liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
[personal profile] liv
So my extremely brilliant friend Jen has written a fantastic popular article about her research: Why it's absurd for a pastor to give Donald Trump a Jewish prayer shawl. You should read it, it's only tangentially about Trump, it's about the history of Jewish ritual objects and about Jewish-Christian relations.

I'm not particularly bothered by Trump wearing a tallit. I mean, I'm barely following the US election and I can easily think of dozens of more offensive and downright horrifying things Trump has said or done. So I appreciate that Jen leads with calling the act absurd, not primarily offensive or culturally appropriative or racist, and that she focuses on the actions of the pastor in giving the tallit, not Trump in receiving it. With the caveat that I'm not an American Jew, it feels like cultural appropriation isn't quite the issue here. Like, it's not taking a Jewish sacred object and using it as a fashion accessory or a halloween costume or a sexual fetish, all of which happen and generally upset many Jewish people. It's taking something from Jewish ritual practice and using it in a Christian context, which is... more complicated.

I was a little disturbed when I heard about the Trump-tallit-gate thing. Because to me, a fringed garment is a symbol of acceptance of the mitzvot, the commandments which define Jewish religious practice, so for a Christian to wear it, when most forms of Christianity explicitly reject Torah-based commandments, seems weird. We generally discourage Christians from wearing a tallit in synagogue, for example. But who are these Christians hanging out in synagogues? Well, most of them are perfectly normal visitors who have been invited to join a friend or relative, or are on an interfaith trip to learn more about Judaism. If they're visitors, it's fairly obvious that they wouldn't wear a tallit or otherwise participate directly in our rituals. Though I remember going to a seminar about mixed couples and hearing from a Christian guy who was really upset that his husband's Jewish community generally welcomed and included him, but (as he saw it) drew the line at "letting" him wear a tallit, so he felt that he wasn't fully accepted. Whereas I suspect from the synagogue's perspective, they were trying to demonstrate respect by acknowledging that as a Christian he was not bound by our mitzvot, so they wouldn't ask him to wear a tallit symbolizing a commitment he had chosen not to make.

But some of the Christians-in-synagogue are people who believe that some Jewish, at least in form, practices, are part of their Christian faith. I usually refer to them as philosemitic Christians, and cautiously welcome them as long as they don't try to convert anyone. Now, some people might say that they're being culturally appropriative by coming to synagogues and keeping Jewish-style sabbath and having seder meals and other things that these Christian groups like to do. That's not my view, because I think Christians do in fact have some entitlement to their Jewish heritage. No, most Christians aren't ancestrally Jewish, but culture is about more than genetics. Christianity really does have Jewish roots, not just textually, but culturally as well, and I don't think it's necessarily bad for Christians to take an interest in that. And really, the last thing I want to say to an African-American Christian is that they're not allowed to celebrate redemption from slavery because the Exodus narrative belongs exclusively to us mostly white Jews.

However, it is also true that Christianity has been the dominant religion for many centuries and Christians have not always treated Jews well, so modern Christians using Jewish symbols, even in a positive way, is not a simple situation. For a very long time, mainstream Christian thought rejected Jesus' Jewish origins, and saw Jews as only people who betrayed, killed and rejected Jesus. I remember hearing a talk from Géza Vermes shortly before his death, when he discussed just how controversial his work on Jesus the Jew was when he published it in the 70s, even in academic circles, even after the Second Vatican Council. So nowadays most Christians accept that Jesus was himself Jewish and influenced by Jewish thought and ideas, and this is generally a good thing. But as Jen points out in her article, many Christians are really confused by what this means. There is a tendency to conflate the religion of Jesus with contemporary Judaism, and it happens in both directions. People look at modern Jewish practice and assume that this is what Jesus would have done, and also they read the New Testament descriptions and assume this gives a picture of modern day Jews.

When I was 8 or 9 a group of nice ladies from the local church came to visit the synagogue my family belonged to. They made a big fuss over me because I could read Hebrew fairly fluently, and it was "the language of Our Lord". And then an even bigger fuss because in my tactless precocious child way I corrected them, I think you'll find that Jesus mostly spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew, in day-to-day life. And proceeded to ask me lots of questions about Jesus' putative practice, to which I gave confident but ill-informed answers. This is something that happens to me quite a lot, though I hope as an adult I answer more tactfully; random Christians see me, a knowledgeable Jew, as a source to find out what rituals Jesus would have participated in. And, well, I know a little bit about first century Judaism because I'm somewhat interested and because I have scholarly friends like Jen and because I have learned a bit precisely in order to answer these questions. But I'm miles away from being an expert, and I have a problem with the assumption that because I'm Jewish I can teach Christians all about the historical Jesus. And I don't at all mind teaching Christians about contemporary Judaism and inviting them as guests to our rituals, that's something I hugely enjoy doing, but it is a problem when they go away thinking that what we do gives them insight into Jesus.

