revelation at Sinai and the immutability of the halachic process.
Then Ovadyah posed the next thoughtful question.
"Well, what about a Conservative rabbi and Conservative witnesses who have accepted all that Orthodoxy considers fundamental to Jewish belief? Would their conversion procedure be accepted by Orthodoxy?"
I think I danced around that complex question by raising a different but equally critical one: the question of the potential convert's acceptance of the entirety of Jewish law. Since such acceptance is a clear requirement of the conversion process according to Orthodoxy, could a candidate for conversion whose idea of Judaism is something other than the traditional one be considered to have accepted, even in principle, the demands of Judaism?
The discussion continued in that direction and everyone contributed to the calm but determined dialectic.
Though Dina is a superb cook, I have not the slightest recollection of what we ate.
The children eventually became restless, and while neither of the Rosens had indicated anything of the sort, I felt we had imposed on their graciousness quite enough for one afternoon. So Gita and I gathered up our family and bid everyone a happy holiday and a year of blessing.
Only as we walked home did we realize how intense the discussion had been and how exhausted we both were. When we reached our house, we put the smaller children to bed for a nap and sent the others into the yard to play. Gita relaxed on the couch and I fell into the recliner.
We weren't home more than a half-hour when a knock on the front door announced a visitor.
I got up, opened the door, and was momentarily disoriented to see Ovadyah and Ariella before me. Their daughters had joined our children in the yard and Ovadyah, still smiling, still intent, spoke.
"Could you re-explain the Kuzari's argument for the acceptance of Sinai as a historical fact?"
I had certainly suspected as much before, but at that moment I knew without a doubt that these were very, very special people.
This, for the benefit of all who have not been privileged to know them, is their story.
Divine ProvidenceThe fifteenth century on the Iberian peninsula was a time of explosive discovery. No longer shackled by the weighty chains of the human imagination, distant lands were, for the first time, described by men who had actually seen and touched them.
The pioneering navigational power was the kingdom of Portugal. Inspired at first by Prince Henry, who had earned the epithet "The Navigator," and later by King John II, Portuguese explorers laid claim to the coastal areas of Africa, India and the Malay peninsula, eventually dominating sea routes as far away as the South China Sea. When Spain entered the realm of nautical empire-building, the Portuguese, sensing the need to keep things orderly, negotiated the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, dividing the world between the two powers with an imaginary longitudinal line far off the west coast of Africa. All lands discovered to the west of the meridian would belong to Spain, and all those to the east, to Portugal.
Traveling east from that imaginary line in the Atlantic Ocean, one approaches Africa. But the first dry land one encoun-rs is' a group of islands about four hundred miles west of modern-day Senegal. These uninhabited islands were named for the verdant African promontory that lay east, in Portuguese Capo Verde. They are still known today as the Cape Verde Islands.
The islands quickly became a supply station for ships and a transit point for the Atlantic slave trade. As Portuguese nationals settled the area, refugees from countless foreign lands washed up on the newly discovered shores, and the population of the Cape Verde Islands began to acquire the racial variety it exhibits to this day.
Toward the end of the Portuguese and Spanish expansion of the civilized world, yet another voyager set off from the Iberian peninsula. This Genoese sailor went west, the opposite direction of the ships that had discovered the Cape Verde Islands and Africa beyond. Interestingly, his ship's log begins with a reference to an edict evicting professed Jews from the land that receded behind him. It read, in part:
In the same month in which their Majesties issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the Indies.
Cristoforo Colombo, to us Christopher Columbus, penned those words as he set out to introduce his native continent to yet arther and unimagined shores, to a land that came to be known as the New World, the Americas.
He set sail the day after Tishah B'Av, the national Jews'1 day of mourning. According to Jewish tradition, Tishah B'Av nurtures the seeds of Jewish redemption, too, and the lands
The first large migration to America, following the establishment of various French and Spanish outposts and settlements, took place in 1630, when English Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Similar colonies sprung up in what are today Connecticut and Rhode Island.
The settlers viewed the Native Americans they found in the land with curiosity, fear and a healthy measure of chauvinism. Among the first Europeans to lay eyes on the Narragansetts, one of the major Algonquian tribes, was the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verazzano, who, in the early 1500s, called them "the finest-looking tribe and the handsomest...that we have found in our voyage."
Once the Puritans had settled New England, however, it wasn't long before the Narragansetts and their Wampanoag neighbors found themselves embroiled in a life-and-death struggle with those they perceived — with every justification — as invaders.
