OyChicago articles

Writer, Director, Academy Award Winner Ari Sandel Comes to Chicago

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Ari Sandel’s 2007 Academy Award-winning “West Bank Story” is a musical comedy about Israelis and Palestinians that takes place between two competing falafel stands in the West Bank. The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005 and has since screened at over 115 festivals worldwide and earned 26 awards, is a humorous, hopeful take on a very serious and controversial subject, and Arab, Jewish and international audiences have overwhelmingly embraced the film and its message.

Throughout his career, Sandel has worked in various sectors of the entertainment industry including television, film and music videos. He created, directed and hosted FX’s comedy segment “The Traveler” on X Show and his most recent project is a feature documentary, “Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show,” which hit theaters in February. Sandel has traveled extensively throughout Europe, Asia, South America and the Middle East, where he is very involved with political organizations for peace in the region.

Originally from Calabas, Cal., Sandel studied media arts, receiving a certificate in Middle Eastern studies from the University of Arizona in Tuscon, and earned his directing M.F.A. from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television.

The writer and director will be the guest speaker at the JUF Young Women's Board Spring Tribute Wednesday, April 30 at the Westin Chicago North Shore.

Oy!Chicago’s Stefanie Pervos spoke with Sandel about his film before his visit to Chicago last November:

Oy!: Why did you make West Bank Story?
Ari Sandel: I wanted to accomplish three things with the movie: (1) I wanted to make a film that would get attention and also make people laugh. (2) I wanted to make a movie that was pro-peace and offered a message of hope. (3) I wanted to address the situation in an even-handed and balanced way so that Jewish and Arab audiences would feel fairly enough represented to let their guard down and laugh with the characters from the “other side.” I thought, if we can make a movie that Israelis will watch and like the Arab characters, and that Arabs will watch and like the Israeli characters, then that will be something valuable.

How do you define your Jewish identity and how did that influence you in making “West Bank Story?”
I’m probably not particularly religious in the sense of following all of the holidays and doing everything I’m supposed to be doing, but no question I consider myself Jewish. My father is from Israel, and my family lives in Israel, so I grew up with that experience and that identity. Did it influence this movie? Certainly. My knowledge of the region is directly related to the fact that I’m Jewish and that my father is from Israel.

Did your Jewish identity hinder your ability to be objective with the film?
No, I don’t think so. I think because I’m Jewish and my father is from Israel I have a very deep understanding of the Israeli perspective. I think because I’m American I have an opportunity to see both sides and to want to learn the perspectives of both sides. I think Americans in general [identify with] people who see themselves as the underdogs and people searching for their own country seeking freedom. There are similar themes in the wishes and dreams of both Jews and Palestinians, and I think that is completely relatable for an American.

With your film, you were trying to convey that peace between Israelis and Arabs can be achieved. Do you think you successfully got that message across?
Honestly I wasn’t trying to make a huge statement about this is the way to solve peace. It’s certainly and obviously not that. I think the goal for me was to create a portrayal of the situation that didn’t leave people feeling down or hopeless or resenting the other side, whatever side that may be, because I feel like that’s what most of the documentaries and news articles do. It’s been very effective in reigniting interest or dialogue amongst people who have told me that they were totally turned off for a long time.

How has your life changed since winning the Academy Award?
It’s been intense. I’ve traveled the world quite a bit now with the movie and shown it all over the place and I’ve had some tremendous opportunities to meet people and to speak about the film. I have a movie now at Fox Studios, which is probably a result of the Oscar, so it’s been great.

What’s next for you?
I have a documentary with Vince Vaughn called the “Vince Vaughn Wild West Comedy Show.” It follows a traveling comedy show that Vince put together with four comics. It’s about traveling America, being a comic and going after your dreams and it’s very funny, it has a lot of heart. I’ll hopefully be shooting my first feature film in the winter. It’s an office comedy—not political.

Do you have any Chicago connections? 
I think Chicago is the best! The first time I’d ever been to Chicago was when I was visiting some friends on the set of “The Break Up,” and I had the greatest time and I ended up going there three times in one summer—twice for Vince Vaughn’s documentary. I think it’s the best and I love it!

