A choir is a group of singers who perform together either in unison, or, more usually, in parts. Some choirs are composed of professional singers who are paid for their art, while others are associations of amateurs who come together for social as well as musical purposes. Some choral performances are highly polished, the result of extensive preparation, while others are simply the product of a group of people who happen to be singing together at the same time, with little concern for artistry. This article will explore some of the many forms of choral singing in the Jewish experience.
Jewish Liturgical Choirs
The earliest evidence of sacred choral singing in ancient Israel may be inferred from the Torah. After successfully fleeing Egypt through the Sea of Reeds, Moses and Miriam, both Levites, led the men and women of Israel in antiphonal singing.
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD. They said: I will sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea. …
Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with drums. And Miriam answered them: Sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea (Exodus 15:1, 20–21).
King David is credited with authorizing the leaders of the Levite tribe to establish a professional choir and orchestra to enhance the sacred service. These ensembles were comprised exclusively of men from the tribe of Levi.
David told the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brothers as singers to sing joyful songs, accompanied by musical instruments: lyres, harps and cymbals. …
All these were under the charge of their father for the singing in the House of the LORD, to the accompaniment of cymbals, harps, and lyres, for the service of the House of God by order of the king. Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman – their total number with their kinsmen, trained singers of the LORD – all the masters, 288 (I Chron 15:16, 25:6–7).
The parallel structure of the Psalms gave rise to (or perhaps reflects) an ancient antiphonal and responsorial choral performance practice.
When Israel came out of Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a foreign people,
Judah became God's sanctuary,
Israel his dominion (Psalm 114:1–2).
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good.
His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods.
His love endures forever (Psalm 136:1–2).
The Mishnah (Ar. 2:6) attests that in the time of the Second Temple there was a liturgical choir that comprised a minimum of 12 adult singers.
There were never fewer than twelve Levites standing on the platform but there was no limit on the maximum number of singers. No children could enter the court of the sanctuary to take part in the service except when the Levites were standing to sing. Nor did they join the singing with harp and lyre, but with the voice alone, to add flavor to the music.
*Philo Judaeus (On the Contemplative Life XI, 83–90) reports a choral practice among the *Therapeutae, a Jewish sect in Egypt at the beginning of the Christian era. But we have no evidence that this was typical of mainstream Jewish practice.
They all stand up together, and in the middle of the entertainment two choruses are formed at first, one of men and the other of women. … Then they sing hymns which have been composed in honor of God in many meters and tunes, at one time all singing together, and at another moving their hands and dancing in corresponding harmony, and uttering in an inspired manner songs of thanksgiving, and at another time regular odes, and performing all necessary strophes and antistrophes. Then when each chorus of the men and each chorus of the women has feasted separately by itself, like persons in the bacchanalian revels, drinking the pure wine of the love of God, they join together and the two become one chorus…. Now the chorus of male and female worshipers being formed, as far as possible on this model, makes a most pleasant concert, and a truly musical symphony, the treble voices of the women mingling with the deep-toned voices of the men. The ideas were beautiful, the expressions beautiful, and the chorus-singers were beautiful; and the goal of the ideas, expressions, and chorus-singers was piety.…
Group chanting has always been an important part of the synagogue service. The entire congregation is mandated to chant aloud certain sections of the liturgy, including amen; various responses in the kaddish, kedushah, and barekhu; the ḥazak at the end of the cantillation of each book of the Torah; and even certain verses from scriptural cantillation on Purim, Simḥat Torah, Tisha be-Av, and minor fast days. In traditional synagogues one hears a nearly constant wall of sound created by congregants in an undertone chanting spontaneously, coordinated by mode (nusaḥ), but not by rhythm. In the performance of metric hymns (and occasionally other prayers, as well), the cantor will initiate a melody and the congregation will follow in synchronization. Hymns such as Adon Olam with its regular meter, corresponding in a sense to our iambic tetrameter, were well suited to group performance. While in most cases, this is a far cry from artistic choral singing, it is safe to assume that in antiquity, as is the practice today, some congregants would rise above the norm of unison singing and embellish their performances with a degree of artistry, perhaps in the form of simultaneous improvisation (heterophony) or harmonization. In the West it is not uncommon to hear spontaneous harmonization in parallel thirds or sixths. Among the Yemenite Jews, congregants sing in parallel fourths, creating a sound reminiscent of medieval church choirs.
