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israel trip

Trailed by a documentary film crew, 10 Jewish ballplayers will be touring Israel from January 3-10, 2017

By Stuart M. Katz, correspondent

When centerfielder Sam Fuld and nine other Jewish athletes head to Israel on January 3 for what might be dubbed a ‘Baseball Birthright’ trip, they won’t be alone.

Wives, parents, sons, and a fiancée will be traveling with this minyan of Major League players and prospects, all of whom plan to represent Israel at the World Baseball Classic taking place in South Korea in March 2017. Team Israel qualified for the quadrennial contest by winning a qualifying tournament in September.

Also coming along for the ride? A film crew.

MLB.com reporter Jonathan Mayo (Twitter) and Ironbound Films co-founder Jeremy Newberger (Twitter) plan to create a documentary titled Heading Home about the one-week trip. For most of the players, it will be their first visit to the Jewish homeland.

“The idea for the film came first,” Mayo told Jewish Baseball News. “It wasn’t originally planned around the WBC, but after Team Israel qualified, it all came together.”

Mayo said he and Newberger, childhood friends from camp Young Judea, are getting a lot of help. Driving forces behind the project include the Jewish National Fund’s Project Baseball, JewishBaseballMuseum.com founder Jeff Aeder, and Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

Although plans for the film have not been finalized, Mayo expects the documentary will be screened at film festivals and air on MLB.com.

Fuld, who sat out the Oakland Athletics’ 2016 season with a rotator-cuff injury, will be joined on the trip by Ty Kelly of the New York Mets, Josh Zeid of the New York Mets’ organization, Ryan Lavarnway of the Athletics’ farm system, Jon Moscot of the Cincinnati Reds’ system, free agents Ike Davis and Cody Decker, former MLB outfielder Gabe Kapler (now director of player development for the Los Angeles Dodgers), St. Louis Cardinals prospect Corey Baker, and former MLB prospect, Jeremy Bleich, currently playing in the Dominican Winter League. Danny Valencia of the Seattle Mariners planned to come but had to drop out for family reasons.

A key motivation behind the trip and documentary is to build support for baseball within Israel, where soccer and basketball are king. The Israel Association of Baseball, hopes to recruit new players as well as raise funds to expand the country’s meager baseball infrastructure.

In addition to visiting Masada, the Dead Sea, an Israeli Air Force base, the Old City in Jerusalem and Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, the 10 ballplayers will conduct public practices and meet local dignitaries and ballplayers.

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Stuart M. Katz is a die-hard Yankees fan. An attorney at Cohen and Wolf in Bridgeport, Conn., he chairs the firm’s Litigation Group, practicing mainly employment law, and represents employers as well as executives.

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dean kremer photo 2

(photo courtesy Dean Kremer)

By Stuart M. Katz, correspondent

Dean Kremer spent this past Summer like many other college students, traveling and meeting new people. But unlike his peers, Kremer returned home with an award: Best Pitcher in the European Pool C Championships in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Playing for tourney champ Israel, the 18-year-old Californian started two games and went 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA. He gave up just six hits over 13 innings and recorded 20 strikeouts while yielding just one walk. Teammate Simon Rosenbaum was named MVP (see interview).

Entering his sophomore year at San Joaquin Delta College, a junior college with a highly touted and successful baseball team, Kremer — who stands 6’2″ tall and is fluent in Hebrew — recently talked with Jewish Baseball News about the tournament and his family’s deep connection to Israel.

Following is an edited version.

JBN: Tell me about your upbringing.

Kremer: I grew up in Stockton, California, and still live there with my parents and two younger brothers. Currently, I am currently attending San Joaquin Delta College. Both of my parents [Adi and Sigal] are Israeli. After completing their army service in Israel, they came together to the U.S. and settled in Stockton.

JBN: When did you start playing baseball?

Kremer: When I was little, my parents signed me up for every sport – tennis, baseball, soccer, and basketball. As I got older, I concentrated more on soccer and baseball, and eventually decided to devote my efforts to baseball. Through high school, I was an outfielder, but now I am focused on pitching.

