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  • Writer's pictureAriel Tovlev

On Race, Diversity, and being B'tzelem Elohim




From a young age I understood what it was like to love those who are different from you. I can’t even remember it being a lesson I learned; it was something I always knew.

 

My family is not the typical interfaith family since both my parents were raised Jewish. But most of my cousins were not raised Jewish and never identified with that label. I have vivid memories as a child going to my grandfather’s house for Christmas Eve, and my aunt and uncle’s house for Christmas. I remember hearing, “We don’t celebrate Christmas because we aren’t Christian. But our extended family does because they are. And we celebrate with them because we are family.”

 

Growing up in the ‘90s, “diversity” was all the rage. There was representation of different races, religions, and abilities in the TV shows I watched. And I thought absolutely nothing of it. It was not “pandering to a woke audience,” it was simply the world as kids such as myself saw it.

 

I thought about differences and similarities a lot as a child. I thought about how most of my cousins were blonde, but my hair was black like my cousin who is Korean. I thought about how we sang Christmas songs at school, but the girl who celebrated Kwanza lit a candelabra like my family did. I thought about the time I said my best friend and I were “twins” and my teachers laughed because her skin was brown, but we had the exact same haircut and giggled in tandem. I thought about how most of my friends’ parents pronounced my name like the Little Mermaid, except for my friend whose parents were from Mexico: “We have that name in our culture too.”

 

It wasn’t that I didn’t see color. I saw it all the time. I saw it on TV, with my family, with my friends. And it wasn’t that I didn’t think about it either. I thought about it when my aunt made kimchi, I thought about it when my friends spoke to their parents in languages I didn’t understand, I thought about it when celebrating Christmas with my cousins. But I thought about it the way I thought about all similarities and differences: they all blend together to make the fullness of who we are.

 

I distinctly remember the first time I seriously thought about race. I had just started middle school which took students from several different elementary schools. In elementary school, I did not have a “friend group” that I belonged to. I had three best friends over the course of the six years: the first was Armenian, the second was Mexican, and the third was white. When I started middle school, I did not have any classes with my former friends. I met entirely new people. For the first time in my life I did not have a best friend; I was a member of a friend group, one of seven, and we did everything together.

 

I remember one day I told my mom I was going to hang out with my friends, and she asked who I was seeing. When I told her, she thought for a second and then responded, “Do you have any white friends?”

 

I knew all my friends were Asian. But I had honestly never thought of myself as different from them based on my race. We were all in honors classes. We were all rule-followers. We all loved anime. On top of that, even though they were all Asian, most of their families came from different countries. They were Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, and Indian. And even though there were two Chinese kids, their families spoke different languages. I didn’t see myself as different, I saw us all as different.

 

I remember feeling defensive in response to my mom’s question. I had never considered that maybe I was an odd one out. It was uncomfortable to feel different and alone in my difference. Looking back on this now, I know it was an immense privilege to never feel singled out due to my race until I was twelve/thirteen years old.

 

I do not share this story to say anything negative about my mother. She loved those friends of mine and that I finally had a friend group. My mother will come up a couple times in my reflections. Firstly, because she is the person I have spoken the most with in my life. I tell my mom almost everything. We have probably had more conversations than I have had with anyone else. Many of my memories include her, which says more of our relationship than of her as a person. Secondly, my mom comes up because I have lived a life she could never have imagined. That is as true with regard to my queerness and transness as it is with my diverse friend group. She lived in a world full of social rules and separations where stepping out of line was dangerous. She was not at all antagonistic toward my world. She simply was surprised by it.

 

This singling out did not happen for me again until I was seventeen. I was dating a Mormon, and occasionally I would join him and his family for church. I distinctly remember the first time I went. There was a room full of people, somewhere between fifty and a hundred. As I looked around, it struck me that I had never been around so many blonde people in my entire life. There were some brunettes as well, but only ones with chestnut-colored hair. Though we were all white, I felt myself stick out like a sore thumb. There was only one other person in the whole church with dark hair like mine. I pointed him out to my boyfriend, who said cheerfully, “Oh yes, he’s Jewish too!”

