Published On: Tue, Nov 7th, 2023
Music | By MDN

‘You couldn’t make it up’: Barbra Streisand on taking on Hollywood, her pal King Charles and cloning her dog | Barbra Streisand


In the winter of 1968, a package arrived at my New York apartment. Inside was a copy of a short story called Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I didn’t know Singer’s work and I didn’t know the man who had sent it to me, a producer named Valentine Sherry … what an odd name, like something you’d see on a candy box. So I just glanced at his cover note and added it to the pile of scripts on my desk.

A few nights later I took it to bed with me … that’s where I do most of my reading. I identified with Yentl immediately. And by the time I turned the last page, I was completely captivated by this story of a young Jewish woman in 19th-​century Poland whose “soul thirsted to study Torah” … which is like going to college and studying history, law, philosophy and religion. So she disguised herself as a man in order to get the kind of education that was denied to women at that time. In the morning I called David Begelman, my agent, and said: “I’ve just found my next movie. It’s called Yentl the Yeshiva Boy.”

David was taken aback. I could practically feel him cringe at the other end of the line. He said: “Are you kidding me? We already turned that down for you. You’ve just played a Jewish girl and now you tell me that you want to play a Jewish boy?”

Now I was taken aback. “Wait a minute,” I said, “you mean you turned something down without even discussing it with me? You can’t do that!”

“Barbra, you’re going to be a big star as soon as Funny Girl comes out. And you’ve got two more big movies on your plate. And now you’re saying you want to do some fakakta short story? Don’t waste your time.”

I’m pretty sure David had dollar signs in his head, and he definitely wasn’t interested in me doing some little art film. But there was something about this story that really spoke to me. So I called Valentine Sherry.

And that was the beginning of a saga that would engage me, frustrate me, challenge me, exhaust me, and exhilarate me … for the next 15 years. I went on to make one movie after another, but I never lost sight of Yentl.

I met with various studio executives to pitch the movie.

“I have a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer … ”

“Who?”

“He was born in Poland and he writes these wonderful folk tales in Yiddish.”

“Huh?”

“This is a story about a woman who dresses up as a man in order to study Talmud …”

“What?”

I might as well have stopped right there. But I kept going, hoping that my enthusiasm would spark some interest. Instead, their eyes glazed over. They had no interest in making this movie. They didn’t think anyone would come to see it. They thought the Singer story was way too obscure.

Let me tell you, it’s not easy to get a movie green-​lit. Years later I was back pitching The Prince of Tides to another set of studio executives, and this time it was not some obscure short story but a bestselling book! So what was the response? “Well, the movie can never be as good as the book.” OK, one was too obscure, and now the other was too well known! Go figure.

Obviously I knew Yentl was not exactly commercial. And there was the obvious hurdle that I would spend most of the movie dressed as a man. The last actress who had tried that was Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett back in 1935, and it didn’t turn out too well.

So, yes, Yentl was different, but I was determined to make them see its potential.

To me it was a universal story about wanting something you can’t have. Basically, it was a love story, with a few twists!

Yentl was in love with learning, and then fell in love with a man who only loved her as a friend. She married the woman he loved to please him. But the woman fell in love with Yentl …

Well, it’s complicated … and kind of Shakespearean. Cupid’s arrows got very mixed up. Let’s just say the movie was about all kinds of love.

And it was about a woman who defied expectations, a woman who wanted more than a conventional life of darning socks and cleaning house, a woman who wanted to fill her mind with ideas, not just what to make for dinner. And that felt very relevant to me, and the times.

That was not how the executives saw it. To them it was a movie about Jews, and even though some of them were Jewish themselves, perhaps they didn’t want to see themselves on screen. Maybe they were afraid the subject was too Jewish.

Some of the moguls running studios, especially in Hollywood’s early days, rarely married Jewish women. They were looking to assimilate.

I think Jews are still “the other”, in some ways. For centuries they’ve been used as scapegoats … blamed over and over again for the ills of the world. People are afraid of “the other” and even more afraid of being identified as “the other”.

When the studio executives refused to see beyond the Jewish context of Yentl to the larger theme of gender equality – this was about a woman who simply wanted the same opportunities as a man – their real concern was unspoken, but I could feel it. They did not want to draw attention to Jews and their world.

