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Israel’s Bold New Queen

The latest Miss Israel, Ethiopian-born Yityish Aynaw, says it’s about time a black woman wore the crown

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Yityish Aynaw. (Collage Tablet Magazine; original photos Daniel Estrin)
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For anyone familiar with the saccharine judges of America’s prime-time beauty pageants, it might be jarring to hear how the director of Israel’s national competition describes Yityish “Titi” Aynaw, the Ethiopian-born 21-year-old who was just crowned Miss Israel. “I think she was not the most beautiful, by classic beauty,” said director Iris Cohen, comparing her to the 19 other finalists in this year’s competition. But she does give Aynaw this: “She stands on the stage and you cannot ignore her.”

The new Miss Israel is just as blunt. Sitting with her last week in the green room at the Tel Aviv offices of La’Isha magazine—the Israeli equivalent of Vogue and sponsor of the annual pageant—I told her about the stereotypical American beauty queen who seeks to impress the judges with her earnest hopes for world peace. “To say a sentence like that, in my opinion, is to sound retarded,” Aynaw replied. Then she stopped and wondered out loud if she should have said that. She changed “retarded” to “stupid,” and barreled on. “Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon, China is trying to become a superpower,” she said. “To say that I want world peace, of course I want it. It’s a dream. But I don’t think it will happen now.”

Israelis are better known for their grit than their grace, but Aynaw’s got both. Almost 30 years since the first clandestine Israeli airlift of Ethiopian Jews—the fabled descendants of the lost biblical tribe of Dan—to the Promised Land, the Jewish state has finally anointed one of them Israel’s most beautiful woman. Asked by judges why she deserved the title, Aynaw said it was about time that a black woman wore the crown.

I met Miss Israel a day after one of her first solo photo shoots. Aynaw was wearing a blue sleeveless dress with silver studs lining the shoulders. She teetered a bit in gold-strapped heels, but confidently strutted down the hallways of the magazine offices, one slender leg cutting across the other like scissors. Measuring in at 5 foot 9, not including her bun, she towered over the rest of the magazine’s editorial staffers, who congratulated her as she walked past their offices. She attributes her beauty to her Ethiopian heritage. “We have these chiseled faces. Everything is in the right place,” she said. “I never saw an Ethiopian who was stuck with some big nose.” She looks like a fiercer version of Tyra Banks, one of two role models she named in the competition. The other one was Martin Luther King.

***

The Miss Israel pageant has been held uninterrupted for the last 63 years. That’s a startling feat in a country only 65 years old, in a culture that typically rejects pomp and circumstance, and where most long-standing annual events commemorate tragedy and war. The late Hemda Nofech-Mozes, who married into the country’s most powerful media family, founded La’Isha magazine a year before Israel’s war of independence in 1948 and instituted the competition two years later. “Everyone was talking about war, everyone was talking about settlement. She said, wait a minute, there is a nation here … there are beautiful women,” said Cohen, the current pageant director.

You can learn a lot about the face Israeli society has tried to put forward by the faces its judges choose each year. In 1952, at the height of tensions between Israel’s European veterans and Middle-Eastern Jewish newcomers, Yemen-born Ora Vered became the first Miss Israel of Middle-Eastern Jewish descent. In 1993, in the midst of Israel’s tidal wave of Soviet immigration, Kiev-born Jana Khodriker won, and in 1999, the peak of Israel’s optimism that Arab-Israeli peace was imminent, judges crowned Rana Raslan the first Arab Miss Israel.

In the early days of the competition, each Miss Israel cast away her ethnic name for pure Hebrew ones; Israel’s first beauty queen, Miriam Yaron, was born in Germany as Giselle Freilich, while Ora Vered’s original last name was the Yemeni name Jamili. Similarly, in the last 30 years, many Ethiopian newcomers have adopted Hebrew names.

Not Aynaw, whose given name is connected to the circumstances of her birth. “I was born sick, but my mom believed I had a future,” she told me. Yitayish is Amharic for “look,” or as Aynaw explains it, “looking toward the future.”

“I’d never change my name,” said Aynaw. “Ever.”