The settlers regarded the native tribes, with equal justification, as heathens. (The Narragansetts informed Roger Williams, the famous British-born clergyman, that they worshipped no fewer than thirty-seven "principal gods.") Unfortunately for the Narragansetts, their pagan status inspired the settlers to massacre them with much the same relish their forebears had displayed centuries earlier during the Crusades in the Old World. The savagery of the Puritan attacks on the natives they themselves called "savages" would scarcely be believable had the settlers not punctiliously and triumphantly recorded them. They saw it as their Christian duty to root out the "godless Indians" and went about their work with efficient determination.
By the end of the 1670s, the Narragansett tribe had been decimated from as many as 5,000 people to fewer than 600.
In Jewish mystical thought, the dispersion of the Jewish people after the destruction of the Second Temple was no mere punishment; it was — and is — an opportunity, too, not only to appreciate the specialness of our own land, but to grow from the experience of living among other peoples, to set an example of holiness for the world, and, perhaps most important, to attract non-Jews to Judaism. For while Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, and while it accepts moral gentiles as they are, it does allow converts. According to Jewish tradition, there are "migrant" Jewish souls trapped in far-flung lands, "sparks" long lost and adrift in the farthest reaches of human habitation. Before the era of the Messiah, when humanity will unite in homage to God, those stray sparks will blaze their way to their rightful place and rejoin the Jewish people.
While the explorations of the fifteenth century stretched the horizons of European commerce and knowledge of the world, they also expanded the Jewish people's diaspora, and with it the Jewish purpose. Places where the word "Jew" had never been heard became places of Jewish settlement. And peoples who had lived literally worlds apart came to meet, marry and even provide, in their offspring, novel repositories for migrant Jewish souls.
During the first half of this century, in a small New England town, there lived a family known as the Firmans, defendants of the seventeenth-century Narragansett tribe. Some ambers of the clan still regarded themselves as Indian to the re, often participating in tribal reunions and powwows. Others e less passionate about their roots, though proud of them netheless. Donald Firman was one of the former and his sister Martha, one of the latter.
In 1943, when Martha met and married George Gomes, a man whose family had immigrated to North America several years earlier from Brava, a Cape Verdean island whose population's deep, tangled roots wound back to Africa and Portugal, it was a marriage made in heaven.
hey worked at the same textile mill, Martha as a spinner, George as a dyer. When a mutual friend introduced them, she was immediately struck by his crazily multicolored shirt — the product of the work he did all day — and by the swarthy, handsome face that smiled above its polychromatic collar. For his part, he was drawn to her shyness. There was something noble about her, something pure and special that he found hard to articulate but equally hard to ignore.
Whenever he passed his new acquaintance at the mill,
2 smiled and wished her "Good morning" or "Good after-
)on." His politeness proved a good investment: when he finally
asked her for a date, her shyness didn't keep her from eagerly
Within a year, they were married.
George's mother came from Iberian stock and was born the Cape Verdean island of Brava. When her captain husband
perished at sea, she married the Portuguese bearer of the sad news. John Gomes brought his new wife to America in 1916, and the following year George was born.
Martha's father was a Mohawk Indian who had embraced Catholicism. Her mother was a full-blooded Narragansett descended from ancestral chiefs, and though she, too, had adopted Christianity and regularly attended a Baptist church, she took pains to maintain her tribal ties. She dutifully took her children, Martha and Donald, to the yearly powwow, at which members of the tribe would gather on their ancestral land and perform or watch ceremonial dances and prayers. Donald was deeply moved by the powwows, though his mother and sister saw them more as family reunions than religious rites.
George Gomes worked two jobs to support his wife and their seven children.
Abel was their fourth child and his parents often noted how different he was from his siblings, how he never needed scolding. Martha took particular pride in her son's politeness and consideration for others; Abel was studious, serious and bright.
His parents' only complaint was that Abel seldom joined in any family fun, such as watching sitcoms together. He never acted with condescension, though, and his family never doubted his love for them. He simply had other things to do, like studying and reading. The closest he got to recreation was indulging his interest and talent in music. He learned to play various wind instruments and practiced religiously, finally settling on the flute. Snatches of soulful melodies would drift into the family room and weave their way through the tangle of prerecorded laughter.
But nobody minded; Abel was Abel. What he lacked in shared interests, he more than made up for with his equanimity/ industriousness, honesty and clear, logical mind.
Unlike most of his peers, Abel did not smoke. One biol-class display of a smoker's lung had been enough to dissuade him. He seemed unwilling to exercise the teenage privilege of • noring reality. If a path made sense, he'd follow it; if it seemed harmful, illogical or wrong, he simply opted out.
Sunday mornings found the television off and the Gomes family at church. All the children embraced their father's Catholicism, especially Abel and his youngest sister, Wanda, and everyone attended a Catholic school during the week.
In the tenth grade, Abel felt his first cramp of disillusionment with the Catholic faith.
