Commentary Magazine


At Ease in Zion

September 1960

Alfred north Whitehead, that singularly clear mind, observed that even in Jesus’ evasive “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,” one sees that the Jews had no independent state to govern; “the absence of such responsibility has been a characteristic of the Jews for centuries. That is one reason for their unpopularity.”

We are certainly more “popular” now—especially with ourselves. A. and I came here in the plane of the Jewish state; under the great blue and white shield of David we rode the skies from New York to Paris to Rome to Lydda; and though even at twenty thousand feet some details, like a boiled chicken at dinner time, are all too familiar, “responsibility” puts them into a new setting and gives them a new look—as witness the immigration inspector at Lydda airport who in the exact duplicate of a British officer’s uniform and a British officer’s handlebar mustaches, makes little cracks in Yiddish to relieve the impatient, baggage-laden, and weary crowd. Even the local bobby-soxers running and squealing after Harry Belafonte in the slightly too posh hotel complete with pool remind one that Israel is now an established center of international show business—while Helena Rubinstein’s splendid museum assures us that here, too, we have the haute couture of modern art. The blissful normality of La Dolce Vita in Hebrew! The established international hotel style that serves as well in Tel Aviv as in Caracas and Omaha! No wonder that Shimon V., the burly taxi driver outside our hotel who looks and talks like a barrel-chested Lancashire trade-union secretary, boasts to us that he never gets a foreign visitor into his cab without working on him to settle in Israel. He rides us around Tel Aviv shouting, roaring, and boasting about his conquests of Canadian businessmen in a tone that plainly says: “I am at home and I am normal! We are at home here and we are all normal! I am the most normal taxi driver in Israel and Israel is the only place for normal people!”

Smiling and at ease in Zion, Dr. Kaplan, head of the new, not yet opened, museum of antiquities in Jaffa, shows us around the first proud exhibits in what was once a Turkish prison. The squat pillars and high grated windows in this great vault must once have been as ominously full of shadows as one of Piranesi’s prisons. But now the gleaming whitewashed walls bear neat museum placards identifying the friable clumps of earth and potsherds that can still be traced to ancient Israel. What meticulous and exhausting effort, what delicacy of touch and obstinate resolution to keep these shards and brown clusters of dirt from crumbling back into the anonymity of earth! Dr. Kaplan reads out the old Aramaic, Greek, and Latin inscriptions left in the stones, pillars, and roads. Starting from the bottom of recorded time, he reads his way up the ladder of Israel from Biblical times to the present. For though the present is of course not exhibited in this museum of antiquities, it is Israel today that has crowned and sealed the past as leading up to the State of Israel. And as we stand in what was once a Turkish prison and is now a museum, the obstinate Jewish insistence that history does have a design and purpose would seem to be confirmed by the fact that we are here, looking at the relics of ancient Israel dug out of the local soil. But Dr. Kaplan, charming and delicate-spoken man, is too absorbed digging up ruins and deciphering monuments to draw a moral and point a conclusion; he is preoccupied with the white lettering in the dim stone recovered with such effort from the earth. And closing shop to go home to lunch in his rattly old car, he points with his ignition key to the cellar below the museum, where through the grated window just above the ground we can see old people, on a special reclamation project, weaving cane-bottom chairs.

