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January 31, 2015 / 11 Shevat, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Lithuania’

Title: Minhagei Lita: Customs of Lithuanian Jewry

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Title: Minhagei Lita: Customs of Lithuanian Jewry

Author: Rabbi Menachem Mendel Poliakoff



“We should practice Judaism just as they did in Europe” is a sentiment one is likely to hear in haredi and yeshivish communities. “We shouldn’t act any differently just because we’re in America.”


            And yet, according to a recently published book by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Poliakoff – a nonagenarian Baltimore rabbi who studied in Lithuania’s Telshe yeshiva for eight years in the 1930s – yeshivish batei midrash and communities constantly and consistently deviate from pre-war European tradition.


For instance, on page 63 of Minhagei Lita: Customs of Lithuanian Jewry, Rabbi Poliakoff writes, “No one in Lithuania wore his tzitzis hanging out as people do today – not even the Rabbonim, not even in Radin.” A few pages earlier, he claims, “the term ‘glatt kosher’ did not even exist in Lithuania. Meat was either kosher or non-kosher, which, of course, is the correct approach.”


The annihilation and displacement of Lithuanian Jewry during World War II, writes Rabbi Poliakoff, essentially ruptured the natural chain of parental and communal tradition, or mesorah, by which Jews historically derived their behavior and mores. And in the “absence of established tradition, the Rabbis turned to the Mishnah Berurah as their guide on the assumption the Chafetz Chaim’s decisions were in accord with the generally-accepted Lithuanian customs. Unfortunately, this is not so.”


Among other common contemporary customs that Rabbi Poliakoff attacks are: repeating the word “zeicher” in Parshas Zachor (“in the Telshe Yeshiva or anywhere else in Lithuania they did not repeat it”); holding upsherns (“[it's] absolutely a violation of halachah, as it is chukos hagoyim and should be discontinued”); collecting tzedakah during davening (“this utter distraction [is] even more unpardonable when these people pose as pious scholars, while disturbing peoples’ prayer”); and starting Kaddish by saying “Yisgadeil v’yiskadeish” instead of “Yisgadal v’yiskadash” in accordance with the Vilna Gaon’s opinion (“no one in Lithuania – not even in Vilna – accepted this innovation”).


Rabbi Poliakoff particularly detests people “parading piety.” He writes: “One of the few survivors of Kelm sadly remarked to me some forty years ago, ‘You are a Lithuanian Jew – you call this Yiddishkeit? Where is the admonition of the Prophets to walk humbly with G-d?’ He was right.”


With this story in mind, it should come as no surprise that Rabbi Poliakoff derides the “chumrah culture” as well, arguing that “the Sages frowned upon following unusually rigorous practices unless they are in character with the one performing them – and even then only if they did not adversely affect others.” Therefore, for example, he argues that the practice of eating glatt kosher exclusively is wrong, not only because it deviates from Lithuanian practice, but also because it violates the principles of “avoiding excessive strictness” and “imposing needless expenses upon the community.”


All this criticism may sound a bit much, and indeed surprising, coming from a Telshe alumnus. One perhaps would expect such condemnation from a Yeshiva University professor, not a rabbi with a black hat and white beard. However, Rabbi Poliakoff’s take-no-prisoner attitude proceeds directly from his stated purpose in writing Minhagei Lita: preserving Lithuanian customs as he remembers them.


And so, aside from “hot-button” issues, Rabbi Poliakoff also spends tens of pages recording the Lithuanian nusach hatefillah, bemoaning that so few today remember the proper tunes for the different parts of davening – especially on such occasions as Shabbos Chol HaMoed and Shabbos Rosh Chodesh.


The biggest surprise of this slim book comes in the last 25 pages, where Rabbi Poliakoff addresses – based on the principle of “the Torah’s ways are pleasant,” which he says characterized the Lithuanian approach to halacha – the longstanding agunah problem and complaints regarding the second day of Yom Tov, which Jews outside Israel celebrate.


Both of Rabbi Poliakoff’s suggestions are broad in scope – annul marriages when necessary, abrogate the second day on Yom Tov entirely – but skimpy on the details. And despite Rabbi Poliakoff’s caveat that only a central or main beis din supported by the world’s greatest rabbis can implement his suggestions, many readers will likely raise their eyebrows when reading this rather radical section, which has echoes of Rabbi Emanuel Rackman’s controversial beis din and the Reform movement’s 19th-century innovations.


Nonetheless, at 116 pages, Minhagei Lita is a pleasure to read. Engaging and informative, the book offers a unique view of Lithuanian Judaism through the eyes of one of the few remaining people alive who experienced it firsthand.


To order “Minhagei Lita” call 410-358-5557. 

One For The Books

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

He’s not Jewish, he’s not Lithuanian and he’s not a librarian, but Wyman Brent, an American from San Diego, is building a Jewish library in Vilna. The library is the melding of Brent’s three loves – books, Lithuania and Jewish culture. It’s sort of the culmination of an odyssey, which has taken him to various parts of the world and through many periods in history.

Hopefully, the library will open its doors in a couple of months, but its official opening is scheduled for October 1, 2009, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Vilna Gaon Museum, which is donating the space.

The 46-year-old self-appointed librarian first came to Lithuania in 1994. “I felt at home. It felt like the place where I belonged.” He had come to Russia to see the country and had read a book called The Hills of Vilnius (Alfonsas Bieliauskas and M. Ryley). So he came to see the city, which was described so beautifully in the book.

Brent isn’t Jewish and to his knowledge, there are no Jews in his centuries-old family tree. What began as a fascination with WWII and the Holocaust led to his traveling to Europe and visiting places of Jewish culture. On a 1993 visit to Prague, he was struck by the contrast between an exhibition of drawings by children from the concentration camps who had been killed, and that of the Jewish cemetery outside where he saw a rabbi walking with his students. And Wyman thought, “It’s wonderful that Judaism is still so very much alive.”



Wyman Brent on Casimir Street in Vilnius, a several-minute walk from Pylimo 4, which is the address of the Vilnius Jewish Library, and the Vilna Gaon Museum housed in the same building.


