Yiddish Theatre Forum [YTF]
Joel Berkowitz, Editor 
Contents of Vol. 03.008
22 December 2004

1) Yiddish theatre librettos and scripts (Lloica Czackis)
2) The Streets of Buenos Aires: Jevel Katz and Yiddish Popular Culture in the Argentine Metropolis (Zachary Baker)

Date: 20 December 2004
From: Lloica Czackis 
Subject: Yiddish theatre librettos and scripts

Tayere khaveyrim,

I am looking for the librettos/scripts of the following Yiddish theatre
plays/musicals and operettas:

1. Musical _Eyne in a milyonen_ ('One in a million'), 1934. Libretto by
Anschel Schorr; lyrics by Molly Picon; music by Abraham Ellstein.
2. Musical _Eyn mol in lebn_ ('Once in a lifetime'), 1934. (Libretto?);
lyrics by Molly Picon; music by Abraham Ellstein. [perhaps Nos. 1 and 2 are the same piece???]
3. Musical _Der katerinshtshik_ ('The organ grinder'), 1934. Libretto by Louis Freiman; lyrics by Chaim Tauber; music by Alexander Olshanetsky.  Premi?red at David Kessler's Second Avenue Theater, under the direction of Illia Trilling and starring Luba Kadison.
4. Operetta _Mayn Malkele_ ('My Malkele'), 1937. Libretto by William Siegel; lyrics by Jacob Jacobs; music by Abraham Ellstein. Premi?red at the Public Theatre on 2nd ave., starring Molly Picon and Yakob Sussanoff.
5. Film _A brivele der mamen_ ('A little letter to mother'). Lyrics & music by Abraham Ellstein.

Is there a single source where one could find such information, and if not, where to start?

A sheynem dank in foroys,

Lloica Czackis

Date: 20 December 2004
From:  Zachary Baker < zbaker@stanford.edu>
Subject: The Streets of Buenos Aires: Jevel Katz and Yiddish Popular Culture in the Argentine Metropolis

Two books devoted to Jews and the tango have been published in recent
years, and the name Jevel Katz appears in only one of them - and only in
passing.  "In the absence of tango lyrics reflecting themselves," writes
Julio Nudler, "the Jews in the Thirties had their own troubadour, Jevel
Katz - nicknamed for that reason _El Gardel Jud?o_." [1]  Jos? Judkovski,
the host of "Buenos Aires:  Fervor y Tango," a program on the Jewish
community station Radio Jai in Buenos Aires, is the author of the other
book on Jewish connections to the tango in Argentina [2] and Jevel Katz's
name does not figure at all within its pages.

During a visit to Buenos Aires in May 1996, I was among those present in
the "live studio audience" for the hundredth broadcast of the weekly
Yiddish program on Radio Jai. The host of a tango program that aired on the
same community radio station put in an appearance at this special Yiddish
broadcast.  (It was probably Jos? Judkovski himself.)  In the course of his
remarks to those present inside the makeshift auditorium at the Casa Sim?n
Dubnow and beyond, among other things, Radio Jai's tango DJ commented that
his show and the Yiddish program both endeavored to preserve important
aspects of their community's cultural heritage.  For Argentine Jews of a
certain age and background, the coupling of Yiddish and tango seemed to be
only natural.

Jevel Katz was a phenomenally popular performer within the Yiddish-speaking
milieu of Argentina and Uruguay during the 1930s, and yet by the time that
Julio Nudler's and Jos? Judkovski's  books came out, in 1998, his relevance
to their chosen topic was apparently deemed to be tangential at best.  My
first exposure to Jevel Katz's songs came during a visit that I made to
Buenos Aires in May 1996.  My hosts from the Fundaci?n IWO took me to a
musical revue bearing the macaronic title "T? con l?mene," which included
Spanish renditions of several of his most popular tunes.  Early in the
program the players sang one of Katz's signature numbers, a song combining
Eastern European and Latin rhythms, "Mucho ojo."  The language of the
opening stanza, which is set in the Old Country, is in pure Yiddish, unlike
the rest of the song, which is written in a seamless m?lange of Yiddish and
Spanish, as when it rhymes "ojo" with "mazl-brokho."

