Jewfem Blog

Dr Judith Rosenbaum brings excitement about Jewish women’s historical achievements to HUC

  “This is the first time I have ever received a fellowship named for a woman,” Dr. Judith Rosenbaum reflected as she opened her first talk as the Sally Priesand Fellow at Hebrew Union College this week. Dr. Rosenbaum, who is the Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive as well as a decorated and accomplished Jewish feminist historian, came to HUC to teach about Jewish women, feminism, and her mother. Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of the death of her mother, Professor Paula Hyman, a pioneering Jewish feminist who broke many glass ceilings. Dr. Rosenbaum will be speaking on Shabbat about feminism, Judaism, and her mother’s legacy at the HUC synagogue in Jerusalem. And she brought along her 10-year-old daughter, Ma’ayan with her, making the celebration of Jewish girls and women a truly intergenerational project. “It is incredible to stand under Rabbi Sally Priesand’s banner,” Dr Rosenbaum told the HUC rabbinical students. “It means that Jewish feminism has really come into its next cycle, the next generation.” Rabbi Priesand was the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in America – in 1972, as part of the Reform movement. For many years everyone thought that she was the first woman ever to be ordained. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, when records and archives opened up, the world learned about Rabbi Regina Jonas, a Jewish woman who was ordained in 1935 Germany. She served rabbinical duties even in Theresienstadt, and she was tragically murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz in 1944. “The people who knew Regina Jonas’ story did not share it with the world,” Dr. Rosenbaum remarked. “We don’t know why. Her story was almost lost to us.” Scholars discovered a small box that Rabbi Jonas has kept safe, which included many of her writings and sermons, Dr Rosenbaum explained. It was a treasure, without which we may have never truly known about her remarkable achievements.   HUC Dean Rabbi Naamah Kelman, who broke a lot of glass ceilings herself –  including becoming the first woman to be ordained as rabbi in Israel – provided more vibrant context about Dr. Rosenbaum’s visit. “Your mother was my mentor,” Rabbi Kelman said about Professor Hyman, who was the first woman dean of the Seminary College of Jewish Studies, first to chair a Judaic Studies department at a major university, possibly the first woman to hold a chair in Judaic Studies, and one of the founders of Ezrat Nashim, one of the first Jewish feminist organizations, in 1971. Then 1973 marked the first ever gathering of some 500 women sponsored by Network, a Jewish Students organization. It was called The Jewish Women’s Conference. "I like to describe it as the Big Bang of Jewish feminism," Rabbi Kelman said. “I was the youngest one there, all of 18 years old. That is where I met some of the most amazing women who become my friends and mentors over the years, like your mother,” she said to Dr. Rosenbaum.   Dr. Rosenbaum’s...

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How do you sing about rape? Chanting the rape of Dina on the International Day against violence against Women, and #MeToo

I was preparing for my layning, my turn at chanting the Torah portion, when I stopped short. I could not get the words out. The melody of the chanting, the “trop”,  is joyful, uplifting, and in a major key. But I couldn’t do it. Because the words I was chanting in that normal trop were about rape – specifically, the rape of Dina by Shechem, the non-Israelite son of Ham the Hivite. V’yishkav otah vaye’aneha – And he laid her down and tortured her.  (Genesis 24;2) How do you chant about rape? How do you sing in the normal uplifting tune, as if everything is normal, when the story is about this awful violence against a girl? One more moment of being a woman entering a man's world, a reminder that everything we know and do, pretty much, was constructed by a male perspective. For thousands of years, when chanting the Torah was the realm of men’s work, these words were chanted just as all other words in the Bible. Because, of course they were. To be fair, the bible does not exactly condone the rape of Dina. On the contrary, the entire story that follows is about the rage of Dina’s brothers at such an awful thing, the vengeance they sought, and the way they suffered in the long term because of their uncontrolled anger. And while the reader is led to believe initially that their rage was about the fact that Shechem was uncircumcised and therefore impure, we soon realize that this was just a ruse. After all, every man in the town went through circumcision in order to make the rape palatable to the Israelite brothers, but the two of them massacred the entire town anyway. So, it is safe to assume that the brothers were pretty angry about what Shechem did to their sister, and not merely because his penis had a foreskin. And to be quite honest, part of me is grateful to Shimon and Levi for caring. After all, there are a lot of terrible things that happen to women in the bible that barely get noted. Most of the time, the mistreatment of women is treated as par for the course. Grabbing, silencing, using, abusing, ignoring, marrying off against their wills, covering, punishing, blaming, manipulating, hurting, selling off, and yes, raping women and girls are all in the Bible.Just the culture, the way things were done back then, or something.  We read this, we treasure these books, we chant the stories with celebration and fanfare, and move on. So at least here we have this monstrosity of a brutal massacre by brothers who seemed to be genuinely upset about their sister's rape. It’s as chivalrous as it is horrifying. For the most part, the Jewish tradition reads all these texts with the same tune. A recitation of our history for the purpose of remembering. The good and the bad. But I couldn’t do that this week. This was a big responsibility for me. I am figuring out...

