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Translocations: Migration and Social Change An Inter-Disciplinary Open Access e-journal issn number: 2009-0420

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Translocations: Migration and Social Change

An Inter-Disciplinary Open Access E-Journal

ISSN Number: 2009-0420


David Marcus and the cultural politics of OY 1

Ronit Lentin

Department of Sociology, Trinity College, Dublin (email: rlentin@tcd.ie)


Dedicated to David Marcus , in memoriam.

‘I wasn’t Leopold Bloom. And even he was only a paper Jew’ (Marcus, 2001: 39)

‘…in the end perhaps only one thing, of all his numerous connections, would remain to cling to him – his Jewishness’ (Marcus, 1954: 40).


When Joe Cohen, newly arrived from Cork, looks for a job with the London Jewish Sabbath Observance Employment Bureau, the receptionist asks him if he is sure he is Jewish, saying they had never met an Irish Jew before. Joe gets a job at Levin Brothers, where the 200 Jewish employees number more Jews under one roof than the whole community he had lived in all his life. His Jewish workmates nickname him ‘Seamus’ and tease him about Irish Jews going to synagogue on St Patrick’s Day. At Levin Brothers he meets the black packer Gary, who, when told Joe is Irish, giggles to high heaven: “Man”, he sang, his words dancing with incredulous laughter, “who ever heard of an Irish Jew?” (Marcus, 1990: 13). David Marcus’s interracial encounter is based, as he recounts in his autobiography (Marcus, 2001), on his own experience working for Baron’s off Oxford Street in the 1950s. It confronts Joe with his multi-layered positioning as Irish, Jewish, and ‘white’, and is a masterful expression of the complex cycles of the racialisation and ‘othering’ of Irish Jews in Catholic Ireland (Lentin, 2002: 153-4).
In his writing David Marcus positions himself as ‘the Jew’, though often protesting: ‘I wasn’t Leopold Bloom. And even he was only a paper Jew’ (Marcus, 2001: 39). Unlike Leopold Bloom – that eponymous non-Jewish Irish Jew, James Joyce’s literary diasporic outsider-insider par excellence – David Marcus, one of literary Ireland’s central figures who passed away in May 2009, is an undoubtedly Jewish Jew, who performs his Irishness as an insider-insider.

In his autobiography Marcus suggests that his acceptance as a writer may stem from the novelty of the existence of Irish Jews, whose position was described by the Dublin Jewish novelist Edward Lipsett, as ‘peculiarly peculiar’ (Lipsett, 1906, cited in Hyman, 1972). The abundance of scholarly and artistic works dealing with Ireland’s tiny Jewish community, quite disproportionate to its size,2 stems, at best, from a prurient Irish allo-semitism, defined by Zygmunt Bauman (1998: 143) as the ‘practice of setting Jews apart as people radically different from all others, needing separate concepts to describe and comprehend them’. At worst, this disproportionate preoccupation derives from ‘the normality and acceptance of antisemitism in Irish society’ (Lentin, 2002a: 155).