The Yiddish segment of the Argentine record market must have been tiny
during the 1930s - a decade when ethnic recordings of all kinds, including
Yiddish recordings - flourished on the much larger North American scene.[3]
Because he made only a handful of recordings Katz was not able to rely upon
them as a primary means of disseminating and popularizing his songs.
Rather, he derived most of his considerable popularity from live stage
performances and radio broadcasts.[4] "Mucho ojo" is one of about half a
dozen recordings where we actually have an opportunity to hear Jevel Katz's
distinctive voice and performance style.  In addition, performers such as
the actors Max Perelman and Max Zalkind recorded a number of songs by him,
and Spanish versions of some of them have also been recorded.

In a series of seeming non-sequiturs,  "Mucho ojo" conveys a rake's
progress in Argentina.  Adhering to his Old Country rabbi's advice to keep
his eyes wide open and look out for himself, the young male narrator thumbs
his nose at the world, proclaiming, "I don't burn myself with a hot _mate_
anymore; I say '_and? ba?ate_,' don't bother me!"  "Mucho ojo" is a user's
guide to the alien Latin metropolis where the young male immigrant has
landed.  He cheats at auctions and fools around with young women, all the
while taking care to escape any possible repercussions unscathed.  His
brazen behavior perplexes the angels on high, who observe that the
"troublesome Jews... sin like the goyim and then sway in the synagogue...
as if there is no tomorrow."  "Mucho ojo" utilizes several elements that
the ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin enumerates as typical of popular song in
the immigrant era - "whimsy," "the simple urge to create a rhyme,"
"linguistic variety and hyperbole, along with cultural excess, reflect[ing]
the disarray of immigrant life" - adding up to "a comment on the
hurly-burly hodge-podge nature" of life in the new land.[5]  Like its
creator, though, this is a song that transcends the limitations of genre to
which it might otherwise have been consigned, and its charms are fully
evident at first hearing.

Before immigrating to Argentina in May 1930, Jevel Katz was an impoverished
young typographer, employed by the famous Brothers and Widow Romm printing
house in Vilna.  He sang his earliest compositions, to guitar
accompaniment, before gatherings of his fellow members of the Vilna Jewish
Printers' Union.  Within a very short time following his arrival at the age
of 28 he managed to transform himself into the most popular Yiddish
performer in Argentina.  Katz toured widely, entertaining his audiences
with a medley of monologues, humoresques, couplets, parodies, nostalgic
songs, and satires, in which he provided his own accompaniment on guitar,
mandolin, harmonica, and accordion.  He performed upwards of 650 original
compositions (some of which, starting in 1939, were published in the daily
Yiddish press).  He also acted in Yiddish plays and was featured on radio
programs.  Katz's themes of nostalgia, privation, and struggle tugged at
his audiences' heartstrings, though he also leavened his lyrics with
copious doses of comic relief.

After Jevel Katz died in March 1940 of a post-operative infection, between
25,000 and 40,000 mourners packed the streets of Buenos Aires as his
funeral procession passed en route to Liniers cemetery.  It was the most
well attended Jewish funeral in Argentina's history - all the more amazing
for the fact that the outpouring was on behalf of a 37-year-old Jewish
immigrant who had resided in that country for only ten years.  Headline
writers noted that in a factionalized Jewish community he was the only
public personality who stood above the fray and was welcome wherever he
went.  Bentsion Palepade, writing in the leftist newspaper _Di prese_,
contrasted Katz's appeal with that of the phenomenally popular tango singer
Carlos Gardel (whose death in a 1935 airplane crash was still fresh in
everyone's memory).  He commented that while Gardel's love tangos "were of
interest just to young people, Jevel Katz [also] sang about present-day
social issues, which elicited everyone's interest."[6]

Jevel Katz's repertory positively brimmed with Argentine content.  Indeed,
one could practically write a social history of the Yiddish-speaking
immigrant community of Argentina in the Thirties, on the basis of his song
lyrics.  Katz's only book, _Argentiner glikn_ (published in 1933) contains
several of his typical parodies, in which he set Yiddish (or
Yiddish-Spanish) verses to the tunes of popular songs in Spanish.  In
addition to rancheras and foxtrots, _Argentiner glikn_ includes Yiddish
rumbas and tangos (a dance style with which Katz had probably become
familiar in Poland).[8]  Utilization of these musical genres can perhaps be
viewed as vehicles (or reflections) of Argentinization, analogous to what
Mark Slobin describes as the "accommodation to the American song tradition"
by Jevel Katz's counterparts in the United States.[9]

