The Arty Semite

Terrorist Father, Ultra-Orthodox Mother

By Anne Joseph

The extraordinary documentary film, “Life Sentences,” was many years in the planning, says co-director Yaron Shani. Winner of the best documentary film at last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, it will receive its UK premiere in London later this month during SERET, the Israeli Film and Television Festival.

“Life Sentences” tells the story of Nimer Ahmed, the son of Fauzi al Nimer, an Arab from Acre and an Israeli Jewish woman from Nahariya who married in the early 1960s after a whirlwind romance, much to the wrath of both their families. They had two children, Nimer, and a daughter. But without his family knowing, Fauzi Nimer was a notorious Palestinian terrorist who was eventually convicted of carrying out 22 terror attacks in Israel.

Nimer’s mother took her young children to Montreal where they embedded themselves among the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, never discussing their father or the life they had left. Now married to his Muslim cousin living in Acre, Nimer has two children of his own, and although his story could be construed as yet another casualty of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the film manages to delve deeply into the complexities of a life that beggars belief.

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POEM: 'Carlisle Street (The Last Ghetto)'

By Matthue Roth

You and me on Carlisle Street
feels so illegitimate, holding hands
strolling along stands of Tasmanian fruits and music stores
two bars, more urbane than urban
where the Jewish kids meet. flirt. buy each other drinks.
but always go home alone.

A rabbi once told us
always have guests for Shabbos dinner.
It’s a segulah for shalom bayis.

What that means in English is,
you fight less
with other people around.

On Carlisle Street
we are never alone
every five steps is
another long-lost friend
or the cousin of one.
To move a block
Takes hours.
We are the opposite Of a marathon.

Chana, 22 years old
and still single, anxiously
trades names of old flames
pairing up, kids flying out
as fast as photocopies

She’s the last in her class
to get married. She is an advertisement
for herself,
dressed in nostalgic black & white
getting more severe every year
like a bottle of wine
she poses with a picture of her husband
propped against her heart.
Now all she has to do
Is find him.

John lives alone with the ghosts
of his grandparents
in their old apartment. He is the wildest
kid we know, visiting exorcists and
death-rock shows, throwing footballs over
international borders, but at home
he is tender. At sunset
the three of them have tea
making dirty jokes that offend
none of their sensibilities.

My cousin Karl
80 years old next month and never married,
I’m his closest relative
and I’m never here
drinks coffee and talks
to waitresses 60 years younger than he is
tells them he’s the president of the USA

They never doubt it.
He’s earned this retirement
a conductor on Melbourne trains for 30 years
and 5 years in Nazi slave camps
now he sits in his old barrack-mate’s café
Glick’s Bakery and bagels that don’t taste like bagels,
they taste like bread
He’ll sit there for hours like a fishing net,
waiting for people
to trickle in.

I know where he is. I’ll bite.
I like stories,
and it’s nice to be legitimate
for a change.


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When an Economic Crisis Hits Home

By Anne Joseph

There are times when Tom Shoval’s debut film, “Youth,” is deeply uncomfortable to watch. Set in an unnamed central Israeli suburb the film shows two teenage brothers who kidnap a wealthy girl in order to solve their family’s growing financial crisis. Tense, foreboding and menacing from the opening frame, the film, which won best feature at last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, will receive its UK premiere later this month as part of SERET, the London Israeli Film and Television Festival.

“Youth” reflects Shoval’s close relationship with his brother, who is four years his junior and with whom he shares an almost telepathic relationship. ‘We have a very strong connection. He knows what I’m thinking even before I speak or the other way ‘round. We also look very similar and sometimes people confuse us,” he told the Forward. He describes being curious about the nature of their bond and decided “to try and translate this connection into cinema.”

The experience of economic hardship that befalls the family in the film also has autobiographical overtones. When Shoval’s father lost his job — a victim of the struggling middle class in Israel — he lapsed into depression and Shoval describes the ensuing tension in the family home. “My parents were trying to protect us, they didn’t really tell us what was happening. We were told that everything was going to be okay but my brother and I felt that something deeper and more frightening was going on.” It was a shock to see his father, his role model, suddenly becoming a shadow of himself, he says.

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'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' and the Future of Television

By Eitan Kensky

Summer is the cruelest cultural season. With that in mind, ICYMI (In Case You Missed It) is a new occasional series highlighting movies, TV shows, books, comics and everything else we might have missed in the past few months that we can catch up on in the next few.

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” was last year’s best new sitcom. Watching is now a moral imperative.