Of the 600,000 people living in Vilna today only about 4,000 are Jewish. Brent wants to build the library not only for the Jews of Vilna but also for everyone. Vilna already has a Jewish library. It’s small, well hidden and unused, according to Brent. He is very upset because the Turto Bankas is planning to sell off the former Vilna Ghetto Library this April 8, 2009, at 9:00 a.m.  “I am absolutely sickened by the thought that this bank will be allowed to sell off what does not legally, ethically or morally belong to it.”

His goal, he says, is to promote tolerance and understanding, an idealistic view he has held since he was a young child. He is also familiarizing himself with the Jewish religion and culture by attending synagogue services and hanging out at the JCC, which is also supporting his project. He doesn’t speak Hebrew yet, nor Lithuanian, for that matter. “I love to read but I hate to study,” he quips dryly.



Wyman Brent visiting with Joseph Levinson, a Shoah survivor who is signing his books for the library. Joseph is editor of Book of Sorrow, which is composed of photos of sites where Jews were killed in Lithuania. He also edited and wrote part of Holocaust in Lithuania.


To date, Wyman has a stock of 4,500 books, 60 CDs and 100 DVDs mostly purchased from his own funds. He estimates that he has already invested over $20,000 to buy and ship books. And he is beginning to feel the burden. He works nights at a youth hostel where he currently lives, and devotes his days to setting up the library. 

Brent has a rather broad definition of a “Jewish book.” As long as it was written by a Jew (he doesn’t check their tzitzit), the book is welcome.



Wyman Brent with Rachel Kostanian, Deputy Director of the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum. Photo taken in the Vilnius Jewish Culture and Information Center.



“I have the greatest respect for Jewish history and culture, but if I just stock books relating to history, religion and culture in the library, the fact of the matter is, that only scholars and a handful of people will be reading them.” Brent wants everyone in Vilna and even visitors from around the world to come to enjoy his library. His goal is 100,000 books – and his collection, so far, features books in math, science, humor, sports, and medicine – all in English. “It’s a popular language in Vilna.”                            


“Although the museum is providing space and paying for a computer, which is great – I’m struggling financially.” Brent is hoping someone will offer him a grant or a stipend to help him pursue his dream of building his bibliotheca. “I’ve always loved libraries, thanks to my parents,” he says. He volunteered for many years at the library in San Diego.



Wyman Brent with Israeli Ambassador Chen Ivri – photo made last year at ceremony honoring Righteous Gentiles.


Brent’s plans for the library include a multi-media center and nightly activities featuring poetry readings, art exhibitions and concerts. “If things go well, I would like to stay here forever, and run the library.”

If you want to take a page from Wyman’s book and contribute to the library, he can be reached by email at: vilniusjewishlibrary@yahoo.com, or by phone at 370 5 2625357.

Books can be sent to him at: Wyman Brent, Ausros Vartu 20-15A, Vilnius LT-02100,Lithuania.

The Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum is located at: Pylimo 4 Vilnius (Vilna) Lithuania.

Should We Feel Guilty For Enjoying Holocaust Art?

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

Supporting Evidence

July 12-October 26, 2008

Florida Holocaust Museum

55 5th Street South, St. Petersburg, Florida



Unwanted Beauty: Aesthetic Pleasure in Holocaust Representation

By Brett Ashley Kaplan

University of Illinois Press, 2007, 240 pages, $35



Some of history’s greatest paintings have explored tragedy, from Francisco Goya’s “Saturn Devouring his Son” and etching series on “The Disasters of War” to Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” to John Singer Sargent’s “Gassed.” Claude Monet, hailed as the father of Impressionism, is generally associated with pastel colors and sunlight, but one of his most gripping paintings is of his late wife, “Camille Monet, on Her Deathbed.”


Some would accuse Monet of callousness for painting his dead wife and for somehow managing the concentration to mix colors, and to paint while his wife’s body was still warm. But however uncomfortable this makes us feel, Monet painted just one corpse. What if he had tried instead to depict six million?


Many have wondered whether it is appropriate for artists – and particularly artists who did not witness the concentration camps – to represent the Holocaust. These claims tend to center on some form of the argument that the Holocaust is non-representable, so artists need not even try – for fear of failure or irreverence. Worse yet, a successful Holocaust painting would not only carry the Holocaust as its content; it would also be aesthetically beautiful. Surely beauty does not apply in the least to World War II, so it must find no haven in art about the Holocaust.



Detail. “Wooden Synagogue Story II.” 26″ x 37″, mixed media on lupa paper. Courtesy: Joyce Ellen Weinstein.



Such is the dilemma that Brett Ashley Kaplan grapples with in her book, Unwanted Beauty. “I have been struck repeatedly by the fact that much prose, poetry, visual art, and architecture representing the Holocaust is beautiful, even though remaining mournful,” writes Kaplan in the introduction. She admits that this attraction and “illicit pleasure” sounds “counter-intuitive,” yet “because they are beautiful, these works entice our reflection, our attention, and our questioning.”


The viewer, it seems, can see a painting – even one that depicts genocide – as beautiful, insofar as she or he manages to intellectually appreciate the layers of meaning in the work. “In contrast to some notions of beauty as merely pretty or attractive, I use beauty to designate texts that offer ambiguous, diverse, complicated, open-ended reflections on the Holocaust,” Kaplan explains. According to this definition of beauty, even evil can be beautiful – so long as it is deep. Evil might even be directly proportional to beauty – the greater the evil, the more potential for beauty.



“Kovno Ghetto.” 22″ x 30″, watercolor/photo collage, mixed media on paper. Courtesy: Joyce Ellen Weinstein.



Kaplan’s book does not mention Washington, DC-based artist Joyce Ellen Weinstein, but it still proves an invaluable model for contextualizing and analyzing Weinstein’s work. Weinstein, whose Holocaust paintings and collages will be on exhibit next month at the Florida Holocaust Museum, readily admits she intends to create beautiful works despite the gruesome content, which surfaces in the form of illegible writing – as in “Wooden Synagogue Story II.”


The title refers to the once numerous European wooden synagogues created between the 17th and early 20th centuries. Today only 23 remain, according to Weinstein, who has visited many of the remaining synagogues, especially the eight that still stand in Lithuania. She was particularly fascinated by the “many layers of history” she found in the synagogues. They stand in remote villages, looking more like barns than places of worship, and in a hidden cemetery abandoned during the Holocaust and the subsequent Soviet occupation.