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* * *

Jaffa, ancient Joppa, is now only a borough of Tel Aviv, and though there are fewer Arabs around than there must have been, the hovels built into the rock overlooking the Mediterranean are still plainly Arab. The old Arab quarter is a mass of ruins; “we had to blow up the houses because they were in a state of collapse and unsafe,” the guide from the municipality gravely tells us, and gravely we look at each other. There can be no doubt that being in power eliminates many a doubt and a shudder. But my pleasure at finding so much normality in Israel is considerably enhanced as we make our way past a Moroccan whore with a Jewish star around her neck who is, the guide reluctantly admits, discussing last night’s business with her greasy colleagues. The guide blushes but gamely translates to the end, adding the wistful comment that these “new elements” have brought Israel its first experience of prostitution. My constant sense in Israel that the rungs of history are still plainly marked in the stone comes back to me now as we go up and up the narrow winding staircases from the harbor. It was from somewhere below that poor old Jonah set sail for Tarshish. At each landing here, Jewish history gets a millennium more sophisticated. Consider that while at the bottom, in the old harbor that was Joppa, poor Jonah slunk aboard the ship from which he was to be flung overboard into the belly of the great fish, the landing above already has immoral Oriental bazaars openly trafficking in flesh, while above that is a vaguely beatnik night club, and above that, the studio of a German-born sculptor who works in abstract forms! These little cubicles built into the rock remind me of a Roman tenement, they are so deeply wedged into each other and the landings are full of the unending babble of people crowding into the open. But despite the cactus plants on the landings, the faintest possible tang of lemon and eucalyptus in the air, despite the shining blue Mediterranean everywhere in front of our faces, there is not a hint of the dolce far niente, das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn. The Arabs themselves look too much of the earth to be epicurean about it—their faces are the color of earth and look as neutral as earth. The Jews, of course, are not here to moon over the landscape; they are absorbed in higher things, crucial affairs of state, the everlasting life-and-death questions. So that even when I suddenly see cypresses on far-off hilltops and for a moment remember the Tuscan countryside, the white ashy powder left in the ruins of exploded houses and the sour smell of the rotting stone bring me back to where I am. You do not “relax” in Jaffa, you do not “enjoy”—the debris of time itself in this country (to say nothing of war and continued bitterness), the soft continuous breaking up of the stone into dust, is as obvious today as it was to Herman Melville in Palestine a century ago when he found that the Hebrew inscriptions on the tumbled heaped-up graves “can hardly be distinguished from the wrinkles formed by time.” How old everything is in this land, and how unsparingly time itself stares us down from the wrinkled and jagged rock suddenly rising out of the sand.

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* * *

Shraga Friedman of the Habimah players, driving us out to lunch in Herzlia with other members of the troupe, purrs over his new little car, his patrician-looking beautiful blond wife, his American guests, the gleaming seaside road to Herzlia. He has only recently learned to drive, and in this, as in other things, he is a new man, a Polish brand saved from the burning. He is alive and happy, he has worked his way across the world to Israel and up from the Habimah school to its regular troupe, with which he now tours every moshav and kibbutz in the country. As we sit at lunch, Shraga beams like the Sabbath. There is nothing stagey about him at all; with his round and plump bridegroom’s smile, he could be anything but an actor, and his kindness and staidness remind me more of certain bashful Jewish mathematicians than of the actors I have known. Even the two older and well-known members of the troupe, Shimon Finkel and Aharon Meskin, look like the “quiet” uncles from out of town at the wedding feast. These are actors? Meskin, who had been waiting a bit too long in the lobby for us to arrive in Herzlia, smilingly admits that he’s not too hungry, “took a little something at the house,” while Finkel, whom I remember so well in the great Habimah production of The Dybbuk, reveals only in the quick observant turns of his eye the professional attention to gesture, the swift and mobile body which I recall from his slidings and cavortings around the stage in The Dybbuk. The Habimah is getting on—the old Habimah players are, and there is a placid hands-in-lap contentment about these prime actors that makes our pleasant lunch in the new hotel by the wide-shining sea, in the town named after the patron saint of Zionism, rather stiffer than I had expected of actors. It is all very pleasant, and just the faintest bit too formal—for though we are the “kinsmen,” so to speak, from the other side, we haven’t, after all, seen each other before, and as on all such visits, the family news is quickly exhausted. But as we get up from the table, Shimon Finkel comes up to me and proud to have just received it, shows me a letter from Gordon Craig enclosing a new photograph of the famous old theater director and designer. Gordon Craig is now eighty-eight years old, and in his long seclusion in Corbeil, in southern France, has been engaged in re-editing his works and in writing his memoirs. Off there in France, surveying the greatest theatrical experiences of his life, the famous son of Ellen Terry, the theatrical mystic par excellence, feels suddenly linked to Shimon Finkel in far-off Israel and has to tell him so—for of course the Habimah was one of the gratifying moments in his long and often bitter career.