In celebrating Marcus’s contribution as ‘the single most important literary editor in Ireland in the second half of the 20th century’, Fintan O’Toole (2009) reminds his Irish Times readers that not only have Ireland’s Jewish citizens strengthened the indigenous culture, but also that ‘crude notions of assimilation are wrong-headed for many reasons, one of them cultural’. To my knowledge this is the first sociological discussion of the significance of David Marcus’s oeuvre.3 I have chosen to examine Marcus’s self presentation as a hyphenated Irish-Jew not merely as homage, but also in order to illustrate the complexities of Irish antisemitism on the one hand and the integration of Jewish people into Irish life on the other. Jews have by and large been excluded from current definitions of ethnicity (Cheyette and Marcus, 1998: 2), in Ireland as elsewhere (but see Fanning, 2002; Lentin, 2002; and Goldstone, 2002, for discussions of Irish antisemitism). Elsewhere (Lentin, 2002) I argue that ‘Irish Jews are the archetypal “Others” of Irish Catholic nationalism. Importantly, antisemitism is racism without race, a cultural construction displaced in contemporary western society to immigrants and black people (A. Lentin, 2004: 58). Political antisemitism culminated in genocide, and it’s worth remembering that neutral Ireland allowed in only some 65 Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1946 as Europe burned (Lentin and McVeigh, 2006: 120).
Jews are seen as unassimilable, as a people apart, and are racialised by society and state, which, at the same time, deny the existence of racism. Meanwhile, our daily existence, despite the prominence of many Irish Jews in business, the professions, politics and the arts, is largely obscured from view’ (Lentin, 2002a: 154). Marcus’s work also illustrates cultural hybridity (c.f. Bhabha, 1994), cultural identity as dynamic and becoming, rather than as essentialised or fixed (Hall, 1996), and the vicissitudes of what is now called multi- or interculturalism (c.f., Lentin, 2002b).
Reading Marcus’s novels To Next Year in Jerusalem (1954) and A Land not Theirs (1986), his short story ‘Who has ever heard of an Irish Jew?’ (1990) and his autobiography, for his own account of his hyphenated positionality, this article explores the relation between his literary author/ity, unique among Ireland’s cultural hybrids, and his self-presentation as a Jewish-Irishman, who, unlike some of his protagonists who choose Palestine over their precarious existence in a ‘land not theirs’, stays in Ireland, forever caught in the twilight zone of the ‘vanishing diaspora’ (Wasserstein, 1996), forging a niche in Irish literature, yet forever performing acts of hyphenation. The paper traces Marcus’s writing trajectory from a young novelist, whose debut 1954 novel is probably the most acute representation of the dilemmas facing Ireland’s Jewish cultural hybrids, to a mature memoirist, whose 2001 Outobiography: Leaves from the Diary of a Hyphenated Jew reflects upon the same dilemmas with the self irony of hindsight. Another trajectory is from portraying his protagonists as Jewish exiles in Ireland to the memoirist feeling confidently Irish and denying any antisemitism. In light of the contemporary unpacking of Irishness, I conclude by proposing the Oy of the Jewish oy vey – a combination of collective sigh and self-critical joke – as Marcus’s ironic-iconic narration of self.
My argument is that as a pivotal literary figure, Marcus is in some ways more emblematically Irish than Jewish, and, despite his recurring references to his Jewish identity, his is not a counter-narrative, but rather central to Ireland’s literary politics. However, although Marcus’s fiction, produced from the marginal position of an Irish-Jewish writer performing an act of in-between-ness, always evokes nation and nationalism, rather than subverts them – as diasporics, exiles and migrants often do – his hybrid marginality is a constant referent: ‘I can never forget, never completely lose the feeling of being something apart, something different’ (Marcus, 1954: 139).

Hybridity: National narratives or exilic counter-narratives?