As I wrote in my journal, Jews were apparently considered too “different, alien, especially now, and again, and it seems always … ”

And, as I write this now, nationalism, fascism, and antisemitism are on the rise, even in the US. It’s hard to believe that this could be happening yet again.

I’ve always been proud of my Jewish heritage. I never attempted to hide it when I became an actress. It’s essential to who I am. And I wanted to make this movie about a smart Jewish woman who represented so many qualities I admire.

So, she dresses up as a man. There are accounts in history of women who did the same. And people were always disguising themselves in fairytales and getting away with it. I thought of Yentl as a realistic fairytale.

Point is, it’s not completely realistic, but it’s also not a total fantasy either. It’s both … and that’s one of the reasons I liked it.

Streisand on the set of Yentl, the 1983 film that took her 15 years to get made. Streisand in costume next to a man with a clapperboard
Streisand on the set of Yentl, the 1983 film that took her 15 years to get made. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The less-​than-enthusiastic response was very discouraging. And the fact that I also wanted to direct … I was an actress as far as the men who ran the studios were concerned, and I should stay in my place. They thought I had a lot of nerve to believe that I could produce, direct, write and star in a film. (My own thought about taking on all these roles was, “Great. Three fewer people to argue with.”) These men seemed to have this antiquated notion of an actress as some sort of frivolous creature who could not be fiscally responsible. I thought the Victorian era was over, but you wouldn’t know it to listen to them.

I was rejected, and dejected, and then something happened that made me commit to the movie all over again.

My brother called me up one day and told me an incredible story. He had met a Jewish housewife on Long Island who happened to be a medium. She explained to him that a spirit had come to her when she was 13, just as it had come to her mother before her, and she could contact the dead.

“What???”

“Barbra, I can’t even describe the experience I had. I talked to Daddy. We put our hands on a table, and it bumped its legs on the floor and spelled out Daddy’s name. Then the table followed me around the room.”

“Excuse me?”

Now, my brother is not into woo-​woo at all. Shelly is a very meat-and-​potatoes kind of guy. He doesn’t read horoscopes or visit fortune ​tellers. So this whole thing was completely out of character for him.

I listened to him and was dumbfounded. No way could I believe this. But I was very intrigued and I thought, I’ve got to see this for myself.

So when I was back in New York, I asked Shelly to arrange a session with this medium. Before we met with her, I decided that I wanted to visit my father’s grave. Believe it or not, I had never been there. Not once did my mother bring it up or offer to take me. Or maybe I didn’t want to go because I was subconsciously angry with my father for dying. I don’t know.

I wasn’t even sure exactly where his grave was. Shelly knew, and we drove to Mount Hebron cemetery in Queens, where he led the way to the graves of my father’s mother, Anna, and his father, Isaac. And then there was the grave of my father. The granite tombstone is inscribed with the words “Beloved husband, father and son” … “Esteemed teacher and scholar” … and marked with the Jewish star and the Phi Beta Kappa insignia.

I asked Shelly to take a photo of me standing next to his tombstone. It’s the only picture I have of me with my father.

That evening the medium came over to Shelly’s house in Great Neck. Ellen, my sister-in-law, didn’t want anything to do with it and stayed in the kitchen, so it was just my brother, the medium, and me. I looked at her … she seemed like a nice Jewish lady, nothing out of the ordinary. We took our seats in my brother’s brick‑walled dining room … not at his big dining table. There was a triangular three-​legged, drop-​leaf table where we could sit closer together, and when we put up the leaves it was about 28 inches in diameter. First I looked underneath it, just to make sure the medium hadn’t managed to attach any wires. Then we all put our hands on top of it.

The medium asked a question: “Is anyone here tonight?”

She had explained that one tap of the table leg meant yes, and two taps meant no. After a few moments, I felt one leg of the table move a bit, making a weak little sound.

The medium asked, “Who are you?”, and was about to start going through the alphabet – apparently the table leg lifts when you get to the right letter, as it spells out a word. But she didn’t have to go far, because it moved at A.

My voice was shaking as I asked: “Are you a woman?”

The leg weakly tapped once.

I said: “Are you my grandmother Anna?”

