January 6, 2013, - 8:25 pm

Do You Watch “Downton Abbey”? Will You Watch Tonight’s Season Premiere & Are the Levinsons Jewish?

By Debbie Schlussel

Tonight is the much-hyped season premiere of the even more hyped “Downton Abbey,” the show set in post-World War I England. I’ve never seen the show, but it looks interesting, and I think I might catch up. Do you watch the show? If so, why? Isn’t it just another soap opera with period costumes and architecture? Or is it something more classical and reminiscent of the kind of stuff you rarely see on TV–even cable–anymore?



It seems to me that Downton Abbey probably appeals more to women. I’ve never read about any straight men watching it, other than being forced to with their wives or girlfriends controlling the remote. Am I wrong? I also don’t like helping Palestinian Broadcasting System a/k/a PBS, with its load of anti-Israel, pan-Arabist, and anti-American programming. I do like Dame Maggie Smith, the elder star of the show. She’s a terrific actress, very acclaimed in the UK and wonderful in the Dustin Hoffman-directed, “Quartet” (which I haven’t yet reviewed on this site – stay tuned for that).

I find it interesting that the American on the show, played by Elizabeth McGovern (remember her from all the ’80s movies?), has a mother whose name is Martha Levinson (played by the always annoying Shirley MacLaine), with an obvious Jewish surname. She is the mother of McGovern’s “Lady Cora, the Countess of Grantham.” And Cora’s father, the show tells viewers, is Isidore Levinson, a dry goods tycoon from Cincinnati. So, surely, she must be a Jew, right? And an English royal would never marry a Jew, particularly in that day and age (and please don’t send me the baloney claims that the current Princess Catherine Middleton, the Duchess of York, is Jewish – there’s no evidence at all of that).

Apparently, though, Judaism isn’t broached in the show because, as the Times of Israel reports, the characters are not Jews, but Episcopalians. I don’t think that would matter to the English at that time. Clearly, a guy named Isidore Levinson–at that time–would have been a Jew (especially if he was a dry goods merchant, which is what many Jews did then), and the English wouldn’t much like a half Jew seeping into the royalty. That would have been an interesting issue for Downton Abbey to explore. Not sure why the show’s writers would choose such an obviously Jewish surname if they aren’t Jewish and the issue is ignored. Sadly, it glosses over these issues, as if the English Royals, who still hate the Jews–they refuse to visit Israel and Queen Elizabeth has never been there, while she’s been nearly everywhere else, are the keenest of philo-Semites.

They are not.

So, do you watch Downton Abbey? Should I catch up on video?

Is it class or merely crass with a fancy accent and clothes, set in a palace?

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60 Responses

Debbie on behalf of all straight men, we’ve never seen the show. However my extensive research has led me to believe that Kate Middleton is probably Jewish on her mother’s side as both of her mothers parents were probably of Jewish descent , particularly Grandma. Also princess Dianna’s mom was probably Jewish, too. If you want I’ll go halfsies with you and send them a proper mezuzah for the royal nursery.

A1 on January 6, 2013 at 8:52 pm


    NEVER HAPPEN! Your research is WRONG.

    As goes, so goes ... on January 7, 2013 at 1:47 am

      Argus Hamilton …

      “Downton Abbey premieres its third season about British aristocrats and their house servants a century ago. They live in fabulous luxury.

      In the U.S. version, the owners are a retired cop who just retired as a teacher, whose mother is on disability, whose father is living on an asbestos settlement and whose wife works for California’s Parks Department.”

      As goes Israel, so goes the World... on January 7, 2013 at 10:52 am

    OH NO, the pervert A1 is back. I guess the success of Muslim Monkey in continuing to evade bans has given A1 courage.

    skzion on January 7, 2013 at 9:43 am

Dear Debbie,
Your reviews are Highly Appreciated. Am sure you derive much joy, collecting, editing and sending to print, yet soon, U will be so busy, rewriting the preview for the next Megalomaniac move by the declined “Empire” as the war on the Malvinas is about to begin…

We shall watch & Laugh 2gether…

Simon on January 6, 2013 at 9:07 pm


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Simon on January 6, 2013 at 9:11 pm

Well, I’ll say one thing. The nutters who like this blog (can’t really blame them) are tenacious. (A1)

I have never seen it but it is on my list. I love period pieces.