 

I couldn’t understand why a Jew was attending a Mormon church. Maybe he was like me, a Jew in an interfaith relationship, even though that was frowned upon in the Mormon religion. He ended up approaching me after services, as many others did, to welcome me to their community. I asked him about his Judaism. He was immediately flustered. “Oh, I’m not Jewish,” he stammered. “My parents were Jewish. But they became Mormon long before I was born. I don’t know anything about Judaism.”

 

My blood ran cold. Here was a Mormon through and through being identified as “Jewish” by other Mormons. He did not identify as Jewish, but his black hair identified him as such to others. I tasted metal in my mouth. Were these the white friends I was expected to have, people who would label me as Other even against my wishes?

 

The next singling out experience was when I was in grad school studying creative writing. I had just moved back home and started the program. I no longer lived near any of my college friends, and all of my high school friends had left the area. I knew I needed to find my people in my grad program.

 

It took me a couple weeks before I made a friend. Some people were much older than me and not looking for friends. Some I had nothing in common with and conversation was strained. Finally, I met someone and we clicked. She was one of the only other people in our whole program who was not Christian. She was passionate about politics and social justice. And she was a poet like me.

 

I went home and told my mom, “I made a friend!”

 

“Oh yeah?” my mom said. “What’s her name?”

 

“Laila,” I responded.

 

“Laila? Where’s she from?”

 

“Palestine,” I said.

 

My mom has come a long way in her beliefs and understanding of differences. I know she would not respond this way today. But again, she grew up unable to envision the world I lived in. Confused by my response, she asked, “What could you possibly have in common with someone from Palestine?”

 

Again defensive, I listed off everything we had in common.

 

I had not considered us the “Odd Couple.” I knew she was different from me. But we saw the similarities in each other.

 

At this time I was still identifying as a woman. Before long, she and I were calling each other “sister.”

 

At the end of our two-year program, our program director made a remark how our friendship was proof that poetry can unite people. “A Palestinian and a Jew become friends through poetry.” If only we could create world peace through poetry.

 

As Laila was preparing to move back to Palestine, I went to her apartment to visit. She made me a traditional Palestinian flat bread covered in zaatar and tea made from fresh spearmint, flavors that also reminded me of home. I asked her how she felt about our professor’s remarks.

 

She crinkled her nose. “On the one hand, I get it,” she said, clicking her tongue like the old women in my synagogue. “I had never been friends with a Jewish person before. I could not have imagined myself what it would be like. When I first saw your star on your neck, I felt afraid. That is the symbol the soldiers wear when they harass my people. I did not know how to feel. But I did not want to be your friend simply because I wanted a Jewish friend. I wanted to be your friend because I saw who you are. I saw your heart.”

 

She grasped my hands. “Can I show you something?”

 

“Of course,” I said, not sure what to expect.

 

“First of all,” she said slyly, “What color do you think my hair is?”

 

I instinctively looked to her headscarf, her “veil” as she called it, wrapped tightly around her head an inch below her hairline, securing any possible stragglers.

 

“I don’t know,” I said. “Dark. Like mine.”

 

“Everyone thinks that,” she responded. Her hands went to her forehead and she began pulling out pins. “I wanted you to come here because I wanted to show you my hair. In my culture, we only show our hair at our own homes, among our closest friends and family. I want you to see my hair because you are among my closest friends and family.”

 

She pulled back the veil and revealed straight brown hair the color of pine bark. Cool brown with auburn highlights.

 

“Now you fully see me,” she said.

 

When I came out as trans a few years later, she was back in Palestine, teaching at the university in Ramallah. I told her I was afraid to come out to her because it meant so much to me to be her sister. I did not want to lose that relationship.

 

Without hesitation she responded, “My brother. There is no change. I love you.”

 

It came up again a few weeks later. “Brother,” she wrote to me on WhatsApp, “I have already shown you my hair. If, inshallah, we are together in person again, I want to know if I should show you my hair or not. We do not do this with men in my culture. I wanted to ask you if that would be offensive to you. I want to respect you.”

 

I wasn’t sure how to respond. “I want you to be comfortable,” I said. “If you don’t show your hair to men, you don’t have to show it to me. But it would not offend me if you did.”

 

“Well,” she said, “I can show my hair to close male family members. You are my brother. That is how I think of you. If we can be together again, I would be comfortable taking off my veil around you.”

 

What could I possibly have in common with a Palestinian? Love. Respect. Compassion.