Congregational singing is, of course, a form of choral performance. But we also have evidence of another praxis: synagogue choirs comprising singers who were auditioned and trained and who performed alongside the ḥazzan for the benefit of the congregation. *Nathan ha-Bavli, a Jew who lived in the 10th century, witnessed the ceremony for the inauguration of the Exilarch (the Rosh Galut) in Babylon. On a Sabbath morning, the entire community congregated in the synagogue.
Then a choir of boys assembled under the platform: boys who had been chosen from the elite of the community, experienced boys with beautiful voices, experts in the melodies, proficient in all matters of the prayers. … The ḥazzan began the prayers at barukh she-amar, and the boys responded antiphonally to each line.
In the Middle Ages in Ashkenazi lands there arose a practice of having two singers standing with the cantor at the bimah to provide musical support. The zinger (treble) and bas (bass) were known as tomekhim or meshorerim. An illustration in a 14th century maḥzor from Germany depicts the three singers in just such an arrangement. The accompaniment provided by the cantor's two assistants was in most cases either improvised or worked out in rehearsal; the performances were hardly ever
Charles Burney, a British (non-Jewish) composer, music teacher, and music historian, visited a "synagogue of the German Jews" in Amsterdam probably in 1772. Here is an excerpt from his description of the singing of the ḥazzan and the meshorerim.
[T]hree of the sweet singers of Israel, which it seems are famous here … began singing a kind of jolly modern melody, sometimes in unison, and sometimes in parts, to a kind of tol de rol, instead of words, which to me, seemed very farcical. One of these voices was a falset, more like the upper part of a bad vox humana stop on an organ, than a natural voice. … The second of these voices was a very vulgar tenor, and the third was a baritono. This last imitated, in his accompaniment of the falset, a bad bassoon; sometimes continued one note as a drone base [sic], at others, divided it into triplets, and semiquavers, iterated on the same tone.
Beginning in the 16th century we begin to see evidence of choral singing in the synagogue in the manner of the artistic practice in the churches of Europe.
There are in our midst [Padua, Italy, 1605] six or eight persons learned in the science of music, men of our community (may their Rock keep and save them), who raise their voices in songs of praise and glorification such as Ein Keloheinu, Aleinu Leshabe'aḥ, Yigdal, Adon Olam and the like to the glory of the Lord in an orderly relationship of the voices [i.e. polyphony] in accordance with this science [i.e., harmony].
The most illustrious and well-known example of this praxis centers around the figure of Salamone de' *Rossi Hebreo (c. 1570–c. 1630). Court composer to the dukes of Mantua, Rossi was encouraged by Rabbi Leone *Modena to compose choral music that could be sung in the synagogue to supplement the traditional chanting of the ḥazzan. In 1622 Rossi published a collection of 33 Jewish motets. This volume was not only the first collection of its kind, it would remain for two centuries the only work of its scope and quality. Not that Rossi was the only voice composing in the wilderness; musicologist Israel Adler has discovered dozens of other examples of Jewish polyphony. During the 17th and 18th centuries throughout Europe there were choral performances on special occasions, such as the dedication of a synagogue or a circumcision, or the annual feast of a confraternity. Venice, Siena, Casale Monferrato, Comtat Venaissin, Amsterdam, and Prague all boasted art music traditions. And in the 17th century the Jewish community in Adrianople, Turkey, established a synagogue choir, called "Ha-Maftirim."
But it was not until the emancipation and the enlightenment that choral singing became a regular feature in European synagogues. The first reformers in early 19th century Germany abolished the role of the cantor and awarded the role of the shali'aḥ ẓibbur to the rabbi. The music of the service would henceforth be provided by men and women singing chorales in the manner of Lutheran services. The constitution of the Hamburg Temple, dated December 11, 1817, specified, "… there shall be introduced at such services a German sermon, and choral singing to the accompaniment of an organ."