Kosher-Style Comforts

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Since I left the security blanket of college about two years ago, my life has been full of change. I moved back home to the suburbs and got my first real job, and when I could no longer stand the suburbs, I moved to Lincoln Park and started a new job. I went from in a relationship, to single, to in a relationship - both in real life and on my Facebook profile. I lost touch with people I thought of as best friends, reconnected with old friends and made a lot of new ones. In what seemed like an instant, I went from child to adult, from student to professional, from carefree to neurotic. Oh, and my hair color changed from brown, to red, to somewhere in between (not to mention the horrifying gray hairs that have started popping up).

Kaplan Seder 1932

Family portrait at the seder in 1932

As someone who really doesn’t cope well with change, I look forward to those few things that remain constant in life: Chicago winters will always drag on longer than you can stand, Portillo’s chocolate cake will always make everything better and I will always spend the first night of Passover eating rubbery kosher-style food with about 80 of my closest relatives—my family’s Passover tradition.

While the cast and the characters have evolved throughout the years, the story—at least since I’ve been attending—is always the same. The service itself lasts about seven minutes tops. The youngest generation stutters and stumbles through the description of the seder plate and the four questions in Hebrew and English, Uncle Don recites the Kiddush and we’re on to the gefilte fish. Soon after, the announcement is made that “It’s time for the family update,” during which a representative from each branch of the family comes to the microphone to deliver the latest news, which ranges from remembering those who have passed to celebrating new babies and new fiancés, bu is really just an opportunity to brag. Following the meal, the kids search furiously for the afikomen hoping to claim the totally awesome prize, but I learned at a very young age that no one in my immediate family had ever found the afikomen—and apparently we never would—so eventually I just stopped looking…

As a little girl, I remember the excitement and anticipation I felt every year when I opened the envelope mailed directly to me from whichever family member was coordinating the service containing the small strip of paper revealing my part in the seder that year—although I’m not sure exactly what it was I was anticipating, since for nearly a decade I read the paragraph about the roasted shank bone, the same part my mother read before me and my sister would read after me. I remember practicing that part over and over again, because there was always a certain amount of pressure and expectation. “Don’t mumble,” my mom would always say just before it was my turn. “And stand up straight.”

Kaplan Seder 1957

Family portrait at the seder in 1957

This did not really change as I got older, but rather the expectations changed. First, I graduated to reading one of the Four Questions, and then I become the target of 20 questions, mostly focused on the nice, Jewish (God willing) boy, who may or may not be sitting next to me.

Of course over the years the seder has gone through some changes. The tradition, which originated many generations back, fizzled out after the original members passed away and was picked up again by my Grandpa Earl’s generation, involves my entire extended family on my mom’s side—aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, fifth cousins, you name it—all coming together in one place, once a year. The location, which began at a hotel in West Rogers Park, then moved on to Pioneer Court, a banquet hall by the old Sun Times building, now has moved to restaurants or country clubs in the suburbs as the family moved father and father north. It is always held at larger venues, because at its peak, the seder table was filled with 120 or so family members. But as people passed away, went off to college, married into other families and created traditions of their own, or simply became less observant, the numbers inevitably began to dwindle.

I always find myself looking forward to that first seder. For many of us sitting around the table, this is the only time we will see each other all year, and we can hardly recognize our cousins as they grow and change from year to year. Yet we all continue to make a special effort to spend this night together Passover after Passover. Maybe it’s because, in a time when so many people no longer celebrate their traditions, it’s nice to share that connection to Judaism and to a large family, even if its short-lived.

I know that as the years go by, as much as I try to resist it my life will continue to be filled with change and uncertainty. But I hope that I can always count on the fact that, when the time comes, my child will timidly make his or her way to the microphone to read about the roasted shank bone, search unsuccessfully for the afikomen and the tradition of our not-so-traditional seder will continue on with the next generation.

Jew Complete Me

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A Jewish 20-something strives to find love and fame on YouTube reality show

You Tube Guy

A guy, a girl and a cameraman…Graff (center) on his first date with Sarah.