And now Shimon Finkel has really something to talk to me about! No longer the slightly bored Jewish uncle dragged out to sit with company, he is the passionate man of the theater, and as he talks about Craig, his eyes light up, his fingers start to mold a half-remembered figure out of the past. Though he shrugs his shoulders as he remembers examples of Craig’s well-known intransigence—after all, this is the visionary who gave up the theater as impossible, the absolutist of theater who said that “the real theater, the theater which is an art in its own right like music and architecture, is yet to be discovered and may not come for several generations”—you can see how touched and pleased Finkel is to have had this message from the still exalted theater name that is synonymous with experiment and the international art crusade of the past.

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* * *

Of all things to pick up again in Israel—Kafka’s Letters to Milena. It was to this great love of his earlier life, to this extraordinary Czech patrician who, long after Kafka’s death, was to be a prisoner and to save so many lives in Auschwitz, that Kafka once wrote—“In the evening I talked to a Palestinian Jew. I believe it’s impossible in a letter to make you understand his importance to me—a small, almost tiny, weak, bearded one-eyed man. But the memory of him has cost me half the night.” After all, as Kafka said on another occasion, “It is not necessary to fly right into the middle of the sun, but just to crawl to some clean spot on the earth on which the sun sometimes shines and where one can warm oneself a little.” Kafka lived in a mental dungeon inside a ghetto that was inside the maze of ancient crazy Prague—but from the dungeon that was his neurosis as well as his genius, from the Prague where the Jews of modern times could no longer call up the Golem to help them, he asked just to crawl to a bit of sun and warm himself a little. The prophets of modern Israel, I venture to think, are not just the Zionist statesmen and the socialist statemakers, but also those artists and originals, like Kafka, who had in the endless exile of their own minds become small, almost tiny, weak, one-eyed men. They dreamed of the sun—and here is the sun. From my window overlooking the sea at Herzlia, where in the golden light the last swimmers are slowly coming in, shrugging the lightbeaded drops of water from their shoulders, I seem to see not the usual health club, but Kafka and Babel, Modigliani and Rosa Luxemburg—all those Jews of whom Khrushchev has complained that “They are all individualists and all intellectuals. They want to talk about everything, they want to discuss everything, they want to debate everything—and they come to totally different conclusions!” And bent, one-eyed, tiny, they hear the new State of Israel: “Come to us and be happy at last.”

Last night we were seated after dinner on the terrace of the hotel. X., of the Foreign Office, who had come out with flowers, rippled along in that standard British accent which among Israeli diplomats tends, like a waxed but defective Daimler, to stop short at the oddest moments. X. is a handsome fellow, accustomed to please, and purred along just splendidly until he came to the subject of the American poet, freshly divorced, who on his visit to Israel got off the plane complaining about his ex-spouse, and went from Dan to Elath telling everyone about his sufferings! X. was honestly shocked at so much raw American self-concern. To arrive in the Promised Land and talk only personal problems! It smacks of the vanities and fleshpots of the Diaspora. Sitting on this elegant terrace overlooking the sea and sipping cool drinks (the lights kept going out every five minutes, and our hosts groaned and apologized at each lapse as if the national honor were at stake), I could not help thinking that although all the literary people I’ve met in Israel admire the American writer and wistfully add that they’ve no one quite so brashly imaginative and wildly intelligent, he would never make it here. The anarchic force of his personality is just too strong and cuts through all the life lines of cousinship thrown out by the friendly new state. Yet just as Kafka’s sisters live, or have lived, in Israel on the worldwide royalties accruing to his work, so I believe that eventually many people in Israel may live on the gifted and extreme individualists who have never seen Israel or who would never live here.

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* * *

At Caesarea, along the Mediterranean, there is a fisherman’s kibbutz. There are remains along the shore of a Crusader’s fort—and just outside these empty stone shells, I saw some students from Ghana and young kibbutzniks taking turns riding a white horse. In the harbor, just outside the remains of the old sea wall and staircases, there rode at anchor the yacht of a wealthy scientist who has been digging for the treasures left in shipwrecked Roman ships. Further inland, deadly quiet among the sands, is a new excavation site where a Roman mosaic floor and several headless but regal statues have been uncovered. The deep quiet of the ancient past is absolutely uninterruptible here: even the minute rustling of grass in the hot wind adds to the intensity of a silence here which is more than the absence of sound. What unexpected ruins these are—where the very chalk letters on the walls of the fort, unless I am mistaken, say “Ben-Ari loves Miriam,” and where though the rubbish in the corners of these deserted shells lets out the same sour smell of damp stone, these students from Africa wait to ride the kibbutz’s white horse. None of the boys, not even the local girls bother with a saddle; and as they plod along the sandy ruts of the beach, the colors of the sea and the colors of the rigging on the ship and the intense, almost blue, blackness of the Ghana students on the white horse raise hot new colors against our eyes.