 

A couple years later my life shifted again. I moved to Minneapolis where I knew almost no one. I soon made a close friend. He was looking for a synagogue to join and I invited him to mine. As soon as we met, we talked for hours as if we were already close. I felt a soul connection with him that I had felt with few others. Again, I called my mom. “I made a new friend,” I told her. “We only met a few weeks ago and he’s already asked me to help him move. That’s an activity that takes a couple hours which means he really must like me!”

 

Let me tell you, my mom thought I was such a freier. “You only just became friends and you’re already helping him move? You sure he didn’t just want to avoid having to pay someone to do that?”

 

It was my turn to click my tongue. “It’s not like that,” I said. “He enjoys my company. I enjoy his company. It’s going to be fun.”

 

And we did have fun. We got to know each other better and after that, we were attached at the hip. We did everything together. Every Shabbat we went to services together, and when I would drop him off at his apartment, we would sit and chat till the early hours in the morning, neither one of us wishing to say goodbye.

 

A couple months later we celebrated Passover together. I was telling my mom how beautiful the seder was. She saw some pictures on facebook. “Is that Gabriel on the right?” she asked me.

 

“Yep, that’s him,” I responded.

 

“You didn’t tell me he was Black,” she said.

 

“I wasn’t hiding it,” I responded. “It just never came up.”

 

My mom now loves Gabriel. He was the best man at my wedding, and my mom gave him a big kiss on his face. “Thank you for always taking care of my Ariel,” she said to him. Her questions never came from a place of discrimination or bigotry; they came from a place of curiosity and confusion. I have lived my life in a way that was not possible for her.

 

The initial confusion upon seeing our friendship did not only come from white people. On one occasion Gabriel and I were walking together in a May Day parade. Black Lives Matter had their own group of marchers, but we were marching alone. As we were walking, a group of Black people saw us and approached us. Or rather, they approached him.

 

“Why are you marching with him?” they asked, pointing to me without looking me in the eye. “You should be with your own people,” they scolded.

 

“I am with my people,” he shot back.

 

“He is not your people. You are not white. Why do you hate that you’re Black?”

 

“I know I’m not white. I don’t hate being Black. You know nothing about us. I have more in common with him than I have with any of you. He is my brother. Leave me alone.”

 

He turned away from them and we continued walking. I could feel him shaking beside me. After we put some distance between us, he released some of his frustrations. “They only see our skin color,” he said. “We’re both trans. We’re both Jewish. You are my best friend. They are probably Christian and cisgender. But they think I’m the same as them and different from you. They only see our differences. Is this really the future we want? More segregation? More division? And why does my life affect them? How do my decisions of who I hang out with have anything to do with them?”

 

I obviously could not answer any of his questions. But I felt his pain. His frustration that race could be a significant part of his life and identity without being the only important identifier.

 

Like me, being trans and Jewish are some of the most important aspects of his identity. While he sought out Jewish spaces for community, it was not always easy for him there either. Even in our diverse and progressive community, racism would rear its ugly head.

 

In addition to constantly being asked either when he converted or if he was Ethiopian, he was regularly faced with other racist questions and assumptions. People would assume his politics based on his race. Others would assume he was related to every other Black Jew. At one point someone asked him about his “child”: a Black kid in the community with no relation to him. He and I were able to laugh about these racist interactions because we had built trust and understanding, and because he desperately needed to laugh about these things to not let them pierce his heart.

 

I remember my white girlfriend at the time was really awkward about race. She desperately wanted to be his friend, because he was my best friend. But I had a nagging worry in my heart. So I explicitly told her not to talk to him about race out of fear that she might say the wrong thing. “But you talk to him about race,” she said.

 

“It’s different,” I told her. “We’re already friends.”

 

She did not take my advice. Having heard the story about assumed parenthood, she wanted to be in on the joke. The first time meeting him, she snagged her opportunity when she saw a small Black child. She pointed to the kid and said to him, “Is that your son?”

 

My mouth dropped. His eyes narrowed. “Why would you say that?” he asked her.

 

“It’s a joke,” she said sheepishly. “Because that one time...”

 

“I remember,” he interrupted. “I was there. And it isn’t funny.”