Boy meets girl. Boy asks girl to send in video describing herself. Boy dates girl on YouTube, where he has the viewing public vote to decide whether boy and girl should continue dating.

So it isn’t exactly the way your grandparents met. But Noah Graff, a Jewish 28-year-old aspiring filmmaker from Bucktown, hopes this is the way he will meet the Jewish girl of his dreams…oh, and become a successful filmmaker in the process.

Almost a decade ago, Graff filmed a documentary following his journey from Chicago to San Francisco on a Greyhound bus, where he met: “a chef from a nudist spa, a 36-year-old bisexual grandfather and a guy who had just gotten out of prison.”

Now, Graff gets a little more personal through his own YouTube reality show, “Jew Complete Me,” which he launched in May of 2007. Hi idea was to solicit Jewish 20- and 30-something women for biographical videos and ask voters to pick a few of their favorites for Graff to go out with.


To Graff’s disappointment, he hasn’t had enough entries for voters to choose from. Early on, he received a request from a Jewish cross-dressing man. He politely declined. Several women, he says, have offered to go on a date with him off camera, but he says they clam up at the thought of dating on film. “I’ve learned girls are very cautious about putting themselves up on the Internet,” Graff says. “For all the girls who are cautious, though, it seems there must be some who love the spotlight…girls with real chutzpah.”

Graff did go on dates with three such chutzpah-having women—Sarah, who is not Jewish, Heather, and Jenna, who lives in Madison, Wisc. He posted each of the dates in multi-part episodes on YouTube. For instance, he edited the video of his date with Sarah (see above)—which lasted about four hours in real time—down to 6 1/2 minutes on the site. After being up on the site for a month, the tape of the date had been viewed 1,714 times. Though YouTube viewers have not voted on whether or not he should continue dating out each of the three women, they have commented on the site about whether or not they liked the women and what they thought of Graff.

For many months, Graff pledged not to “cheat on the show,” meaning he planned to stick with the project and only date on camera. After Thanksgiving, though, he gave up on that pledge, as he has discovered he will probably meet more women off camera than on, but he says he still plans to continue the show.

Despite his lackluster success so far, Graff—who was raised a Conservative Jew in the southern suburbs of Olympia Fields—says he’s optimistic that, through word of mouth, Jewish women will submit videos too. He says that eventually he wants to marry a Jewish woman because, “I want to hold onto my Jewish identity and keep that identity going by having Jewish kids.”

To most daters, with the exception of the many aspiring reality television stars, the thought of dating on camera ranks right up there with root canals without Novocaine, but Graff says he finds value in dating on camera and in reviewing himself and his date on videotape following their evening out. “After the date, when I watch myself over and over again, I learn a lot about myself and I realize some of the stupid things I say and I notice my body language and posture,” he says. “For instance, if you play sports and watch the videotape, you get a really good perspective on yourself. You can’t really know how you look until you watch yourself on camera.”

In With the Nu

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How young American Jews are doing Judaism their way


Matisyahu performs at a Jerusalem club in December 2005. (photo: Brian Hendler/JTA)

The face of American Jewry is changing, thanks in large part to the efforts of this country’s younger members of the tribe, who are finding new ways of expressing their Judaism that don’t always line up with the traditional values of existing Jewish institutions.

Many of today’s young Jews have replaced “congregations” with “communities,” prefer Matisyahu concerts to federation dinners and do not allow Judaism alone to limit or define them. This reinvention of Jewish life has prompted an upsurge in Jewish media on the Internet via magazines, blogs and online communities.

Out with the old…?

“New ideas seem to explode onto the scene in different places at roughly the same time,” says Tahl Raz, president and editor of Jewcy Media. “There is a yearning among young people. Young Jews are interested in figuring out whether this thing means anything to them.”

He says traditional Jewish media (publications produced by Jewish denominations, local communities or federations) is dying and—if he’s right that traditional outlets are producing “irrelevant content in an irrelevant medium”—maybe it should be.

Jewcy, an online ideas-and-culture magazine, launched in November of 2006 and quickly became the most visited Jewish media site in the country. The media group recently received a round of financing to launch its second online version set to roll out in the next few months, which will include more regionally-focused content as well as greater social networking capabilities and event listings.