More forcefully the leg tapped yes. That’s when I thought, ay yai yai, I don’t like this. I got scared and ran into the bathroom. As I was hiding in there, I heard a louder sound. The whole table was thumping.

I popped my head out. The medium was listing letters again, and the legs lifted on M … A … N …

Shelly said: “Manny?”

How did that table know my father’s nickname? By now I had stepped back in the room and was gradually creeping closer. I heard the medium ask: “Do you have a message for anyone?”

And the table began to spell B … A …

The medium said: “Barbra?”

Then she asked: “What is the message to Barbra?”

The table was spelling S … O … R … R …

I think my brother was the first to guess the word: “Sorry?”

Oh my God. I couldn’t believe it. If you had to think of one word that I was waiting to hear, all my life, from my father …

You couldn’t make this up. If somehow the medium was putting words into my father’s mouth, she would probably have had him say something more generic, like “I love you” or “I’m always with you”. But instead he said “Sorry”.

It was staggering.

The lady asked: “Anything more?”

And then the leg started to pound again, and spelled out S … I … N … G … P … R … O … U … D. By now the legs were thumping so fast that I took my hands off the table. And my brother, who just had both hands resting lightly on it, wasn’t holding it or pushing it as he followed it across the room.

At one point a leg got caught on the threshold and he had to help it over. And then the table came back to where the medium and I were sitting. It moved back and forth between my brother and me, very slowly. And then it stopped.

Nobody said a word.

It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. I know it sounds unbelievable, but it’s the fucking truth. And I never wanted to repeat the experience.

As soon as the medium left, I went upstairs to Shelly’s bedroom. I was shaking.

The fact is, I saw that table bang out those words and I felt the presence of my father telling me he was sorry he left me … and that had a profound effect.

In some way it released me from the anger I had felt. And on my way home to Los Angeles on the plane, I began reading a paper my father had written, which Shelly had only given me now because I had never asked for it before.

It was about how he used great writers like Shakespeare and Ibsen, and brilliant poets like Byron and Keats to teach English to prisoners and juvenile delinquents. I felt so connected to him. I wanted to play Juliet and Hedda Gabler, and here he was, writing about these same plays that I had discovered in acting class when I was a teenager.

I did some of his sample tests, matching authors to their works. Imagine if I had grown up with a father like that. I would probably have gone to college … perhaps become a teacher, like him. (A teacher who sings?)

Streisand in 1972. Portrait shot with long hair
Streisand in 1972. Photograph: Steve Schapiro

A week after my visit with Shelly, I opened a package of photos he had sent, and saw something that astonished me. It was the name on the tombstone next to my father’s.

It wasn’t Irving or Murray, the kind of name you’d expect to see in a Jewish cemetery. It was Anshel. Now that’s not a common name. You don’t meet many Anshels these days. In fact, the only time I had seen it was in Singer’s short story, where it’s the name of Yentl’s dead uncle. (I changed it to her dead brother in the movie.) And when she disguises herself as a man, it’s the name she adopts.

I was stunned. This was the sign I was looking for, telling me that I was meant to make this movie. Here I was, exploring all the ideas that could be part of Yentl, and discovering my father at the same time. He was in love with learning, too, just like Yentl. They were made of the same cloth. So was I.

His life was cut short, and in a sense, this was my chance to extend it. In order to play this part, I would have to put on the clothes of a man and become my father, in a way. He would live on in me, and in Yentl.

I now knew I would make this film.


Singing for Bill Clinton

In 1992, after eight years of Ronald Reagan and four years of George HW Bush, with tax cuts for the rich, cuts in programmes for the poor, corporations favoured over people, and the savings and loan crisis, I wanted a Democrat in the White House. At first I was supporting Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, and then my friend Mike Medavoy took me to hear another candidate … the young, largely unknown governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.

I listened to him speak and was blown away. He knew both his history and the current state of the country, which gave him complete command of the issues. Even more unusual, he could take a complicated subject and explain it in such simple terms that anyone could understand. To me the problems facing us were overwhelming … social injustice, gender inequality, nuclear proliferation, the climate crisis. But Bill Clinton seemed to think that if there was a problem, there must also be a solution. And it felt as if he were enjoying the challenge! Everything he said made sense, and the policies he proposed were clear and detailed.