Aynaw’s biography is, as she calls it, a Cinderella story. Born in a small township near Gondar in northwest Ethiopia, she was orphaned by age 10. Her father died a year after she was born—she never found out how—and a decade later her mother died of a sudden illness. Her mother’s parents, who had already uprooted to Israel in 2000, arranged for her and her brother to move, too.

Aynaw grew up like many Ethiopian Jews, dreaming of going to Israel. “I was told this was the land of milk and honey,” she said, laughing. “That I’d go on the street, bend down, and pick up golden coins. I’d open the faucet and milk would pour out.”

In March 2003, Aynaw and her brother flew via Kenya to Israel. Her grandparents, whom she had hardly remembered, brought them to their hardscrabble immigrant neighborhood in the seaside town of Netanya. Without knowing a word of Hebrew, she was shuffled off to a religious Jewish boarding school in Haifa catering to new immigrants. Today her Hebrew is accentless and expressive. “They threw me into the deep water. But that’s how you learn to swim the best,” she said.

In fact, Aynaw stood out from the pack from the beginning. She became student council president, excelled in track and field, and won first place in a national student film competition. Her short feature film, which she wrote and directed, told the story of an Ethiopian immigrant girl in Israel who tried to ignore her heritage—a character she says was based heavily on her classmates. When Aynaw would show up in a traditional Ethiopian white kamis as her costume for the Purim holiday, or when she brought homemade injera bread to school, her Ethiopian-born peers became embarrassed. “We immigrants want to integrate into society. And we forget where we come from,” she said.

After graduation, Aynaw, then 19, joined an army course that trains talented Ethiopian-born Israelis to be military commanders. She missed the cutoff date to be in Karakal, Israel’s co-ed combat unit, so she ended up a military police commander responsible for 90 rowdy soldiers. In their three-month training, she taught her soldiers how to fire a weapon, perform security checks at checkpoints, and detect bombs. “For three months, they would never see my smile,” she said, flashing a grin that’s hard to imagine she once concealed.

“I taught them to be human,” Aynaw said of her soldiers, who checked Palestinians driving through military checkpoints. “My soldiers would ask, ‘How can I be so nice when there were instances of a 9-year-old kid or a pregnant woman blowing themselves up at a checkpoint?’ ” She’d tell them: “There are many Palestinians who have a wife waiting at home, a family waiting for dad to bring bread home.”

In October 2012, while most of her friends traveled to popular post-army destinations in India and Thailand, Aynaw spent the savings she’d earned in the army on a ticket to Addis Ababa. She wanted to come to terms with her mother’s death and face her history. “I never looked at her photos, I never talked about her. I decided to erase everything,” she said. It was a defense mechanism: “I needed to succeed,” she added. “I don’t have parents that I can crash with till I’m a 40 year old.”

A distant relative brought her to the Jewish graveyard where her mother is buried. She was shocked by the condition of the cemetery: Headstones were cracked, and rainwater would flow in streams around the graves. She hired the groundskeeper to cover her mother’s grave with marble, to add a Hebrew verse from Psalms next to the Amharic inscription, and to encase the grave in a roofed structure. She waited three weeks in Addis until it was completed. Aynaw showed me photos of the refurbished grave on her cracked iPhone screen.

“Poor thing, I’m upsetting you with my stories,” Aynaw said to me suddenly. She adjusted the large sunglasses on her head, and we switched topics to a recent photoshoot in the Mediterranean sea, when photographers struggled to make her hair look drenched. “How do you give me a wet look? I have an Afro!” she said.

***

Aynaw’s win comes after a year of rekindled accusations of racism toward Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community. Ethiopian Jews took to the streets in January 2012 to protest after Israeli landlords in a low-income southern town refused them rent. And a month before, Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders made noise after Israel’s rabbinate announced it would phase them out because their customs run against normative Orthodox Judaism. Aynaw’s victory certainly has its critics; some say she won because of her skin color alone. Others have posted derogatory jokes on Facebook, like calling her “toffee queen,” instead of yoffee (Hebrew for beauty) queen, or saying that it was too bad her poor family couldn’t watch the pageant because they don’t own a television. “Tell me I’m ugly. That would hurt less,” she said of the racist jokes.