Quite a number of Katz's songs are devoted to such pastimes as dice, poker,
and dominoes.  Other songs feature familiar locales, as with "A pik-nik in
Visente Lopez."  Later on, he composed songs celebrating the settlements of
Moisesville and Basavilbaso, along with the city of Buenos Aires, its
Jewish neighborhoods and streets.  For the Yiddish-speaking Jews of
Argentina, Katz's appeals to local patriotism reassured them in their
decision to uproot themselves and settle along the banks of the R?o de la
Plata.  As in North America (again citing Slobin), "...popular culture,
especially the music that lay at the heart of public and private
entertainment, played a significant role in giving the immigrants a sense
of identity, both in terms of where they came from and where they were
headed."[10]  Jevel Katz's songs were an important manifestation of the
popular culture that Jewish immigrants employed to negotiate their way
through Argentine society.

On the other hand, the frequently ironic distance of Katz's lyrics tempered
his listeners' sense of at-homeness in Argentina.  Katz also sang a variety
of unabashedly nostalgic Old Country numbers at his concerts.  Bearing that
in mind, one imagines that his audience must have taken his affectionate
odes to the Jewish locales of Argentina with a grain of salt.[11]  For in
addition to their local-patriotic content, these "Argentine shtetl" songs
also employed the motifs of Jewish cultural and national pride very much in
a tongue-in-cheek manner, as when Basavilbaso ("shtetele du mayns") is
referred to as the "Kasrilevke of Entre R?os."  The song "Mozesvil" makes
use of a similar vocabulary when it is addressed as "mayn kleyn shtetele...
mayn sheyn heymele" and portrayed as "a yidishe medine... a shtolts far
Argentine" [a Jewish state, the pride of Argentina].

The economic privations that the Jews of Once, Villa Crespo, Canning, and
vicinity encountered form the leitmotifs of songs that Jevel Katz wrote
during his first years in Argentina - which coincided with the worst phase
of the global economic depression following the Wall Street stock market
crash of 1929.  One example of this is his song "Tango," in which he
compares the dancer's contortions with the immigrant's convoluted attempts
to do business in a precarious environment:

Un azoy vi der tango geyen mir a gang do mit di gesheftn men dreyt vi men

[And so, like the tango,
we go about our errands here,
we spin about with our businesses as best we can.]

Katz set this song to the tune of "Secreto" a popular tango written and
composed in 1932 by Enrique Santos Disc?polo, also known as Discepol?n.[13]

Another example is his song "Ikh zukh a tsimer" ["I'm looking for a room"],
which humorously relates the bureaucratic and logistical gauntlet that the
immigrant must run in order to find housing, move in, and stay a step ahead
of the landlord once the rent monies run out.  The setting is the Buenos
Aires _conventillo_, with its close quarters and overcrowding, where one
apartment adjoins another whose radio is constantly blaring, while a second
apartment is assaulted by the hubbub of the marketplace, and the handsome
bachelor in a third flat (one that lacks a shower and sink, and is overrun
with cockroaches) leads the singer's wife to temptation.  The refrain
provides a typical example of Katz's "castellanish" - his mixture of
Yiddish and Spanish lyrics set to a snappy Latin dance tune:

G'vald, yidn, _buena gente_,
Ikh zukh a tsimer a _departamente_,
Ver es veys, entfert mir _urgente_,
Ikh muz zikh klaybn _inmediatamente_!

[G'vald, yidn, _buena gente_,
I'm looking for a room, _departamente_,
If you know of one answer me _urgente_,
I've got to move _inmediatamente_!]

Note that, in the spirit of the music to which the refrain is set, Spanish
words supply all of the rhymes.