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The HUC Ordination Ceremony: A celebration of the Jewish human spirit

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  Rabbi Naamah Kelman had a really busy day yesterday. As Dean of the Hebrew Union College- Hebrew Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, she hosted last night’s smicha or ordination ceremony of the latest cohort of Reform rabbis in Israel. This was a particularly momentous event for the movement in that it marks 100 rabbis ordained in Israel and brought together top Reform leaders from Israel and around the world. But Rabbi Kelman had a few extra special connections to this event. An eleventh-generation rabbi herself as well as the first woman in her family line to reach that stature, and the first woman to be ordained in Israel, she also got to watch as her daughter, Rabbi Leora Ezrachi-Vered was ordained – with honors – bringing the rabbinate to one more generation in the Kelman family. “It was a real dor-dor [generation to generation] moment”, Naama’s sister, Abby Kelman, kvelled. Their brother, Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, was also in attendance, as he served Leora’s escort for the ceremony. Their 94-year-old mother was also there, bringing four generations of rabbinate together. “My mother has been daughter-of-, wife-of, mother-of, and now grandmother-of rabbis,” Naamah told the crowd, welcoming her mother along with all the other dignitaries in attendance. This stirring interplay between family, community, and Jewish tradition that Naamah embodied – as Leora received a special dedication from her father, Dr. Elan Ezrachi, Naamah held her sleeping grandson on her shoulder – is one of the most beautiful aspects of HUC. This is a place that values the whole person – our work, our family, our ideas, our individual journeys and even struggles. The very personal approach to the ceremony, in which family members were invited to present blessings to the graduates and even sing to them, was unlike anything I had ever seen. And it is an attitude that characterizes my experiences there as a student, in which the staff actually want to know how you are doing, not only academically but also personally and emotionally. This joyful, spiritual, sincere, authentic and emotional approach dominated the entire ordination ceremony. It was personal, communal, Israeli, historical, and very Jewish. (And it included  one very special Dag Nachash recitation by Rabbi Michael Marmur). This was a celebration of Jewish tradition, and especially the accomplishments of the Reform movement. “Some people didn’t believe that we would get to this point of having 100 Reform rabbis in Israel,” said HUC President Rabbi Dr. Aaron Panken, speaking in immaculate Hebrew. “But I’m already ready for the next 100.” There is a special significance to “100 rabbis”, he noted, in that a petition by 100 rabbis has the power to change halakhic rulings. “It’s a hard fight for progressive Judaism in Israel,” Abby told me. “It’s like walking uphill on glass barefoot.” This is indeed a great accomplishment in a country that doesn’t officially recognize Reform or Conservative Judaism as legitimate forms of Judaism – not in politics, not in education, not in budgets and jobs, and not...

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What does it mean to really listen in prayer?