JBN: Is your family observant?

Kremer: We celebrate all of the holidays. Growing up, we would have Shabbat dinner as often as possible. I never attended Hebrew school formally, but since my parents are Israeli, I have been speaking Hebrew my entire life. My family still speaks Hebrew at home.

JBN:  Do you play games on the High Holidays?

Kremer: I don’t think I have ever had a game on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. But I remember that my parents would pull me out of practice early to be home on the holidays when I was younger.

JBN: How did you end up playing for Team Israel?

Kremer: In 2011, I learned that the Israeli national team was coached by Pat Doyle, who is also from Stockton. Pat told me to check it out and I went to a few practices. In the Summer of 2013, I played on the U.S. team at the Maccabiah Games in Israel. They saw me play there, and invited me to join Team Israel for the 2014 European Championships. I went to Israel for two months before the tournament to practice with the other members of the team who were there.

JBN: Have you visited Israel before?

Kremer: I basically have traveled to Israel every summer, to visit family there. I had my Bar Mitzvah in Israel too. My trip to Israel this past summer lasted for two months. It was the longest time I have spent there.

JBN: How was the tournament?

Kremer: It was a great learning experience. Everyone was hyped up to represent their different countries, which was a cool thing about playing international ball. I think baseball is still getting more popular in Israel. While I was there for the summer, I spent a lot of time working with schools and camps to promote the game.

JBN: What’s next for you in your baseball career?

Kremer: Delta College is a highly-ranked baseball team, so I am hoping to have a good season and then transfer to a Division I school. Next Summer, I plan to play for Israel again in the next round of the European championships. My ultimate goal is to be drafted by a Major League team. Right now, I am focused on pitching. I have four pitches – fastball, curve, splitter and changeup – and a I think my chances are pretty good.

JBN: What baseball players do you admire?

Kremer: My favorite team is the Red Sox. I also like Max Scherzer and Jered Weaver. And I follow the Jewish pitchers, like Craig Breslow and Scott Feldman.

JBN: Do you see yourself as a role model for Jewish kids?

Kremer: I’m not sure I would say that. I think I am more of the type of guy that flies under the radar. I prefer to do my work quietly.

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Stuart M. Katz is a die-hard Yankees fan. An attorney at Cohen and Wolf in Bridgeport, Conn., he chairs the firm’s Litigation Group, practicing mainly employment law, and represents employers as well as executives.

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Simon Rosenbaum at the 2014 European Pool C Championships in Slovenia

Simon Rosenbaum at the 2014 European Pool C Championships in Slovenia

By Stuart M. Katz, Jewish Baseball News correspondent

Even among followers of Jewish baseball players, Simon Rosenbaum is not a household name. Not yet, anyway.

A 20-year-old junior at Pomona College in California, Rosenbaum ranked 2nd in the nation among Division III players last season with a .474 batting average. D3Baseball.com and ABCA/Rawlings both named him a Division III First Team All-American. At 6-foot-6-inches and 215 pounds, it may not surprise you to learn he also starred on his high-school basketball team.

The larger world got a glimpse of the northern California native this summer when he led Israel to a first-place finish at the 2014 European Pool C Championships in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He walked away with MVP honors, going 9-for-17 with four home runs and 10 RBIs.

In a recent interview from school, Rosenbaum discussed the European tournament, his connections to Judaism and Israel, and his aspirations for the future. Following is an edited version.

JBN: Tell me about your childhood.

Rosenbaum: I grew up in Los Altos, California, which is south of San Francisco. I have two younger brothers. Although my family wasn’t super observant, I attended Jewish day school through 8th grade. My family had Shabbat dinner most weeks, often with my grandparents. I remember learning to read Torah for my bar mitzvah, and then for my brothers’.

JBN: Have you been to Israel?

Rosenbaum: My father and his family are actually from Israel. My father moved to the U.S. as a child. I have been to Israel 3 or 4 times, but my most memorable trip there was the one I took with my 8th-grade day school class.