Layered over the painting (which includes a collage of elements from the synagogue), Weinstein wrote out her memories of the synagogue. If the writing looks sloppy it is not the quality of the photograph, for Weinstein wrote the text twice – one on top of the other. “It is my contention that no matter how we try to understand history and human behavior, it is impossible, since so much is left to interpretation and misunderstanding in communication,” she explains of the unreadable text. “Also it is always a mystery to me how history constantly repeats itself, albeit in different forms, because humans never seem to learn anything regardless of how much is written. All writing and interpretation is important, but relatively useless and often confusing.”



Joyce Ellen Weinstein poses in her studio. Photograph: Menachem Wecker.



This sort of writing – which carries form and content, but not lasting meaning – resembles the daily exercise of retired calligraphers outside the Summer Palace in Beijing. Even after retirement the calligraphers continue practicing their craft but, instead of deploying ink on paper, they write with water on the sidewalk. The “writing” quickly evaporates in the sun, but the act seems to be more about the act of writing than it is about communicating.


The same can be said about Weinstein’s texts. She explains that her works are “personal interpretations” and “sometimes conceptual,” and not literal. “I am very careful not to imply that I or any member of my family was caught up in the horror,” she says. “Although I am interested in learning about it, it is from a distance, a modern American woman searching for the past.” This distance can potentially create problems, as it did for Weinstein. In the beginning her work was “extremely sincere,” and she was “deeply immersed in the feeling of it.” But then the paintings started to become rote, so she had to stop making them. “I needed it to be totally honest,” she says. “I think there is a lot of exploitive art being done about the Holocaust.”


Weinstein sensed the importance of perspective traveling in Prague. She became so aware of being a tourist that she decided to stamp her pieces with a frame evocative of a camera viewer. Even as she admits she is not a survivor, Weinstein is a “Holocaust tourist” – an outsider whose every view is framed by the boundary of the lens.



“Old Wooden Synagogue in Lithuania.” Digital Photograph. Courtesy: Joyce Ellen Weinstein.



The camera viewfinder and the illegible writing-atop-writing are two techniques that Weinstein uses to situate herself within a larger historical context, which she says is sadly ignored today. Noting that older and mature artists have always chastised the younger generation for losing a sense of history, she nonetheless maintains that many young artists today are seduced by technology and pop culture, which causes them to lose their sense of art history.


“I believe that the foundations of art, like drawing skills, are essential to producing good art even if the artists are doing totally conceptual or totally formal work – because without drawing, for example, one loses the profound sense of observation and awareness of the world around them,” she says.


Without her sense of history, Joyce Ellen Weinstein’s art would just be the disoriented and selective musings of an outsider. But a tourist like Weinstein, who has done her homework and approaches her travels with a sense of history and research, can turn a disadvantage into a great strength. Precisely because she is an outsider, Weinstein is able to infuse her Holocaust paintings with beauty, and it is that blend of beauty and horror, of life and death, of light and shadow, that allows her to communicate with other tourists.


For more on Joyce Ellen Weinstein’s work, visit www.joyceellenweinstein.com.


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC. 

Title: Scattered Blossoms

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

Title: Scattered Blossoms

Author: Gita Gordon

Publisher: Hamodia Publishing



         Gita Gordon’s well-structured, interesting historic fiction contains the building blocks of a decent society. Her diverse characters include spouses who don’t treat each other as disposable commodities and her books feature marriages that are regarded as permanent commitments, not temporary situations.


         The heroes and heroines of the author’s books are creative, considerate and honest throughout their ordeals and victories.


         South African Journeys is one sterling example of the author’s writing style. Scattered Blossoms is Gita Gordon’s newest work, and follows in the same tradition.


         A realistic tale of betrayal, foolishness, Scattered Blossoms is about four 16-year-old young women whose friendship expresses itself in marvelous ways for the seven decades of the tale. Their carefully considered actions and even tempers ultimately help them salvage good from bad.


         The story begins as the foursome, on the brink of adulthood, rejoices at their final reunion in Lithuania before marrying. After naively departing their picnic site beneath a blooming cherry tree shedding flowers in their hair, the girls and their distinct personalities are pitted against the backdrops of the first and second world wars. South Africa, England, Canada and war-torn Lithuania are then experienced by the reader as much as by the story’s characters during a journey of immigrant Jewish minds and bodies.


         Relationships and catastrophes in this riveting tale are proving grounds for how thoughtful, well-timed behavior can result in richly rewarding lives for all concerned. The list of challenges are familiar and believable: a deceitful shidduch made between an unsuspecting bat Torah and a foolish young man; Jews who resist acknowledging the obvious advent of the Holocaust; opportunists preying on bedraggled Jews leaving post-Shoah detention camps; and culture shocks for reluctant immigrants.


         Generation gaps between European parents and their English-speaking offspring round out the emotional roller-coasters in Scattered Blossoms. But educational surprises are in store for readers savoring the cinematic qualities of this dramatic manuscript.


         The book’s disparate characters and familiar historical figures are compelling throughout this fictional tale. Genuine friendship and its life-altering rewards are exemplified on its pages.


         Outstanding models of good character with an enduring love of Torah, the heroic quartet of friends meet challenges with each other’s help.


         Half the foursome make their lives in Canada’s to-be tamed prairie, proving to skeptical husbands and others that the impossible dream of becoming Jewish farmers can be achieved with love, devotion and good sense.


         The third friend in South Africa proves the invaluable worth of tact and enduring love as she enables her friends in Canada and Europe to survive and thrive against great odds. And the fourth friend records the last days of pre-Holocaust Europe, portraying the innocent but tragic denial tactics of many of Hitler’s intended victims.


         Find out why your great-grandparents are relevant to modern life. Get copies of this book for school and community center libraries. It’s excellent.

