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The Afterlife of Rabbi Akiva

An excerpt from Barry W. Holtz’s new biography of the 1st-century sage of the Talmud

Jewish Lives (Sponsored)
May 01, 2017
Original illustration: Rabbi Akiva in the Mantua Haggadah, 1568/Wikipedia
Original illustration: Rabbi Akiva in the Mantua Haggadah, 1568/Wikipedia
Original illustration: Rabbi Akiva in the Mantua Haggadah, 1568/Wikipedia
Original illustration: Rabbi Akiva in the Mantua Haggadah, 1568/Wikipedia

This is a sponsored post on behalf of Yale University Press and its Jewish Lives series.

To die saying the Shema, to fight against attempts to abrogate the study of Torah, to fulfill your mission as teacher even at the point of death—these are legacies handed down through the powerful narrative of Akiva’s last moments. But Akiva’s afterlife—that is, his place in the consciousness of the Jewish people—goes beyond his tragic death. He has lived on as the hero figure of rabbinic Judaism in many ways.

To begin with, we have his teachings or, to be more precise, we have the teachings attributed to him in our classic texts. Akiva’s name appears more than a thousand times in the Babylonian Talmud alone. Of course we cannot with confidence say that every statement made in Rabbi Akiva’s name was really spoken by him. The teachings of rabbis from the Tannaitic period (that is, early traditions) are often quoted in later sources such as the Babylonian Talmud, which was edited some three hundred to four hundred years after the Mishnah. Richard Kalmin has put it well: “During the course of transmission many of these statements were altered, emended, and completed in subtle or not so subtle ways, such that a statement’s attribution to a Tannaitic Rabbi cannot be accepted at face value. How much, if anything, of the statement is Tannaitic? Has it been doctored by later generations? Is it an invention by later generations based on false assumptions about attitudes in a much earlier time?” And I suspect that as Akiva’s fame grew in the generations after his death, his name became associated with comments simply because of his great prestige. But later Jewish history has offered a judgment on the Akivan legacy no matter what the “real” Akiva may or may not have said: these are teachings that endure across the ages as being his.

Probably no statement attributed to Akiva is more well-known and more associated with him than this one: Of the verse “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), Rabbi Akiva said, “This is the great principle of the Torah.” It has even made it into a popular Hebrew song, “Rabbi Akiva Said.” The utterance is usually quoted as a stand-alone statement, but as it appears in rabbinic literature, it is actually part of a debate between Akiva and Ben Azzai. The full discussion appears like this:

“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)

Rabbi Akiva said: This is the great principle of the Torah. Ben Azzai said: “This is the record of Adam’s line”

(Genesis 5:1)—This principle is even greater than that.

y. Nedarim “Vows” 9:4 (also in Sifra on Leviticus 19:18)

This discussion, appearing in parallel versions in two early texts—the Jerusalem Talmud and the midrash on Leviticus called Sifra—is a debate about defining the most important tenet in the Torah.

Akiva’s statement is clear: The most important thing that the Torah teaches is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” But what is Ben Azzai trying to say with his odd quotation from Genesis? As is often the case in these texts, it is worthwhile to look at the whole biblical context of the quoted verses. What Ben Azzai is really after is the way that the verse continues: “This is the record of Adam’s line—When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God; male and female He created them” (Genesis 5:1–2).

For Ben Azzai the important point is that all human beings are created in God’s image, and therefore no one person is superior to another; for Akiva, the key principle in the Torah is the requirement to love one’s fellow human beings. Both sides of the argument have merit. There is something appealing about Akiva’s elevation of the emotion of love, and at the same time, there is something comforting in Ben Azzai’s concept of a just society. What is interesting and somewhat surprising is that this is one of the rare rabbinic debates in which Akiva appears to be bested, or at least Ben Azzai has the last word. One suspects that this troubled some authorities because of the strength of Akiva’s reputation. When the same debate is reported in another midrash, it comes out differently:

Ben Azzai said: “This is the record of Adam’s line” (Genesis 5:1)—This is the great principle of the Torah.

Rabbi Akiva said: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)—This is the great principle of the Torah!