‘I feel as if my soul is perpetually in exile. I feel as if I have no roots, no home, nothing to rely on, nothing I can be sure of. … In a sense, I am always afraid’ (Marcus, 1954: 140).
Emphasising the constantly changing and contested nature of constructions of nation as ‘imagined community’ (Anderson, 1983), and of the narratives that constitute the collective cultural discourse of the nation, Homi Bhabha (1994) posits counter-narratives as emerging from the margins of the nation, destabilising the nation and the very certainty of nation-building, relating to cultural and national hybrids, called hybrids because they have lived in migration or in exile, in more than one culture.
Pnina Werbner (1997), theorising cultural hybridity as a paradox, as both disruptive, and routine and pervasive, asks whether viewing hybridity as routine might take away the power of counter-narratives to disrupt. In other words, if we are all some sort of cultural hybrids – immigrants, emigrants, second and third generation immigrants, mixed parented individuals, members of ethnic minorities, nomads – whose narrative is actually a counter narrative? If, as Bauman argues (1991), modernity is ultimately about ambivalence, why do strangers continue to pose a threat, in an age where strangerhood is almost routine, where almost everyone is a stranger? Werbner outlines two forms of cultural hybridity, organic / unconscious hybridity, which is born out of the cross-fertilisation of cultures, and intentional hybridity, which is designed to shock, challenge, or disrupt through deliberate, intended fusions of unlike social language and images.
The role of cultural hybrids in Irish culture has not yet begun to be theorised, despite recent debates on Ireland becoming an ‘intercultural’ society, where migrant and minority cultures, presented as ‘given’ and ‘already there’, interact with the so-called ‘majority culture’, as if cultural parity was unproblematic. Cultural plurality has been articulated as ‘new’, disavowing not only racism and unequal power, but also the diversity of Irishness prior to the immigration of relatively few migrants and refugees since the 1990s (Lentin and McVeigh, 2002; Lentin, 2002b).
In the interstices of ‘Irishness’ as normatively Christian, settled and ‘white’, the counter-narratives of Ireland’s strangers are only beginning to be reconciled with the nation’s view of itself. However, while David Marcus’s narrative is seemingly counter narrative par excellence, I would suggest that cultural hybrids such as Marcus are organic / unconscious, rather than intentionally disruptive of the nation’s prevailing cultural story, in re-enacting the nation, rather than subverting it.
This argument is borne out by Marcus’s unquestioned centrality in the annals of Irish literature. As the editor of Irish Writing and Poetry Ireland until 1954, and of New Irish Writing in the Irish Press, of which he was also literary editor until 1986, 4 he nurtured and published many generations of Irish short story writers, poets and novelists. 5
His own account of his trajectory from young Jewish Cork lad to one of Ireland’s prime literary editors is littered with asides. It was clear to him, for instance, that in order to make a success of Irish Writing, he needed a Catholic partner, the task being too hazardous for a young Jew on his own. His accounts of meeting major writers, such as the elderly Edith Somerville, denotes the young Jew’s angst, never having set foot in a non-Jewish home, never mind eaten non-kosher food. On his train journey back from London, having secured a British Board of Trade certificate for the first volume of Irish Writing, he encounters an antisemitic woman, and the journey evokes the role of the train in his grandfather’s narrow escape from conscription to the Tsar’s army, because, with his blond hair, he could pass for a non-Jew – perhaps family lore and apocryphal story, but foremost in Marcus’s mind. He does not tell the antisemite on the train that his mother, who later became a member of Cumann na mBan, had been driven out of Limerick as a child of 11 during the 1904 anti-Jewish pogrom – the trials and tribulations of being an Irish Jew are a constant sub-text.
Hyphenation once again: A Land (not) theirs?

Stuart Hall (1996) theorises cultural identity not as essentialist, but rather as strategic and positional. Identity is not unified, but rather fragmented and fractured, never single, but rather multiple, intersecting and antagonistic, always historicised and in transition. Identities, according to Hall, are always constructed through a relation to the Other: only through what it is not can any ‘positive’ meaning be constructed.

In his first novel, set in 1947-8, prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, Marcus constructs a tiny imaginary Jewish community in the west of the country to approximate the Cork Jewish community of his youth. Jewish identity – poised between loyalty to the country of sojourn and to the Zionist cause – is embodied in the young Jonathan Lippman, who not only struggles with his affair with a Catholic woman, but who also participates in what may now be called an ‘intercultural’ experiment conducted by the priest at the local parish social club, who proposes Jonathan as (a tokenistic?) chairman, so as to counter members’ xenophobic prejudices. Jonathan hesitates, ‘You can rely on this: a Jew in a non-Jewish environment is a potential irritant and his powers of irritation are in direct proportion to his usefulness…’ (142). But he is persuaded and is duly elected.
Not surprisingly, the experiment fails: in the wake of a Zionist attack in Palestine in which 28 British soldiers are killed, a club member attacks him:

We don’t want Jewboys here. You’re only dirt. Thieves and robbers and dirt… Murderer! We don’t want you here! Go back to Palestine! (Marcus, 1954: 274). 6

Jonathan, hitherto not free to leave Drumcoole, being the tenth man of the prayer quorum required by Jewish law, makes up his mind following the outburst that once his grandfather dies – and his departure would not be the one to break up the community and the prayer quorum – he would leave Ireland for Palestine.
If in this early novel the protagonist – feeling in perpetual exile – privileges Judaism and Zionism over Irishness, in the 1986 novel, A Land not Theirs, set in Cork in the 1920s during the struggle against the Black and Tans (and involving another love affair, this time between a Jewish woman and an IRA member), the main protagonist decides not to follow the body of his grandfather to the holy land:

Rabbi Moishe (was) all his life an exile, yearning for a plot of land on the other side of the world…. Jacob did not feel an exile. He felt at home. Had he been leaving Cork the next day he knew how desolate he would have been. His zeide’s spirit would be happy in Eretz (Israel); his would be happy in Cork. They had both got what they wanted (Marcus, 1986: 433).