Hope you see it so you can review it.

And I think it’s a good sign that you pointed out Shirley MacClaine is indeed always annoying and that Monica Crowley tweeted she was excited for tonight’s episode BECAUSE of loony SM.

Skunky on January 6, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    Oh, add Kirsten “Luckiest Girl In The World” Powers (Crowley’s BFF) to the list of MacClaine fans…

    Skunky on January 6, 2013 at 10:13 pm

“Is it class or merely crass with a fancy accent and clothes, set in a palace?”

Crass with a lot of BS.

RA2216 on January 6, 2013 at 10:30 pm

I don’t watch bullshit like that. The few times I remember people living with me watching stupid shit, I would just do something else while they were watching it. I don’t watch sports, so was never worried about instant access to the TV. Now, I don’t even own a TV. I will probably be arrested for that in the not too distant future.e

RT on January 6, 2013 at 10:53 pm

It is just a show calm down.

scott on January 6, 2013 at 11:08 pm

I haven’t watched a great deal of it, only catching some on the occasions that I’ve been at my parents’ house and they’ve been watching it (with my dad in firm control of the remote, I have to say!), but it’s not royalty. Aristocracy might be the next step down but it’s a visible step, so the issue you raise doesn’t really apply here. Jews, and indeed Catholics, are more than welcome in the British Aristocracy whereas those in line of succession to the Throne have to belong to the Church of England since, on succession, they will be assuming the role of Defender of the Faith and head of the Established Church.

As for Kate… she is neither Princess Kate Middleton, nor the Duchess of York (that latter role actually belongs to Sarah Ferguson). Kate is either Princess William or, more popularly, Duchess of Cambridge. I believe she is known by this title to avoid the error made over William’s mother who was never by rights Princess Diana, but actually Princess Charles or simply Diana, Princess of Wales.

Ahahaha. God bless our etiquette.

Alison on January 6, 2013 at 11:32 pm

My wife wouldn’t miss the show. She is quite conservative, and loves all things English. I watched a Harrison Ford rerun in my office.

Jimbo on January 7, 2013 at 12:03 am

    Update = My wife was not that impressed. Too predictable, and soapish.

    Jimbo on January 7, 2013 at 4:38 pm

The first half of season one is a mash-up of Jane Austen issues (entailments, marrying up) and modern soap opera sensibilities. First episode- scheming, closeted gay valet gets a figurative bitch slap after trying to blackmail his aristocratic bum chum. Third episode- oldest daughter has mostly furtive sexytimes with a visitor, and wackiness ensues. After those first 3 episodes, it gets more period piece and less soap opera, though a vein of melodrama still runs through it.

As for Cora’s origins, I believe all of two sentences in two years have been dedicated to the subject, and not a word about any Jewish ancestry. Robert Grantham flat out admits to Cora that he married her for her money, but that love very much followed.

It’s largely a diet soap opera, that opens with the sinking of the Titanic, with season 2 ending with the devastating flu pandemic (which was painstakingly researched and covered in John Barry’s The Great Influenza). If I’m not mistaken, season 3 is supposed to focus on more local history, like the fight for Irish independence.

Keeping in mind your description of Mad Men as a guilty pleasure, I’d say this would be half the guilt, with more of the attention to sets/style you tend to go for.

Robert on January 7, 2013 at 12:35 am

Any guy who claims he can sit through a British period costume drama about “manners” and “class distinctions” without falling asleep is either lying or gay…That is, unless at some point, all the lights go out, and when they come back on, there’s a dead body with a knife in it, and all the other guests around the dinner table then have to figure out who the killer is. I rather enjoyed the 1976 comedy, “Murder By Death,” which by the way, also had Maggie Smith in it.

Irving on January 7, 2013 at 1:30 am

For me, a period piece would be, for example, “Rome”, “Game of Thrones” or “Deadwood”.

I’ve never figured out the appeal of “Brideshead Revisited”, so don’t expect me to say anything nice, reverent or relevant about “Downton Abbey”.

To DS – there is always the Torrent if you want episodes. Knock thyself out.