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* * *

To be a small country these days is to be at last in the center of things! At the HIAS hostel in Beersheba, I was struck by the group of young French engineers, in army shirts and chino pants, who were knee-deep in charts and blueprints, and I was touched to see, in the restaurant attached to the hostel, Walter Lowdermilk, the famous soil conservationist, who though past seventy and with so much work behind him in Israel, likes, I hear, to “hang around” still. I have been fascinated by the international gossip of Israeli officials who may change from Epstein to names more Canaanite-sounding but who can now reel off for you the exact mistakes American diplomacy has made in the Congo and give you the low-down on the damndest things in the Soviet Union. On the top level, at least, it is obvious that to be in charge of a small country intensely ambitious for technical development is to acquire a fabulous range of information.

Surely not much of this sophistication gets down to the mass of new arrivals in their special housing areas. But it seems to me that this inevitable division in small “backward” countries between the administrative elite and the submerged mass points up in Israel the traditional gulf between the patriarchs and the prophets, who with their special vision feel that they have been chosen by God and are answerable to God, and the poor old children of Israel who trudge grumblingly through the desert, from time to time are taken with false gods, and have always to be brought back sternly to the business of reaching the Promised Land—under the gifted leaders who are irascible with their charges, weary to death of these masses, but who have sworn to God to Finish The Job.

Shortly after the war I met on shipboard a relative by marriage of Chaim Weizmann’s; his sense of personal superiority, especially on the subject of the Jews, startled and fascinated me; I guessed that it was borrowed. His pomposity was of the kind that you often find among dull men with advanced degrees, but his sense of irony about the Jews, coming from such a source, interested me. His conceit could not have been all his own; it must have reflected a more complex position, for he made you feel that he was reluctantly committed to “this peculiar people to whom we happen to belong.” And in Israel I have come to understand why, of all the famous Zionist leaders past and present, only Chaim Weizmann has deeply interested me. For Weizmann, so gifted as a scientist and as a man who could charm even the British Foreign Office, evidently felt that like the infant Samuel he was pledged to the Jewish people. But just as Freud, so much more self-centered and less attractive a human being, sought to enlighten the humanity that he distrusted, so Weizmann, moving on the highest echelons of modern science and diplomacy, sought to raise up a people whom he often despaired of.

Weizmann is supposed once to have complained to Vladimir Jabotinsky that the Jewish masses were “the dust of the earth.” And though Jabotinsky replied with moving appropriateness that “God made man out of the dust of the earth,” it is obvious from many accounts of his personality that Weizmann, that first-class mind among Zionist leaders, felt that he had to stoop to the dust. At the Weizmann Institute in Rehovoth, where so many of Weizmann’s relics and personal papers are exhibited, you can see how he longed for quieter pursuits but steadily pressed on through the fifty years in the desert of Zionist congresses and courting the English that it took to realize the Jewish state. Of course Weizmann loved the Jews; all his manifest charm and humor reflect his emotional participation in their lives. But more than the Jews he loved the Jew: the Jew’s historic destiny, the Jew’s idea of the Promised Land, the Jew’s idea of himself as creatively and morally the advance-guard of humanity. So it was Chaim Weizmann’s duty, as a scientist and national leader, to guide and instruct and reproach those whom God had chosen. It was the sacrifice of himself that he gloomily expected in the new state. But greater than the state was the historic promise and its task, and greater than the presidency of the state was his place among all the Jewish patriarchs who have guided the “children” to their appointed place. In his ironic and unceremonial way, this organic chemist was more consciously a believer in Providence than many a ritualist in the synagogue. But just as the patriarchs dwelt apart, so it was from the silken recesses of the Dorchester in London that Weizmann looked down to the trade-union activists who were actually making the new state. “What a bounder!” he is supposed to have complained of one cabinet minister.