Husks of series that ended too soon litter Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime: unwatched critics’ darlings; cult shows that never proselytized; dramas that took too long to find their rhythms; the doomed and the criminally “ahead of their time.”

TV economics never made sense. It was never easy to launch a show, find an audience, maintain quality, keep the cast intact and sober, and hit the cash money of syndication. Today it’s nearly impossible. Kevin Reilly, the programmer at Fox who championed “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and the maddeningly inconsistent “The Mindy Project” is now the “outgoing chairman of entertainment.” The business is changing, but no one knows where it’s going. What will advertisers pay for streams and how will they count them? How many days after an episode airs are ads still effective? The one metric that everyone agrees on is how many viewers watch a show live, or (who can be picky!), the same day. Numbers of viewers that would have been laughable decades ago are now hits.

But unless you like business stories, ignore conversations on the future of television. Fans of TV who want to make the medium better should instead concentrate on this maxim: Watch what matters to you live. Do not wait until the season ends or when the DVD comes out or a show hits Netflix. Make watching the shows that matter to you the day they air a priority and pray that there are enough of you. Tell your friends when you think something is good. Otherwise “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” will die.

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Learning the Wrong Lessons From the Rosenbergs

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Rahav Segev/Photopass

There are lessons to be learned from “Ethel Sings,” the new play about the Rosenbergs running through mid-July in Manhattan.

The most obvious is about the dangers of governmental overreach. Also: less is more. And both playwright Joan Beber and director Will Pomerantz would do well to learn that.

“Ethel Sings” is a potentially powerful story burdened by totally unnecessary over writing and directing. It’s been a little over six decades since the couple were executed, but much of their story remains hauntingly familiar.

Ethel (Tracy Michailidis) and Julius (Ari Butler) meet at a Young Communist League. She wants to become a singer; he wants to change the world. In a country where anti-Semitism and racism flourish, he sees communism as a beacon of hope.

Ethel is less enthralled with politics and concerned that her husband’s affiliation keeps getting him fired. She urges him to quit the Party.

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Doug Liman on Action Movies and Shabbat With Dad

By Curt Schleier

Doug Liman made his reputation directing “Swingers,” a film that helped establish the viability of independent film, not to mention the careers of Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau. His personal favorite is “Go,” a movie he knows “no one saw.”

But certainly Liman is best known as an action director: “Bourne Identity,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and now, “Edge of Tomorrow.”

The movie stars Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt and is already the best reviewed of Liman’s films; it will restore luster to Cruise’s career, tarnished recently by “Oblivion,” “Rock of Ages” and “Knight and Day.”

Liman grew up in Manhattan, the son of Arthur Liman, who led the Iran Contra investigation. Liman spoke to the Forward about the art of making action movies, what Cruise is really like, and how Shabbat dinners with his dad prepared him for Hollywood.

Curt Schleier: Is there a secret to making action films?

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How Shep Gordon Became a Real 'Supermensch'

By Curt Schleier

Comedian Mike Myers found the perfect vehicle to make his directorial debut: “Supermensch The Legend of Shep Gordon.”

The title makes it sound like another Myers comedy, a Jewish “Wayne’s World” or “Austin Powers.” In fact, it is an extremely well-executed documentary about one of the most captivating figures in the history of rock and roll.

Shep Gordon is not someone you’ve likely heard of. He managed Alice Cooper, Teddy Pendergrass, and Pink Floyd (inexplicably for just nine days), among others. He created the celebrity chef category. And he lived a remarkable life — something between a frat boy’s fantasy and a rabbi’s delight.

Even better, from Myers’s point of view, Gordon is a brilliant raconteur with a vivid memory that apparently survived the prestigious amount of drugs he consumed. Part of Myers’s success here is simply based on his ability to point a camera and press record.

Gordon grew up in a Jewish family in Oceanside, New York, and accidentally found a career in show business after he was slugged in the face by Janis Joplin. A word of explanation:

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POEM: 'this & this'

By Ariel Resnikoff

all this was sand
before the grammarian:
this & this
& this
was a relief
of stones
it was a relief
Watch it! says
a grammarian
he is old
now his boots
are caked in sand
he has been
relieved
he is relieved!
of this
& this
but not yet that—
he is relieved but
not as a stone
is relieved
in sand
not yet
not even
a pebble under a wave
is a grammar
Watch it! says a grammarian
but we have stopped
watching
listening
for the sounds
of rattling.


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When Getting Girl Means Pretending To Be Transgender

By Michael Kaminer

Photo: Chloe Aftel

Call it a boy-meets-girl-who-thinks-boy-was-born-a-girl story.