The Reverend Jacques on January 7, 2013 at 2:56 am

I have actually watched most of the first season on DVD. Yes, the show mainly appeals to women, and I was introduced to the show by some women who seemed to have enjoyed it. And yes, I’d call it a soap-opera, but it has a few more brain cells going for it than than usual American product. The thing that got me through the first season was the quality of the writing, acting, and authentic look of the series. What I liked about the writing was that the story involved a great many characters, yet each was distinctive and very well drawn. However, I began to lose interest as the “class” issues became tiresome and some of the dramatic conflicts became too predictable. Ultimately, however, there were no characters in the show that I really cared about in any sustained way. I just barely made it through the first season of DVDs, and didn’t want to find out if the second season got better. The women that I’ve spoken to about the show, on the other hand, did have their favorite characters, so that’s probably the thing that hooks them. My suggestion for anyone curious about this TV program would be to get the first season out of your local library or from a rental store.

Ralph Adamo on January 7, 2013 at 4:23 am

The Duke of Marlborough married a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, named Jennie Jerome and begat Sir Winston Churchill.

Italkit on January 7, 2013 at 4:44 am

Neither the Jeromes nor Kate Middleton’s Goldsmiths were Jewish at all. Jennie Jerome was not a “nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn”, there were barely any Jews in Brooklyn when she was born there, and she definitely wasn’t one of them.

Upper-class English did marry Jews, however, often for their money. Then they converted them to Christianity, of course. That is why many upper-class English do have hints of Jewish ancesty. David Cameron, the Prime Minister, is “3/16ths” (yes, that), Jewish, precisely for that reason.

Or there’s the Jewish wife of Prime Minister Archibald Primrose, who also became a Christian.

dee on January 7, 2013 at 6:26 am

    Or, rather, Cameron is “3/32” Jewish… the math can get confusing after a while…

    dee on January 7, 2013 at 6:28 am

    dee, you seem to be correct. I had always heard my version of the story and there were Jews everywhere. Brooklyn was not then what it is now. The Jeromes were extremely wealthy and part of the Social Register. Live and Learn.

    Italkit on January 7, 2013 at 10:58 am

    Actually, maybe Hannah Primrose never converted to Christianity. Although her daughter was raised a Christian. My bad.

    dee on January 7, 2013 at 2:31 pm

If any Jewish person who isn’t an apostate is treated favorably on PBS it is because a fund drive is coming up.

Little Al on January 7, 2013 at 6:31 am

    Good one, Little Al.

    skzion on January 7, 2013 at 9:49 am

Or perhaps my favorite example… Ralph Bernal, a Sephardic Jew whose descendants married into the English upper-classes… and an ancestor of Olivia Wilde.

dee on January 7, 2013 at 6:32 am

There’s the story of Moses Montefiore, who in his youth was something less than a self-identifying Jew. His visits to the Middle East and his charitable and active work of oppressed fellow Jews changed his life and he became a proud and committed Jew. He is English royalty and his Lady Judith are buried on his grounds and there is a synagogue on the family estate. This wasn’t rare at the time – there was lots of philo-Semitism among the English upper classes in the 19th Century. That would never happen in England today.

NormanF on January 7, 2013 at 8:21 am

Dear Irving:

I rather enjoyed the 1976 comedy, “Murder By Death,” which by the way, also had Maggie Smith in it.

So did I. I also enjoyed THE BIG BUS, which came out at about the same time.

I never heard that Jennie Jerome was Jewish.

I have heard that the present Queen’s mother was part Jewish.

Debbie, I think the anti-Semitism of the British aristocracy was religious, rather than racial. That meant that, to them, a Jew could convert and marry an Englishman. So, let’s say an English aristocrat was afraid he would have to sell his estate, to pay his gambling debts. There was this rich, social climbing Jewish couple, who swooned if an English aristocrat looked at them. They had a daughter who was prepared to convert to Christianity. It might happen.

Miranda Rose Smith on January 7, 2013 at 8:37 am

“For me, a period piece would be, for example, “Rome”, “Game of Thrones” or “Deadwood”” – I love all these shows, though I wouldn’t call Game of Thrones a period piece, it’s a fantasy.