These innovations, considered shocking by traditional Jews, did not pass unopposed. In 1819 the Hamburg rabbinical court decreed, "…they continue to do evil. At the dedication of their house of prayer men and women sang together at the opening of the ark, in contradiction to the law set out in the Talmud and in the codes, 'a woman's voice is indecent' [Ber. 24a]. Such an abomination is not done in our house of prayer …"
A more moderate reform was proposed by synagogue musicians such as Salomon *Sulzer (1804–1890) in Vienna, Louis *Lewandowski (1823–1894) in Berlin, Israel Lowy (1773–1832) and Samuel *Naumbourg (1815–1880) in Paris, Israel Mombach (1813–1880) in London, and David *Nowakowski (1848–1921) in Odessa. These men composed music and conducted four-part choirs (of men and boys) that complemented the traditional solo artistry of the ḥazzan. While some of their compositions were indistinguishable from church anthems (other than the lyrics), others were marked by an adherence to the exotic modes and free rhythms of nusaḥ, traditional synagogue chant.
Sulzer expressed his conservative views in his memoirs,
To limit the entire service to a German hymn before and after the sermon, to give a certificate of divorce to tradition, that was the intention of those who instigated the ill-fated extreme reform in Hamburg and Berlin. But to me it appeared that the confusion of the synagogue service resulted from a need for a restoration which should remain on historical ground, and that we might discover the original noble forms to which we should anchor, developing them in artistic style. Jewish liturgy must satisfy the musical demands while remaining Jewish, and it should not be necessary to sacrifice the Jewish characteristics to artistic forms.
Sulzer's choir was quite famous. The Catholic composer and music critic Joseph Mainzer (1801–1851) wrote, "The Synagogue was the only place where a stranger could find, artistically speaking, a source of enjoyment that was as solid as it was dignified. … Never, except for the Sistine Chapel, has art given me higher joy than in the synagogue…surely no one who has heard this unique boys' choir could miss the castratos." The Englishwoman France Trollope concurred. She wrote, "… about a dozen voices or more, some of them being boys, fill up the glorious chorus. The volume of vocal sound exceeds anything of the kind I have ever heard; and being unaccompanied
But in Berlin the Polish-born Lewandowski decried the fact that in all the modern choral synagogues the congregation had been silenced.
Prior to the introduction of choral singing, the congregations were entirely dependent on the often strange performances of ḥazzanim. [The congregants] participated or expressed their displeasure only through noisy praying. With the introduction of choral music, congregations were prevented a priori from direct participation in the services, because of the artistic nature of choral singing. Congregations were now condemned to silence, whereas they had previously been accustomed to shouting.
Lewandowski disapproved of congregants singing along with the choir. To rectify this situation he composed or arranged melodies that could be sung in unison by the congregation. In the Oranienburgerstrasse synagogue there was to be a clear division of roles among the cantor, rabbi, choir, and congregation. There would be no overlap, and there would be no "noisy praying."
After a short while, out of a desire for equal participation, congregations adapted the melody, or soprano line, singing together with the choir in two, three and four octaves. The other voices [of the choir] were thus overwhelmed [by the congregation], and the artistic form was entirely destroyed. This situation eventually became intolerable, so that means had to be found to provide for equal participation of all three elements: cantor, congregation and choir. It was felt that introduction of unison melodies, in addition to the choir [pieces], would be sufficient to meet the demands of the congregation.
Choral singing even made its way into the Orthodox synagogue. Rabbi Samson Raphael *Hirsch (1808–1888), leader of modern German Orthodoxy, introduced a choir (with a professional conductor) into his synagogue in Frankfurt. In 1840 Galician immigrants to Odessa established the Broder Shul and hired Nissan *Blumenthal (1805–1903) as its cantor. This synagogue, like others of its type, came to be known as a "chor-shul." David Nowakowski, engaged as choir director in 1870, raised the artistic standards working with Blumenthal, and, even more so, with Blumenthal's successor, the cantor Pinchas *Minkowski (1859–1924).
The effects of 18th-century enlightenment and 19th-century nationalism also had a profound effect on many of the Spanish-Portuguese exiles in Europe. Some of their synagogues boasted a highly developed choral practice. New compositions were created – arrangements of traditional Sephardi melodies as well as newly composed works in the prevailing non-Jewish styles. Outstanding musical traditions were created in Livorno by David Garcia and Michele *Bolaffi, in Vienna by Isidore Loewit, in Sarajevo by Issac Kalmi Altaraç, in Bucharest by Giuseppe Curiel and Carlo Bianchi, and in Ruse (Roustchouk) by Maurice Rosenspier.