In Weizmann’s private study at the Institute, there are just two photographs on his desk. One is of Fritz Haber, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1918, was head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, and invented the famous Haber Process for converting atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia and nitric acid that was so important to Germany in the First World War. The other photograph is of Richard Wilstaetter, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1915. Both were Jews who occupied the highest scientific posts in Germany and were thrown out by Hitler; both were constantly beseeched by Weizmann to settle Palestine, and both died in Switzerland—Haber was actually on his way to Palestine when he died.

These were Weizmann’s particular admirations—and both these German Jews, so gifted, so dedicated to science and to Germany, so reluctant to embrace Weizmann’s Zionism, must have seemed to Weizmann particular examples of the fate of intellect in mass society. For of course Weizmann found himself a mere figurehead of the new state, not consulted and not needed. And by contrast, it is surely for Ben Gurion’s shrewdness and toughness, not for his pretentious and unreadable efforts to play the intellectual leader, that the prime minister of Israel is actually admired.

I would guess, from such interviews as I have had with the new Israeli administrative and scientific elite, that they have Weizmann’s proud sense of expertise and of course Weizmann’s passionate sense of duty to the people—without Weizmann’s mystic sense of Jewish destiny or of the leader as necessarily lonely in his prophetic role. At the Weizmann Institute I picked up an account of Weizmann’s last days significantly entitled Hollow Glory, by the Israeli newspaperman Samuel Shihor.1 It is extraordinary to read Weizmann’s recorded observations to Meyer Weisgal—the dying man, speaking in his first language, in the Yiddish of the East European Jews, talked of the Jews with the bitterness of a father who has tested his sons and found them not altogether satisfactory. “My greatest difficulty in lying here in this helpless condition is to watch and see all the mistakes that are being made in this country. . . . The Jews are a small people, a very small people . . . but also a great people. An ugly people, but also a beautiful people, a people that builds and destroys. [A] people of genius, and at the same time, a people of enormous stupidity. . . . We can do a fine thing, a very fine thing, which can become an honor to ourselves and to the whole of mankind. But we must not turn it into an ugly thing. Because we are an impulsive people we mess things up and often we destroy that which has taken generations to build up. . . .” He does not flatter the Jews! He judges them as severely as did the prophets who saw in them the instrument of the divine purpose. Weizmann, who gave his life to the Jews, obviously felt, chemist and skeptic that he was, that he too spoke for God—that is, for the truth.

Where in this new Israel that Weizmann could be “president” of, but could no longer influence, is the leader with that kind of moral imagination—devoted to the vision of man’s necessary future, not to just another national cause? Perhaps the times make it impossible. For the future is already here; everything predicted in purely material and external terms is clearly on its way. But it is exactly this unexpected realization of all the national causes and material hopes that makes the world so strange to Jews; Israel is now just another small country. Israel was re-established, but not until the cruellest and most apocalyptic pagan dreams of revenge against the Jews had been realized in the gas chambers. The Yemenites in great airplanes have returned to the Holy Land “on the wings of silver eagles,” exactly as was prophesied in scripture. But the Mohammedan prophecies are also being fulfilled of a great new power for the descendants of Ishmael—while in Russia even old believers have found that the Communist theology has made their dreams for Russia come true. Soon each country in Asia and Africa and Latin America will have its Promised Land, its seat in the UN, and its own atom bomb. No wonder that in this age of redemption, amid the strange and literal fulfillment of so many ancient hopes and prophecies, it is hard not to sympathize with those who, unlike the great men who merely dreamed the future, now have to live in it. The unregenerate 19th-century prophets are now quite superfluous, but among the practical people running things, one looks for those who represent a more humane age without trying artificially to recapture it.