Genesis Rabbah 24:7

The midrash here seems to be working on making sure that Akiva gets the winning comment, but it is hardly necessary. Even though Ben Azzai might be seen as the winner of the debate in the Jerusalem Talmud and the Sifra, it is the Akivan ideal of loving one’s fellow human beings that has come down to us as the remembered essential principle of the rabbis.

The debate about the “great principle” of Torah—meaning in the rabbis’ terms a dispute about the core commitment of Judaism—might be said to have a companion piece in another discussion about a fundamental element in the rabbinic worldview. The rabbis were taken up by the two deepest matters of Jewish religious life: study of Torah on the one hand and the “practice” of Judaism—performing the various commandments outlined in the Torah (and in the rabbinic interpretation of Torah)—on the other. Here too Akiva has a major role:

It once happened that Rabbi Tarfon and the elders were gathered together in the upper story of Nitza’s house in Lod, when this question was raised before them: Which is greater, study or practice?

Rabbi Tarfon answered: Practice is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered: Study is greater.

Then they all answered: Study is greater for it leads to practice.

b. Kiddushin “Betrothal” 40b

We don’t have any information about who Nitza was, though his “upper story” meeting room is mentioned in another Talmudic tractate. Nitza, we can assume, was wealthy enough to have a house with an upper story and devout enough to let his house be used for rabbinic meetings and discussions.

The Hebrew word translated as “gathered together” (m’subin) also has the meaning of “reclining.” It is in this sense that it appears in the famous “Four Questions” of the Passover Haggadah to explain that the meal should be eaten while “reclining,” not “sitting.” Indeed m’subin is the term also used when the Haggadah describes the story of Akiva and his four colleagues recounting the story of the Exodus throughout the night, which is understood to be a model of the intense conversation appropriate to the seder. Early rabbinic literature often uses the word m’subin to describe people gathered for a formal meal—a “reclining meal” we might say—so perhaps that is what is going on in Nitza’s attic room: a dinner conversation that turns into a debate.

The stakes are high in this dispute because it asks whether Judaism is to be a religion fundamentally about the life of the mind or the life of action. Theory or practice? Thinking or deeds? For the rabbis, these were matters of great moment.

In the debate reported in the Talmud, neither Rabbi Tarfon nor Rabbi Akiva gives an explanation for his position. The views are stated starkly. The debate ends with “they all answered,” whereby the text seems to be saying that it was not just the “elders” who were adjudicating the debate but that Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva also joined in with the conclusion. So is this a debate that Akiva has “won”? On the surface it does appear so—between study and deeds, study is said to be more important, which was Akiva’s position. But the answer is more complicated because a new element has been introduced into the conclusion. A reason is given for the concluding view: “Study is greater, for it leads to practice.” The conclusion, therefore, is paradoxical. Study is greater, true, but it is greater because it leads to practice. In other words, Rabbi Tarfon’s position is confirmed after all. If study is important because it leads to practice, then must we not say that practice is greater than study?

I think the real point here is that “all” of them found a way to agree. Akiva could hold the “study” point of view since it is given precedence, but Tarfon can feel that he is vindicated because “practice” is seen to be the purpose of study. What endures from this meeting at Nitza’s home is a fundamental tension within Judaism that has played itself out throughout the generations in a variety of ways. Is study meant to be instrumental—aimed at teaching people the proper way to act— as is suggested by the conclusion of our text? Or is study fulfilling some other purpose, even beyond intellectual engagement? This debate, begun in Akiva’s time, has endured throughout the ages.

Investigating voluminous teachings on various topics attributed to Akiva presents significant methodological issues related to attribution and the transmission of traditions. I have highlighted only two rather central matters deeply associated with him in the texts we have just considered. But I would be remiss if I left the impression that Akiva was solely concerned with questions like those we have explored in the texts above, as important as those matters may be. There is another side to Akiva, one that we saw in the story of his ascent in the orchard (Chapter 6). This is the Akiva who has been a hero for Jewish mystics throughout history, the Akiva who was intoxicated by the divine, who loved God so much that he went to his death proclaiming that love through saying the Shema—“even if he takes your life.”