And yet, these past few years have been trailblazing ones for Ethiopian-born Israeli women. In 2011, Hagit Yaso was the first Ethiopian-born winner of the Israeli version of American Idol. In 2012, Belaynesh Zevadia was appointed Israel’s first Ethiopian-born ambassador, sent to represent the Jewish state in her native Addis Ababa. And in January, Pnina Tamano-Shata became the first Ethiopian-born woman to be elected to parliament. “There is hope that Israeli society has gotten a little bit more open,” said Semai Elias, a spiritual leader in the Ethiopian Jewish community, about their accomplishments. “The community has been given a chance.”

Still, there are virtually no black faces on Israeli billboards and in magazine ads. That should change with Aynaw’s expected appearances in ads by Israeli casual-wear line Golf and high-end jewelry seller H. Stern, co-sponsors of the pageant. Aynaw also wants to make a social impact during her tenure: She wants to institute dance and drawing activities for Ethiopian kids like those in her immigrant neighborhood who roam the streets after school. Someday, she wants to be an Israeli diplomat.

Aynaw will get a taste of foreign relations this year: This week she flies to New York to address a gala at the Waldorf Astoria for the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces. This winter, she’ll be in Paris. And pageant director Cohen says organizers of this year’s Miss World competition in Indonesia—a country with which Israel shares no diplomatic relations—are working on securing a visa for her to compete.

If Aynaw makes it to the international competition, she’ll be asked to strut down the runway wearing her national dress. Japan has kimonos, and Brazil has carnival costumes. But what gown represents the melting pot of Israel?

This year, that decision will be easy for Israeli fashion designer Berta, said Cohen. “Berta will go with an Ethiopian theme,” she said.

***

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Bravo! Sounds like she’s on fire! Great Israeli success story.

Larisa says:

So awesome!!!!! :D :D She’s so pretty, <3 <3

She means a woman born in Ethiopia. Racially for centuries Ethiopian woman are/were Caucasian.

jessica226 says:

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Very informative and interesting article. As a Jew I am encouraged to see a woman of such beauty and grace representing Israel in such a role. Mazel tov Yityish!

Kohen HaGadol says:

If only she were Jewish!

Kohen HaGadol says:

By ethnicity or religion?

Jacob Arnon says:

““Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon, China is trying to become a superpower,” she said. “To say that I want world peace, of course I want it. It’s a dream. But I don’t think it will happen now.””

She is a real Queen, smart, too.

Miriam Chaya says:

Both. Now get over your thinly veiled racism.

Kohen HaGadol says:

If she were white then you would not have responded to my post, which makes you the bigot. As for Ethiopian Jews, it’s a historical fact that they have converted from Christianity to a brand of Judaism that does not recognize major holidays, or even the Talmud for that matter, just a few centuries ago. They do not claim Israelite ancestry.

sidney51 says:

As so clearly and loathsomely revealed below, there is much racism in Israeli society. The Ethiopian community is discriminated against by Jews of all types in Israel. Most Ethiopians experience ugly racism. If one speaks with them, he or she will hear stories that are heartbreaking. Sorry, but bringing the Ethiopians to Israel is nowhere near enough if they suffer discrimination.

What you have said with respect to Ethiopian Jewry is partially false. Traditional Ethiopian Jewish practices include honoring all major Jewish holidays mentioned in the Torah. Hagim (such as Purim) and other practices that started post Torah-times were not traditionally practiced because much of Ethiopian Jewry lived in exclusion for roughly 2,000 years. This period of exclusion began prior to the Talmud being compiled.

As for Ethiopian Jewry being converts…that actually has not been confirmed and some rabbinical authorities believe otherwise. Some people assert Ethiopian Jewry is of the tribe of Dan. Regardless, Ethiopian Jews have been Jewish for a VERY long time. Ethiopian Jewry does in fact claim Israelite/Jewish ancestry.

janpolatschek says:

Two years ago I was in Gondar to have Passover with the Jewish community there. Can you imagine a Seder with a couple of thousand people in attendance? It was exhilarating! The Ethiopian Jews I met were kind, friendly, and curious. They all hoped to emigrate to Israel. In my opinion, Israeli society would benefit from even more Ethiopians in its midst.

http://www.travelwithjan.com/horn-of-africa-2011-ethiopia-passover-and-the-jewish-community

HopeinDC says:

Ethiopian Jews are Jewish by Religion and ethnicity. Try reading sometime!