 

 

In no way do I wish to convey that other white people are racist and I am not. We all have implicit biases against people who are different from us. What makes our implicit biases so dangerous is the fact that they are implicit. The vast majority of the time, we experience them without ever being aware they are there.

 

Sometimes they aren’t even what we would consider a bias, but simply ignorance. But even simple ignorance can cut to the core.

 

I am sure there are uncountable examples of my own transgressions of implicit bias and ignorance. Because they are unknown to us, I am only aware of the ones that had reactions or consequences, just the tip of my own iceberg of ignorance and implicit bias. A couple examples stand out in my mind.

 

The first time I offended someone beyond repair I was in third grade. My friend wore a necklace with a golden locket. I asked her what was in the locket, and she opened it up to show me a picture of a white woman. It looked like an ordinary person, so I asked her who it was.

 

“It’s Mother Mary,” she responded.

 

I had heard of Jesus, but never of Mother Mary.

 

“Who’s that?” I asked. Innocent and ignorant.

 

“Mother Mary is the mother of God!”

 

“God has a mother?”

 

At this point she ran away in tears. “What did I say?” I asked our other friends.

 

“How do you not know who Mother Mary is?” they questioned me. “The mother of Jesus?”

 

“Oh,” I said. “I know about Jesus. You didn’t say Jesus, you said God.” I knew Christians believed in Jesus, but I did not yet understand that they also referred to Jesus as God. And I had not yet learned about Mary.

 

My friend would not speak to me the rest of the day. I tried again the following day. Our other friends prevented me from approaching her. “Can’t I even say sorry?” I asked. “I didn’t know. I didn’t mean to.”

 

“It doesn’t matter,” they responded. “She doesn’t want to be your friend anymore.”

 

That was my first lesson that intent does not always affect impact. Even without malice or awareness, we have immense power to hurt people. My most recent lesson is only from a couple years ago.

 

I was studying pastoral education in a multi-faith group at a hospital. While the program as a whole skewed Christian, our cohort was majority Jewish. The only Evangelical Christian was also the only person of color.

 

He approached our cohort a couple of times about feeling like the group did not respect his religion. We responded with confusion and desire for clarity. What had we said, what had we done? He struggled to come up with examples. “Well, one time you said Jesus was just a man to you...”

 

And our defense: “That is the way he is seen in our religion. We were clarifying to others, since they thought we saw him as a prophet but not a messiah.”

 

“Well, you had said he was a heretic...” he tried again.

 

“At the time he was considered heretical, which is why he was sentenced to death.”

 

He shook his head. “You know what, forget it.”

 

We dropped it and moved on. But it kept coming up again. He felt that we were not respecting his faith.

 

The other Christian member of our cohort, a Catholic, was just as confused as us Jews. She had not seen any disrespect from us and could not imagine what our colleague was referring to.

 

Finally, it came out: our colleague expressed that he felt we did not respect his faith specifically because of his race. He felt that we accepted white people’s Christianity, but doubted his. He felt some unspoken feeling that we thought he should not be Christian based on his race and nationality, that it was a foreign religion that did not belong to him, that he was a product of colonialism rather than a believer with faith.

 

“The Bible says that with faith in Christ we are all one body, one flesh, one spirit. Regardless of our external differences, we are one. Faith in Jesus as the messiah is not about nationality or race. It has always transcended that. You think I should be Hindu or Muslim because I’m Indian. But Jesus would say we are one, we are united. I am not a victim. My faith gives me strength.”

 

Whatever our legitimate criticisms of colonialism and Christian proselytizing, he was right. He did not deserve to be a scapegoat for our feelings. We couldn’t understand how he felt disrespected when our other Christian colleagues did not. We felt it might be because he was Evangelical – none of us even considered it was because he was brown. We had not heard the ways he had been questioned in his faith his whole life because of his race. We had not seen the ways his fellow Christians treated him as Other. We had not experienced his feelings when he was told his religion did not belong to him.

 

It was not actually about what we had or hadn’t said – it was glazed eyes, lack of interest, absence of validation, unspoken dismissal. He knew it was true because he felt it. Because he lived it. But for us? Our first response was to demand proof.