Akiva’s passion, the eros of his connection to God, is reflected in a famous comment attributed to him about the canonical status of the Song of Songs (called in the Christian Bible the Song of Solomon). Was this book of sufficient piety to be included in the Bible? The Song of Songs presented a serious challenge, as it reads like a collection of starkly erotic love poems with no spiritual content at all. What place would such an obviously secular book have in the Bible?

In the Mishna, a number of rabbis are disputing the status of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs—Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, Rabbi Yose the Galilean, and Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai are all weighing in. Do these two books, they ask, have sacred status? Regarding the Song of Songs Akiva makes an impassioned argument, bringing the discussion to a close:

Heaven forbid. No person in Israel ever disputed the holiness of the Song of Songs! For all the ages are not equal to the day when Song of Songs was given to Israel. For all the Writings are sacred but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies—and if there was any dispute, it was only about Ecclesiastes.

m. Yadaim “Hands” 3:5

How the Bible came to be “the Bible” as we know it today— the process known as the canonization of the Bible—is not a simple question. Scholarship today no longer accepts the image of a group of early rabbis gathered together for a few weeks at Rabban Gamaliel’s academy in Yavneh and voting up or down on the various books for inclusion or exclusion. Unfortunately for all of us wishing for such a neat, clean story, it appears that the process was a good deal more complex than that, and many of the details are simply unknown.

The report of the debate in rabbinic sources—even though it may not reflect the exact particularities of the canonization process—gives us an insight into Akiva’s thinking about this biblical work. For Akiva, the Song of Songs is nothing less than an extended metaphor—not of the love between two human beings, as it seems on the surface, but of the eternal love of God and Israel. Michael Fishbane points out that for Akiva, the Song of Songs “not only bespoke the covenant relationship between Israel and God, it also depicted God in terms even bolder than those reported by the prophet Ezekiel in his vision of the divine chariot. If some of R. Akiva’s colleagues had doubts as to the Song’s sacred nature, he himself had none. In his view, it truly was the holy of holies.” An even bolder statement of the importance of the Song of Songs is attributed to Akiva in a late (10th-century) midrash called Aggadat Shir Ha-Shirim: “Had the Torah not been given, it would have been possible to conduct the world on the basis of the Song of Songs alone.” Akiva’s association with the Song of Songs, then, is deeply embedded within Jewish tradition, highlighting the emphasis that he placed on love as a central value.


The legacy of Akiva encompasses not only his specific teachings; perhaps even more influential was his vision of the nature of interpretation, a view that helped define the center of Judaism in general and Jewish learning in particular from his time forward. In other words, it was not only the message (or messages) that he communicated through his teachings but the method he brought to the enterprise that defined how future generations viewed him.

In Avot de Rabbi Natan there is a passage in which Rabbi Judah the Patriarch reflects on the qualities of some of the rabbis who preceded him by one or two generations. Of Akiva, he said, “He was like a well-stocked storehouse.” He continued:

What was Rabbi Akiva like? A worker who took his basket and went outside. When he found wheat, he put it in the basket. When he found barley, he put it in. Spelt—he put it in. Beans—he put them in. Lentils—he put them in. When he came home he sorted out the wheat by itself, the barley by itself, the spelt by itself, the beans by themselves, and the lentils by themselves. This is what Rabbi Akiva did; he made the entire Torah into rings upon rings.

Avot de Rabbi Natan, Version A, chapter 18

It is important to remember that tradition understands Rabbi Judah to be the person who put together the Mishnah, the fundamental text of rabbinic Judaism. In doing so he organized the teachings of the first 150 to 200 years of the culture of the sages. Yet in this text, Judah pays tribute to what Akiva did almost a century before the Mishnah. Akiva, like the worker in the parable, came across disorganized, scattered materials—the “food,” we might say, that was Torah. He gathered these materials together, but he did more than that: He also sorted them; he took them out of the basket in which they were all jumbled together and figured out a scheme of organization, making “the entire Torah into rings upon rings.”