I thought to myself, this guy could actually get elected. He had it all: mind and heart, intellect and soul. He was smart and charismatic … a country boy who went on to become a Rhodes scholar and a Yale Law School grad, yet he still retained that down-home common touch.

Mike was a friend of Bill’s and introduced me to him, but it was a brief moment, in a hallway. We didn’t talk that night. Still, he made a vivid impression. I was thrilled when he won the nomination and chose Al Gore, who shared my concern for the environment, as his vice-president. I wanted to do whatever I could to help them get elected. So when the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee was planning a fundraiser in September, I agreed to sing. And that’s where I had my first real opportunity to talk to Bill and Hillary Clinton, as we sat together at a dinner table in the producer Ted Field’s back yard.

With Bill Clinton at the presidential gala, 1993.
With Bill Clinton at the presidential gala, 1993. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

They were the most appealing couple. She was just as sharp as he was, but seemed a bit shy in front of the crowd … something I recognised. But Bill was in his element, genuinely delighted to meet everyone who approached him. He seemed to be more engaged in life than anyone else around. And the kind of interest and attention he gave to each person was compelling. It drew people in and made them feel special.

As we were chatting he said: “You know, my favourite song of yours is Evergreen.”

“Well, I’m not singing it tonight but, I’ll tell you what, if you become president, I’ll sing it at your inauguration.”

I couldn’t believe I promised that (me, volunteering to sing in front of millions of people!), but I really wanted this man to get elected.

The songs and speeches that night were transmitted via closed-circuit television to multiple fundraisers around the country. That was smart, and I remember exactly what I said, because I still feel it very strongly. I told the audience that I’m proud to be the “L-word” … liberal. And I’m proud to be the “F-word” … feminist. And I’m equally proud to be a part of the Hollywood artistic community. Then I looked right at the camera and said: “So, yes, I’m proud to be a liberal, feminist, American artist.”

And then I went into my final song, God Bless America. After I finished it, I invited Bill, Hillary and my fellow artists to join me on stage for a reprise, and we all sang it together. The evening was over. I had already asked a few friends to join me at my house for dessert, and, on the spur of the moment, I went up to Hillary and said: “I live just around the corner. I’d love for you and Bill to come over and see my house.” And they came!

That was the beginning of our friendship.

Bill and I both grew up without fathers … his died three months before he was born. We talked about it when he called to thank me for singing.

I told him: “I never knew my father, and that kind of loss leaves an imprint on your soul.”

He knew exactly what I meant.

Both of us were ambitious at a young age, and I wondered if he, too, felt the need to accomplish so much because his father’s life was cut so short.

I remember jokingly telling him: “You stole my line!” I was referring to the “I feel your pain” moment from The Prince of Tides. Coincidentally, Bill had said the same words, and the press turned it into a catchphrase of his campaign, because it captured something essential about his character. The fact is, he did have real empathy for people and that became clear during the debates.

Before the first one, against George HW Bush and Ross Perot, I sent him a telegram that said: “Don’t be afraid to let your passion and anger show. The best defence is a strong offence. We honour your convictions and integrity and we will be rooting for you.” I was talking to him like a director.

Frankly, he didn’t need my help. On 3 November, Bill Clinton and Al Gore were elected.

That was exhilarating. It felt as if there were a new spirit in the air. I don’t think there’s ever been anything quite like their inauguration. Every entertainer you could think of wanted to participate.

I had agreed to sing at the presidential gala on Tuesday (the night before the inauguration), along with stars like Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Judy Collins, Chuck Berry and Fleetwood Mac.

I was the last to go on. Warren Beatty and his wife, Annette Bening, introduced me. I told the story about Bill and Evergreen, and said: “This is a promise I’m delighted to keep.” The atmosphere was electric. We were all so happy to be there. Bill was beaming.

The next morning we all watched Bill and Al take the oath of office in the freezing cold. My fingers felt frostbitten, even though I was wearing gloves tucked inside a fur muff. With my long gray wool coat and a Russian fur hat, I looked like a Cossack.

This inauguration was a splendid moment in time. It felt as if the whole country was celebrating with us. CBS paid more than $8m to televise the presidential gala; one reporter wrote, “only because Streisand had promised to sing” … and that money went toward the cost of the inauguration. It made me feel good that I might have helped in some little way.