In the autobiography, the writer concludes, with hindsight, against dwelling on the jibes of the antisemite on the train, concentrating instead on where he knows his organic hybridity was to lead him to:

I was ready to dismiss from my mind the problem of anti-Semitism; it had no immediate relevance. What was bringing me home was my future… (Marcus, 2001: 79).

He later tells of another incident when he comforted a young German girl who does not expect help from a Jew, after what her people had done to his:

I was back in Ireland, where antisemitism had no expression, where I should have been aware of being a Jew only by not being conscious of that awareness (Marcus, 2001: 159).

Marcus’s honest deliberations might denote a chasm between Ireland and Palestine, and between loyalty to the place of his birth and the notional Jewish homeland – a duality levelled against diasporic Jews for generations (and repeated, for instance, by Irish opponents to rescue more than a handful of Jewish refugees during the Nazi genocide, see Keogh, 1998). O’Toole, however, accepts that such duality is a reasonable expectation, arguing that:
Immigrant communities need to be integrated (and the integration of Jews into Irish artistic, political, professional and intellectual life is a fine example to follow) but they should not be expected to cease to have another life of memories and meanings (O’Toole, 2009).
Embodying ‘minority discourse’, which Lloyd and Jan Mohammed (1990: 2-16) view both as the product of negation and damage, but also as a strategy of survival for the preservation of cultural identity and political critique, David Marcus reflects on his hybrid position, though he ultimately reduces it to his self confessed inability to turn his identity into literature, as so many great Jewish writers have done in other diasporic locations:

Primarily, my material was my identity as a Jew and the subjective conflicts that engendered… Not that I regretted being a Jew… what I regretted was my inability to transform my material… my ever-present feeling of rootlessness into great literature (Marcus, 2001: 249).

Marcus knows that being a Jewish deraciné would not be assuaged by turning his rootlessness into literature, because although admittedly ‘of Ireland’, being Jewish is ‘branded into my soul’ (249). However, despite the curiosity aroused by the ‘peculiarly-peculiar’ position of the Irish Jew, invoked by Irish othering or allo-semitism (Bauman, 1998), Marcus is a prime example of the ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’ positionality. Indeed, Marcus’s fiction does not stay in the margins and, in his protagonists’ pursuance of both Zionist and Irish nationalist causes (the tension between the two is represented magnificently in A Land not Theirs), he evokes both fixed nationalisms and the inter-national space of the hyphen.