"It is so important to realize," Brother Phillip taught Abel's class, "that only through the true and ancient Church can a sinner achieve forgiveness and salvation. When people profess Christian belief and claim to live Christian lives but reject the true Church, their claim to spiritual salvation is empty. They are being misled by the Devil himself."
Almost imperceptibly, Abel frowned as a thought formed in his mind.
"Does that mean that even good, moral, church-going people who aren't Catholic are damned?" another boy in class asked.
"The Kingdom of God," the Brother answered after a moment's hesitation, "is available to everyone. It is a gift. But a gift must be received. If it is ignored, then one forfeits its benefits."
Abel's thought crystallized in the form of his grandmother, whose own mother had worshipped the multiple deities of the Narragansetts.
On the board, Brother Phillip wrote, "Extra ecclesiam nuUa Sfl/"s" — "There is no salvation outside the Church."
Abel's classmate spoke up again:
"But aren't there millions of non-Catholics who live just
the kind of life you teach us to live, even though they belong to other churches? Aren't there a lot more of them than there are of us?"
Brother Phillip's kind eyes showed his sorrow at that unfortunate fact, but he managed to smile and the class laughed quietly, a little nervously. Returning to the board, he added a second Latin phrase neatly underneath the first:
"Salvandorum paucitas, damnadorum multitudo."
"Few are the saved..." the Brother began to translate, but Abel's mind raced ahead. By the time Brother Phillip had finished speaking, Abel's thoughts were elsewhere.
Once the first crack appeared in the dam of Abel's Catholicism, others quickly developed. He listened closely when his teachers related how Jesus' followers had become the "new chosen," how the "new law" had superseded the old, and an odd discomfort set in.
"Christianity offered Jews freedom from the fetters of the ancient Law," one teacher explained, "but their leaders had become too obsessed with dietary laws, ritual purity and the like to hear the message of love and concern for one's fellow, or even to recognize the arrival of their own messiah."
Why had the Old Testament laws needed abolishment, Abel found himself thinking, just to promote goodwill among men? And wasn't concern for others no less a part of the Old Testament?
'The Jews of the time were more concerned," the teacher continued, "with what entered their mouths than with what emerged from them!"
Couldn't they have incorporated both? Abel countered to himself. Couldn't they have fulfilled the laws God had given them along with His new will? And just what did "God's new will" mean, anyway? Why had the Old Testament been given at all if it had only been temporary?
Abel recalled how he had once toyed with joining the priesthood. No more, though. The abundant inconsistencies in his faith, the myriad "mysteries" it laid down like roadblocks before reasonable inquiry, and the uncomfortable implications of tenets had rendered that dream antithetical to his commitment to honesty. While he did not abandon Catholicism yet, he began to feel that it was smothering something in his soul.
Had that something been just a garden-variety quest for identity, it would have had ample opportunity to express itself in Abel's Indian heritage. His uncle Donald had taken that path and immersed himself in their common Narragansett ancestry. He considered the Narragansett customs and beliefs his own, no less than the land on which he lived, the United States government notwithstanding. He attended the tribe's powwows and danced its sacred dances, carrying on a centuries-old tradition. On occasion, Abel would accompany his uncle to a powwow, but he always sat bashfully to the side, often impressed with the pageantry but never with its relevance.
By the time he graduated from high school, Abel considered his religious heritage an increasingly unwieldy burden. Still, old habits die hard and he continued to attend church regularly. When the time came, he even chose a Catholic college. Even as a business administration major at Loyola College, Abel was required to take several religion courses. One of s teachers, a priest, shared his surprise at his students' ignorance of the Old Testament and Judaism in general.
"The Jewish heritage belongs to Jews and Christians alike," he informed his entirely Catholic class, "and none of us can claim to understand Christianity without a firm knowledge of our roots, which are largely Jewish."
The priest chided the class about how the Jewish students he had taught, though seldom religious, seemed much more knowledgeable about the Old Testament than their Christian classmates, even though the Old Testament is an integral part of the Christian bible.
Something in Abel was piqued by the priest's mild reprimand. He really hadn't thought much about modern Jews or Judaism — and certainly not in any relationship to his own religion. He had known, of course, that Christianity had begun as an offshoot of Judaism, that Jesus had been a Jew whose coreligionists had rejected him as their savior. But now he had to consider the existence of Jews qua Jews two millennia after Jesus. Years later, he would recall the irony of first confronting Judaism as a modern reality — and a positive one, no less — by way of a priest.
At the time, though, it was less revelation than curiosity, an interesting fact to ponder: Jews existed and studied their Bible even today. It put an intriguing spin on his dormant knowledge that the Jewish religion had preceded and even spawned his own.
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