Gilded Lions And Jeweled Horses: Woodcarving From The Synagogue To The Carousel

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel

American Folk Art Museum

45 West 53rd Street

New York, N.Y. 10019



Tuesday – Sunday: 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Closed Monday

Admission $9; Students and Seniors, $7; Children under 12, Free

Exhibit Runs Until March 23, 2008



         Much like the Jewish people themselves, the legacy of Jewish Art has miraculously survived seemingly endless assaults over the past two centuries. In Eastern Europe, the forces of assimilation, cultural denial, and the Holocaust have worked to destroy a vast portion of our cultural birthright. Countless synagogues, along with their prized carved arks, decorated walls, illuminated manuscripts, books, Judaica, and folk art creations have been abandoned and left to decay as traditional communities have withered and died. Those who hate us have purposefully destroyed other synagogues outright.


         Nonetheless, a remnant of this precious legacy has endured, and one of the best examples of its glory is currently on view at the American Folk Art Museum. Both the exhibit, “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel,” and the brilliant catalogue are musts for all who cherish our cultural heritage.


         Aside from pure artistic pride, we discover another historical gem in this exhibition: the echoes of fantastic 17th century Baroque art as filtered through a Jewish consciousness embedded in woodcarving, stone-cutting, and papercuts. The exhibition charts the art of Jewish craftsmen as they worked in stone, paper, and wood from their origins in Eastern Europe to their subsequent work in American synagogues and the surprising role they played in the burgeoning carousel industry in the early 20th century.


         “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses” is divided into five chronological sections, starting with photographs and exacting models of Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian wooden synagogues. This introduction sets a tone of architectural and visual opulence more common to 17th and 18th century Baroque Italian churches than our subdued and austere concept of synagogue architecture and interiors. What we forget (and these photographs confirm) is that the excitement and passion of the Baroque-emblematic of the Counter Reformation assault against the Protestant heresy-became a universal visual language for all of Europe, including the Jews, in the early years of the 17th century. While the Renaissance stressed balance and harmony, the Baroque style was exuberant, dramatic, and emotional, reveling in fantastic animals and symbols that expressed a fervent religious experience.



Ark of the Synagogue in Olkienniki, Lithuania (18th century);

Photo courtesy Polska Akademia Nauk, Instytut Sztuki, Warsaw



         The salient features of these synagogues were the lavishly painted and decorated interiors and the elaborately carved wooden arks. From these surviving photographs we can make out but a few examples of a flourishing art form: ornately detailed floral designs interspersed with zodiac signs and panels of textural quotes (Chodorow, Ukraine) and a wonderful painted menagerie of winged lions, eagles, and fantastic beasts (Grojec, Poland) that adorn the sacred interiors.


         The 18th century Torah ark seen from Olkienniki, Lithuania is a masterpiece of iconography, intricately carved and crowned with a double-headed eagle (representing temporal and celestial power) grasping a shofar and lulav bundle. Below is the ubiquitous blessing of priestly hands that hover over a crowned set of Tablets of the Law flanked by carved griffins, unicorns, and other mythical animals.


         Even closer to the viewer is a depiction of the Ouroburos, a serpent swallowing its own tail which represents the Leviathan, emblematic of renewal, eternity, redemption and the source of nourishment in the messianic world to come. Arks like these were often over 30 feet tall and were Baroque masterpieces of wood carving that substituted squirming beasts and vine-like flowers for the flying angels so common in many churches. Of the hundreds of similar wooden synagogues, almost all were destroyed in the Holocaust. All that is left are a dozen or so photographs, many of which can be seen here.


         The next section of photographs is of carved gravestones from Eastern Europe, continuing the rich iconography in a decidedly more primitive form. The four animals from Pirke Avot 5:23, “be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in heaven,” are still in evidence, as are the messianic imagery of the Ouroburos and the ever present lions that guard the precious Torah.


         The difference is that almost all the renderings in stone are considerably more iconic than the pliable wooden arks. These rich and inventive stone-carved images are trapped in an unforgiving medium. Only the inherent durability of stone and pure chance has allowed many of these tombstones to survive the ravages of time and war.


         Papercuts are ultimately the most surprising aspect of this exhibition, which presents 32 brilliant masterpieces in a tour de force of folk art skill. Their creativity and diversity are breathtaking, and the impressive showing amounts to a world-class introduction to this uniquely Jewish art form. Starting in the 19th century, when paper became relatively inexpensive, this delicate and demanding art was practiced primarily by young boys and men. The paper was folded, cut according to an exacting design, and then laid on solid colored background to enhance the image. Some, if not all, of the paper was ornamented with ink and watercolor to create a rich, delicate, and multilayered symmetrical image. Almost half of the papercuts shown here are American, the rest from Eastern Europe. The subjects range from omer calendar, zodiac, sukkah decoration, mizrach (the majority of examples containing the phrase mi tzad ruach chayim, “from [the East] comes the breath of life”), amulets, shiviti, yarhzeit, family memorials and an eruv tavshilin. The richness and complexity of the imagery is breathtaking, one example more stunning than the next. The very nature of the detailed and painstaking medium becomes the message of an intense visual universe brimming with symbols and shared meaning.



Mizrah by Natan Moshe Brilliant, Lithuania 1877;

Ink, paint and collage; The Gross Family Collection, Tel Aviv;

Photo by Vladimir Naikhin, Jerusalem



         One especially unusual example of a mizrach is by Natan Moshe Brilliant from Lithuania (1877). It manages to combine not only cut and painted elements but also collages from printed sources, thereby weaving a symbolic and complex narrative. Starting at the bottom, Moshe and Aaron flank a menorah within an evocative architectural space supporting a register of zodiac images that in turn are the foundation for depictions of David playing the harp, Abraham slaughtering the ram, Moses removing his shoes at the Burning Bush and finally, a poetic rendering of Noah and the ark. And this only scratches the surface of the iconographic treasure house that is contained in this large papercut masterpiece.


         Just as with the tombstone carvings, the difficulty of the medium itself tends to limit the depth of content available to the craftsman. Complexity made up of stock symbols can only take artistic expression so far. The greater flowering of artistic expression is found in the Torah ark woodcarvings in the next section of the exhibit.