In “Adam,” the debut novel from cult graphic memoirist Ariel Schrag, an awkward California teenager named Adam Freedman parachutes into an alien landscape of subcultures and identities when he joins his lesbian sister in Brooklyn for the summer. (Full disclosure: Schrag was featured in “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” a traveling exhibition which I co-curated and the Forward sponsored.)

Obsessed with scoring — with women, not sports — he finally meets the girl of his dreams. The fact that she thinks he’s transgender — a boy who was born a girl — becomes a temporary stumbling block once Adam realizes he’ll get much further by playing along.

Like her great graphic novels “Awkward,” “Definition,” “Potential,” and “Likewise,” “Adam” balances Schrag’s ruthless eye and scathing precision with beautifully humanistic and generous portrayals of complex, conflicted characters.

Schrag, who has also written for the Showtime series “The L Word” and HBO’s hit “How to Make It in America,” spoke to the Forward from her home in Brooklyn.

Michael Kaminer: Is it a stretch to draw a straight line between Adam’s predicament and the moments throughout history where Jews have had to hide their identities?

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Why 'Supermensch' Shep Gordon Likes To Be a Plus-1

By Dorri Olds

It took Mike Myers 10 years of begging for Shep Gordon to agree to a documentary about his life. The film, “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon,” is Myers’s first go at directing, and he made a masterpiece.

Gordon was the one who masterminded Alice Cooper’s image with stunts like throwing a live chicken on stage, putting underwear on the album “School’s Out,” and plastering a picture of Cooper naked — save for a snake covering his manhood — on the side of a truck whose driver was paid to “break down” during rush hour in London.

Gordon also invented the concept of the celebrity chef, managed Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross and Raquel Welch, and handled Groucho Marx during his senior years, pro bono.

But all of these accomplishments don’t describe the sweet essence of the man — the mensch — that Myers captures in his movie.

Gordon came to the rescue of a grandmother who had no idea how she’d be able to raise her suddenly deceased daughter’s four children. Gordon said, “It seemed like something had to be done, and I had the resources.” He supported them and they became his makeshift family.

Dorri Olds caught up with Shep Gordon to talk about Jewish spirituality, living at the same hotel as Janis Joplin, why he always likes to be a plus-one.

Dorri Olds: You have led such an eclectic life.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg Watched Her Life Onstage

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Photo: Ari Roth

Despite having had a long, busy day at the US Supreme Court this past Monday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a point of attending a special performance of “Stars of David: Story to Song” in Washington that evening. The performance of the musical review celebrating the lives of Jewish public figures — including Ginsburg herself — was a benefit for Theater J, a program of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center.

To the delight of the cast, the 81-year-old Justice visited them backstage after the performance to express her appreciation. “She was very expressive,” actor and singer Aaron Serotsky, who was in the original “Stars of David” off-Broadway run in New York last fall, shared with the Forward the next day. Ginsburg reportedly told him and the others that she was moved to laughter and tears as she watched the show, which is based on the best-selling book by Abigail Pogrebin and features original music by Broadway’s finest composers and lyricists.

According to Serotsky, the cast was made aware just an hour before curtain time that the Justice, who had been invited to the benefit performance by Theater J artistic director Ari Roth, was actually going to show up. “We knew she was there when a female security guard showed up backstage,” Serotsky recalled.

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Pluralistic Shavuot at Tel Aviv City Hall

By Ronen Shnidman

Photo courtesy of Beit Tefilah Israeli

This Shavuot, the Tel Aviv Municipality broke new ground in the effort to develop a native-grown pluralistic form of Judaism that meets the spiritual and cultural needs of Israel’s non-Orthodox Jewish majority.

In conjunction with the liberal, independent, egalitarian minyan Beit Tefilah Israeli, the local government of Israel’s cultural capital hosted a night of lectures, panel discussions, study sessions, intimate musical performances and a pluralistic prayer service at dawn at city hall.

The evening, some participants hoped, would provide a prototype for an inclusive form of Judaism that better suited to the needs of Israel’s Jewish population than the one represented by the established Orthodox Rabbinate. During the evening there was much discussion of the need to create a positive secular Jewish and democratic culture as a focal point for non-religious Israelis, instead of a militantly anti-Orthodox or de-Judaized public sphere.

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David Bezmozgis Turning 'Natasha' Into Film

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Photo: David Franco

A decade after its publication, Canadian author David Bezmozgis is turning his debut short story collection, “Natasha and Other Stories,” into a film. As with “Victoria Day,” his first cinematic endeavor in 2009, Bezmozgis, a graduate of the University of Southern California’s film school, is both writing and directing the project.