I do follow Downton with my wife and find it very entertaining plus easy on the eye. England looks beautiful!
A good mellow way for the mind to relax and not think too deeply.
The 3 series mentioned above are very different in tone, I really enjoyed each of them (I’ve been besotted by the GoT books for years) but I also enjoy DA. Recommended, but start with series 1 if you can!

Davieboy on January 7, 2013 at 8:47 am

Dance Moms and Hard Core Pawn – my only two t.v. indulgences. My husband won’t stay in the same room when Dance Moms is on – but Hard Core Pawn is hilarious – he definitely enjoys that one.

Dina K on January 7, 2013 at 9:15 am

I live in Europe and I watched it some time ago. I do not recollect any hint of antisemitism, and believe me here in Europe we have our ‘antennae’ tuned to detect it.

I enjoyed watching the period settings and costumes. The plot was promising at the beginning, but later it got too predictable and soapy. It deals a lot with upper/lower class issues.

I agree with several previous comments that British aristocracy would have had no problem marrying a Jew as long as she converted to the Church of England. It is a well known fact that they needed money desperately to keep the lavish estates, and many came to the US searching for wealthy daughters. So if her parents had no objection to her conversion, marrying into British aristocracy was not only possible, but very likely.

I am not British so this is not a biased comment. Of all the countries in Europe, Britain was the least antisemitic. In fact, it was the first country in Europe that gave Jews who lived there a legitimate citizenship status.

Romana on January 7, 2013 at 9:15 am

I have no comment on this show having never seen it. However, I have often read your laments regarding the dearth of “manly men” on this blog. I have a helpful tip for you, given with all due respect. To find manly men you must exit the environment that is summarily repellent to them (any place within earshot of this show apparently). I recommend a rodeo or high school or college wrestling competition (significantly different than pro-wrestling that only attracts imbeciles).

I don’t seek to deny you your “estrogen entertainment”. I merely point out that as you maximize your exposure to it, you simultaneously minimize your exposure to manly men, like sitting in the middle of the desert lamenting the absence of fish.

Other women are getting your men, having gone on the hunt long ago.

Pete on January 7, 2013 at 9:20 am

    Ouch! That was deadly.

    skzion on January 7, 2013 at 11:34 am

Even converts bore the stigma of Jewish birth in the late 19th century; there was a combination of religious and racial anti-semitism at the time. The philo-semitism was limited in scope; for instance support for ‘zionism’ was as much influenced by a deep-rooted feeling that Jews didn’t fit in with England, & would be happier elsewhere, as anything else.

And the limited amounts of philo-semitism that existed in the 19th century pretty much disappeared when the Eastern European refugees started entering England in the late 19th Century.

The England that gave rise to Houston Stewart Chamberlain gave rise to many lesser-known racially-based anti-Semites as well. This can be easily understood in the context of the Social Darwinism that was prevalent during the 19th Century in Britain. The fact that a few deserters from Judaism were partially accepted by the bluebloods doesn’t change the overall truth that there was, overall, a strong racial component, as was also true, and still is, in the United States, as well as in Britain.

Phrenology was also popular in Britain in the middle and later parts of the 19th century.

Little Al on January 7, 2013 at 9:28 am

I watched season 1 on Netflix and found it engaging. I have watched other British TV series and I was taken back by the anti-American and anti-Israel themes. Not Jew friendly, for sure. And don’t like Americans, either. Downtown Abbey may be different. It is a good show and superior to most of the movies you review. The upper class comes across as decent and liberal in the original British meaning of the word.

bobguzzardi on January 7, 2013 at 9:28 am

I know of adult men whom enjoy watching it; yes, prompted by their wives but nonetheless.
I watched last night anxiously. It was Shirley M’s first debut, & she’s a horrible actress besides.
Please do catch up on the 2 seasons, 30 min episodes, 7-8 each
What differentiates is all the character developement of each class level of society from the lowly cooks, butlers, valets, all the way up to Duke/Duchess. You get all the subplot story lines and authentic examples of experience.
Youve sat through considerably worse. It’s very much worth your time, and the writing can be brilliant at times; great one-liners & useful quotes.
Thanks for what you do!