A related theme of Katz's is the idleness and ennui that resulted from the
often-unsuccessful quest to earn a few pesos.  One of his best-known - and
most subversive - parodies is set to the very familiar melody of "Ovinu
malkeinu," (reflecting the Ashkenazi pronunciation), a prayer for
forgiveness that is chanted during High Holiday services.  His listeners
would reflexively have connected its melody to the sacred realm, but these
associations are undermined by Katz's narrative of the highly profane
atmosphere surrounding a daylong domino game between four _luftmentshn_
sitting in the Bar Le?n.  The verses progress from a simple description of
the narrator's contemplated moves with his domino tiles (venting his spleen
at his hapless partner Sim?n all the while), to a rueful contemplation of
his daughter's unlikely chances to land a groom for lack of a dowry.  The
narrator's wife sits at home, under the illusion that he is wrapping up
important business deals, while instead he's off playing dominoes, _nada

Here, of all places, Katz chooses not to use a Latin dance tune as the
basis of his parody, but instead he relies on one of the most solemn of all
prayers.  The incongruous and dissonant juxtaposition between the sacred
and the profane may have reflected Katz's commentary on the casual manner
in which Jewish immigrants to Argentina were shedding the religious
strictures that they had observed in Europe.  To be sure, though,
compositions of this sort have a long pedigree in the United States.  As
examples Mark Slobin cites broadsheet parodies of the _kiddush_ blessing
and something called "The Peddler's Haggadah."  Such parodies were "an
accepted practice at least as early as the 1890s."[14]

The popularity of "Ovinu malkeinu" is attested to by the fact that it is
one of Jevel Katz's few compositions for which sheet music is extant and
more than one recording in Yiddish exists (albeit produced by performers
other than Katz).  Of the two renditions that I have heard, the one by Max
Zalkind plays it relatively straight - a solo singer with rather glossy
accordion and instrumental accompaniment.  The other recording, by David
Itzcoff, is a full-dress cantorial number reminiscent of a bygone era,
complete with both male and mixed choirs and an orchestra.  I am inclined
to regard the Itzcoff version as a double parody of the original prayer and
of the operatic exaggerations of early 20th-century Eastern European

Katz's Argentine parodies and satirical songs, with their intensely local
frames of reference, struck an equally profound chord with his audience,
whose members had been set adrift by the tempestuous tides of 20th-century
Jewish history.  These songs helped to anchor immigrants in their new
surroundings, even as they underscored their very marginality in Argentina,
a country that the Vilna-born composer observed from inside a coach, as his
train raced across the country's vast plains en route to Tucum?n, where yet
another isolated community of Jewish immigrants awaited the Yiddish bard of
the R?o de la Plata.

In his song-slash-recitation "Tucum?n," Katz's rapid-fire delivery, replete
with train whistles and chugs, and interrrupted by harmonica interludes,
produces an auditory effect that communicates his message as clearly as the
words themselves remain incomprehensible to the casual listener.  Toward
the end of the song the composer reflects with a degree of self-deprecation
on his own celebrity:

Gebrakht hot zi do an artist, vos iz a groyser parodist, a kontsertist, a
humorist, ir kent im ale do gevis... er zol opshnaydn khotsh nit mies, men
zol im klapn bravo bis, er zol nisht darfn geyn tsufis, fun Tukuman, fun

[It (the train) has brought here an artiste, who is a great parodist, a
concertizer, a humorist, you all surely know him... may he at least not
fall on his face, may he be greeted with applause and "Bravo, encore," and
not have to walk away on foot, from Tucum?n, Tucum?n...]

Buenos Aires and its environs are both the explicit and the implicit frame
of reference for many of Jevel Katz's songs.   One of the purest examples
of this theme - quite appropriately, in the context of a symposium on Jews
and the culture of the tango (or should we say, tango and the culture of
the Jews?) - is his song "Baynakht mit'n tramvay Lacroze af Corrientes"
("At Night, on the Tram to Lacroze along Corrientes"), for which the music
unfortunately is lacking.[15]  The tram assumes quasi-human characteristics
as it navigates first along Leandro Al?m, near the waterfront, past windows
enticing passersby with their displays of red lights.  Embarrassed by these
lurid scenes the tram then turns onto Corrientes, the Great White Way of
Buenos Aires, with its throngs of theatergoers.  The driver momentarily
finds himself distracted by a pretty girl, and then the tram continues
onward to Callao and stops at the esquina of Pasteur, in the heart of the
Jewish Once district.  Here the clash of immigrant and native cultures is
evident - a Russian song "Proshchoi" (Farewell) emanates from the Caf?
Internacional, and the tram mutters:

Ikh farshtey keyn vort nit say vi say,
Ikh bin a higer, ikh farshtey a tango.