JBN: Did you play a lot of sports before college?

Rosenbaum: Growing up, I played soccer, flag football, baseball and basketball. By high school, I narrowed my focus and played baseball and basketball all four years. I miss basketball now but really love playing baseball.

JBN: How did you choose Pomona College?

Rosenbaum: It was really important for me to pick a college with great academics. The Claremont Colleges are great schools. And I wanted to stay in California and attend a school where I could play baseball. Pomona was a great choice for me, for all of these reasons.

JBN: What positions do you play?

Rosenbaum: I pitched my freshman year, but I tore my UCL and needed Tommy John surgery. I switched to first base while I was rehabbing. I hope to pitch again, so we’ll have to see about that.

JBN: Who are some of your favorite ballplayers?

Rosenbaum: J.T. Snow was a great defensive first baseman, so I always admired him. Growing up in San Francisco, Barry Bonds was a lot of fun to watch. Omar Vizquel was really smooth in the field. And Hunter Pence. He’s someone who plays the game hard and the right way.

JBN: How did you end up playing for Team Israel?

Rosenbaum: One of my teammates at Pomona had played for Israel the year before and asked if I was interested. He introduced me to Peter Kurz, who runs the Israel baseball program. Peter and I spoke by phone and eventually met. He invited me to join the team for the 2014 qualifying round in Lubljana (Slovenia). I was excited for the opportunity. I wasn’t able to travel to Israel earlier to practice with the rest of the team, so I just met them there.

JBN: Describe your experience playing for Team Israel in the tournament.

Rosenbaum: It was a great experience. Half of the team is Israeli, and the other half is from the U.S. and Canada. Everyone was really welcoming; great teammates. Our team played very well and we were able to win the tournament and qualify for next year’s round. Baseball allowed me to have this experience. Everything I got out of it was important. It was cool to meet the guys on the team, and also great to meet players from other countries where baseball isn’t as developed. It was particularly rewarding to represent Israel, the country that my dad came from, and which my family still has a strong connection to.

JBN: What are your plans for after college?

Rosenbaum: I came to Pomona for the academics, but I have been playing really well, so I think I have a chance to get drafted, which would be a dream come true. Either way, I hope to stay in sports. I am studying economics, so I could see working for a Major-League team, doing analytics or scouting. I would also consider working in a front-office job, or maybe even in broadcasting or marketing.

JBN: Do you ever think about being a role model for Jewish kids?

Rosenbaum: I don’t think I have done enough to be looked at as a role model. I’m not too famous yet. I’m not playing in the Majors. But hopefully I can make it there. Baseball is a great sport. Jewish players haven’t always been among the most successful players – although there have been some like Koufax and Greenberg – but there’s no reason they can’t be.

JBN: Do you play in games that fall on the High Holidays?

Rosenbaum: I remember a couple of times when I was younger, and there were games that fell on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. I didn’t play. I figured if Koufax could sit out a World Series game, I could miss a 12u tournament. It is hard to say what I would do if I faced that situation as a Major League ballplayer in the future. It is a really tough question. I hope I get that opportunity.

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Stuart M. Katz is a die-hard Yankees fan. An attorney at Cohen and Wolf in Bridgeport, Conn., he chairs the firm’s Litigation Group, practicing mainly employment law, and represents employers as well as executives.

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Author: Joshua L. Berkowitz (WebsiteFacebook)

Published: 2012

Pages: 288

Price: $12.07 at Amazon

Our rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Reviewed by Stuart M. Katz for Jewish Baseball News

Overview

In Third Base For Life, author Josh Berkowitz recounts the extraordinary but true journey taken by a rag-tag team of third-graders from a sandlot behind a Jewish day school near Boston to the Cooperstown Dreams Park tournament.