Brocka on January 7, 2013 at 9:38 am

And, uh, I guess we were treated to the revelation, when she was first running for President, that the great friend of the Jews, Hillary Clinton, was also partly Jewish — and then there’s always Cherokee Liz, with the Indian blood that she is so proud of.

LA: I think Hillary claimed her step-grandfather was Jewish, which, as you point out, is as credible as Senator Fauxcahontas’ claim to be an American Indian. DS

Little Al on January 7, 2013 at 9:49 am

    Hilary’s step-grandfather was indeed Jewish. Hilary’s aunt (half-aunt), this step-grandfather’s daughter, married a Jewish man and formally converted to Judaism (she wasn’t considered Jewish by birth because her mother, Hilary’s grandmother, wasn’t Jewish).

    D: Under Jewish law this does not make her Jewish and her “conversion” was likely an unkosher “quickie conversion,” which is meaningless in Judaism, except to those who don’t keep Judaism. DS

    dee on January 7, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Didn’t PBS already do this show in the 1970s? I remember my parents watching “Upstairs, Downstairs” back then and it sounds pretty similar. But as a guy with intact testicles, no I haven’t seen it.

Sean M on January 7, 2013 at 10:56 am

    The two shows only superficially resemble each other. Back then, as one needn’t be reminded, England’s class system was far more pronounced than today. “Upstairs, Downstairs” was an upper-middle-class family and its relationship with “the help.” “Downton Abbey” depicts a distinctly upper-class family similar to that of Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited.”

    As for your rather irrational fear that watching either somehow will jeopardize your family jewels, not to worry.

    Seek on January 7, 2013 at 11:06 am

The BBC did some decent period pieces up until the 80’s. After that the multicultural left became utterly predominant. Yes, there were things that males could watch without feeling emasculated. What comes out now from the BBC is quite often tripe. In a sense this is understandable. The old Britain, the good and the bad , is gone. You can still see what was, but is no more on tourist packages.

Worry01 on January 7, 2013 at 11:19 am

I can’t watch “entertainment” based on Class, class envy and class effects on others. Like I won’t watch “entertainment” where Jews are mocked or babies kicked around. I’ll surely hear “oh but Downton is so much more than that …” but it isn’t to me. Took all of ten minutes for me to shiver and flip the channel.

No thank you.

jack on January 7, 2013 at 11:44 am

Debbie – In my opinion, the show is very well done. what everyone has missed is the true story of the house, actually known as Highclere, owned by the Lords Carnarvon. A member of the family was the funder of the dig that uncovered King Tut. This funder was also married to Armina Rothschild, a jew. Maybe a marriage of convenience, maybe not.

It is the story of the house and its’ tenants. It is one of the last great English country houses, sits on about 5000 acres and is still intact. Thanks to generations of a family that has struggled to keep it so.

dan on January 7, 2013 at 12:16 pm


This is a later bit of mockery, but it does give some glimmer of the time. 1930’s.

Worry01 on January 7, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Well, I have been reading War and Peace (in an extremely annoying translation by Pevear and Polokonsky). Even in this translation it is gripping and fascinating.

The choice isn’t just among TV shows and movies, though of course Debbie focuses on these things as she is a movie reviewer.

skzion on January 7, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Personally, I watch a lot of Riff-Trax downloads. I loved MST3K.

My wife likes Downton Abbey. Me, I prefer to watch “Threads.” After dealing with pissants like Piers Morgan, there’s something just gratifying about watching the UK get nuked….(for a less graphic approach, there’s also “The War Game”…)

Occam's Tool on January 7, 2013 at 4:22 pm

WACTH IT! I love it and my husband (the manliest man I have ever known who does NOT watch Chick Flicks) loves the show, easily as much as I do. My husband broke his pelvis kiteboarding last year and a friend gave us the CD’s and we were hooked! The show is extraordinarily well written, witty and the way it is shot is stunning. It does bring up a lot of historical issues, which is great. In the sea of unwatchable garbage on TV, it is an oasis of quality and loveliness.

Nora on January 7, 2013 at 8:06 pm

I cannot tell you weather to watch it or not. But, since I have access in Europe I watched the ENTIRE THIRD SEASON

Romana on January 8, 2013 at 10:55 am

No spoilers.

But, there is not a hint of antisemitism because they never brought up the issue of the name Levinson. I believe that Irish might be more upset about the series, though even that the writers treated gingerly.