[I don't get a word at all,
I'm a local, I get the tango.]

The next stop is Bar Le?n, at the corner of Pueyrred?n, and thence "farbay
Mercado, Antshorener, vu es horeven di Italyener" ["past the Anchorena
market, where the Italians toil"].  The tram continues along this artery
"tsu Canning, tsu di yidn" ["to Canning, to the Jews"], and then stops at a
railroad crossing to let a train pass:

Dervart zikh biz avek di ban,
git a genets der motorman,
git a drey dos hentl un fort aroys,
iber getseylemte linye shpringt di tramvay
kodoysh!  kodoysh!

[Waiting till after the train has passed,
the motorman yawns,
turns the handle and moves forward,
at the crossing the tram jumps up,
kadosh!  kadosh!]

At this point the tram's headlights illuminate the great wall at the end of
the line,

Vu af eybik shlofn shoyn di toyte,
baveynt di tramvay yene yorn,
ven di ale, vos lign dort,
zenen af ir geforn,
azoy fil klientele hot zi farloyrn,
s'iz fun zey gornisht nit gevorn,
s'iz Chacarita - CHACARITA!

[where the dead sleep on for eternity,
the tram laments those years
when all who lie there
were its riders,
so many customers has it lost,
they have come to naught,
it's Chacarita - CHACARITA!]

Is it purely coincidental that the route taken by this tram is almost
identical to the one traversed on February 6, 1936, by the cortege of
Carlos Gardel?  Simon Collier, in his biography of that great tango
celebrity, traces the procession from Luna Park "to its final destination,
the Chacarita Cemetery, some seventy blocks away, up Calle Corrientes - or
rather Avenida Corrientes as it now was, thanks to the widening it had
undergone in recent years.  The distance to be traversed was about five
miles."[16]  It is of course understandable that Collier ignores the
distinctively Jewish presence along Corrientes (although he does observe
that "the [burial] commission had decided to transfer the singer's remains
to a new, ornately carved mahogany coffin donated by the broadcasting
magnate Jaime Yankelevich").  Still, in this song, is Jevel Katz paying his
oblique respects to the legacy of Carlos Gardel?  (I am of course assuming
that he wrote it in the late 1930s, after Gardel's untimely death.)  It is
hard to believe that the habitu?s of Bar Le?n at Pueyrred?n - especially
"an artist, a groyser parodist, a kontsertist, a humorist" such as Jevel
Katz - permitted this renowned tango performer's final journey to pass by
completely unnoticed.

Not all of Jevel Katz's compositions are set in Argentina.  For example one
of his recordings, "A kinder maysele," is a rhymed Yiddish musical
adaptation of the Grimm Brothers' tale "Hansel and Gretel."  In other songs
- such as "Glokn in altn shtetl" ("Bells in the old town") and his
plaintive and humorous ode to Vilna - he conveyed the longing for the lives
and families that his immigrant audience left behind in Europe.  Katz also
tapped into their homesickness through his literary recitations, which were
products of the Yiddish declamatory tradition of the _vort-kontsert_, as
purveyed by such familiar European theatrical stars as the Vilna Troupe's
Noah Nachbush and Habimah's Chayele Grober.

Indeed, as many of his songs reveal, Jevel Katz owed a tremendous debt to
the performance traditions of Jewish Eastern Europe, and more specifically,
to the literary and theatrical heritage of his home town.  Katz was after
all a product of twentieth-century Vilna - a city that was steeped in the
traditions of the Gaon, the Haskalah, the Jewish labor movement, Zionism,
and Yiddishism.  Listening to the few recordings that Jevel Katz himself
made, I feel that it is almost as if we are listening to a clone of
Nachbush who has been transplanted to an exotic South American locale.
Most of the performers and impresarios whose names are recorded by Nudler
and Judkovski, in their books about Jews and the tango were either born in
Argentina or arrived there as children or adolescents.  In contrast, Katz
came to Argentina "fully formed," at a relatively advanced age, and fairly
late in the annals of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe - in 1930.
His songs provide a snapshot of Argentine Jewish immigrant life at a very
specific juncture in that community's maturation and that country's