Each year, this tournament gathers 100 of the best youth baseball teams from around the country. In this book — perfectly subtitled “A Memoir About Fathers, Sons and Baseball” — Berkowitz, a risk-averse physician, shares a very personal story about himself and his family. When son Gabe first announces that he wants to play at the Cooperstown tournament, Berkowitz dismisses the idea as a fundamentally flawed pipe dream. With urging from his wife, however, he decides to step out of character and out of his comfort zone to go for it.

Berkowitz assembles a team from the ranks of a local Jewish day school, literally making house calls to convince players and their parents to sign on for the adventure of a lifetime. Along the way to Cooperstown, Berkowitz learns a tremendous amount about himself and the life experiences that brought him to this time and place. He and his fellow coaches enjoy a remarkable opportunity to forge bonds with their sons and with each other. Myriad obstacles emerge along the way, but the team’s singular goal of playing at Cooperstown keeps them focused.

What’s Jewish about it

Third Base For Life is a uniquely Jewish story, evoking comparisons to David and Goliath. The Rashi Rams (biblical reference intended) represent the first all-Jewish team invited to participate in the Cooperstown tournament. The Rams know they are out-matched from the moment they take the field, but they compete undeterred. Their Jewishness emerges in a variety of ways. References to Shabbat observance, kashrut, and the significance of a mezuzah on a doorframe all contribute to the story. The Rams’ experience reflects strong Jewish values like honoring parents, shalom bayit (peace in the home), and kehillah (community). Berkowitz’s imaginary “conversations” with his hero, Sandy Koufax, also add a Jewish dimension to the story.

My take

I read this book very quickly and wished the experience could have lasted longer. By way of full disclosure, I knew Josh Berkowitz in college, although I haven’t seen or spoken to him in over 20 years. I had no idea how gifted a storyteller he would become. Third Base For Life draws obvious comparisons to The Bad News Bears, but I saw a lot of Field of Dreams and Moneyball in the story, too. The narrative made me laugh out loud, and it brought tears to my eyes in a few places. It is hard to identify which aspect of this story spoke to me so loudly and so clearly. It is as much a story about baseball as it is about a father’s relationship with his son, and with his own father. For me, the story hit very close to home, in part because my sons also attend a small Jewish day school, and because I can’t quite imagine rising to the challenge Berkowitz conquered. I wonder whether Third Base For Life will hold the same appeal for other readers. I am pretty sure that it will.

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Stuart M. Katz is a die-hard Yankees fan. An attorney at Cohen and Wolf in Bridgeport, Conn., he chairs the firm’s Employment & Labor Group and represents employers as well as executives.
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Authors: Peter Ephross, Martin Abramowitz

Published: 2012

Pages: 227

Price: $35 (Amazon.com or McFarland Publishing/800-253-2187)

Our rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Reviewed by Stuart M. Katz for Jewish Baseball News

Overview

In Jewish Major Leaguers in Their Own Words, authors Peter Ephross and Martin Abramowitz present oral histories of 23 of the Jewish players who were on Major League rosters between 1918 and 2005. Beginning with Bob Berman, who played for the Washington Senators in 1918, and ending with Adam Greenberg, who played one fateful game for the Chicago Cubs in 2005, the book provides an unusual window into America’s pastime.

What’s Jewish about it

Some interesting and common themes emerge in the book. Most of the players from the first half of the 20th century identify themselves as traditional Jews, say they experienced anti-Semitism (although not as virulent as the discrimination they saw African-American players suffer), and typically didn’t play on the High Holidays. Jews who played more recently were more likely to be from mixed marriages and less likely to take the High Holidays off.

Jesse Levis, who played for the Indians and the Brewers, recalls playing on Yom Kippur in 1996. He explains that because he wasn’t a superstar, he didn’t feel he had a choice, although he did fast that day. “I’m not Sandy Koufax…I’m a Major League player trying to make a living,” he says. As it happened, Levis didn’t get a hit that day — or for that matter, he says, the rest of the season. “God punished me anyway.” Former 1st-round draft pick Ron Blomberg recalls playing in a game in 1973 that lasted into the first night of Rosh Hashanah. “The game was tied with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, but we had a man on third base. I had to make the decision: quit the game for Rosh Hashanah, or get a base hit….I got a clutch base hit to win the game – the biggest hit of my career. I cherish that at-bat more than anything else in my life.”