American Jews at first emulated European models. The first synagogue choir in the United States was organized in 1818 at New York City's Congregation Shearith Israel. In 1864 G.M. Cohen, music director at Temple Emanuel in New York, published 34 of his choral compositions for Sabbath services. The Sacred Harp of Judah is the first collection of original Jewish music known to have been created in the United States. In 1897 the *Central Conference of American Rabbis published the Reform movement's first "Union Hymnal," comprising 129 hymns for four-part choir. The musical style is indistinguishable from that of the Protestant hymnals. Many of the entries are adaptations of secular works by European composers (including Haydn, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn). Others were newly composed works in a similar style by Alois *Kaiser (1842–1908), choir director at Cong. Ohev Shalom in Baltimore. The second edition of the Union Hymnal, appearing in 1914, reflected the Reform movement's attitude about the status of the Jew in America.
All melodies for the Sabbath [should] be in joyous strain, in major rather than in a minor key. … If 214 tunes are in major and 12 in minor, it was because of a very definite conviction that the Jew has come down to a modern day in a spirit of victory, and that the atmosphere of the American Reform congregation should be a reflection of the position, the culture, and the attainments of the Jew in this free and joyous land.
Many 20th-century composers tried to raise the musical standards of American synagogue music. Beautiful choral settings were created by Hugo *Adler, Samuel Adler, Abraham *Binder, Charles Davidson, Gershon *Ephros, Isadore *Freed, Herbert *Fromm, Jack Gottlieb, Max Helfman, Michael Isaacson, Max Janowski, Leo Low, Meyer Machtenberg, Lazar *Saminsky, Sholom *Secunda, Ben Steinberg, Lazar Weiner, Hugo *Weisgall, Yehudi Wyner, Zavel *Zilberts, and others. In 1951 the prestigious music publisher, G. Schirmer, issued a collection of liturgical pieces that had been commissioned by Cantor David *Putterman of New York's Park Avenue Synagogue. This volume contains gems by some of America's finest composers, Jewish and gentile, including Arthur *Berger, Leonard *Bernstein, Mario *Castelnuovo-Tedesco, David *Diamond, Lukas *Foss, Morton *Gould, Roy *Harris, Darius *Milhaud, Bernard Rogers, William Grant Still, and Kurt *Weill.
But standing high above all the others looms the figure of Ernest *Bloch (1880–1959). In 1933 Bloch completed his Sacred Service, arguably the greatest musical setting of the Jewish liturgy – the only one even remotely comparable in stature to Brahms's Requiem or Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. But, tellingly, like those other masterpieces, Bloch's work fares better on the concert stage than in the sanctuary. As the composer wrote, "It far surpasses a Jewish Service now. It has become a cosmic poem." The crystallization of Bloch's attitude can be seen (or heard) in his setting of Adon Olam. For Bloch this was not an anthem to be set strophically and sung cozily by the congregation, led perhaps by the choir. Instead, "…in the distance, outside of space, time, everything, you hear the chorus, as a solution of the laws of the universe and eternity, the smallness of this space, of life and death, and in what spirit you are to accept it." For Bloch the enormity of the text demanded
The late 19th century witnessed a new phenomenon, the establishment of secular Jewish choruses – independent ensembles, unaffiliated with a synagogue. The primary mission of these organizations was to perform concerts and to express Jewish cultural identity. Joseph Rumshinsky claimed that the Hazomir Chorale, founded in 1899 in Lodz, Poland, was the first of its kind. "When we stood up and started to sing, a holy musical fire was kindled by the first Jewish choral ensemble in the world." He was apparently unaware of the Serbian-Jewish Vocal Ensemble, founded in Belgrade in 1879.