In Rabbi Judah’s mind, it appears that there already was a kind of “proto-Mishnah” before the Mishnah came into existence. Judah is paying an enormous compliment to Akiva here. He is close to saying, “What I did, you had already done”— or at least you had already begun. Is this perception true historically? No one has ever discovered the “Mishnah of Rabbi Akiva,” but as one scholar has put it, Akiva’s “importance for the development of the Mishnah tradition is undoubted.” Akiva may be “the father” of our Mishnah, but the particular literary form of the Mishnah, as it has come down to us today, cannot be directly attributed to him. Of one thing there is no dispute: in the eyes of tradition, Akiva was the essential figure that allowed the Mishnah we know to come into existence in Rabbi Judah’s time.

But I think this text is actually saying something more as well. The Hebrew word m’varar that I translated as “sorted” has another, more primary, meaning as well, and in that meaning, we have an additional clue to the interpretation of this passage. M’varer, from the Hebrew root b-r-r, fundamentally means “to make things clear,” usually in the intellectual sense of proving or interpreting something. The physical act of sorting a basket of items mixed together is one way of making things clear, but what this text means to suggest, I believe, is that Akiva did more than place various laws and practices into neat categories—as might be assumed from the metaphor of the worker with the produce. Akiva clarified the Judaism that had come down to him. He interpreted it, made sense of it, and perhaps most importantly from Rabbi Judah’s perspective, he passed that on to Judah and to future generations.

More than an organizer of traditions, Akiva was an interpreter of traditions, and his mode of interpretation set the tone for the approach to reading Jewish texts that influenced all of later Jewish religious history. His view was wide-ranging and expansive. It was sometimes outlandish (as in his midrash from the Passover Haggadah about the number of plagues that affected the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus) but filled with imagination.

It was not the only way that the story could have gone; there were other approaches to the study of Torah, but it was Akiva’s that ended up enduring. Looking at the differences in the interpretive practices of the early rabbis led the 19th-century German Jewish scholar Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann to suggest that this literature emanated from two different “schools”: the school of Rabbi Yishmael and the school of Rabbi Akiva. According to this view, Yishmael and Akiva, who are often described as taking opposing points of view in rabbinic debates, passed on to their students two contrasting modes of thought, terminology, and interpretive strategies. Certain midrashic texts were seen as products of the school of Akiva, others of the school of Yishmael.

Since Hoffmann first suggested the theory of two schools, scholars have debated a series of questions: Are there, in fact, two schools? If so, how do they differ? Are the interpretative styles as distinctive as one might think by their being categorized as two “schools”? Or are the two approaches more alike than different? And were these two schools truly related to the actual historical figures of Akiva and Yishmael? Some scholars, for example, have accepted the notion of there being two schools but have suggested dropping the nomenclature of “Akivan” or “Yishmaelan” to describe them since it is hard to claim on historical evidence that the two rabbis really initiated two distinctive schools—although it is clear that there are two different interpretative approaches at play in the rabbinic sources. Still, the terminology associating these traditions with these two early rabbis has pretty much stuck, which is to say, most scholars continue to use the terms that Hoffmann first introduced despite whether Akiva and Yishmael were, in fact, responsible for these ongoing traditions.

Most of the writing about the “two schools” is of a highly technical nature focused in particular on two matters: the historical editing and evolution of the works in question, and the interpretative techniques used within the midrashic texts (the “hermeneutics,” to use the scholars’ favored term). But for our purposes here, how might we look at the ways that these traditions shed light on our portrait of Akiva?

This was a question of great interest, I suspect, when Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the key Jewish theologians of the 20th century, wrote a massive work laying out what he saw as the two competing traditions of Akiva and Yishmael. Some academic scholars criticized Heschel’s work for failing to distinguish between early and later sources and for taking at face value some of the historical claims emanating from traditional texts. But these criticisms seem to miss the main point of Heschel’s work. As Gordon Tucker puts it, Heschel may have “set out here to establish his bona fides as an aficionado of Rabbinic literature, but he certainly does not set out to do meticulous history.” Rather, Heschel was interested in seeing Akiva and Yishmael as “eternal paradigms of religious thought that sometimes war with one another, sometimes complement one another, and always challenge and refine one another.” The Akiva that Heschel describes is one version of the “legacy Akiva” that comes down to us.