So if you want to watch pretty clothes, nice houses and scenery mixed with shallow plots, then by all means do it. However, if you want to watch it just because of the Jewish issue, you’ll waste your time.

Romana on January 8, 2013 at 11:02 am

Debbie – Downton is good entertainment fare – net*lix has the first two seasons on dvd and the first on instant watch so you could give it a try…

I will warn you – in the beginning one character is of the same sex persuasion and for a short scene it is in your face… then after that it never comes up other than in passing again… now the current season 3 is said to focus more on the hom*sexual nature of this same character (the first episode of the third season was excellent and did not include that…) hopefully they keep that to a minimum but knowing the British – they will force that abnormal lifestyle into our faces yet again later this season…

It’s not deep stuff – but downton is good fun – I would link to a few of Maggie Smith’s best quotes from youtube if I could =)

Anyway – if you do watch it (and I hope that you do) let us know your thoughts!

P.S. This from a straight, conservative guy who does indeed enjoy the morals framework and time-frame of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens etc… Contrary to sterotypes… not every man likes to see heads blown off 24/7 ….

While I’m at it – have you seen Little Dorrit 2008? The Amazing adaption miniseries? It is incredible rags to riches goodness…

AE on January 8, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    AE, I have read Little Dorrit but nearly always avoid any film versions of anything. Thanks for the tip.

    skzion on January 8, 2013 at 6:48 pm

      Skzion – I understand the adaptation aversion – sometimes it helps to enter with the mindframe that this is a different story and not to compare the two – that’s how I grin and bear it…

      2005 Bleak House – also Charles Dickens mini-series had some good moments to it as well.

      Hope that you enjoy them – both at at net*lix dvd’s and/or potentially your local library if they stock dvds.

      AE on January 9, 2013 at 3:31 pm


Hi. I watch the show. I started watching because I like looking at Lady Mary. That shoud cover your orientation question. And I like her husky voice. I continue watching because Lord Grantham, Matthew Crawley, Mr. Bates and Mr. Collins are good men, and it is refreshing to see that. Also, Dame Smith is hysterical.

I assume the story is based on the Vanderbilt granddaughter who married into a British family to save their castle. I think her name was Cora.

John R on January 8, 2013 at 2:46 pm

The Granthams are part of the English aristocracy. But they are NOT royalty. Although in most contexts there is a huge difference between royalty and the aristocracy, with respect to the issue under discussion, antisemitism, there is no difference – both the royals and the aristocrats are solidly antisemitic! The choice of having Cora be Jewish is is not a plausible one on Julian Fellowes part as no turn of the (last) century English aristocrat would ever have married a Jew. Fellowes, who does all of the writing for Downton, made Cora Jewish as well as American and he then chose to draw the character of Martha Levinson as such a repulsive nouveau riche boor as to lead one to question whether he (Julian Fellowes, Baron of Stafford, Conservative Life Peer) doesn’t subscribe to the antisemitic stance of his fellow English aristocrats!

Bill on January 8, 2013 at 3:52 pm

Now that I’ve seen S3E1, I would argue that while their family name is Levinson, Isidore’s children are not practicing Jews. Mary has made a few subtle digs at Cora (once in S1, also S3E1, and probably elsewhere), along the lines of “That’s because you’re an American and I’m English.” If Cora was a practicing Jew or had been one previously, Mary would make similarly snarky comments about it.

Robert on January 8, 2013 at 4:42 pm

The Rothschilds were given noble titles in many countries and married into aristocratic families.


I watch Downton. I just assumed Cora came from a Jewish family because of her maiden name.

Molly on January 9, 2013 at 10:19 pm

Lady Edwina Mountbatten was the granddaughter of a Jewish man who converted into Catholicism to marry her grandmother. He was born into a practising Jewish family and was himself a practising Jew until his conversion. Lady Edwina was the wife of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy to Indian and also an uncle of current Queen Elizabeth II.
Source: wikipedia

Rex on January 9, 2013 at 10:22 pm

I think we are forgetting Disraeli here.

At any rate, Downton Abbey is fairly dull.

Occam's Tool on November 20, 2014 at 12:18 am

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