Online publications and communities like Jewcy have to represent the values of this generation, Raz says. There are still Jews out there who want Jewish media, he says, and smart new leaders are taking over.

Chicago’s NuJews

The idea that Judaism can be expressed as well at a bar as at a temple is more widespread and successful in coastal Jewish communities like New York and L.A., but a few local NuJew pioneers have had success in bringing this movement to the Midwest.

In Chicago, these efforts are largely being spearheaded by Adam Davis, a self-proclaimed Jewish social entrepreneur, who runs the KFAR Jewish Arts Center and authors two blogs, Jewishfringe and 312Jews.

“I’m not sure that it’s a reinvention so much as a reclamation,” Davis says. “The under 40 set generally views the world somewhat differently than their parents. We grew up on MTV, download the exact songs we want to hear, are overwhelmed with marketing messages and media in general. Content is king, community is often virtual and top down messages are viewed with skepticism unless received virally through the social networks that have supplanted institutions.

“Apply that to Jewish life and it could seem like a complete breakdown of communal structures. It’s more of a paradigm shift, and a healthy one. Young Jews are seeking authentic Jewish voices of our generation that resonate with us. And when we’ve found them lacking, we haven’t waited for institutions to develop the answers they weren’t likely to provide—we’ve created them.”

“(This new expression of Judaism) is very user-driven, peer-connected, bottom-up and allows for creativity. That combination seems to threaten some, but it really needs to be supported, nurtured and funded, lest we alienate young Jews at a crucial point in the battle against—not assimilation and intermarriage—but apathy.”

In 2002, Davis coordinated his first KFAR Center event, bringing in Israeli musicians and artists and hosting them at Chicago venues like The Cubby Bear, Crush and Beat Kitchen. He also organizes discussion groups and events through Facebook and his blogs.

“These opportunities are not just ways to bridge into our own community,” he said, “they’re ways to bridge out.” And there are a certain percentage of people, he said, that find their way back to the Jewish community through his efforts.

A nu way to pray

Religious types are also rethinking Judaism. Rabbi Menachem Cohen, who founded the Mitziut Jewish Community in East Rogers Park in 2003, has succeeded in doing Judaism his way—and, as it turns out, his way is really appealing to a lot of people. Mitziut, which comes from the Hebrew word for "reality," is an independent, non-denominational Jewish spiritual community. People from the neighborhood, people of all Jewish backgrounds, and some from non-Jewish backgrounds, come from all over the Chicago area to participate in a welcoming, participatory community.

Throughout the country, more than eighty new emerging spiritual communities like this one have recently come on the scene, and while they vary in terms of mission, culture and nomenclature, they all agree that they will not be labeled as synagogues or congregations.

Cohen does not like to compare Mitziut to a traditional synagogue. A typical Friday night Shabbat service involves 25 to 30 participants sitting in a circle singing, chanting and dancing. The community also offers a meditation drop-in group and a Jewish drum circle which uses drumming as prayer.

“My goal is to find out what does all this mean to us in our day-to-day life, on a mystical and practical level,” Rabbi Cohen said. “I feel that my calling is to be there for people on their spiritual journeys.”

At Oy!, we’re committed to the conversation. Comment below and tell us how you’re living your Jewish, or Jew-ish, life.

Look Alive Comes to Life

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Paper Arrows is: Joe Goodkin, Jay Marino and Darren Garvey

Paper Arrows is: Joe Goodkin, Jay Marino and Darren Garvey

Joe Goodkin, founder of Chicago-based Quell records, is your regular renaissance guy. In addition to holding down jobs as a paralegal and guitar teacher, he plays in bands, runs a record label and travels to local high schools performing his original folk opera based on Homer’s Odyssey.

Last winter, his band Burn Rome Burn was on hiatus. Goodkin had written a bunch of new material, planning to hit the studio acoustic-style until he teamed up with Jay Marino, co-owner of I.V. Lab Studios in Uptown.