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* * *

One of the most interesting people I have met here is Zalman Aranne, the former minister of education, and thus predecessor to Abba Eban. Aranne’s accent is Russian, not Yiddish, and he looks Russian; in his stiff double-breasted suit and the rather stiff lecture over fruit and soft drinks with which he explained Israeli schools to us in his Jerusalem apartment, he retains the pedagogical Russian manner. Only a Russian could look so solemn while sipping a soft lemon drink through a straw, and at first, listening to Aranne on the educational problems of his country, I worried: was there an exam in this course? There was a charming young Sephardic Jew from Greece with him, a former assistant in the ministry, who would gracefully help out with a word whenever Aranne’s English bogged down. The contrast between the ease of the assistant and the sternness of his old superior made me recall Matthew Arnold’s lesson of the Hellenes and the Hebrews—except that this Hellene was a Hebrew and this particular Hebrew very much a Russian! I was interested to hear of Aranne’s talks with visiting Soviet personalities—among them a group of sailors off a merchant vessel and a diplomat who noted icily that Israel spent in proportion far more on schoolchildren than the Soviets did. Aranne, who as a democratic socialist during the Provisional Government had enjoyed “the one period of absolute cultural freedom that the Russians have ever known,” decided with the increasing repression of the early 1920′s to leave for Palestine. He crossed the border in deep winter, wearing white to camouflage himself in the snow; at one point, dodging and hiding in the woods, he found himself eating an apple and laughing with joy as he said out loud to himself in the woods: “I’m going to Eretz Yisroel!” When he finally got there, he worked as a laborer on the Haifa docks, and then, gradually making his way up to the inner circles in the Histadrut and Mapam, eventually joined the cabinet as minister of education. I’ve heard, without being able to check it, that Aranne left this ministry to make room for Abba Eban’s entry into Israeli politics. No doubt, as the pioneer generation of Russian-born Israeli leaders yields to the young sabras and the standard British accents, someone like Zalman Aranne will perhaps seem almost as old-fashioned in Jerusalem as he is in New York, and was long ago in Moscow.

But how the world will miss these fiery old Jews—and how I will miss them! Far from being the stiffly creaking Russian academic that at first I feared he might be, Aranne turned out to be the most intensely eager intellectual that I found in official circles. Our first meeting wasn’t enough; we had to go on with it next day at dinner at the King David. In the great dining room I naturally looked around for British officers carrying swagger sticks and Sternists with bombs under their Arab cloaks; but Otto Preminger had hired them all to make Exodus, and all I could see was Miami Beach, complete to the mink stoles in the Near Eastern night. The only exception was a church group, just in from Jordan no doubt and on their way to Egypt, the lucky Methodists!

Aranne at dinner ignored them all; he even ignored the dinner, to the intense mortification of the headwaiter, who in his stiff shirt and swallow-tail coat may have to bring out the boiled chicken, but who does it with an air. Aranne looked at the mounting dishes with the most intense distraction in his noble eyes, and pushing everything away, implored us to send our children to Israel, not to cut ourselves off from the new, struggling, beleaguered Jewish state. He was interested in us; we were a brand he wanted to save from the burning. Naturally a Jew brought up in the old Russia thinks that his very survival depends on a Jewish homeland, and views with mistrust our old-fashioned and obstinate hope that the lion and the lamb may yet lie down together in our part of the world. But it is not a self-righteous patriotism that drives Zalman Aranne. He told us that one night during the “war of liberation,” when the siege of Jerusalem was at its worst, he saw a soldier coming off duty and stumbling with fatigue down the streets. The soldier was loaded with tommy gun, hand grenades, bayonet, trench knife; he must have looked like a walking arsenal. Suddenly, to Aranne’s amusement, there walked past the soldier an old, bearded, ultra-Orthodox Jew, probably from the Mea Shearim “quarter of fanatics,” dressed in white stockings, caftan, and shiny furred hat. Many Israelis were shocked and disgusted by the refusal of these fanatically pious Jews to support the new state, and Aranne was annoyed to see the Orthodox Jew suddenly stop in front of the exhausted soldier and look him over from head to toe in the most condescending way. Then the old Jew said savagely and bitterly, dancing around the poor soldier in his rage—“You’re the Messiah? You?”

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Footnotes

1 Translated from the Hebrew by Julian L. Meltzer (Thomas Yoseloff, 256 pp., $4.95).

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