         This selection of 32 rampant lions, some with luchos (Decalogue), is the most exciting visual and artistic aspect of “Synagogue to Carousel.” While two actual arks are shown (one from Nova Scotia, Canada and the other from Chelsea, Massachusetts), all the rest of these works are extremely evocative fragments of carved wood arks, the ever-present lions flanking a depiction of the frequently crowned Ten Commandments.


         As we see the examples of Torah arks made in America, we recognize that the Baroque elements have been sharply reduced to only a few elements- peripheral ornamentation and the depictions of the rampant lions. From their profiles, the lions look like standardized ferocious beasts. But once they face us a wonderful transformation takes place. The animal face takes on more and more human qualities, rendering the symbolic guardians of the Torah considerably more complex and nuanced. It is here that the artistic genius and genuine passion of these mostly anonymous craftsmen soars.


         Three sets of lions on one wall offer instructive distinctions. One, from Newport, Kentucky, presents solemn, Egyptian-style animals; another pair from Kansas City, Missouri, bellows a hysterical unhinged growl with tongues protruding, and finally, a Midwestern pair guards with a set of profiles reminiscent of Chinese images-blood-red eyes, mouth and claws. The diversity of images seems to represent the individuality of both the artist and the congregation in interpreting what guarding the Torah might mean.



Ark Pediment, artist unknown, Lower East Side;

Collection of Rabbi David A. Whiman;

Photo by August Bandal, New York



         Three pairs of lions (possibly created by the same artist) and salvaged from New York’s Lower East Side, seem gleeful in their defense of the holy luchos. Another set of rampant lion faces (also from the Lower East Side) remind one of the terribly serious and fearsome elders of those venerable congregations, weathered faces that betray the trials and tribulations these immigrant Jews endured. What comes to mind perusing these sculptures is that each represents a destroyed Torah ark and an abandoned congregation. These are the surviving fragments of the decimation of American Jewish life; their beauty and diversity are the tragic evidence of how much has been lost.


         The artisans who labored on the American Torah arks were immigrants from Eastern Europe who had practiced the same skills back in Europe. But once here in America they began to diversify by necessity, many using their skills in furniture, cabinetmaking, woodworking, and carpentry. When they could, they continued in creating Torah arks.  One such artisan was the legendary Samuel Katz from the Ukraine. He arrived in America in 1907 and by 1913 had moved to the Boston area. During the 1920′s and 1930′s he carved at least 23 Torah arks, making him the “most prolific identified ark builder in America.” But not all such artisans were as successful.


         America at the turn of the 20th century was a land of opportunity, and the combination of an immigrant urban population, mass transit and the greatest amusement park in the United States, Coney Island, opened doors for Jewish craftsmen to work in what was a booming industry: the carving of horses and other animals for carousels and other amusements. As this exhibition shows, four Jewish carvers, Marcus Charles Illions (whom we know did synagogue carving), Charles Carmel, and the team of Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein, brought to perfection what became known as the Coney Island Style of animal carving. It is characterized by its flamboyant and expressive details and poses of the horses. Manes fly in the air, and horses toss their heads, stomp their hoofs and snort in unbridled passion.



Standing Horse with Raised Head by Charles Carmel, Coney Island, c.1910;

The Charlotte Dinger Collection; Photo by August Bandal, New York



         From the examples we have here these artists had clearly different styles. Illions’ animals tended to have a fluid Baroque quality, combining a forceful naturalism with drama. In contrast, Stein and Goldstein (they were a partnership) tended toward a more restrained and medieval image. Finally Carmel, while fluent in more than one style as they all were, seemed to favor the brute passion of a barely tamed beast characterized by an open mouth, lolling tongue, and terrified eyes. It is in his works most of all that the Baroque heritage surfaces in its secular manifestation and is most deeply felt.


         The history of the American synagogue since mid-century has been tragic, many, many abandoned and destroyed along with the precious art they contained. So too, the great centers of carousel and amusement park carving, abandoned or updated to machine-made imitations. The guest curator of this exhibition, Murray Zimiles, researched and documented this vast project for the last 20 years, tirelessly collecting material and connections from Europe, America, and Israel. Stacy C. Hollander, the American Folk Art Museum senior curator, coordinated with Zimiles and made this exhibition possible. Together they have managed to “return to the Jewish people, and to world culture, an awareness of and appreciation for a visual tradition of great beauty, vitality, symbolic richness, and decorative complexity that flourished over a period of several centuries in Central and Eastern Europe and flourished briefly in the New World where it underwent a remarkable transformation and secularization.”


         The remnants we see here are indicative of what we as a people are capable of creating. We only have to believe in our skills and insights as Jewish artists to allow our art to bloom once again. It is this realization that makes “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses” such an inspirational exhibition.


         Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at  rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

The Multimillionaire Who Remained True to Orthodoxy

Wednesday, April 19th, 2006

Note: Most of the information in this article is based upon Forty Years of Struggle for a Principle: the Biography of Harry Fischel,edited by Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, published by the Bloch Publishing Company, New York, 1928, and the unpublished manuscript Continuation of Biography of Harry Fischel, 1928-1941. The published book will be referred to as B, and the unpublished manuscript as UB.
In 1924 Harry Fischel had occasion to visit the town of Eishishok in Lithuania. Eishishok is located a few miles from Radin, where Rabbi Yisroel Meyer Hakohen Kagan, zt”l, popularly known as the Chofetz Chaim, lived.

When the Chofetz Chaim learned that Mr. Fischel was nearby, he immediately sent an “automobile bus used for the purpose of conveying students from the station at Radin to the yeshiva, to take Mr. Fischel to Radin. Accompanying the bus was a committee of students. Mr. Fischel was met at a considerable distance from the yeshiva by the rabbi, then 86 years of age, who personally escorted him to his home and then through the Talmudical college” (B page 318).

Who was this remarkable man whom the Chofetz Chaim went to great effort to see, spend so much time with, and honor in such a manner?

Humble Beginnings

Yisroel Aaron Fischel (later known as Harry) was born on July 19, 1865, in the small, isolated Russian town of Meretz. His father, as well as most of the residents of Meretz, barely eked out a living. His parents were admired, however, for their deep piety, and they did their utmost to instill Torah values in their children. They were successful with Harry, who throughout his life remained an Orthodox Jew strictly committed to the observance of mitzvos.