Yael Vurgen, a classmate of mine at HUC rabbinical school and a fellow-Modi’in resident, led a morning prayer service (tefillat shacharit) this week that was unlike anything I have ever experienced. And it was all around the very basic concept of listening.   She transmitted this by doing the tefilla in sign language. Here is a clip of Yael teaching the prayer "Ha'azina" -- "Listen" -- in sign language. This is the prayer that opens up the idea of listening in prayer, where we ask God to listen to our prayers.    Notice that in order to sing this in sign language, you need hands free. You can’t be holding your prayerbook or anything else. Also notice that you need to use your eyes. You have to be present and focused and awake. In fact, sign language requires using your entire body in a sense. This makes the prayer experience something visceral, fully felt. There is no skimming or absently going through the motions. Here is a clip of Yael teaching the morning passage Moda Ani, “I am grateful”, in sign language.   Here is how Yael explained the significance of this to us: Today we are praying in signs of hearing, or the absence of hearing, and a different type of hearing. Sign language enables us to “hear” by seeing, as in “Seeing the sounds” It’s  about recognizing a different quality in the words. Not their sounds, but rather to think about how they look. How would the word “spirit” or “soul” look? How would the words “light” and “darkness” look? How about “compassion”? Here is a clip of Yael teaching the prayer "Yotzer Or" in sign language:   To engage in prayer with this kind of consciousness is to transform the prayer experience from one that is about repetition and tradition to one that is about awakeness and presence. In this exercise of beginning to think about the diversity of the human experience, we are able to open ourselves up to the vastness of humanity as well as the potential of broader spiritual and human engagement. You are not just you. You are not just your immediate senses. There is more to the world, to the earth, to this thing called life. Open your eyes to see this vastness, to others, and only then to fully see yourself. The prayers at Hebrew Union College, led each time by different students who bring their own passions and life lessons to the event are so often like this. These are prayer services that are both rooted in tradition and creatively unique. There is no going through the motions at the HUC tefilla. Each moment is thought through, meant to be experienced fully. As one Orthodox staff member told me, “I go to my regular [Orthodox] morning minyan to get the job done. But I come to the HUC tefilla to talk to God.” Exactly that. I’ve had this debate with some of my classmates. One friend says that the Reform tefilla...

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So a funny thing happened to me when I posted about the editor of the Talmud; or, what to do when people think you’re crazy

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Once again, I’m recovering from The Internet. Specifically, from the Jewish blogosphere, especially the spaced dominated by Orthodox rabbis. And I’m not even talking about the issue of sexual abuse in the Jewish community, which is a topic gaining traction following the #MeToo movement. (See #GamAni) – after all, sexual abuse is hardly limited to one religion, one denomination, one social class or one community. It is everywhere. (I am recovering from that too, a subject of a different post....) I am talking about reactions to my post from last week about discovered the Stama Gemara, the editor of the Talmud. I know that my journey of leaving 40+ years of Orthodoxy behind and becoming a Reform rabbi is likely to make Orthodox rabbis unsettled. But sometimes I am still surprised at how this finds expression.    So, when I wrote about my experience of reading the Talmud as as a collection of stuff that was purposefully collected and manipulated to make us think that the conclusion of the text is one that is Correct and Received and Divine, it generated some hard reactions. And I discovered, once again, why it is such a dangerous thing to share honestly our experiences of healing, change, or awakening. The reaction so often just becomes another thing that you end up having to deal with. To be fair, I received a lot of very supportive and engaging responses. Many other Recovering Day School Graduates shared a similar process of unlearning messages that we received, ones that are harmful, dishonest, or purposefully manipulative. Others welcomed me to the world of Enlightened Folks, wondering what took me so long to get here. And actually, there were several really long and interesting threads on different pages, within Orthodoxy as well, which actually delved into the question of where the Talmud came from, how it is taught, and what it means to be educated with all this “God Language.” I think that these are genuinely useful, productive and engaging conversations. And then there was the other group. The Deniers. Or, more accurately, The Gaslighters. The ones who said I must be making this all up. It’s not true. This doesn’t happen. It is a surprising reaction. I was ready for the accusations of being a heretic. I am used to Orthodox rabbis talking about me as if I am not even Jewish, as if my ideas are so beyond the pale that I wouldn't even be rescued if I were at Sinai. That was mostly when I was an Orthodox feminist. But this line of attack -- as if to say, nobody is THAT strict -- was different. And was no less undermining. The first inkling of being cast this way was a comment on someone’s thread in which the guy, an Orthodox rabbi, wrote, “I literally laughed out loud when I read the part where she discovers that ‘there is an editor’.” Oh, haha, I guess that’s funny. Like, how could I be so stupid? And by...