So imagine my surprise a week later when someone showed me the front page of the New York Post, blazoned with the headline: SENATOR YENTL. It had twisted whatever I said at the inauguration into a story claiming that I was planning to run for the Senate … against Democrat Patrick Moynihan.

Usually I don’t bother to respond to this kind of nonsense, but in this case I quickly issued a statement that I was not running for anything. I explained: “There should be no confusion between someone with political passion and someone with political ambition.”

Trust me, the last thing I want is to wake up every morning and go to Congress. I already have acid reflux.


A card from Prince Charles

In 1994 I went on my first full tour in decades. On the second night in London, Prince Charles came to the concert, and a portion of the ticket sales benefited his charity, The Prince’s Trust. He arranged to come backstage before the show, since he couldn’t come afterward because the rules of royal protocol are that no one can leave the arena until he has departed. I was happy to see him again, and he was as warm and friendly as ever.

I had put one of the Disney songs back into the programme, because I thought it would be so much fun to sing Someday My Prince Will Come while a real prince was sitting in the royal box. On stage I told the story of the first time we met in 1974, when I was recording songs for Funny Lady and we shared a cup of tea (as the news footage of that meeting played on the Jumbotron). And then I couldn’t resist adding: “Who knows? If I had been nicer to him, I could have been the first real Jewish princess!”

That got a huge laugh. Luckily, Prince Charles has a sense of humour.

The next day, I walked out of my hotel suite and into the hall, where there was a table laden with all the flowers and gifts that had just arrived. One bouquet stood out because it didn’t look like the usual sort of arrangement done by a florist. It was more loose and free, as if it were from someone’s back yard. I asked my archivist Kim Skalecki: “Who sent it?” And she said: “Oh, a fan. Some guy named Charles.”

I said: “Let me see the card.”

It was simply signed “Charles”, but what Kim had failed to notice was the royal crest at the top. And the flowers were fresh from his garden! What a lovely gesture. And he wrote: “It was such a treat to attend your concert last night – You were wonderful and I adored every minute of it! Bless you for being so kind and generous to my trust – they so appreciated it.”

I saw Prince Charles again later that year, when he was in Los Angeles and invited me to join him for tea at the Bel-Air hotel. We’re both interested in gardens and organic food and the health of the planet.

Later I was told that Charles has said I was his “only pin-up” (apparently he had a poster of me in his room at Cambridge), and he described me as “devastatingly attractive” with “great sex appeal”.

Who knew?

Certainly not me, and it’s probably better that I didn’t when we met, because it would have made me self‑conscious.

The next year, 1995, he invited me to stay at his home, Highgrove, see his gardens, and attend a dinner to benefit a summer school for architecture students. Coincidentally, I was already planning to go to France for a friend’s wedding, so I fitted in a stop in London along the way. The prince is the most gracious host and made everything easy for me, even sending his car and chauffeur to the Dorchester hotel to pick me up, along with my amazing personal assistant Renata Buser, who accompanied me for the visit.

With Prince Charles in 1974.
With Prince Charles in 1974. Photograph: Mark Sennet/Getty Images

What an extraordinary friendship! And it has lasted for decades. Recently, for my birthday, he sent me the loveliest card, with one of his own watercolours on the front. And on his birthday, I sent him four Barbra Streisand rose bushes for his garden, along with one of my drawings I thought he’d like, of flowers in a vase. And in 2022, when I had a big birthday, Kim surprised me with a wonderful video that started with prime minister Justin Trudeau, a friend for 20 years, who spoke of his father’s friendship with me. And it closed with another friend of almost 50 years, Prince Charles, now King Charles III (I’m so happy for him, and I know he’ll continue to fight for the environment).


Cloning my beloved Sammie

My beloved companion, Sammie, left this world in 2017. It was my husband, James Brolin, who gave her to me in 2003 as an anniversary present. Jim picked Sammie out because she was the only one of the litter who engaged with him (maybe because he’s so handsome, or because they both had pure white hair!). Sammie was different from the other puppies. Her hair was curly, not straight like most cotons de tulear. She was the odd one out, just like I felt as a little girl. And Sammie was my little girl.