I mean, take the tallit, the ritual fringed garment. The pastor who gave one to Trump called it a "prayer shawl", and yes, that's one of the purposes we use a tallit for. But as Jen points out, this practice post-dates Jesus' time, when wearing a (rather different) fringed garment all the time, not just for prayer, was mainly about a certain kind of Jewish identity, which I don't know if Jesus would have subscribed to. And that aspect of tallit still exists among Jews today, in the form of tallit katan, the lesser tallit, a fringed undergarment, which some people wear indiciating that they identify with certain forms of Judaism. The tzitzit, or ritual fringes, may or may not be worn outside the clothes and therefore may be private or visible, depending on the wearer's preference. (Personally, I own a tallit katan, with the ritual blue techelet thread, because I was so excited by the collaboration between rabbinic experts and biochemists to rediscover the lost blue dye that I had to have it. But I mostly don't wear it because at this point in my life I'm not sufficiently observant to feel justified in wearing tzitzit in daily life.) But anyway, Jen does a great job of explaining why this kind of Christian adoption of random, out of context bits of modern Jewish practice is, let's say uncomfortable and weird, even when it's well meant.

Partly because Judaism isn't just a religion. Fania Oz-Salzberger makes some really interesting points in the linked interview about Judaism as identity and culture, and the importance of secular Judaism. She's a bit clumsy in talking about Christianity and Islam, it's kind of a ridiculous generalization to say that these religions (really? half the world's population today, and all the different subgroups over millennia of history?) don't accept questioning or value free debate, and I think the interview must have been a bit weirdly edited because it's incoherent to claim that Jewish culture is more in line with secular Enlightenment values when the Enlightenment and Secularism were clearly Christian ideas originally. But if you ignore Oz-Salzberger's contrast with other religions, what she says about Judaism is I think useful. And it's something that is often not understood by philosemitic Christians, for example when they see a tallit as only a special holy object that you use for prayer, rather than as part of expressing a complex identity.

That identity was not Jesus' identity. Partly because he was teaching 2000 years ago and Judaism has experienced a lot of history and development since then. Partly because, well, we don't exactly know whether Jesus invented his own form of Judaism or belonged to an existing sect, but one thing he certainly wasn't was a Pharisee and nearly all branches of modern Judaism are rabbinic, which is to say essentially Pharisaic. Partly because the message of the New Testament is not to describe Jesus' Jewish practice, except where that is relevant to Jesus' actual Christian teachings, so trying to piece it together from the text available is if not futile, certainly not straightforward. Particularly since the Christian Bible can't be viewed without all the layers of historical interpretation over the last 20 centuries, and just asking random contemporary Jews how we practise really doesn't help much.

So I personally am not particularly bothered if Christians find some bits of Jewish ritual meaningful. I mean, I think my religious practices are meaningful and beautiful, so why shouldn't someone else? And I can see how a lot of them do seem directly relevant to some Christians, they're not just being syncretist and assuming everybody's traditions are available for the amusement of anyone who feels like playing with them. In an ideal world, I would like Christians to be aware that Judaism is a separate religion and tradition and culture and not only a way for them to feel closer to Jesus. And perhaps having better information about historical context will help with that awareness.

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Date: 2016-09-07 11:03 am (UTC)
sfred: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sfred
This is really interesting to read: thanks for writing about it. I've learned a lot as an adult about the differences between the stuff taught to me by my Christian, theology-degreed parents about Judaism (and how Judaism was taught in my middle-school RE lessons) and how Judaism actually is for (some) modern, Jewish people.

This is a big contrast with my childhood learning about Islam which was initially from an imam and then in a half-Muslim school, so holds up to conversations with adult Muslims now.

The West Wing Weekly podcast's consideration of the episode 'Take This Sabbath Day' included interesting-to-me discussions about Judaism and Roman Catholicism, and the podcast's guest was a rabbi (the presenters are both Jewish). I don't know how interesting it would be if you haven't watched The West Wing (and I don't know whether you have, and now I am going all tangent...).

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Date: 2016-09-07 12:12 pm (UTC)
sfred: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sfred
The podcast is here: http://thewestwingweekly.com/episodes/114#comments-577c664be3df28703ba5c97b=
It doesn't look as though they do transcripts of the podcast, although transcripts of the TV show are here: http://www.westwingtranscripts.com/

My middle school tried really hard to do broad RE, but inevitably was much better on Islam and Christianity because of the makeup of the school population (and teaching staff). At least they didn't do the "equivalent of Christmas" nonsense.