The stories in the breakout “Natasha” chronicling the saga of the Bermans, a Russian-Jewish immigrant family to Toronto, were hailed by critics as “dazzling,” “scary good,” and “stunning.” The book was translated into 15 languages and won several prizes. Virtually unknown prior to the collection’s publication, the Riga-born Bezmozgis’s literary star rose with “Natasha.” His celebrated first novel, “The Free World,” was published in 2011, and will be followed this coming September by a second novel, “The Betrayers.”

The film version of “Natasha” will focus on the title story, which comes in the middle of the collection.

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Did Photographer Garry Winogrand Exploit Nude Subjects?

By Menachem Wecker

Garry Winogrand, New York, 1968, gelatin silver print, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Walking through the many rooms in the National Gallery of Art’s exhibit “Garry Winogrand” (through June 8), I was surprised to see several groups of transfixed boys. Winogrand, after all, was born in 1928 and died more than 20 years ago; he had an ingenious eye for interpreting urban street scenes and the pedestrians that passed through them, but his work has nothing to do with Instagram or iPhones. Why, I wondered, were these young boys so interested in black-and-white photographs from the 1970s?

When I crossed over the room toward the boys, I realized they were gawking at some of the photographs from Winogrand’s 1975 series of 85 works: “Women Are Beautiful.” The images showed women in various stages of undress. “Whenever I’ve seen an attractive woman, I’ve done my best to photograph her,” Winogrand wrote of the series. “I don’t know if all the women in the photographs are beautiful, but I do know that the women are beautiful in the photographs.”

Winogrand’s program of photographing beautiful women has been controversial. The photographer, born to Jewish parents who left Budapest and Warsaw for the Bronx, is “routinely criticized for exploiting the subjects of his work,” according to the website of the Worcester Art Museum, which showed works from the series in 2013. The photographs of the young women in the series are “typically composed to emphasize their breasts and backsides,” the site adds.

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2 Jewish Lawyers and Hitler's 'Butcher' Share Stage

By Nigel Stephenson

(Reuters) — The improbable tale of three music-loving lawyers linked to Ukraine - two of them Jews and one a Hitler aide known as the “Butcher of Poland” - has made it to the stage in a work premiered at the Hay Festival.

“The Great Crimes” tells how the lives of Hersch Lauterpecht, who formulated the legal concept of crimes against humanity, Raphael Lemkin, who helped make genocide an international crime, and Hans Frank, World War Two governor of Nazi-occupied Poland, became entwined.

“It is about the origins of our modern systems of justice and the role that an individual can play,” Philippe Sands, professor of international law at University College, London, told Reuters.

Sands, baritone Laurent Naouri and pianist Guillaume de Chassy gave “The Great Crimes” its first public hearing at the Hay festival on May 25. Sands narrates the story, interspersed with music from Naouri and de Chassy.

It will performed at London’s Southbank Center in November.

Sands uncovered the story on which the work is based while researching the early life of his grandfather, who was born in the city now known as Lviv in Ukraine but called Lemberg under the Austro-Hungarian Empire and by its wartime German occupiers.

Lauterpecht and Lemkin studied law at the Jan Kazimierz University in what was then Lemberg and both were Jews who lost most of their family members in the Holocaust.

They both left the city, Lauterpecht becoming an academic lawyer at Britain’s Cambridge University and Lemkin taking teaching posts at several leading United States universities.

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Palestinian Artists Pull Out of Pittsburgh Show

By JTA

Mohammed Musallam

An art exhibition in Pittsburgh featuring the work of Israeli, Palestinian and American artists was canceled after the Palestinian artists withdrew from the show.

“Sites of Passage: Borders, Walls & Citizenship,” scheduled to run at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory museum from June 1 to July 27, was the culmination of a joint multimedia project begun a year ago by the artists, the Jewish Chronicle reported. The Palestinian artists pulled out of the show on May 29, a day after the Israeli artists had canceled their participation in order to allow the Palestinians to continue participating and to protect them from threats and criticism on an Arabic-language Facebook page, Tavia La Follette, the independent curator of the exhibit, told the newspaper.

La Follette said the use of the words “collaboration” and “dialogue” as part of the descriptions of the exhibit were the triggers of the criticism, since the words mean different things in the realms of the art world and politics.

“The Palestinian artists said, ‘We can’t be in this show,’ so the Israelis withdrew,” La Follette told the newspaper. “The whole idea behind the project was to move it beyond political rhetoric. But we need to protect the Palestinian artists. It shows the integrity of the Israeli artists that they pulled out of the show.”

The artists traveled together last year in the West Bank.