Have you ever heard of a dog that talks? When I asked her a question, she would make certain sounds to answer me, or wiggle her backside if she was very excited by the proposition. She could sense my moods and react to them, tilting her head and looking quizzically at me, as if to ask: “What’s going on?”

Sammie was still a puppy when I brought her to work with me on Meet the Fockers, and the crew was so nice … they even made a little chair especially for her. On those early morning drives in my motorhome to the studio, we’d both fall asleep with me holding her as she lay across my chest, like a real baby.

Sammie was a great traveller – she came with us on every trip, and to every concert. She never missed a rehearsal and would lie on the piano, keeping an eye on me. Just like Sadie, my first dog, she knew all the musical cues. Then, while I was on stage during the actual show, she might take a nap on top of my shoes in the dressing room. But she could tell by the music on the speaker when to open her eyes, and she’d be standing by the door to greet me at intermission … a warm, fluffy bundle of love and support. And at the end of the concert, Renata would often bring her out to join me for the last curtain call. But I think she had stage fright like me, because she would run off stage as fast as she could.

I knew Sammie was sick when she began to ignore her food. After we found out there was a tumour in her lungs, we took her to various specialists, and I called experts at two universities who were doing research on cancer in dogs, to make sure we were doing everything we could for her. It was decided that the tumour should come out, and on the day of the operation, the doctor came out to tell me that the anaesthesia was making Sammie’s heart slow down.

She asked: “What do you want to do?”

“Stop,” I said. “Just get her off the table. I’m bringing her home.”

Sammie managed to hold on for quite a while, but toward the end we were taking her to the hospital every day to get the fluid in her lungs drained. It was painful to see her suffer, and then the last day was horrific. We were in the car going home and found ourselves stuck in a traffic jam at 5pm, when Sammie suddenly made a sound I’ll never forget, a terrible high-pitched cry that went on and on.

I knew we had to put her out of her misery, but I couldn’t stand the thought of losing her for ever. The only thing that made it bearable was the hope that I could keep some part of her alive. A friend of mine had cloned his dog, and we were prepared to do the same thing. Sammie’s doctor had the test tubes ready and scraped some cells from the inside of her cheek and the skin on her tummy to send off to the lab. Then he put her to sleep as I was petting her … and in seconds our little girl was gone.

We buried Sammie in a special garden I created around her tombstone, which has her picture on it in porcelain (like they do in Europe). And there’s a bench where Renata and I often sit when we want to remember all the good times we had with her.

I was bereft without Sammie, but had mixed feelings about getting another dog. I knew I could never replace her, just as I could never replace Sadie. But months later I got a call from Sammie’s breeder. “I have this little puppy,” she told me, “the only one in the litter. She’s not curly, but her mother’s name is Funny Girl.” How could I turn her down? She must have been so lonely, with no siblings to play with. So I took her and named her Fanny.

Streisand’s dogs Fanny (centre) and twins Violet and Scarlet by Sammie’s grave.
Streisand’s dogs Fanny (centre) and twins Violet and Scarlet by Sammie’s grave. Photograph: ISM/Capital Pictures

Two months later I got a call from the cloning lab. They had warned us from the beginning that the cells might not take, but it turned out that not only did the process work, but it produced more dogs than I anticipated.

So now I have three dogs … Fanny, the eldest, who often looks at Violet and Scarlet as if she can’t believe what has happened. She was the only child, and now she has to share her home with two rambunctious invaders. They’re both curly haired like Sammie and look so much alike that I had to put lavender and red silk flowers on their collars to identify them. Scarlet is wild, and my husband plays with her more roughly, as if she were one of the big dogs he used to have. She’s the alpha dog, and gravitates to Jim. My little Violet is shyer and quieter. She sticks close to me and wants to be picked up and held, but if I’m busy with something else, like eating lunch in the kitchen, she’ll settle for the chair next to me.

It’s fascinating to see certain traits that remind me of Sammie, yet each of these beloved creatures is a unique being. You can clone the look of a dog but you can’t clone the soul.

Still, every time I look at their faces, I think of my Samantha.

This is an edited extract from My Name Is Barbra by Barbra Streisand, published by Century (£35). To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.



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