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What happens when we mistake humans for God; or, an ode to editors

This week in Talmud class, we read a debate among rabbis about who has a bigger penis. Well, maybe not in those exact words, but that was the subtext. It was a debate in the tractate in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 5a) about who had more power and authority, the rabbis of Babylon, or the rabbis of Israel. To be fair, the debate took place somewhere around the fourth century CE, during the period when Jews were still getting used to not having their own autonomous country in Israel. There were now two centers of Jewish life rather than one, and much of this segment is about adjusting to this reality, and deciding which center is the one that really counts. There is more at stake here than masculinity, although I posit that an exclusively male tug-of-war about absolute authority has a lot of Freudian dynamics beneath the surface. Still, there is actually a lot at stake in this debate over which group of Jewish leaders are really the ones in charge. You can argue that it was not so much about their own power as much as it was about the future of the Jewish people, or belief about when there would be a Third Temple – if ever. You can say that the argument is not about the rabbis themselves or the sway of their words but something deeper with more genuine integrity and concern for the People of Israel. I get that.  A less cynical view than mine is likely just as legitimate. Interestingly, this power struggle between Israeli and Diaspora leaders over who represents true Jewishness is not that different from the than the state of the Jewish people today. Today, too, the Jewish people are rife with internal debates about whether communal resources and funding around the world should go to Israel or to their own local communities, about which communities are more important and deserving, over who is living out the more authentic Judaism. And today, too, there is a lot at stake in this tug of war. The Reform movement has a very important role to play in this struggle. Representing around half of American Jews, people whose rights are trampled on with ease and a complete absence of consciousness by the State of Israel, this is a group that wears on its sleeve the power play between Jewish leaders here and Jewish leaders there. The average American Jew who likely belongs to a liberal community pays the price of this tug of war in real terms. Who is allowed to get married in Israel, who is considered Jewish, who is allowed to officially represent religion in Israel, who gets state funding, who is allowed to pray the way they want wherever they want – these are all places where liberal Jews suffer because of power games among leaders. It is about men asserting their power by trying to keep others powerless. We are all little pawns in the penis game. This week, we...

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Returning to the Talmud, on my own terms

I’m studying Talmud again. It’s been a while since I learned at the full-time Drisha Talmud program (A while? Like 25 years!) It’s been even longer since I studied with Rabbi Harari at the Yeshiva of Flatbush (OMG, more like 33 years.) Maybe it’s like riding a bike and you never forget how. More likely, the way I am studying now is unlike any other way I have ever studied it.  It helps that I just finished reading Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink, an exquisite piece of literature in which the author uses the lens of her daily Talmud study – daf yomi – to reflect on the tumult in her life. In recounting passages about the destruction of the Temple, for example, she finds comfort for the dissolution of her marriage; in the Talmudic tractate of Yevamot, she finds her strength in women’s independence; from a bizarre passage about fish, she explores the depths of sexuality. She finds charm and complexity as only a voracious reader can. She sees comparisons between the Talmud and Shakespeare, Whitman, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. These allusions seem to come naturally to her, as they would to someone with this kind of life-long addiction to reading. She often uses her morning runs – before daf yomi class – as opportunities to memorize poetry.  Or, when she had a sprained ankle and was demoted from jogging to swimming, she would keep photocopies of poems in a plastic sleeve at the edge of the pool, pop her head out of the water every time she got to the wall, and memorize one line of poetry per lap. (Yeah, I know.) Her brilliance has not only given her an encyclopedic knowledge of literature that is rare today; it has also made her an exemplary interpreter of Talmud and a rich commentator on life. And by the way, what an extraordinary pleasure it is to read a book written by someone who so deeply loves books. I thought about Ilana Kurshan as I sat in my first class in Talmud 101 with Rabbi Dr. Alona Lisitsa at Hebrew Union College. The Talmud is not quite as charming for me as it is for Ilana. When Rabbi Lisitsa (who has a special place in my heart because she is the one who first invited me to apply to HUC rabbinical school, with the argument that it is the only place where Jews can be anything they want; evidenced by the fact that she herself completely adheres to halakha), when she went around the room asking us to describe our relationship to Talmud and what we expected from this course, I could feel my head start to spin. “I don’t like studying Talmud at all,” I admitted to my new colleagues, perhaps too honestly, suddenly realizing that I am about to reveal more about myself than perhaps I should be at this stage of Rabbinical School Year 1. Certainly, learning Talmud from Rabbi Dovid Silber and...