HopeinDC says:

Only some of them converted to Christianity under duress, which happened in Europe as well. Because they were not in Europe of course they didn’t recognize the Talmud because there was no access to it! Read about the kohen project, you know Kohen, your namesake? They have the same blood as us, they are from ancient Israel, and many believe them to be one of the lost tribes. They are as old as Jacob, yes THAT Jacob. The way you speak of other Jews is shameful. No go study about them!

The various Ethiopian Jewish/Judaic communities are almost certainly descended from Sabbatarian groups that renounced the New Testament at one time or another.

There is some slight possibility of descent from Hellenistic convert populations, for Axum was in fact a Hellenistic center that might have had some contacts with Alexandria and the Hellenistic Judaic convert population of that city.

Ethiopian Judaic populations really have no connection with Medieval Rabbinic Judaism, and medieval Karaite literature makes no mention of them.

Like all modern Jewish/Judaic populations their only connection to Palestine is mythological or fictional.

All Zionist settler colonists must be removed from Palestine, and the country should be returned to the native Palestinian population, which is the only modern population that has any connection to Judeans and other native Palestinian populations of the Greco-Roman period.

Aynaw is living proof of the bogosity of the whole concept of a Jewish people with ancestral connection to physical Palestine.

http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/172217/is-miss-israel-beautiful/

Angela says:

According to who?

lilrockdiva says:

She is exquisite to behold!

lilrockdiva says:

Why are you here?

Vicious racist Jewish Zionists and their vile lackeys only want to read and hear opinions that agree with their stupid and false conceptions.

For the record I am interested in identity politics, which is sickest and most perverted among modern Jews.

Rex Remes says:

According to WHOM?

Rex Remes says:

to hold and to look at too !

Of course, many modern ethnic Ashkenazim are descended from Eastern European and Central European Sabbatarian groups that were absorbed into the Yiddish community without anything like a proper conversion. The former IDF Chief of Staff Raful Eitan came from Sabbatarian background and had to convert to Judaism before he could marry. One hundred years ago such Sabbatarians rarely converted to intermarry with Yiddish Jews.

Such Sabbatarian groups existed in Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Russian and other regions.

This process has been going for a long time. Yiddish Jews of non-Sabbatarian background are descended from barely Judaized Sorbian and Polesian Slavic “convert” communities and honest ethnologists (i.e. non-Jewish) tell us that Yiddish Jewish customs have no origins in the ME but are almost entirely old German and old Slavic pagan or obsolete Christian practices.

For example, the braided Hallah loaf is unknown among non-Ashkenazi Jews and this linguistic usage of Hallah comes not from Hebrew Hallah but from the name of the Germanic goddess Frau Holle. Braided loaves on Friday were the traditional offering to this goddess.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holda

Yiddish Jews have only mythological or fictional connection to Palestine.

In Palestine Yiddish Jews are racist murderous genocidal invaders, interlopers, and thieves.

All decent human beings should hate and despise the Zionist State as well as the criminal Zionist invader conglomeration, which under the International Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide should be removed forthwith.

Yo Jonathan, please take your “bogosity” and shove it (you know where).

There are two groups of Ethiopian Jews. The largest are the Beta Israel, who were always Jewish, and the smaller are the Falashas, who were converted to Christianity but have since returned to Judaism. The Beta Israel do claim Israelite ancestry, since they claim to be the descendants of people from Sheba who mixed with Israelites, with their leader being a son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.

Also, the Talmud has never been a requirement for Judaism. The Beta Israel never had the Talmud, and the Karaites and Samaritans voluntarily reject the Talmud, yet all three groups are still considered Jews.

Excellent parody of a self-hating Jew!

I really can’t get enough of your parody of a self-hating Jew! Do you also do flat-earthers and neo-Nazis?