Conclusion: The cultural politics of Oy

Homi Bhabha, after Freud, theorises Jewish joke-work, which ‘makes it possible to hear the Unconscious speak in the psychopathology of everyday life’, as typical of the popular lives of minorities. Read as a minority speech-act, the self-critical joke, so typical of Jewish story telling, Bhabha says, is ‘a rebellion against authority, a liberation from its pressures’, and may be ‘a strategy of cultural resistance and agency committed to a community’s survival.’ Through the performance of self-irony as a minority gesture there emerges a structure of identification ‘that provides a way for minority communities to confront and regulate the abuse that comes from “outside” or the criticisms that emerge inwardly, from within the community itself’ (Bhabha, 1998: xvi-xvii).
With the years, David Marcus’s minority speech act progresses from serious musing deliberations about his dual, never to be reconciled identity, or, put otherwise, about his ‘dual loyalty’ to Irish and Zionist nationalisms, to a narrative riddled with delightful jokes and self-irony, albeit also shadowed by his iconic position in Irish literature.
His speech act is underpinned by double speak, between what he calls ‘the Joyce of Yiddish’ and the ‘Oy Vay of Irish’, both anathema, since Marcus, rather like the fictitious Leopold Bloom, is both neither/nor and both/and – an Irishman holding a central position in the cultural politics of Irish modernity, and a Jew performing his ‘peculiarly peculiar’ position to satisfy the curiosity of the goyim, yet not really an integral part of Jewish community life, being, as he admits it, a loner, who, like Groucho Marx, does not ‘want to be a member of any club that would have me’ (Marcus, 2001: 250).
Thinking about contemporary diaspora Jewish life in Europe falls between the ‘vanishing diaspora’ (Wasserstein, 1997) and a new space for Jews in the cultures of a changing Europe (Pinto, 1996). 7 Elsewhere (Lentin, 2002c) I argue that Jewish-Irish cultural migration patterns characterise the continuing centrality of exile to the contemporary Jewish existence, a centrality exemplified, inter alia, by the Irish-Jewish website, 8 constructing a virtual ‘home from home’ where the blurring boundaries between ‘diaspora’ and ‘homeland’ are re-negotiated, a blurring also negotiated by Marcus and his protagonists. On the one hand, he writes about having never visited Israel, afraid to either dislike it and be disappointed, or like it too much. On the other, deconstructing Irishness in his own way, he knows that being born and bred in Ireland, ‘could not make of me a complete Irishman in the sense of that phrase which is now, thankfully, increasingly out of date’.
Bobby Sayyid argues that because diasporas were dependent on the discourse of nationalism (after all, the argument goes, without nationalism it would be difficult to construct a diaspora), they can also be considered as anti-national:

Unlike the nation with its homogeneity and boundedness, diaspora suggests heterogeneity and porousness… The diaspora is not the other of the nation… it is, rather, an anti-nation since it interrupts the closure of nation. The existence of a diaspora prevents the closure of the nation, since a diaspora is by definition located within another nation (Sayyid, 2000: 41-2).

However, for Marcus, diaspora is not ‘anti-nation’, but rather combining two national spaces, corresponding happily despite the tensions of identity. With Irish ‘interculturalism’ and articulations of contested identities, narratives and counter-narratives, Marcus employs Jewish joke work, admitting that yes, he would cheer the Israeli football team, but only if it was not playing Ireland; and if the teams drew, he would still ‘look to Ireland to win the penalty shoot-out’ (2001: 250).
O’Toole uses the success of Ireland’s Jewish communities to argue that ‘simple assimilation seeks to flatten out complexities, to absorb all differences into an assumed norm’, and that ‘it is only by allowing our immigrant communities to be complicated that we can enjoy the imaginative fruits of their ambivalence’ (O’Toole, 2009). David Marcus’s life and work were certainly complex, certainly ambivalent, but ultimately, despite contemporary Ireland’s increasing multi/interculturality, even a major literary figure such as David Marcus, is not allowed to fully belong, as he has his protagonist Jonathan say as far back as 1954:
By law he might be Irish… (but) what counted in fact was something indescribable – something that might have had its origin in the blood, or the mind, or the soul… and it was that something which provided the basic, vital, and ineradicable difference between himself and his Christian friends… in the end perhaps only one thing, of all his numerous connections, would remain to cling to him – his Jewishness (Marcus, 1954: 40).


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Bauman, Zygmunt. 1991. Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Zygmunt. 1998. ‘Allosemitism: Premodern, Modern, Postmodern’, in Bryan Cheyette and Laura Marcus (eds.) Modernity, Culture and ‘The Jew’, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bhabha, Homi. K. 1994. Location of Culture. London: Routledge.
Bhabha. Homi, K. 1998. ‘Joking aside: The idea of a self-critical community’, in Bryan Cheyette and Laura Marcus (eds.) Modernity, Culture and ‘The Jew’, Cambridge: Polity Press.
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Goldstone, Katrina. 2009. ‘Now You See Us, Now You Don’t’: reflections on Jews, historical amnesia and the histories of a multi-ethnic Dublin’, Translocations, vol. 4/1, http://www.translocations.ie/volume_4_issue_1/index.html

Hall, Stuart. 1996. ‘Who needs identity?’ in Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (eds.) Questions of Cultural Identity. Sage.