Regardless of the era, Jewish pride resonates throughout many of the interviews. Hank Greenberg, who died in 1986, said that when a Jew hears about a gifted Jewish athlete, statesman or artist, “you take a certain pride in the fact that one of your own people (has) made good.”

My take

Although much has been written about Greenberg and Koufax, far less is known about the careers of others featured in the book, men like Sam Nahem, Cy Block and Mike Epstein. Their stories as non-superstars are no less interesting. Among the most compelling chapters are the ones devoted to Elliott Maddox and Jose J. Bautista, whose Judaism was less obvious because they are African-American and Hispanic, respectively.

The obstacles that Jewish ballplayers faced in the 20th century resembled the assimilation struggles that most American Jews faced during that era. But as these oral histories reveal, maintaining Jewish traditions remained extremely important to the players. I look forward to a future volume featuring interviews with Braun, Youkilis, Breslow, Ian Kinsler, Gabe Kapler and other more recent players. I wonder if they will describe their connection to Judaism as clearly and proudly as those who blazed the trail for them.

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Stuart M. Katz is a die-hard Yankees fan. An attorney at Cohen and Wolf in Bridgeport, Conn., he chairs the firm’s Employment & Labor Group and represents employers as well as executives.
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The Art of Fielding: A Novel

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Author: Chad Harbach (BlogTwitter; Facebook)

Published: 2011

Pages: 528

Price: $15.30 at Amazon.com

Our rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Reviewed by Stuart M. Katz for Jewish Baseball News

Overview

Widely touted as a “must read” of 2011, The Art of Fielding is about baseball players and the people who love them. Set at the fictitious Midwestern, liberal-arts bastion known as Westish College, this debut novel by Chad Harbach centers on Henry Skrimshamer, a gifted shortstop who lives and breathes America’s pastime, and who devoutly studies a book also entitled The Art of Fielding, authored by a fictitious player named Aparicio Rodriguez —  “the greatest defensive shortstop who ever lived.”

Henry is recruited to play ball for the Westish Harpooners by the team’s anchor and catcher, Mike Schwartz, and seems to be on a fast track to The Show until things inexplicably go awry. The cast of main characters includes Westish President Geurt Affenlight (a Melville aficionado), his daughter Pella, and Owen Dunne (Henry’s gay roommate and teammate). As much as this novel revolves around Henry and the game of baseball, it ultimately is more about the game of life, and the sometimes comical and always complicated relationships between and among these five characters. There is much to be learned from each of them as they discover, not surprisingly, that there is more to life than fielding, hitting, and rounding the bases to reach home.

What’s Jewish about it

Mike Schwartz is the first character introduced in this novel. He is a baseball player and team leader. He also is Jewish and hopes to attend law school after college. These characteristics seem to shape who he is, what he hopes to become, and how he lives his life. Harbach offers up Schwartz’s Jewishness much the way he presents Dunne’s sexual orientation: merely as part of the DNA that forms the player. But it is hard not to wonder why Harbach created Mike Schwartz, instead of Mike Sullivan or Mike Salvati. Although Schwartz isn’t depicted as particularly religious or observant, his rejection of bourbon on Passover as chametz, and his ongoing Israel-versus-Palestine debate with a teammate are not to be glossed over. Nor is the current prominence and success of Jewish baseball players in the real world, which are referenced more than once in the novel.

My take

Baseball fans should read this book. So should people who don’t necessarily like or know the game.  Harbach presents a unique combination of compelling characters and baseball action. But The Art of Fielding is much more than a book about baseball, and that may surprise unprepared readers. Baseball and Westish College provide a context for what ultimately is a story about expectations – fulfilled and unfulfilled – and complex relationships. Harbach is a gifted and skilled writer – a five-tool player, if you will. He weaves together witty and ironic dialogue with literary references and particularly clever character names. The characters in this novel care deeply about one another, and readers likely will feel the same way.