I am married to an ex-Zionist former Russian Israeli. She has explained all the standard Zionist and racist Jews tactics to me.

Jewish Zionists never let reality interfere with their world view and use ad hominem attacks in place of rational discussion or arguments.

I merely pointed out a history that has been known for decades or longer.

In Eastern Yiddish the pagan content of Yiddish Sabbath observance is even more obvious, for khale is also known as barkhes or berkhes in that regional Yiddish dialect. These words are obvious variants of Berchisbrod or Perchisbrod, which translate as Berchta’s Bread. Berchta is an alternate name for Frau Holle.

When we view the issues dispassionately, we see that neither ethnic Ashkenazim nor Ethiopian Judaic populations have any ancestral connection to ancient Judean or other Palestinian populations.

Here is the sole difference: during the 10th-13th ethnic Ashkenazim, previously a Slavo-Turkic population within the sphere of Greek-speaking Hellenistic Judaism, connected to a process of Judaization that was to a large extent a response to the development of Islam, while the Ethiopian Judaic populations did not.

Talya Fishman has written an interesting book on the subject:

Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures (Jewish Culture and Contexts)

http://books.google.com/books?id=LXByzyf-mFIC

Neither ethnic Ashkenazim nor Ethiopian Judaic populations have any legitimate status in Palestine.

Under the International Convention for the Prevention and the Punishment of Genocide the Zionist conglomeration should be removed immediately from Palestine, and the Zionist leadership should be tried before the ICC just like Serb genocidaires.

Jews that wish to be decent people like my wife must agree.

This Shas campaign video underscores the bogosity of the concept of a Jewish people with legitimate claims to Palestine.

Oksana and I have not been able to decide whether it is more anti-Russian or anti-Sephardi.

We suspect that the Shas leaders did not realize how much the advertisement traded in anti-Sephardi stereotypes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8D2O71jUZU&feature=player_embedded

But don’t forget: Ashkenazic Jews in Israel eat a form of bread they call “pita” with a spread they call “humus”! When something gets screwed up they call it a “fashla” and when they want people to get going they say “yalla”. Israeli Ashkenazic Jews are, in fact, Arabs!!!!

What an ignoramus! So what if the racist Yiddish Jewish invaders use the word pita? It is the Aramaic equivalent to Hebrew “pat (פת)”. Arabic has no “p” sound.

Anyway since the haskolo at least Yiddish Jews have distinguished between daytshmerizms and core Yiddish.

So what if the racist Yiddish Jewish invaders use the native Arabic word humus to describe the food that they larcenously appropriated from the native population?

Yiddish speakers in historic Poland where the Yiddish ethnic group originates would generally use the Polish word bigos to describe bigos which is a Polish food. My Russian Jewish (Yiddish) Israeli mother-in-law says боже мой/Boże mój when faced with something seriously disheartening.

None of this superficial stuff makes Yiddish Jews non-Yiddish.

But when we look in detail at the core of Yiddish language, culture, and practices, we find that it is almost entirely Germanic/Slavic pagan or obsolete Christian, and thus we conclude that ethnic Ashkenazim are more correctly viewed as a superficially Judaized Slavic population.

We think of this core as Jewish and connected with ancient Greco-Roman Palestine because 80-90% of modern Jews are Yiddish.

If 80-90% of modern Jews were of Ethiopian Judaic background, we would think of the core of Ethiopian Judaic practices as the real Jewish practices and connected with ancient Greco-Roman Palestine.

A lot of people would say that ethnic Ashkenazim could not possibly be Jewish because they are white.

In point of fact the fallacy lies in the concept of a Jewish people. There is no such thing. Zionists reinterpreted the Ashkenazi ethnic group as the pan-Judaic ethnonational group in order to legitimize a completely false and ridiculous claim to Palestine.

The only people really descended from Greco-Roman Judeans and other old Palestinians are the modern Palestinians whom racist murderous genocidal Zionist invaders, interlopers, and thieves have been brutalizing and killing for over a century.

Decent Jews like my wife accept the facts and stand with Palestinians against Zionism.

beautiful woman, beautiful story..