The project took off when they brought in Darren Garvey on drums and keyboards and Jay picked up the bass and mandolin. After what he describes as some crazy fast, guerilla recording, the group had a record that was ready to go.

“I was completely stunned at what I heard coming out of the speakers. What had started as a side project for myself had turned into the best piece of work I'd been a part of, and something I very much wanted people to hear,” Goodkin says.

The record, Look Alive, started to take shape in an attic on the northwest side of the city; the result is very Chicago. “My favorite moment is in the song ‘Again and Again.’ It's live, recorded in one take—the first take, actually. If you listen closely, you can hear the Blue Line train go by in the background, like a ghost, during the second verse.” He distributed about 200 copies, calling the project Paper Arrows. "I liked the idea that these songs, and songs in general, are like arrows that you write and then fire into the air, hoping that they hit the intended targets,” he says of the band’s name.

Goodkin worked with his agent to get it out to record labels and music licensing houses. Despite positive feedback across the board, getting Paper Arrows to market was frustrating. The band had never played a show or sold a record. “The responses we got all went like this: ‘This is really good, but we don't work with bands that aren't already established.’ After a couple months of that, I decided to establish it myself,” Goodkin says.

Last April, way before Radiohead took the same viral marketing approach, he released an email only single. “It was really cool and wound up four or five generations away from my initial email, reaching people in the UK, Russia and Italy. Immediately, my mailing list was bumped up and we got coverage in the Red Eye. For a band just starting out, that was a great way to get our music to people fast and painlessly,” he says.

On the heels of that initial success, Goodkin decided to release the entire CD in a somewhat more traditional way. He formalized a business plan, borrowed against his life insurance policy and Quell Records was born. Look Alive was released in March 2008, complete with a release party at Schuba’s where attendees received a free copy of the CD.

Getting there was a learning process for Goodkin, who had done many things involved with releasing a record in the past, but had never done them all at once. “I was amazed at how many little details there were. When you’re trying to put together a record, set up a business, and book a show, you have to learn to prioritize,” he says. “What surprised me is that the thing you love the most—playing music—is minimized.”

Energized by the release, the band has booked studio time for June and July. “If Look Alive is a quieter record about Chicago winters and loss, then the second record seems like it will be more about recovery and hope,” says Goodkin.

Keep an eye out, Paper Arrows plans to play some shows this summer.

My (Jewish-Interfaith-Lesbian) Wedding

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Chai Wolfman engagement

The couple relaxing before everyone arrives on the big day

Change is possible. When I first came out to my grandmother, she told me that she was okay with it, but didn’t agree with gay marriage. Several years later, this same grandmother actually hosted our wedding at her home.

At our wedding, there were those who refused to call it a wedding. Relatives with George W. Bush bumper stickers parked next to friends counting down to the end of his reign. There were Christians, Jews, Buddhists and those embracing their own self-defined spirituality or none at all. Some guests came who only speak the words “lesbian” or “gay” in whispers—and only when they find themselves unable to avoid it altogether—while other friends and family who embrace our relationship wrote heartfelt blessings for us as part of our ceremony.

Mandi and I started dating in college when we were both 20 and quickly became inseparable. After being completely in love for five years, she proposed. We spent two years planning our wedding—partly to take our time and enjoy the process, partly because July 2007 had a good ring to it and partly to give our families time to get used to the idea.

People didn’t know how to respond to our decision to have a wedding. We had to listen to some say they didn’t agree with us. We only received one engagement present. We had to create a ceremony from scratch. We had to figure out how to respond to people who didn’t understand what we meant when we told them we were getting married. We dealt with the traditional drama of who to invite and not to invite. We spent loads of cash. Why were we doing this again?

For all of these reasons and more. Because creating our own ceremony gave me the opportunity to question which Jewish traditions were important to me and had meaning for both of us as an interfaith couple. Because through the entire process of planning and figuring out how to deal with some hard questions we grew more resilient as individuals and stronger as a couple. Because by being open about our love, we let people into our lives and allowed our families to embrace us in a way that didn’t seem possible before.