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Are the High Holidays a celebration of women?

Fourteen years ago this week, I gave birth. My beautiful daughter, Meital, arrived into the world two days before Rosh Hashana, the holiday marking the creation of the earth. It gave me a whole new perspective on births, birthdays, and beginnings (as I wrote back then) . The Talmud teaches that every human being is an entire world. I brought an entire world into life, just like God did 5778 years ago, or so the Jewish tradition tells us. I tell my daughter that she arrived on the earth’s birthday, and that she is a birthday present for the world.    The idea of God birthing the world on Rosh Hashana evokes a particularly woman-centric image. This is quite the relief in a tradition drenched with male-centric imagery. In our prayers, God is likened to a father, to a king, and to a slavemaster. The standard Orthodox prayerbooks continue the patriarchy by referencing God of our forefathers and ignoring our foremothers. The traditional blessing addresses God as male -- "barukh ata adonai". (Of course, there are no gender-neutral pronouns in Hebrew, so many people argue that the male form is actually a reference to all genders. But that doesn’t really work. After all, if male is really everyone, when is male just male? It’s tempting to make convenient distinctions when we don’t want to admit how much patriarchy has constructed our religion. But the argument that when we say “men” we mean “everyone” doesn’t really hold water. At least not for people who are not men.) My point is that despite the whole kings-and-fathers theme of Rosh Hashana, there possibly remains a certain echo of “feminine” themes in the liturgy. One of the main locations of this theme is in the text we read after the sounding of the shofar: Hayom harat olam. This is loosely translated as, Today is the birth of the world.  That is the imagery that I hung on to when my daughter was born. It felt beautiful, special, and profoundly relevant to my life experience. Last week at Hebrew Union College, I listened to a class by Dr. Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel that expounded on this theme. A scholar researching the connections between myth, Kabbalah, psychoanalysis, and gender, Dr. Kaniel taught us a text from the Zohar that, she argued, demonstrated a rabbinic intention to invite a feminine manifestation of the divine into the high holiday liturgy. The text described a rabbinic discussion about how the ten sephirot , or energies of God, include some “feminine” aspects and some are “masculine” aspects. The rabbis in the text were struggling with the balance between these “masculine” and “feminine” aspects – with God as the avenger (male) versus God as the embracer (female). Dr. Kaniel argued that the rabbis were trying to make room for the so-called feminine aspects, something which can be viewed as radical. She said that this reading helped her personally come to terms with the festival, in that it enabled her to view the experience as a rabbinic...

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How I learned the significance of OYs and AYs in Rosh Hashana liturgy, Jewish life, and the human spirit