Mr. Fischel received a basic religious and secular education from his father and the local school. It’s interesting to note that he apparently had virtually no exposure to Torah she’ b’al peh.

“I had no opportunity [in my youth] to acquire very much Hebrew knowledge. However, since I came to our free country ‘America,’ where knowledge can be acquired without any hardship and without any cost, I immediately took advantage of the opportunity and began the study of Mishna.” (UB pages 83-84.)

“At the age of only ten years, he spent some weeks in modeling from wood, with a lowly pen-knife, a miniature replica of the Tabernacle [mishkan], so accurately designed according to the description in the Scriptures, and so carefully executed, as to excite the wonderment and surprise of the dwellers in the town. Through this bit of work, done on his own initiative, the boy developed a taste for the profession he was later to adopt.” (B pages 4-5).

The aptitude Harry exhibited at such a young age would enable him to master the rudiments of architecture by the age of eighteen.

At that time all able-bodied Russian youths were compelled to serve in the army for five years as soon as they reachd the age of twenty-one. To avoid this, Harry, at age twenty, made the difficult decision to leave his beloved parents and to immigrate to America.

“Their final words of admonition were, ‘When you reach the golden land, do not exchange your religion for gold.’”(B page 9.) He never forgot these words as long as he lived.

Early Struggles

Harry Fischel arrived in the United States on a bitter cold day in December of 1885 with only sixty cents in his pocket and the clothes on his back. He first tried to secure a job in an architectural firm, but soon saw that this was hopeless. He therefore became a carpenter’s assistant, earning three dollars a week. Harry did not forget his parents after his arrival in the goldene medina. His commitment to the mitzvah of kibud av v’aim led him to send his entire first week’s wages to his parents. He asked the family he lived with to extend him credit for his room and board.

“From this time on, the young man never failed to send his mother and father a monthly remittance of at least ten roubles, or about five dollars in American money, so budgeting his expenses and living on such fare as to make this possible, no matter how small his earnings were.” (B page 15.)

Shmiras Shabbos, No Matter What

We live in a time and place where laws protect the Sabbath observer from discrimination. Most businesses have a five-day workweek. While it’s true that observant Jews still encounter situations in the workplace that test their commitment to Yiddishkeit, today’s milieu is a far cry from the one Harry Fischel found himself in when he first arrived in America.

Harry worked for six months as a carpenter’s assistant, toiling 12 hours a day and then spending two hours in night school, where he studied English and broadened his knowledge of architecture. He did not mind the long and grueling hours because he did not have to work on Shabbos.

Eventually an architectural firm offered him a position at ten dollars a week. While this presented him with a great opportunity, he would have been required to work on Shabbos. After some soul searching, he recalled the words of his parents – “Do not exchange your religion for money” – and refused the offer, continuing on in his low-paying job.

More difficulties loomed, however. One summer day he arrived to work only to find his place of employment closed – the owner had gone bankrupt. All Harry’s attempts to find another job proved fruitless, because every time he applied for a position, he made it clear that he would not work on Shabbos.

Finally he was hired by a firm of architects – but during the interview, he had chosen not to tell them he was a Sabbath observer. He hoped the firm would let him have Shabbos off based on the quality of his work and his willingness to work for five days at considerably lower wages than he’d been offered for six.

The job turned out to be all that Harry had hoped for and more. The week flew by as he applied himself in his new position. The working conditions were excellent, and he found the work interesting and stimulating. But when he approached his employer on Friday afternoon and asked if he could have Saturday off, he was told, “If you don’t come tomorrow, you need not come on Monday.”

He was now faced with a most difficult test of his religious principles. This job ws precisely what he had been looking for, and it held the potential for the realization of his dream to become an architect. It appeared to be the road that would lead him from poverty to financial success.

Harry spent a sleepless night agonizing over what to do. He finally decided that he would get up early Shabbos morning, daven, and then go to work. After davening he headed home to change from his Shabbos suit to weekday clothes and go to work.

Arriving at the corner of Hester and Essex Streets on the Lower East Side, he saw that not a single store was open. The streets were filled with people dressed in their Shabbos finery. The atmosphere of Shabbos was everywhere. Harry was truly torn by his predicament. He thought of how shocked and disappointed his parents would be if they knew what he was thinking of doing. Finally, with great difficulty, he made his decision.

“He knew that neither then nor later would it ever be possible for him to desecrate the Sabbath.”(B page 19.)

On Monday he returned to his place of employment. He pleaded with his employers to let him work a five-day week, saying he would accept half of the salary that had been agreed upon when he was hired. Not only was his plea rejected, he was not even paid for the week that he had worked.

Such were the tests observant Jews faced in America at the end of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century.

Marriage, More Job Related Problems – and Success

Harry finally found a suitable job in October 1886, as a foreman for a builder. The hours were long, but at least Shabbos was not a problem. On November 26, 1887, he married Jane Brass. She had immigrated to America in 1883. She came from a fine religious home. Indeed, her father, brother and grandfather were all talmidei chachomim.

“Thus, the young woman possessed in both her antecedents and upbringing all those qualities most likely to appeal to the young man and to strengthen and encourage all that was best in his own character.” (B page 24.)

Harry’s employer gave him two weeks’ vacation as a wedding present. When he returned, however, he was told there was no work and he should look for another job. The newlyweds now faced a most difficult time. Harry spent months looking for a job, without success. Things were so bad that the couple was forced to pawn every item of value just to get through the terrible winter of 1887-88.

The tide turned in July of 1888. Harry was asked by Mr. Newman Cowan, a customer of his former employer, to estimate the cost of raising the roof of the building that Cowan̓s business occupied. The job was so large and complex that many contractors refused to even bid on it. Further, Harry had no capital with which to undertake such a job. He told this to Cowen, who replied that if the price were right he would arrange credit for him.

The work took five months to complete. Harry’s cost estimates were so precise that not only did he make a good living on this job, he was also able to save $250, a substantial sum in those days. The most beneficial outcome was that he became well-known as a successful contractor, one very much in demand.