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Date: 2016-09-07 03:59 pm (UTC)
shreena: (Default)
From: [personal profile] shreena
Don't forget the element of school RE that was singling out the non-Christian kids and making them teach everyone else. That was delightful.

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Date: 2016-09-07 05:59 pm (UTC)
atreic: (Default)
From: [personal profile] atreic
Maybe I'm missing the point too - and there are some commonly made comparisons that are stupid, Hanukkah _isn't_ a Jewish Christmas - but I think in general explaining parts of religions by how they are similar to but different from things you know already doesn't seem that terrible to me? I guess comparisons genuinely have to be making a true comment on how they are similar, which is probably the bit that goes horrifically wrong. Maybe it's the desperately trying to fit things into boxes as _having_ to be like a Christian thing to exist, even when they don't. But 'many religions have a building they regularly meet in, in Christianity this is a church, in Judaism this is a synagogue' - am I missing something offensive in that?

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Date: 2016-09-07 11:41 am (UTC)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatam_soferet
You express a lot of things I was groping for--thank you, badger.

I didn't write the headline tho :)

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Date: 2016-09-07 11:54 am (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
Yeah, Jen's article was really good.

I'm still struggling to decide what is cultural appropriation and what isn't. It sounds like there's a *bigger* problem here, partly about how awful Trump is in so many other ways, and partly about when it's sensible for Christianity to borrow from Judaism and when it isn't.

But it sounds like partly the thing with the tallit is that most jewish people have at least some idea of what they symbolise. But other people interested in wearing them generally *don't know* and *don't care*. You might think they wouldn't want to announce a commitment to mitzvot they don't actually have. But actually they're SO SURE they don't have it, they don't care if they announce it falsely because everyone will know they don't mean it. They only care if they care about the feelings of people who DO think the mitzvot are important. And that seems to be exactly the problem "cultural appropriation" is trying to describe.

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Date: 2016-09-07 01:35 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
That makes a lot of sense.

I feel like it breaks down into two questions. How much christians wearing a tallit are aware of what it means to jewish people. And how much the shared history makes it ok.

I feel like, doing things Jesus actually DID do is a reasonable thing for a Christian to want to do, and it's not my place to critique if it should be part of Christian tradition or not. But taking traditions which are in Judaism more recently, there's a little bit more justification for doing so, but only a little bit, it's not a license to ignore what it means to the people already practising it.

It sounds like tallits are somewhere inbetween, in that in jesus' time people probably wore something related, but maybe not the same as modern ones?

And how much christians wanting to wear a tallit actually understand the meaning? I feel like, if they don't know the meaning at all, just think it seems "holy" in some unspecified way, they're presuming a lot more. Whereas if they know the culture and say "I keep different laws, but I think I should wear this as a reminder of the laws I do keep", that would seem very reasonable place to start (whether or not all jews would be ok with it). But I don't actually know how often people DO know. I assumed, they usually DIDN'T know. But you assumed they usually DID, and I expect you would know better than me.

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Date: 2016-09-07 01:36 pm (UTC)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatam_soferet
There's this guy at Yeshiva University, that New York bastion of ostensibly-modern critical-thinking frum-Jewish education, who has a personal crusade going against Chabad. In particular, the sorts of Chabad people who think that their dead rebbe was the messiah. His problem with them, when you boil it down to the essence, is basically "Dead people being the Messiah is a Christian thing. If we accept this, we're no different from Christians. That is completely unacceptable, therefore the rebbe was not the messiah."

That is--modern Judaism and modern Christianity are really awfully similar in important experiential ways (see also: "Judeo-Christian Tradition"). There are some things that keep us Different, i.e. which mark boundaries and preserve group identity. Group identity is legitimate and important. Belief in a dead messiah is arguably one of these boundary things. Wearing distinctive ritual gear is arguably another. Tefillin Barbie makes some people uncomfortable because she blurs the boundaries on the edge of Orthodoxy. Christians going around doing bits of contemporary Jewish practice is another example of boundary-blurring. On the whole I can take it or leave it, but one thing about boundary-blurring is if you don't keep an eye on it, you turn round and your whole group identity has been blurred, and then you have to do the really hard communal work of redefining it (cf: any group of people making a home in a new country).