Many emancipated Jews who had heard or performed or composed European concert music were eager to be a part of the new choral movement. Jews modeled these secular choruses on similar organizations that had recently become popular in Christian Europe. The spectacular growth of secular choral singing in 19th-century Europe was a result of the decline of the church, the emergence of a powerful middle class, the spread of universal education and the resultant prevalence of (musical) literacy, the growth of leisure time, the spread of democracy and socialism, and the increasing demand for performances of the great oratorios of Handel, Haydn, and Mendelssohn.
Music directors of some of the Jewish ensembles selected a repertoire similar to that of the non-Jewish choirs (oratorios, choral symphonies, operas, even selections from masses and requiems), to be sung either in the original language or translated into Yiddish. Other directors chose arrangements of Jewish folksongs and popular Zionist songs, workers' songs, and synagogue compositions. Still others created new compositions for their ensembles.
I.L. *Perets was one of the founders of the Hazomir Choral Society, which began its activities in Lodz, Poland, in 1899. Lodz Hazomir flourished under a succession of conductors, including Joseph Rumshinsky, Zavel Zilberts, Ephraim Skliar, Israel Faivishes, Isaac Sachs, and Theodore Rider. In the early 1940s the ensemble continued to perform concerts in the ghetto under Nazi occupation. Branches of Hazomir and other choruses with similar agendas were established throughout Eastern Europe – in Warsaw, Vilna, Lemberg, Cracow, Bialystok, and Radom – but also as far west as Copenhagen and Helsinki.
Music served an important social function in the fledgling Jewish community in Palestine. Communal singing was a significant activity in support of the collective ideology. In 1938 an anonymous member wrote in a kibbutz publication that "singing is the refuge from daily toil.… While singing one reaches full unity with one's comrades." Writing in the Givat Brenner Newsletter (December 17, 1941), Shimon B. advocated the establishment of a chorus as a miraculous solution to the social ills of the kibbutz:
So often have we heard our members complain about the tenuous social situation. … But I think that there is a very simple cure for all such bitter pessimists, which is: a chorus! … One might ask: Our collective life, the dining hall, our shared work, the common education of the children and the very basic element of the kibbutz which is mutual aid, are they not sufficient to educate for social life together? … My answer would be: work is not always gratifying. There are different kinds of jobs. There are arguments, inequality. … I have attended the recent rehearsal of our chorus… and I was delighted. They all sang together. Here they are all really equal, members of one chorus. The melody, the harmony, the rhythmic sounds, the incredible effort to blend one's voice with all other voices, to create in both piano and forte a gentle and beautiful composition which is above the realm of daily good and bad. This is the primary factor in education for sociability.
An anonymous kibbutznik (probably from Gan Shemu'el) wrote in the March, 1931 issue of Music for the People,
We want workers' songs, songs that would fit our life and wishes. The chorus is no longer satisfied with Mendelssohn and with religious songs. A workers' chorus is not allowed to develop a random art that is detached from the daily life of the worker and from its struggle for a new culture. … It is not enough to cause pleasure to the audience. The chorus must also enrich the spiritual life of the worker.
While kibbutz and school choirs proliferated, singing in Israel remained for the most part an amateur enterprise. There were sporadic attempts to raise the artistic level. In 1926 Fordhaus Ben-Tzisi founded the Bible Chorus to perform great oratorios, and in 1941 Eytan Lustig founded the Tel Aviv Chamber Chorus, which would become the Tel Aviv Philharmonic Choir. In 1952 Abraham Propes inaugurated the Zimriyah, a triennial international choral festival, which provided opportunities for Israeli singers to work with their counterparts from around the world. But the first serious and successful attempt at professionalizing choral singing came with the founding of the Rinat Choir in 1955 by its conductor Gary *Bertini. In 1975 Rinat was named the National Choir of Israel. Also in 1955 Yehuda Sharet established the Israel kibbutz Choir (Iḥud) to provide performing opportunities for the most talented singers from kibbutzim throughout the land of Israel.