In the year following the completion of this job, Harry had so much work that he built up his savings to some $2,500. For the reader to fully appreciate what that amount of money represented, consider that $2,500 in the year 1889, according to the consumer price index, had the same purchase power as $50,883.78 in the year 2004. Or, looking at it from the perspective of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita, an index of the economy̓s average output per person that is closely correlated with the average income, $2,500 in the year 1889 was equivalent to $12,335.26 in2004. (See http://eh.net/hmit/compare/ for details.)

Mr. Fischel was now on his way to affluence.

“The story of the next few years [of his life] reads like a fairy tale.” (B page 31.)

His abilities as a businessman and his expertise in construction and architecture led him to financial success after financial success. By 1900 he was the owner of a number of tenements and, eventually, entire buildings on Park Avenue in the most affluent neighborhood in New York City. He now had a large annual income.

In short, in little more than thirteen years Harry Fischel had gone from a condition of dire poverty to one of affluence, becoming a multimillionaire at a time when even being a millionaire was nowhere near as common as it is today.

Through all his success he remained true to Orthodox Judaism.

“Mr. Fischel’s principles as to Sabbath observance went far deeper than merely refusing to work himself on that day, his religious code held it equally wicked to cause others to work and he at once met the problem, not only by closing down operations of his own buildings, but by setting an example for others by paying hundreds of men the wage they would have obtained by working the half day Saturday, in order that they might resist the temptation to desecrate the day. Not only then, but in later years, when he came to build on a very extensive scale, it is Mr. Fischel’s pride that not a single Jew has ever worked on the Sabbath on any operation on which he has been engaged or in which he has been interested.” (B pages 32-33.)

Harry Fischel’s rise is not the only rags-to-riches story that occurred in the goldene medina in those times. What makes his unique is what he did with his success.

“He regarded the prosperity which had come to him as a direct answer to his prayers and considered that it imposed a definite obligation upon him to express his gratitude in good deeds. While he continued to strive to increase his holdings and to make more secure his fortune, it was mainly with the desire to place himself in a position where he might devote himself with greater zeal to his religion and might have more time to be of service to others.” (B page 84.)

Mr. Fischel became involved in a myriad of Jewish causes. These spanned such endeavors as founding the first religious classes for girls in 1894, playing a key role in HIAS (Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society), serving as vice president of Beth Israel Hospital, and becoming perhaps the major figure involved in the founding of Yeshiva College, to name just a few.

(Editor’s Note: There is hardly enough space here to discuss all the philanthropic concerns Harry Fischel was involved with throughout his life. His efforts to promote Orthodoxy will be discussed in some detail in Dr. Levine’s next “Glimpses into American Jewish History” column, which will appear in the May 5 issue of The Jewish Press.

(The author wishes to thank Rabbi Aaron Reichel, a great-grandson of Harry Fischel and the author of The Maverick Rabbi, for his assistance with the preparation of this aricle.)

Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. His “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” feature appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Letters to the Editor

Wednesday, August 18th, 2004

Return To Cafe Hillel

After sitting shiva for my brother, Dr. David Applebaum, my family and I returned twice to the very spot where he and his daughter were blown up by a suicide bomber in Cafe Hillel. With tears in our eyes we lit two yahrzeit candles.

Within three months we again visited Cafe Hillel, this time on the occasion of its grand reopening. The place was packed wall to wall; it was as if nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened.

When my family entered the cafe, we asked to speak to the manager, and I explained who we were. They couldn’t have been nicer, told us how sorry they were, and gave us dessert on the house.

Some people may wonder why go back to Cafe Hillel after my brother and my niece were killed there. I want to show the terrorists that I am not afraid. I enjoy sitting in cafes and restaurants with family and friends; besides, that?s what my brother would want us to do – and enjoy doing it.

Geela Applebaum Gordon

Tears For AHeart Unhinged

Re: ‘My Heart Unhinged’ by Robert J. Avrech (front-page essay, July 16):

As I write this, I have not stopped crying. I cry in sympathy for the Avrechs and in gratitude that my 29-year-old (Yeshivah of Flatbush grad) son was blessed to recover from his open heart surgery at three years of age.

I pray that Hashem gives the Avrechs comfort and strength and that they continue to bless their Ariel’s memory with their openness and mitzvot. I, thank G-d, cannot imagine the grief that the Avrech family feels but my heart cries out for them and my prayers are with them.

Mary Ann Shakarchi
Brooklyn, NY

Tears (II)

Thank you for the beautifully written, haunting cover essay by Robert Avrech. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I had tears in my eyes as first I read the article – and again when I read it a second time a day later. My heart goes out to the Avrech family, and I hope that the emunah that comes through Mr. Avrech’s writing will be strong enough to overcome any feelings of hopelessness and despair.

Michael Alexander
New York, NY

Palestinian Idea Of Democracy

If the proposed Palestinian state is to be democratic, why do Palestinian leaders insist on expelling Jewish settlers? A real democracy does not expel people on account of ethnicity or nationality, but welcomes all. A real democracy does not demolish homes of peaceful families, it gives them rights and protection under the law.

If Arabs can participate in the Knesset, why can’t Jews participate in a future Palestinian parliament? How can you have a real democracy in Palestine when the Palestinians propose want a population of zero Jews? We taught them democracy, gave them jobs, roads, schools – and now we are being betrayed in a most undemocratic manner.

Sergio Kadinsky,
Forest Hills, NY

Fence Is Not Enough

The Israeli security fence, though helpful in the short-term, is not enough. Allowed to operate in freedom anywhere in the world, let alone on the other side of a fence, terrorists will figure out ways to perpetrate their horrendous acts despite passive defensive measures.

The Bush Administration has largely understood that it is necessary to destroy the regimes that support terrorism, not just selectively target individual terrorists (as Israel has done). But despite President Bush’s refusal to deal with Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat, U.S. officials continue to view the PA as a legitimate body, albeit one that is not always sufficiently vigorous in its efforts against terrorism.

The refusal of the U.S. to treat the PA as the terrorist organization it is detracts from the overall U.S. effort against terrorism. What is more puzzling is the refusal of Israel itself to focus on the PA as a terrorist entity. Instead, Israel contents itself with isolating Arafat while pretending that the rest of the PA is a viable future peace partner, if only it would shake off its leader.