This morning in class, I think I was dreaming about Tevye. I was listening to Rabbi Uri Kroizer teaching us melodies of Selichot, the traditional prayers about repentance that Jews recite this time of year, and I could swear Tevye was somewhere in the room, spreading his energy around.  It may have been when Rabbi Kroizer, with his bellyful, honey-sweet voice and encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish liturgy, offered us the significance of oys and ays. “The oy”, he said, “is a powerful sound, coming from deep down, and when done right, it reaches straight up to heaven,” he said, the light glowing from his eyes. It is a primeval sound, coming straight from the aches of the heart, asking God to take our sadness, he said.  He was teaching us the melody of a classic piece of the High Holiday liturgy, “Sab’enu”. He did not only teach us the music. He also instructed us on how to do a proper “kvetch”, to access the meaning of the “oy”. “Think about something that has been missing for your this year,” he said, “something that you long for.” That “oy” is a moment of conveying that longing, of reaching out to God and asking to fill that gap. Plus, he said, “When you are upset about something, often you can feel yourself stopping to breathe,” he said. "The 'oy' is there like a pounding on the chest, to get your breath going again.” LISTEN TO RABBI URI KROIZER TEACH HUC RABBINICAL STUDENTS HOW TO DO A PROPER "OY" IN SAB'ENU Interestingly, the “ay-ay-ay”, on the other hand, serves a different function. It is meant to lift us up in joy. “When the melody is at its low point, it takes your spirit with it. So what do you do? How do you get out from under that?” he asked. The answer, he said, is in “the gradual uplift of the ay-ay-ay.” “The oy is sad and the ay is happy,” Daliah Shaham, a third-year rabbinical student and musician, told us. “Most of the liturgy has both oys and ays, as we are usually happy and sad in the same breath,” she said, thus explaining so much of the Jewish experience. I felt like I was moving back in time, feeling the aches of my ancestors throughout history   Only I wasn’t back in Europe with my Hassidic Jewish ancestors. I was in Jerusalem, at Hebrew Union College, studying to be a Reform rabbi. . There is some irony in the fact that I’ve spent my first two weeks of rabbinical school learning ancient liturgy. In joining the Reform movement, my assumption was that I would be moving forward in my practice, leaving some of this behind. And yet, I am finding myself connecting to old traditions – sounds, words, and practices –  accessing them in ways that I never have before. This has been an unexpected pathway into the Reform movement. And it has been exhilarating. In my 40+ years living in Orthodoxy, I never learned how to lead the High...

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How I learned what it means to be a rabbi -- warts and all

On my first two days of rabbinical school, I arrived late. Two days in a row, despite starting my day at 5AM to arrive at HUC by 8:30, I failed this most basic task of getting there on time. The first day, I completely miscalculated the traffic, and was cursing myself for half an hour on the 2-kilometer stretch of the 443 from the Pisgat Zeev exit to Ramot. The next day, I left half an hour earlier, and *only* arrived ten minutes late. Only. I spent most of that drive practicing my apology to the head of the school. I walked in on the first day, towards the end of the tefilla, the morning prayer service, and gave an embarrassed nod to him, Rabbi Ofek Meir, who was sitting in the front row. He smiled gently, with a clear gesture of reassurance. He was smiling and breathing – as opposed to me. I was not smiling and not breathing. On the second day, walking in earlier in the service when Ofek was smack in the middle of leading a soulful rendition of the Shema blessings using his gifts with the guitar, I stood at the door for a few moments to catch my breath and take it in. There, I began to fully appreciate the extraordinary moment I was in. it wasn’t just the beautiful singing and musical accompaniment that filled the room. It was something deeper, a genuine spiritual intention that was contained in this space. My excitement at the thought of being here for the next four years swelled, and began to overwhelm all else. This is tefilla without any power dynamics mixed in, I thought. This is what it sounds like when there is no coercion, no judgment, no exclusion. After the tefilla, I walked over to Ofek and tried to apologize again for being late. He wouldn’t hear it. “You come from Modi’in, right?” It was as if he knew what I was going through before I did. He reassured me and said it was really fine. “Fine for you, “ I said, “but not for me.” He smiled. It really was all okay to him. This entire exchange was completely new for me. What is the word for this? Acceptance. Ah, yes, acceptance. The idea of accepting a person as they are, of accepting myself as I am – such a basic thing, it is often so elusive. Acceptance is not something that the Jewish community often trains itself in. At least not in the places where I have been circulating until now.   I was remembering my first day at work, 19 years ago, at a Jewish communal foundation. It was my first job after completing my Master’s degree in Jewish education. It was also my first attempt at holding down a job with three little children at home under the age of five. I was eager, anxious, and green. I walked into the front door, on this glorious first day, and greeted the...

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