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'Mad Men' in Land of the Dead

By Eitan Kensky

Images courtesy of AMC

Watching “Mad Men” is like watching shades dance. The undead and the dying slouch at every corner.

This one was born in a concentration camp. Never sane, this season brought a self-immolating insanity. This one stole a dead man’s identity, legally killing his true self in the process. Now he works in a crime scene, an office where dreams of happiness and self-worth end with a rope. Fevered, the man with the stolen life dreams of killing a woman who tempts him. This one is an echo of Sharon Tate. She wears the same clothes and lives in the same, coyote-haunted part of the Hollywood Hills. In real life, Tate was killed by the followers of a mad man. This one is an orphan who has now essentially orphaned his daughter; this one is an old man who staves off aging with cocktails and psychedelic drugs and ever-more-meaningless sex; and this one is Betty, whose blood never ran warmer than ice, now wilting and freezing in her gothic Westchester crypt.

The undead and the dying were everywhere during part one of “Mad Men”’s seventh season, which ended last Sunday. It’s nothing new for a show whose title sequence features a man falling from a building (whether he jumped or was pushed is curiously omitted), and which once foreshadowed the season-long story of protagonist Don Draper’s descent into hell with a shot of a shirtless Don (Jon Hamm) casually reading Dante’s “Inferno” on the beach.

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A Mandolin Orchestra's Labor Roots

By Jon Kalish

Photo courtesy New York Mandolin orchestra

On June 1 the New York Mandolin Orchestra will celebrate its 90th anniversary at a concert in Manhattan. The repertoire ranges from a Vivaldi concerto to St. Louis Blues. Founded in 1924 by a Russian Jew named Samuel Firstman, the orchestra was initially affiliated with the Jewish communist newspaper Freiheit. For a time it performed both the national anthem and the socialist Internationale at its concerts.

“All these people had come from Europe and it was part of their culture. They believed in a larger culture,” says Bill Knapp, a concertina player who was a card-carrying member of the Wobblies and played with the orchestra for more than 30 years. “It was very important to them that they play this music, that they learn it, they pass it on.”

Among the New York Mandolin Orchestra’s alumnae are the bluegrass virtuoso Barry Mitterhoff, who was given his first mandolin by his aunt Sylvia Reuben who had played in a mandolin orchestra in Newark, New Jersey. Mitterhoff, who now performs with the acoustic music group Hot Tuna, joined the New York Mandolin Orchestra in 1976 and served as its concertmaster for 12 years. He’ll participate in the concert on Sunday.

“By the time I got involved in 1976, there were very few, quote, unquote younger players, which included anybody under 50,” Mitterhoff told the Forward. “Most of the members were senior citizens and some of them were couples. They all worked in factories and sweatshops.

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POEM: 'Hebrew, My Love'

By Tuvia Ruebner

Translated by Rachel Tzvia Back

It’s been a lifetime together.
Fifty years? Sixty? How many?

We were never like that coiled knot
only the slash of the sword could undo.
I turned my back on you.
You turned your back on me
though still we pulled toward each other like magnets to the pole
like the moon and the tides.

I conjugated at your will, I accepted your grammared sentences
I queried your roots,
I stuttered, became silent, I begged and whispered,
and you, turning inward, saw nothing.
Until suddenly, you opened up wide like a field in the wind
and your voice burst forth from my throat.

From “In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner” translated by Rachel Tzvia Back (Hebrew Union College Press, in collaboration with University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014).


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A Dutch Monastery’s Jewish Prayer Books

By Menachem Wecker

Photo: Menachem Wecker

For the past three years, mid-March has meant for me a pilgrimage to the southern Dutch town of Maastricht to cover The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). Undoubtedly one of the world’s finest, the fair offers (for a hefty price) everything from Greco-Roman antiquities and Rembrandts to Warhols, photography and modern sculpture. The best metaphor I can think of for navigating the fair’s 275 galleries is an ice cream headache that comes from too thoroughly tantalizing the eye with too many artistic treasures.

I have also, for the past three years, walked several times from my hotel to the intersection of Maastricht’s Sint Pieterstraat and Achter De Oude Minderbroeders streets, the latter of which is Dutch for “Behind the Old Franciscans.” There, I thumbed through Jewish books at a former Franciscan monastery dating back to the 13th century.

The reading room of the Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg, Limburg’s regional historic center, has the soaring, vaulted ceilings and stunning windows one would expect of a monastery. Like many in Holland, the building changed hands when Frederik Hendrik, the prince of Orange, conquered the city in 1632. The church heads were beheaded, and the building became an orphanage, military hospital, jail and even sauerkraut factory.

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