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Date: 2016-09-07 01:26 pm (UTC)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatam_soferet
Cultural appropriation--I don't think it's possible to identify algorithmically, annoyingly enough. Because I think cultural appropriation is kind of partly about using other people and their culture as props in your own experience without particularly caring what they think about that, and it becomes a problem when the people resent being treated as props. And it feels to me a bit like when well-meaning Americans in classes ask me to read English sources, or sources by English people, because they think it sounds better in my accent--and sometimes I really really hate that, and sometimes I don't particularly mind, and it depends a lot on what sort of mood I'm in. So there isn't a way to determine "when it's ok to make jen's accent an Experience" and if it's hard for one person, how much more so for a whole culture...

I guess it basically depends on how the people you're impacting feel about it, so if you're liable to be impacting a mass audience, maybe don't go there. Like with off-colour jokes or videos of beheadings. idk.

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Date: 2016-09-07 02:03 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
(And FWIW, I do think there's often an effective statue of limitations: if something is copied from culture X to culture Y, even if it's really offensive at the time but becomes a big part of culture Y for 100s of years, it may be good even then to wind it back, but also, it may just be impossible.)

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Date: 2016-09-07 01:53 pm (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
Both your post and [personal profile] hatam_soferet's post are excellent.

I wrote up my own experience with a philosemitic Christian who wore a Tallit in a post a few years ago. I used a similar line of inquiry to yours, the idea that the specific symbology of the tallit is generally ignored when Christians treat it as just a generic holy object of Judaism.

I'm chewing on your idea that Christians have some sort of cultural birthright to at least some parts of Judaism. That's hard for me to accept. I mean, I see where you're coming from, that since Christianity came out of Judaism and still values Tanakh as divine writ, there has to be some line where their practice of things we'd call normatively Jewish is also normatively Christian, but my inclination is to draw that line way narrower than you do, since for most of the last two thousand years, the Christians themselves have drawn that line so narrowly that it feels like their claim to our shared heritage must be forfeit. But as you point out, religions evolve in their practice, and philosemitism is probably preferable to the alternative. In [personal profile] nextian's whose stories are they?, she has a line that stuck with me, "It's not cultural appropriation, because it is truly part of your culture. It's been part of your culture for about two thousand years, so you'd think I'd find it easy to let it go."
Edited Date: 2016-09-07 01:54 pm (UTC)

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Date: 2016-09-07 02:03 pm (UTC)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatam_soferet
There's an increasing amount of work being done on how Christianity and Judaism intertwine in later periods--I only know up to medieval because Early Modernity is yet to me as a closed book--and it's not just the Big Ritual Things, it's the little things that make up a culture, things like attitudes to charity and home rituals and food. It makes it harder to decide where shared heritage stops.

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Date: 2016-09-07 02:09 pm (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
I also wanted to say that I empathize with your experience of trying to explain things about Judaism that you're not fully versed in to people who know less than you. I've taken to beginning every answer I give to a non-Jew about Judaism with "It's complicated and there's a difference of opinion among Rabbis," partially because it's always true but mostly because it primes my listener to recognize that I am not speaking authoritatively and they should not use me as their pet Jewish friend when they later garble the explanation when talking to other non-Jewish friends, pleasethanks.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-09-07 06:36 pm (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
Like, it's not taking a Jewish sacred object and using it as a fashion accessory or a halloween costume or a sexual fetish, all of which happen

Wait, what.

...

1) You have no idea how disappointed I am that none of these are links to substantiating evidence.

2) Okay, I admit that tefillin have always struck me as SMy.

3) Am now imagining a beefcake photo of a well-built man wearing nothing but a black leather bondage harness get-up, arm tefillin, and a tallit completely covering his head so you can't see his face. I trust the internet has already seen to this.

Okay, back to reading the article.

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Date: 2016-09-07 07:11 pm (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
it's kind of a ridiculous generalization to say that these religions (really? half the world's population today, and all the different subgroups over millennia of history?) don't accept questioning or value free debate, and I think the interview must have been a bit weirdly edited because it's incoherent to claim that Jewish culture is more in line with secular Enlightenment values when the Enlightenment and Secularism were clearly Christian ideas originally.

I don't think it's incoherent at all. The Enlightenment and Secularism were rebellions against Christian culture, particularly its deep-seated hostility to free inquiry and debate. They were ideas that Christians had, but they were very much ideas about alternatives to Christianity.

As such, I don't think Jews could have come up with them, for them(our)selves: Judaism doesn't put the curious and contrary under the same sort of relentless social pressure not to question, so in Judaism there simply never built up the same sort of explosive well of resentment and yearning. (Of course, there was enough repression to allow Jews to catch the Haskalah from their European neighbors; I wonder if the Haskalah can be taken as evidence of how repressive Judaism was, culturally, in Central Europe at that time.)