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Lentin, Ronit. 2002b. ‘Antiracist responses to the racialisation of Irishness: Disavowed multiculturalism and its discontents’, in Ronit Lentin and Robbie McVeigh (eds.) Racism and Antiracism in Ireland. Belfast: Beyond the Pale Publications.

Lentin, Ronit. 2002c. ‘Ireland’s other diaspora: Jewish-Irish within, Irish-Jewish without’, Golem, no. 9, 2002, pp. 74-85.

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Wasserstein, David. 1996. The Vanishing Diaspora: The Jews in Europe Since 1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Werbner, Pnina. 1997. ‘Introduction: The dialectics of cultural hybridity’, in Pnina Werbner and Tariq Modood (eds.) Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-Cultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-Racism. London: Zed Books.
Dr Ronit Lentin, Head of Department, Sociology, director of the MPhil in Ethnic and Racial Studies, and founder member of the Trinity Immigration Initiative, Trinity College Dublin. She has published numerous articles on racism in Ireland, gender, and Israel-Palestine. Her recent books include Racism and Anti-racism in Ireland (with Robbie McVeigh, 2002), Women and the Politics of Military Confrontation: Palestinian and Israeli Gendered Narratives of Dislocation (with Nahla Abdo 2002), Re-presenting the Shoah for the 21st Century (2004), After Optimism? Ireland, Globalisation and Racism (with Robbie McVeigh, 2006), Performing Global Networks (with Karen Fricker, 2007), Race and State (with Alana Lentin, 2008), and Thinking Palestine (2008). Her next book is Co-Memory and Melancholia: Israelis Memorialise the Palestinian Nakba (Manchester University Press).

1 This paper was originally presented at the ‘Identities and Cultural Diversity in Irish writing’ conference, Trinity College Dublin, 23 August 2003. David kindly read a draft of this paper before the conference and very generously caught some of my errors. I am indebted to him and to Elaine Moriarty for her helpful comments on an earlier draft. Following David Marcus’s passing away in May 2009 at the age of 85, I have revisited and revised the paper. .

2 For historical works see Shillman, 1945; Hyman, 1972; O'Riordan and Feeley, 1984; Ó Drisceoil, 1997; Keogh, 1998; Goldstone, 1998; 2002. For media productions see Sebag Montefiore, 1997; Goldstone and Lentin, 1997; Price, 1998. For memoirs and autobiographies, e.g., Solomon, 1956; Zlotover, 1966; Harris, 2002; for fiction see e.g., Marcus, 1986, 1990; Lentin, 1985, 1996;. Kostick, 1993; and for essays see e.g., Leventhal, 1945; L Lentin, 1996, 2008. See also Fanning, 2002, for the (spurious) equation of Irish antisemitism with Nazi antisemitism, and the documentary films, Shalom Ireland (Valerie Lapin Ganley) and Grandpa, Speak to me in Russian (Louis Lentin) . I am also aware of several undergraduate and postgraduate theses as well as journalistic accounts on Ireland’s Jews (see Goldstone, 2000 and 2009 for a discussion of the complexities of representation).

3 But see Keogh, 1998: 71-2 for a reading of Marcus’s A Land not Theirs for an account of the history of Jewish involvement in the Sinn Fein movement.

4 Though he retired as literary editor in 1984.

5 In addition he published over 30 edited collections of Irish short stories, the first published in 1972, and nurtured the early careers of many well known Irish writers.

6 One of the soldiers killed is a cousin of Jonathan’s assailant, denoting a fascinating intersection of Irishness with British imperialism (see McVeigh, 2002)..

7 Wasserstein’s main argument is that Jews are vanishing from Europe, not only due to the Shoah. Their numbers have declined from 10 million in 1939 to under 2 million in the late 1990s. Apart from small pockets of ultra-orthodox communities, Wasserstein predicts that ‘within a few generations they will disappear as a significant element in the life of the continent’ (1997: ix). According to Pinto (1996), beyond assimilation and ghettoisation there exist new communal, voluntary Jewish spaces in a changing Europe: ‘Jews, even in tiny homeopathic doses, can create a strong Jewish presence in any society... The ‘electronic fax Jew’ need no longer feel isolated and lost’.

8 http://www.jewishireland.org/

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