And because it was FUN! Because roasting s’mores over a bonfire and dancing with your closest friends and relatives in the middle of a meadow on a clear summer night creates the best memories. Because maybe we could help people leave their judgments in the past and open their minds to others who are different from themselves. Because despite everyone’s differences, there was not a dry eye at the end of our ceremony and I will never forget my grandmother hugging me afterward and saying, “You are such a good lesson for all of us.”

I know not everyone is open to learning these lessons. Mandi’s mom did not come to our wedding. She did not acknowledge the invitation we sent. She did not ask us about the preparations or to see the pictures afterward. She still does not see our relationship for what it is. There is no getting around how much that hurts, but there is nothing I can do to change it.

The best I can do is to continue caring about her and focusing on the good things she does bring into my life. We are all human beings, after all. In acknowledging this and being true to ourselves as individuals and as a couple, Mandi and I hope to help others to do the same.

In this small way, we are working together toward the promise we made at the end of our Ketubah: that together we will help build a world filled with peace and love. I cannot think of a better way to do this as an interfaith lesbian couple than to live every day openly, embracing differences and common humanity with kindness and compassion. I know this will not be an easy task, but my experience so far has shown me that facing the challenge is worth it.

One week after the big day, the very same grandmother who once voiced her opposition to gay marriage was excitedly suggesting sperm donors so we can start our family. Really, grandma, one thing at a time.

8 Questions for Steven Rosengard, Project Runway Contestant, Fashion Designer

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Steven Rosengard

Steven Rosengard: A pencil-wielding Jew to watch

You may recognize Homewood, IL native Steven Rosengard from Bravo’s reality show Project Runway . After a disappointing week-5 elimination involving a white polyester wedding gown, Steven is back home in Lakeview. He spends his days recreating fashions of centuries past as a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Science and Industry and continues to design custom clothing on the side.

So, whether you’re a reality TV addict, a girl looking for a snazzy one-of-a-kind dress or an appreciator of the recreations you see at the museum, Steven Rosengard is a Jew you should know.

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was four, I wanted to be an artist but I didn’t really know what that meant—I really just wanted to paint and draw. By the time I was 11 I wanted to be a designer, by 21 I wanted to be an interior designer and now that I’m almost 31 I’m back to designer. I don’t know, talk to me when I’m 41 and maybe I will be back to painting full-time.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
I just love working with women who want to, maybe even if only for just one night, look as perfect and great as they always could. I love making that happen.

3. What are you reading?
Christian Dior’s biography, which is really an interesting book. When I’m sewing, I cheat and listen to books on CD—for the third time I’m listening to The Time Traveler’s Wife. The narrators are so great and when you hear the woman’s voice quivering when she’s talking about the relationship and you’re sitting sewing a seam and … well, it becomes very sad sewing.

4. What’s your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
I was just recently at RL and it was just wonderful. It is very cozy and a great time. My favorite for carryout is Joy’s Noodles on Broadway.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent? 
I guess some sort of time traveling device. I’d love to bounce around and see Berlin in between the Wars, Paris in the 1770s, Atlanta circa 1855 and Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood in the 1920s.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or ability to be invisible?
Half the time I feel like I’m invisible anyway! And given how long it takes to get to work these days, I’d rather fly than take the bus.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure song would I find?
I’d never show anyone my iPod, are you nuts? Okay, for as cornball as it is, I suppose there are certain elements of one song that are apropos to my certain situation. Ready? “Lucky” by Britney Spears. She’s singing about how people think she’s so lucky because she’s famous and it’s about what will happen when all of that stops. I know that a lot of us going into Project Runway had that fear of what would happen when people quit paying attention to us. This whole situation puts us in a precarious position to stay ahead of the game.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago—in other words, how do you Jew?
I used to really like walking by Sam’s Deli just knowing it was there, but it closed and that kills that. Every year we go to my Auntie Cheryl’s in the old neighborhood for Passover. She has these two fat cats with their bellies dragging on the floor. So the larger, angrier of the two was growling at Auntie Cheryl for food, she got up from the table, went to the fridge, and threw her some sliced ham and sat back at the Seder table without washing her hands. She’s very irreverent.

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