The Oslo Accords have established a terrorist entity on Israel’s borders. The longer Israel denies that reality, the more Israelis will be massacred and the longer it will take to reach a true peace. In the meantime, Israel can expect little international sympathy for its fence as long as Israeli leaders continue to maintain that the defensive measures they take are against mere terrorist gangs - rather than against a sustained terror war conducted by their neighbor.

Aharon J. Friedman
Brooklyn, NY

The Whole Story

In the West Coast section in your July 2 issue, it was mentioned that Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines brochures contained information about kosher food certified under the OU. Your correspondent further stated that the food in fact is not certified by the OU.

That is not, however, the whole story. Yes, the statement was correct about the food not being certified by the OU – but it is certified by the Star-K of Baltimore. By omitting this information, you may have caused readers to believe that the kosher food offered by Royal Caribbean is not really kosher.

As an Orthodox newspaper, it is important for you to be sensitive to such matters, whether it be about cruise line food or kosher restaurants.

Seymour Litwin
Beverly Hills, CA

July 4, 1776

Not to take anything away from Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz’s trenchant critique of the slippery slope from colonial American liberty to modern American license (op-ed, July 2, ‘Why Was The Vilna Gaon Fasting on July 4, 1776?’), but some clarification is needed. Accuracy and emes are important virtues, too.

While it would appear that there is a confluence of dates at work here (17 Tammuz and July 4), in fact this may not be so.

The Gregorian calendar, which added some 10 days to dates throughout the British Empire when adopted in the mid-18th century, was put into effect at different times in different places. Best known, perhaps is the fact that Russia converted to this system only after World War I, which is why the October Revolution actually took place in November. Less known is the fact that Britain was well behind the curve, with some European states, notably the Italian provinces, adopting that calendar nearly two centuries earlier.

Now, although Poland, along with those Italian provinces mentioned above, adopted the new system in 1585 – i.e., well before the time of the Gaon – it is unclear whether Lita did the same. The fact remains that Lithuania, not always independent, was part of several different states in its history, some of which did not adopt that calendar until long after the Gaon lived. Officially, at least, Lithuania and other Baltic states did not take on the new calendar until the period between 1915 and 1918.

This makes it very likely that the equivalent secular date in Lithuania on 17 Tammuz 5536 (America’s July 4, 1776) was, in Lithuania, a date in late June 1776.

Again, this does not detract from Rabbi Seplowitz’s thesis, which used the dates as a springboard. But readers should be cognizant of the difference between pshat (plain meaning) and remez (allusion) in divrei Torah.

Myron B. Chaitovsky
Teaneck, NJ

Rabbi Seplowitz responds: Mr. Chaitovsky may very well be correct that “17 Tammuz 5536 (America’s July 4, 1776) was, in Lithuania, a date in late June 1776.” However, that is not relevant to my point. My point was that the Declaration of Independence was adopted in Philadelphia on a day when Jews throughout the world, from Vilna to Pressburg to Baghdad to Jerusalem, were fasting.

The Jewish calendar is universally consistent. (The last major calendar debate, Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon vs. Rabbi Aharon ben Meir, took place over a thousand years ago. At that time, their argument led to a two-day discrepancy as to when Rosh Hashanah, etc. came out.) With the obvious exception of time zone differences and the halachic monkey wrench known as the International Dateline, the entire Jewish world commemorates all holidays and fasts at the same time. Jews in every country have the same Rosh Hashanah, the same Yom Kippur, and the same 17th of Tammuz.

On 17 Tammuz 5536, Jews throughout the world were fasting. Whether they lived in Philadelphia, Vilna, or Beijing, they all fasted that day. Another thing that happened that day is that the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia adopted the Declaration of Independence. That day, the local calendar in Philadelphia, London, and Rome read: “July 4.” The local calendar in Vilna, on that same day, may have read: “June 23.”

Philadelphia called 17 Tammuz “July 4.” Vilna called 17 Tammuz “June 23.” It was the same day.

Responding To WOW’s Critics

I was disappointed but not surprised to read the three letters published last week in response to my report (Letters, July 2) about sinat chinam at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh Tammuz. All three seemed to share an unfortunate common denominator: that bad behavior is excusable and even encouraged in the service of certain goals, dubious though they may be.

Regarding Arthur Greebler’s letter: One wonders what he would have said of Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Ya’akov movement, which encountered a great deal of opposition in their time but are taken for granted today as sterling examples of frumkeit. I suggest he study the halachic literature on women’s tefillah groups, which contains a great deal of research and food for thought. Once he has done so, perhaps he will be moved to ask pertinent questions. As it is, his innuendoes about the marital status, prayer habits and private domestic arrangements of members of Women of the Wall are plainly meant not as respectful inquiry but as insult and offense, to which the only appropriate response can be: For shame, sir. How dare you?!

Devora Papelow and Naomi Zupnik raise the possibility that the women who rioted at the Kotel were acting like Pinchas, who is known for the zeal with which he killed a member of Klal Yisrael who acted in a blatantly improper manner. Do they then believe that the members of Women of the Wall deserve a similar fate for praying in a manner that has halachic support, even if they disagree with specific opinions? I would point out to them that the behavior of the women who rioted at the Kotel was characteristic not of mature women but of unruly kindergarten pupils, and the hatred in their eyes was unmistakable. I have seen eight-year-old girls protest with more eloquence and better manners, while the behavior of these women completely lacked the modesty and refinement Jewish women are supposed to exemplify.

Finally, Shira Leibowitz Schmidt’s letter conveniently fails to mention her role in instigating the disturbance. One would think that such a well-educated woman has better things to do with her energies than to waste them on an ill-conceived, unhealthy obsession – whether her own or others’ – about Women of the Wall.

Regrettably, it appears that far too many members of Klal Yisrael are willing to countenance all sorts of bad behavior in order to attain a given goal – in this case, preventing Jewish women from praying as a group and reading Torah at our holiest accessible site. It saddens me that otherwise educated Jews are so narrow-minded and fearful regarding women’s tefillah. I thank the Holy One that Jewish law rises far above such pettiness, and I wish all of us the intellectual honesty to distinguish between personal emotion and halacha.

Rahel Jaskow
(Via E-Mail)

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