For Heschel, the contrast between Akiva and Yishmael is a contrast of theologies and a consequent divergence of methods in interpreting the Torah. Akiva, as Heschel portrays him, is always looking for the hidden meanings in Torah; Yishmael seeks to focus on the less dramatic, “plainer” sense of the biblical text being discussed.

In many ways, Heschel’s book is an attempt to rehabilitate the image of Rabbi Yishmael, to argue that—as he was devoted to “cool analysis” with “no concern for hidden things”—he had lost out to Akiva’s pursuit of the mysteries of Torah. Akiva is the glamorous and exciting figure in Heschel’s view. “In the end,” writes Heschel, “it was the approach of Rabbi Akiva that conquered the hearts of Israel and was absorbed into its heritage. It is so woven and intermeshed in the lexicon of Jewish thought that one hardly perceives it as a distinct force.”

There is no doubt that Heschel’s binary categorization of the two rabbinic figures overstates the case to make the contrast. But in the arena of understanding the interpretative methods of the two schools, Heschel is not so far from views that we can find in contemporary scholarship. In his meticulous analysis of the two schools, Menahem Kahana concludes that indeed, “Yishmael’s midrash is generally more moderate than R. Akiva’s, and his expositions are also less distant from the simple meaning of the verse.” He objects to Heschel’s characterization of Yishmael as “a rationalist who vigorously opposed esoteric expositions of the Torah and matters that cannot be attained by the intellect.” But Kahana goes on to talk about Akiva’s “far-reaching way of expounding” while Yishmael “opposed the minute exposition of biblical verses practiced by R. Akiva.” Contemporary scholarship, then, would chart these differences as significant though considerably less pronounced than Heschel’s presentation.

The single most dramatic example of the rabbis’ own understanding of Rabbi Akiva’s interpretative radicalism can be found in one of the greatest of all Akiva stories:

Rav Judah said in the name of Rav, When Moses ascended on high to receive the Torah, he found the Holy One, blessed be He, sitting and attaching little crowns to the letters. Moses said to him: “Master of the Universe, what is holding you back [from giving the Torah]?”

God answered, “There will be a man in the future, at the end of a number of generations, and Akiva ben Joseph is his name. He will interpret heaps and heaps of laws from just the tips of these crowns.”

Moses said, “Master of the Universe, show him to me!” God replied, “Turn around!”

Moses went and sat down in the back, behind eight rows [of students]. But he did not understand what they were saying and he was distressed. When they came upon a certain matter, the students asked Rabbi Akiva: “Master, from where do you know this?” and he said to them, “It is a law given to Moses at Sinai,” and Moses was comforted.

Moses returned and came before the Holy One, blessed be He, and said, “Master of the Universe, you have a man like that and you’re giving the Torah through me!” God replied, “Quiet! This is what I have decided.

b. Menahot “Meal Offerings” 29b

Moses has gone up onto Mount Sinai to receive the Torah and finds God working, as it were, on the finishing touches of the document. In the traditional calligraphy of a Torah scroll, eight different letters in the Hebrew alphabet have special ornamentations, here called “crowns.” Instead of moving forward with giving the Torah, God is waiting until he finishes this calligraphic work. Moses is astonished. The entire revelation of Torah is being delayed because of this small matter!

But God has a response. This, God says, is not a mere affectation or aesthetic nicety. In the future, a man named Akiva ben Joseph (one of the rare times in rabbinic literature that Akiva’s full name is used) will come along who will be able to use these little crowns to interpret “heaps and heaps” of laws. Moses is amazed and longs to see this extraordinary person. God accommodates his request by putting Moses into a kind of time machine to the future. All of a sudden Moses is sitting in the back of Akiva’s classroom. It is a stunning narrative move, surprising to find in a Talmudic text. But the time travel element is clearly intentional; the Talmud scholar Jeffrey Rubenstein points out that the phrase “Turn around” could also be translated “Turn to the future.”