(Editor’s note: The sexual themes in this book may make it inappropriate for some young readers.)

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Stuart M. Katz is a die-hard Yankees fan. An attorney at Cohen and Wolf in Bridgeport, Conn., he chairs the firm’s Employment & Labor Group and represents employers as well as executives.
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Author: Aaron Pribble (Twitter; Facebook)

Published: 2011 (website)

Pages: 280

Price: $16.47 ($24.95) at Amazon.com

Our rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Reviewed by Stuart M. Katz for Jewish Baseball News

Overview

The Israel Baseball League (“IBL”) played its inaugural season in the summer of 2007.  During an eight-week, 45 game season, six teams – including the champion Bet Shemesh Blue Sox – played at three makeshift ballparks in the Holy Land.  Team managers included former major-leaguers Art Shamsky, Ken Holtzman and Ron Blomberg. Israel’s foray into professional baseball unfortunately was short-lived, and 2007 was its only season due to financial difficulties.

Aaron Pribble, a California high-school teacher in the off-season, with years of minor league and international baseball experience, led the Tel Aviv Lightning to a 26-14 second place finish with his league best 1.94 ERA.  Pribble also kept a journal during the season, forming the basis for this book, subtitled “A Story of the First and Only Season in the Israel Baseball League.”

Pitching in the Promised Land provides a first-hand account of the fits and starts that accompanied the improbable venture of bringing high-level professional baseball to a country much more interested in soccer and basketball.  Players from nine countries appeared on IBL rosters in 2007.  These included former minor leaguers, college standouts, and experienced international professional players, each with colorful traits and personal stories.

Pribble mixes play-by-play commentary of games with observations about the near-absurdity of playing conditions and creative rule modifications – like 7-inning games with tie-breakers – to illustrate the ups and downs of the IBL.  He also delves into the politics of the region, both with personal observations throughout the book, and with excerpts from New York Times reports on events simultaneously occurring in Israel.

What’s Jewish about it

Pribble describes himself as “a sort of redneck Jew-boy.”  With a Jewish mother and a Christian father, he considers himself Jewish, even if he “couldn’t recite the Hanukkah prayer from memory and didn’t go to temple for Yom Kippur.”  Pribble’s strong Jewish identity resonates, as he recalls a prior Birthright trip to Israel, and realizes that playing in the inaugural IBL season “was going to be as much about discovering who I was as a Jew as it was about exploring who I was as a baseball player.”  Throughout the book, Pribble provides a great deal of local flavor, describing the relationships between the Israeli and non-Israeli players and the influence of Israeli culture on the league.  His story includes road trips to politically sensitive areas of the country and a summer romance with a Yemenite sabra.  Pribble has strong feelings about Arab-Israeli relations, as evidenced by his decision to wear “a small pin with an Israeli and Palestinian flag joined at the staff” to the IBL’s post-season celebratory dinner – The Schnitzel Awards.

My take

Pitching in the Promised Land reminded me that I am long overdue for a visit to Israel. I have not been there since 1984 and can only imagine how much has changed.  Pribble’s account of the 2007 season provides a stark contrast to the daily major-league baseball drama that we read about.  He cleverly intersperses references to films like Bull Durham and The Rookie with his descriptions of Israeli breakfast fare and playing baseball in the shadows of King Solomon’s tomb.  While his political observations and opinions may seem a tad misplaced in a story about ballplayers playing under less than ideal conditions for pittance salaries, there is no denying that nearly everything that happens in Israel is influenced by the nation’s unique location, small size and complex history.  Pribble doesn’t necessarily tell us whether or not any of those influences contributed to the quick demise of the IBL, but knowing that I won’t be able to take my kids to see an IBL game on my next visit to Israel makes me a little sad.

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Stuart M. Katz is a die-hard Yankees fan. An attorney at Cohen and Wolf in Bridgeport, Conn., he chairs the firm’s Employment & Labor Group and represents employers as well as executives.
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