 

These vignettes stand out in my mind not as examples of bad people with bad beliefs, but as illustrations of ignorance, implicit bias, and assumptions. We must combat the assumption that what we don’t know is not important. The assumption that our race affects each of us to the degree that we could not have anything in common with someone of a different race. The assumption that if we don’t experience something it cannot be real.

 

In addition to these stories I’ve shared, I remember another recent encounter where I felt incapacitated by my ignorance. I was at the hospital working as a chaplain. I was the only on-call chaplain of the day, the designated responder to emergencies. I had my first code blue: a death.

 

I approached the hospital room and saw the doctor speaking to a nurse outside. The patient had a DNR, so there was no attempt to resuscitate him. He had been sick in the hospital for a while, but his death was completely unexpected. He had been getting better. They had expected to discharge him the following day. They didn’t know what happened, and wouldn’t know until an autopsy. He was alone in the room when he died.

 

I told the doctor I was the chaplain. She told me his wife was on her way. “They’re Egyptian... I believe Christian or Catholic. I’m not sure. But I’m sure she would still appreciate you being there with her even though you’re Jewish. Just give her a few minutes with him alone, would you? Thank you for what you do.”

 

The doctor waited for his wife to arrive and let her into the hospital room. His wife, already in tears, began wailing as soon as she entered the room. The doctor closed the door behind her which did nothing to drown out her screams. Heart-wrenching, guttural, whole-body weeping.

 

The doctor gave me a nod of acknowledgement and left.

 

I waited a few minutes, minutes which felt like hours. I gave a small knock on the door to acknowledge my presence and I entered. The wife was laid out on her husband’s chest. She had wrapped one of his arms around her and was nuzzling his cold gray hand. She petted his hair.

 

“No more pain. No more pain.” She sobbed between her words, gasping for breath. But she couldn’t stop her mantra. “No more pain. No more pain.” Sometimes her words were soft, barely audible, and sometimes she shouted them with full voice. “No more pain. No more pain.”

 

In all of my education for times like these, I had received a very Western worldview. I was taught that people often struggled to express their sadness in times of grief. I was trained to ask about the deceased to trigger memories and help the bereaved feel and emote. This woman did not need help feeling and emoting. And I did not know how to respond to the openness of her grief.

 

I tried to ask her questions about what she needed. Did she want a prayer? Did she want to talk about him? With each question she looked at me straight in the eye, her expression lost and far away. She seemed to contemplate my question before abandoning the distraction and returning to her love. “No more pain.”

 

Her son came rushing in. He went to the other side of his father’s hospital bed. Like his mother, he grasped his father’s hand. He brought it up to his own face and nuzzled it in a loving gesture. He then went to his father’s feet, uncovered them, and rubbed them. He went back to the side of the bed to caress his father’s face.

 

His mother added a new sentence to her mantra. “My love. No more pain. My love. No more pain.”

 

Suddenly, the son saw me. His eyes conveyed confusion and suspicion. I was not sure if the color of my skin or my kippah made him wary, or if it was simply that I was a stranger present during an incredibly intimate moment. I told him I was a chaplain and I was there to help in any way I could. His expression relaxed slightly, but only slightly. “Can you get us some water?” he asked. “And some blankets.”

 

“Absolutely,” I responded. I ran out to get the items, pleased to have a task.

 

When I returned, there was another son there and some cousins. They spoke to each other in Arabic, and to me in English. I was told there were more on the way. I asked if they would want me to say a prayer.

 

“No, our priest is on his way. He will be here any minute.”

 

Not knowing what else to do, I stood in the corner, a silent witness, waiting for an opportunity to help. I stood for a very long, watching the mother weep, watching the children stroke their father’s face, watching a cousin or two talking on the phone to notify others. I tried to shift my weight inconspicuously as my legs tired from standing still. After a while, the son turned to me. “We no longer need you,” he said. “You can go. Thank you.”

 

I nodded and left. I had been with them for over an hour, but felt like I had done nothing. As I was walking down the hallway, I saw a Coptic Orthodox priest pass by me. Finally, someone who can help those poor people, I thought to myself.

 

I beat myself up for the next couple of hours. What an ignorant fool! You don’t even know how to help these people. You know nothing of their religion, their culture, their customs. You are useless, a lousy stand-in for the pastor they truly needed.