America and Beyond
Included in the massive waves of Jewish immigration to America from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century were many choral singers and conductors. In 1914 the first Jewish choirs in the United States were founded: the Chicago Jewish Folk Chorus, directed by Jacob Schaefer, and the Paterson (New Jersey) Jewish Folk Chorus, directed by Jacob Beimel. Soon Jewish choruses began to appear all across the Americas. Among them were the New York 92nd St. YMHA Choral Society (1917) directed by A.W. Binder; the New Haven Jewish Folk Chorus; the Philadelphia Jewish Folk Chorus (1923) and the Detroit Jewish Folk Chorus (1924), both directed by Harvey Schreibman; the Boston Jewish Folk Chorus (1924) directed by Misha Cefkin: the Los Angeles Jewish Folk Chorus
Many of these ensembles were originally affiliated with the American Communist Party. For example, the Paterson Jewish Folk Chorus was originally called the Fraihait Gezang Ferain. In the early years its repertoire focused on class struggle, the life of the working class, and revolution. They performed at workers' rallies as well as in major concert halls such as Madison Square Garden. In the late 1930s, to expand its outreach, the chorus began singing in English as well as Yiddish. In the cause of "friendship and peace between all peoples," they collaborated with black Baptist gospel choirs and prominent American folk artists such as Pete Seeger. But after World War II its membership began to decline, a result of both the pressures of the McCarthy era and the shrinking population of Yiddish speakers. The Paterson Jewish Folk Chorus disbanded in 1974.
In 1921, Jacob Beimel organized a conference of Jewish singing societies. Meeting at the YMHA in Paterson, New Jersey on May 29 and 30, the conference passed the following resolutions: (1) to create a federation named "The United Jewish Choral Societies of America and Canada," (2) to improve existing choral societies and establish new ones, and (3) to publish choral compositions in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English with Jewish textual content. The list of elected officers was a veritable who's who of Jewish music: Jacob Beimel was president, Leo Low and A.W. Binder vice presidents, Cantor Yossele *Rosenblatt treasurer, and Solomon Golub secretary. The United Jewish Choral Societies had a brief history, dissolving after but three years of existence. But in its final days it organized the largest Jewish chorus ever seen in America. On April 15, 1923, a concert was given at the Hippodrome in New York City featuring nine singing societies, totaling over 600 hundred singers.
With the slackening of immigration and the assimilation of most Jews into the cultural fabric of American life, by the middle of the 20th century the Yiddish folk choruses began to die out. But at the same time, American Jewish culture was experiencing a revival. There were two reasons for this revival: a new atmosphere in which Americans no longer sought to hide their ethnic origins and the tremendous pride Jews felt in the accomplishments of the State of Israel. Many Zionist organizations in America aggressively promoted Israeli culture through Zionist songs, often in choral arrangements. In 1960 Stanley *Sperber, inspired by experiences at Camp Massad in Pennsylvania, organized a group of friends to sing Jewish and Israeli choral music throughout the year. Several years later Sperber changed the choir's name to Zamir. In 1969 Joshua Jacobson established a Zamir Chorale in Boston, whose nucleus comprised veterans of another Zionist institution, Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire.
By the first decade of the 21st century there were dozens of Jewish community choruses, including the Zamir Chorales in Boston, Detroit, and New York; Zemer Chai in Washington, D.C.; the Arbel Choir in Philadelphia; Kol Dodi in S. Orange, New Jersey; and the Los Angeles Zimriyah Choir. Under the leadership of Matthew Lazar, New York's Zamir Choral Foundation was producing annual festivals for both adults and teenagers that attracted hundreds of Jewish choristers. A similar revival was evident in other countries, as well. The list of thriving vocal ensembles includes The Zemel Choir of London, The Coral Israelita Brasliero of Rio De Janeiro, Hazamir of Mexico City, the Lachan Jewish Chamber Choir of Toronto, the Moscow Hasidic Cappella, Coro Hakol of Rome, Mosa Pijade of Zagreb, and Tslil of Lodz.
In the 1990s Jewish "a cappella" choruses flourished on college campuses, inspired by the popularity of their non-Jewish counterparts. Ensembles such as Mangina (Brandeis), Koleinu (Princeton), Tizmoret (Queens College), Magevet (Yale), Shir Appeal (Tufts), and Mizmor Shir (Harvard) eschewed instrumental accompaniment as well as any hint of the adult establishment. The predominant repertoire of these student-led ensembles consisted of popular songs from Israel and America in arrangements patterned after 1950s "doo-wop" groups or the more sophisticated jazz vocal ensembles of the late 20th century.
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