She is not pretty. I have seen and I know really pretty, astounding Ethiopian women. It’s a pity though, most of them get cut.

“So what if the racist Yiddish Jewish invaders use the native Arabic word
humus to describe the food that they larcenously appropriated from the
native population?”
Great stuff! I will give you full credit when I use that one next Purim!

I think she was not the most beautiful, by classic beauty,” said director Iris Cohen,

Queen of Sheba, and Moses’ wife Zipporah, were classic beauties. .
Someone should remind the director

So saith the ignorant and moronic joke that thinks pita is an Arabic word.

Don't get me started says:

She She was born WHERE? Quick.. give her an injection before she gets pregnant we certainly don’t want more black “chosen one…” Not good to mix our blood neither. Quick, quick the injection!

I agreed. Peace is not gonna happen for the bible tells me so (re: Armageddon).

A milestone indeed. But grace and grit? This is pretty tone deaf: “’We have these chiseled faces. Everything is in the right place,’” she said. “’I never saw an Ethiopian who was stuck with some big nose.’”

This doesn’t help either: “’To say a sentence like that, in my opinion, is to sound retarded,’” Aynaw replied.”

I just had to stop reading this. If she’s so smart, why doesn’t she know that Iran’s nuclear program is for nuclear energy, not weapons. China is not the world superpower threatening world peace, it is the United States! And Israel is their lackey!

You’re right, “Beta Israel” never converted to Christianity. The “Falasha Murah,” which I should note is considered derogatory by many, are descendants of Jews who felt pressured from various oppressors to convert to Christianity. They are now returning to Judaism.

disqus_GQ8L7Ojo1e says:

Who told you that? So silly!

narayang_46@yahoo.com says:

A state for jews was created, but what will happen for Tamils in Srilanka who are bundergoing genocide in their own country, they will be decimated and annihilated very soon, will world will wake up

Mark Gary Blumenthal says:

The two best ways to put bigots in their place are two satirize and mock them, and to ignore them. Thank you for choosing the former!

Rofi = p.u.t.z.

Jackie Cogan says:

shes a nig.g.er, no one cares

Eliezer Ramon says:

And the ‘enlightened’ Western ‘intelligentsia’ claim there is Racial Discrimination in Israel.

I envision them crying: “It is false”! But, of course, in their minds Israel is always guilty.

kmansfield says:

oh, so one black girl wins a pageant a virulently racist society is suddenly transformed. LoL.

Aaronsen Ashburg says:

Shes black shes not one of us.

Bonded says:

Aaaronsen, I see you enjoy being pitied for your poor self image……she is mouthwateringly beautiful, and if that intimidates you because she’s black, then sorry for your lack of colour!

j main says:

Iran is not here for your benefit. You will learn the hard way.

j main says:

She is a beautiful woman of color. Your ugly words and bigotry will not change that

Joe Silverman says:

Big Nose???? Really?
Was no one else at least a bit concerned with Ms. Aynaw’s comment “I never saw an
Ethiopian who was stuck with some big nose” Many gorgeous Jews have big noses, an attribute that so much anti-semitism has attached to throughout history.. it has confused Jews terribly into feeling we weren’t as beautiful and handsome as we are. It has made us want to cut up and redesign our faces, along with changing our last names, and assimilating in many wayts into white dominant gentile culture. I found
it deeply upsetting to read such unaware, regressive comments, steeped in the
confusions of anti-semitism. I have a big nose, as does Barbra Streisand,
just to name two of us, along with many other gorgeous Jews that you know and
love.

I was first so thrilleed when i saw this article about Ms. Aynaw winning, but If a beauty contest in Israel results in such an unfortunate perpetuation of
simplistic / traditional concepts of beauty, i can’t see how this is forward moving
for the people of Israel or Jews in any way. I can only hope that her new title might help Ms Aynaw expand her own understanding of beauty.

thara ravishanker says:

Are you kidding me? You chose to write about someone who said retarded then stopped. So what if she did, people need to develop thick skins and not be so childish.

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Israel’s Bold New Queen

The latest Miss Israel, Ethiopian-born Yityish Aynaw, says it’s about time a black woman wore the crown

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