 

Probably five or six hours later, I was doing my rounds, letting the nursing stations know I was the overnight chaplain on call. I saw the son walking down the hallway toward me. I made eye contact and gave him a sympathetic smile. He stopped to speak to me. “Thank you for being there with us today. It meant a lot that you stayed with us. Thank you – God bless you.”

 

I nodded in a small humble bow. “You’re welcome,” I said. “God bless you and your family. May God comfort you.”

 

He nodded back to me. “Thank you. Thank you.”

 

And we parted ways. As I walked away, my mind buzzed with thoughts and feelings and I had trouble pinpointing any singular one. Finally, my mind landed on this: in truth, we were both ignorant of each other. They did not know about my religion or culture, and I did not know about theirs. But ultimately, it didn’t matter. They didn’t need me to be a Coptic Orthodox priest; they had one of those. They didn’t need me to know their culture and customs; they had each other. They needed me to respect them. They needed me to be present. They needed me to physically and spiritually be with them. I was the only one who could serve that purpose, and they were grateful that I did.

 

When Reverend King, Jr. spoke his famous words, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” he was not speaking about color-blindness. He did not say he dreamt his children would not be seen as Black. He did not say he wished race were irrelevant or insignificant. He said it should not be a matter of judgment.

 

Where we come from, how we were raised, how we move through our social circles, how we see ourselves, how the world sees us, all of this affects us on a deep and personal level. It influences who we are. In no way is it superficial or inconsequential. But it is not the whole sum of who we are.

 

As a young adult I thought about human rights, equality, respect for differences, etc. from a political perspective. And it is deeply political: being in Minneapolis during the murders of Philando Castile and Jamar Clark showed me how political this conversation can be. In a country which is built on institutional racism, these topics become a political issue.

 

As I’ve grown more into my Judaism and become ordained as a rabbi, my perspective has shifted on this. Without discounting the importance of voting with our conscience to help dismantle institutional racism and work toward true equal civil rights, I no longer see this as a purely political issue. While politics affect the real lives of people, this cannot be seen as a partisan concern. This is a moral and ethical concern.

 

 At the core of my spirituality is the belief that all humans are representations of God.

 

How can we each be representations of God if we are all so different?

 

Some people respond that despite our external differences, at our core we are all the same. That there is a small part in all of us that is identical, and that small part is God. Oftentimes the people with this belief go searching for others who seem to be similar to them. They recognize the similarity and name that sameness “God.”

 

As evidenced by my many memories of connecting with people others saw as different but whom I saw as similar, I can appreciate the love that’s found in sameness. Nonetheless, I have ended up with a different conclusion.

 

I have seen for too long human beings reject each other’s humanity based on their inability to see similarity in each other. I fear that encouraging others to find that sameness may suggest they look past their differences. Our differences do not define us, but they are not insignificant. We each have souls, we each have the spark of God within us, but that does not mean our essences are identical.

 

Moreover, due to the countless inequalities our societies have been built on, when most people imagine a godliness inside each of us, the God they imagine is a white cisgender able-bodied man. I reject that notion. It is not only reductive of humanity; it is reductive of God.

 

When I read that we are each representations of God, I go in a different direction. Just as we as humans are diverse, multi-faceted, and complex, God is diverse, multi-faceted, and complex. It means the sacred does not just live within the similarities, but equally within the differences. It means I can learn about God by learning about people who are different from me. It means that every person I meet is sacred in their own unique way, which may not mirror my own sacredness, but is holy all the same. It means that we can never fully understand each other just as we can never fully understand God, but that seeking understanding is a lifelong process that enriches us and our lives.

 

February is Black History Month, and it is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month. In the past I may have jumped on the bandwagon to use these times of awareness to preach a message of sameness, to exclaim that at our essence we are no different from each other. In part this is an apology for parroting that rhetoric.

 

With every apology must come a dedication or rededication to change. I commit myself to seeking similarities in those who may be deemed different from me while simultaneously celebrating and learning from their differences. I commit myself to recognizing and acknowledging the limits of my own understanding. I commit myself to leaning into my inability to fully understand as proof of God’s unknowable complexity, and ultimately as a gift of the wondrous diversity of creation. I commit myself to love, to respect, to compassion. B’ezrat Hashem, with God’s help, may it be so. Or, as my good friend Laila would say, Inshallah.

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