Jevel Katz's attributes as a popular entertainer, as Samuel Rollansky
observed, amounted to a sum that was greater than its parts.  Katz's
trademark performance technique (drawing upon a wide gamut of the European
vaudeville and cabaret traditions), the repertory that he created, the many
genres and musical styles that he mastered and then parodied, the timbre of
his voice, his use of multilingual rhymes and onomatopoeia, his choice of
instrumental accompaniment - all of these together combined to create a
uniquely Argentine Yiddish product.  For us today, perhaps the greatest
value of Jevel Katz's songs lies in their interpretation and re-creation of
the ambiente of the Yiddish-speaking immigrant community in Argentina, at
the point when its members were poised on the cusp of _akreazhirn zikh_

The popularity that Jevel Katz derived from his musical contributions
illustrates "the power of popular entertainment to play on the complexity
of the linguistic, cultural, and musical situations in which the immigrants
found themselves."[17]  It is his synthesis of Yiddish, Eastern European,
and Latin, South American genres that resulted in something both unique,
fabulously popular (albeit within the confines of a small subculture) and,
alas, altogether evanescent.  Still, more than six decades after Jevel Katz
wrote and performed his songs, today's attentive listener can readily
appreciate the formidable appeal that they once had to their intended


[1]  Julio Nudler, Tango jud?o: del ghetto a la milonga_ (Buenos Aires:  Editorial Sudamericana, 1998), 17.  According to Nudler, Jews pass largely unmentioned in mainstream Argentine tango lyrics.  In his preface, Nudler mentions his own distance from Jewish religious and cultural traditions, and this seems to be an occupational hazard among many of those who choose to write about Jewish history and culture in Latin America.
[2]  Jos? Judkovski, _El tango: una historia con jud?os_ (Buenos Aires:  Fundaci?n IWO, 1998).
[3]  For a listing of American Yiddish recordings, see Richard K. Spottswood, _Ethnic music on records: a discography of ethnic recordings produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942_ (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, c1990), vol. 3, Eastern Europe.
[4] The newspaper _Di yidishe tsaytung_ began to publish Katz's song texts, together with simple music lines, only during the final year of his life.
[5] Mark Slobin, _Tenement Songs: the Popular Music of the Jewish Immigrants_ (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982),104-106.
[6] Bentsion Palepade, "Geshtorbn a institutsye:  afn keyver fun Khevl Kats," in _Di prese_, March 10, 1940 (emphasis added).  Katz's songs were then being serialized in the rival, pro-Zionist daily, _Di idishe tsaytung_.
[7] Khevl Kats [Jevel Katz], _Argentiner glikn: parodyes un kupletn_ (Buenos Aires, 1933).
[8] Cf. the folksinger Mariam Nirenberg's reflections on the wide range of dances - local, regional, and international - that she learned in a small Polish shtetl between the two world wars.  See Slobin, 28.
[9] Slobin, 57.  As Slobin writes with respect to Yiddish songwriters in the U.S., "Our protagonists will be men who faced the task of formulating and delivering messages about Americanization to the Yiddish-speaking masses" (p. 4).
[10] Slobin, 2.
[11] Irony was also a trait encountered frequently in North American Yiddish songs.  See Slobin, 162.
[12] Katz, _Argentiner glikn_ [page not numbered].
[13] The text for "Secreto" - also known as "Tango secreto" - may be found, among other places, in Enrique Santos Disc?polo, _Qu? "sapa", se?or?_ (Buenos Aires:  Corregidor, 2001), 62-63.  See also Disc?polo's _"De Chiquil?n te miraba de afuera..."_ [cancionero], (Buenos Aires:  Torres Ag?ero, 1977), 34-35, 98-99.  Jevel Katz's _Argentiner glikn_ was published the following year.
[14] Slobin, 101, 108.
[15] The text was published in _Di idishe tsaytung_, circa 1939-1940.  Although the lyrics indicate that the "music was adapted by [Jeremias] Ciganeri" (a violinist, conductor of the orchestra at the Teatro Mitre, and co-author, with Abraham Szewach, of Yiddish tangos), the music line is absent on the photocopy supplied to me by Dr. Gila Flam, of the National Sound Archive in Jerusalem.
[16] Simon Collier, _The Life, Music, & Times of Carlos Gardel_ (Pittsburgh:  University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986), 282.
[17] Slobin, 109.

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