And I think it's pretty well accepted that the Enlightenment was the direct descendant of the Renaissance and Europe's intellectuals being introduced to the wonders of the Antiquity and Islamic texts (which is how lost sources from the European Antiquity made it to the European Renaissance: by way of Muslim cultures and even in Arabic translation.) This is sometimes described as Renaissance people being merely ignorant of the facts in those sources and then their ignorance being relieved, but perhaps far more important was suddenly the mass (well, comparatively mass) dissemination of pagan texts, that blew the doors off the secret that the Church shepherds were keeping from their lambs: that there were other religions, and their believers were thoughtful, reasonable, reasoning people, with all sorts of interesting intellectual contributions to make – most especially contributions in areas in which Christian thought was forbidden. That made it hard to keep 'em down on the farm, intellectually speaking.

For a couple hundred years, Christian intellectuals pushing the boundaries of acceptable Christian thought kept insisting they were still down with Jesus, and still were fine with the Church (if Catholic), or with Christianity (if Protestant), and that their inquiries into the natural world or philosophy weren't antithetical to Christianity. Eventually they ~all just threw up their hands and said, "You know what? We give up. You want to insist that Christianity is inimical to free inquiry and the exercise of reason? HAVE IT YOUR WAY." Bam! The Enlightenment.

I can't speak to Islamic culture, except to say that it has been described to me (in the history of music, interestingly) as going through regular regionalized oscillations between tolerance of free thought (and music making) and repressive fundamentalism (and forbidding music making).

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Date: 2016-09-07 07:32 pm (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
So, I think the issue is not that what this pastor and Trump did wasn't cultural appropriation. I think it unambiguously was cultural appropriation. I think it's such a perfect example of cultural appropriation we could use it as the illustrative example of "cultural appropriation".

It's that:

1) Jewish culture is actually pretty resilient against cultural appropriation. Jewish culture tends to actually promote or encourage some forms of cultural appropriation as a way to promote the acceptance of Jewishness.[*][**]

2) Jewish people, now, today, in the Anglosphere, have enough privilege not to be (as) threatened or hurt by cultural appropriation, so we can laugh it off.

3) Not all cultural appropriations are as severe as others, and this one simply wasn't all that bad. He wasn't wiping his ass with a Torah, you know?

Consequently, I think a lot of Jews' response to this is to be bemused or snicker at the Donald.

[* Fabulous example: there is a brand of kosher hotdog made in the US called Hebrew National. They ran advertisements on television when I was a child, promoting their product – "ALL-BEEF FRANKS!" – to the American public, which claimed their product was better and more pure because – I am not making this up – *pious intonation and actor putting their palms together and gazing soulfully up at the sky* "We answer to a Higher Authority". Yes: using kashrut to sell kosher hotdogs to Christians. Which apparently worked smashingly well? They were (at least when I was a kid) a premium brand.]

[** I read a thing years ago that claimed that when Charlemagne issued an edict permitting Jews to return to France, there was, in the moral panic among the Catholic clergy, somebody(ies?) who sermonized about how they couldn't dare let the treacherous Jews in among the good Christian people, because the Jews would seduce the Christians to Jewishness by means of Jewish food. Which... okay, yeah, I can see their point. (I have never found this primary source, and would dearly love it.)]

(no subject)

Date: 2016-09-07 09:37 pm (UTC)
redbird: closeup of me drinking tea (Default)
From: [personal profile] redbird
For what it's worth, my partner [livejournal.com profile] cattitude, who has as far as we know no Jewish ancestry, saw Hebrew National hot dogs and salami being kosher as an advantage because it meant extra inspections (not just the USDA).

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Date: 2016-11-19 04:50 pm (UTC)
silveradept: A kodama with a trombone. The trombone is playing music, even though it is held in a rest position (Default)
From: [personal profile] silveradept
Coming to this extremely late, but thank you for the thinking piece. I personally think it would be a good idea for anyone claiming a faith to have done the research and scholarship about the history and practice of it so that they know what they're getting in to, but I also note that many faiths tend to put the adulthood ceremony at an age too young to have done the serious study.

Regarding the tallit and Mr. Trump, it seems a bit paradoxical to be using a garment that identifies Judaism in a context where most Christian denominations explicitly reject many of the mitzvot put down in the texts chosen for inclusion in the Christian Bible. And while I might trust that the pastor has at least some inclination of knowledge about what they are doing, I would not extend that benefit to Mr. Trump without hard evidence.

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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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