Sitting in that class, Moses is distressed. He understands nothing that is being said. This is a remarkable story in many ways—the time travel, the pairing of Moses and Akiva, the role of God—but nothing is quite as extraordinary as the moment when Moses becomes depressed by his inability to understand the discussion. It is only when Akiva cites Moses’s authority that Moses is able to revive himself. Not only is Akiva asserting the importance of Moses, but it is no accident that the text has him use the traditional phrase “a law given to Moses at Sinai”—at the exact moment in the midrash midrash when Moses is standing on Sinai about to receive the Torah.

What does it mean that Moses cannot understand the future debates surrounding the very Torah that he is about to receive from God? Moses is so distressed that he wants God to give the Torah through Akiva, not through him. But God will not relent, nor will God explain the reasoning behind that decision: “Shut up,” God essentially tells him, “I’ve made my decision.”

One of the most extraordinary things about this story is that the rabbis who composed it show how well aware they were of the necessary evolution of Torah interpretation over time. Even Moses—the greatest of all the prophets, the person closest to God’s revelation—even Moses will not be able to understand the way that Torah interpretation grows over time. Rubenstein, in his close reading of the story, puts it well. The storytellers here are trying to deal with “the gap between the original revelation on Mount Sinai and the contemporary Torah of the rabbis of the Talmudic period. The storytellers are keenly aware that Torah has expanded and developed as each Rabbinic generation has added interpretations, legal pronouncements, and explanations to the corpus of tradition. … How can a tradition be part of Torat Moshe, the ‘Torah of Moses,’ and at the same time be attributed to later sages?” According to Rubenstein, the storytellers’ solution, the concept that comforts Moses in his depression, is “that the expanded and developed Torah of the Rabbinic era somehow inheres in the original Torah revealed to Moses.”

The true heroic figure in the story is Akiva. It is Akiva whose imagination sets the tone for the future development of Torah. Perhaps the reason that God does not answer Moses’s question is to protect Moses from the knowledge that the Torah that Moses delivered to Israel, the Torah that was at the heart of his life’s work, will eventually change, will become unrecognizable even to Moses.

Interestingly there is no text in the rabbinic corpus in which Akiva (or anyone else) uses the crowns on the letters to interpret “heaps and heaps” of anything. It is a literary flourish, a hyperbole aimed at making the larger point about Akiva’s status. The story, in the words of Azzan Yadin-Israel, brings together two themes:

the inherently mysterious Torah; and the gifted interpreter capable of uncovering its secrets. The mysteries of the Torah are, the narrative informs us, located in the crowns of the letters. These graphic flourishes are not part of the language of the Torah, and their interpretation indicates that Rabbi Akiva is able to derive meaning even from non-semantic aspects of the text. They are in other words, oracular markers that are … meaningless to all but “an interpreter gifted with divine insight.” Clearly, Rabbi Akiva is this interpreter, the reader for whom the Torah is intended; he is—ontologically—the reader of Torah, since God composed the work with Rabbi Akiva in mind.

As remarkable as this story is up to this point, its conclusion is almost as extraordinary:

Moses said to God: “Master of the Universe, you have shown me his Torah, now show me his reward.”

God said: “Turn around,” and Moses turned around and saw them weighing out Akiva’s flesh in the marketplace.

“Master of the Universe,” Moses said, “this is Torah and this is the reward!?”

God replied: “Quiet! This is what I have decided.”

b. Menahot 29b

Moses asks God a question once again, and once again God does not answer. But here the question is a good deal darker. Moses has received another glimpse into the future and has been brought to the execution of Akiva. We are given a gruesome detail that did not appear in the other stories of Akiva’s death: the flesh that the iron combs had ripped from Akiva’s body is now being sold in the market. The question that Moses asks is precisely the same question the angels asked in the Babylonian Talmud’s version of Akiva’s death: “This is Torah and this is its reward!?”

There, God gave a different answer: Akiva is invited into the “world to come.” He is promised an afterlife as compensation. But here, there is no recompense. It is a stark “Quiet!” from God—a response that feels particularly resonant for us today: there is no answer to the suffering of the righteous, and the promise of the world to come offers small comfort. This text seems to be saying that even for the greatest of rabbinic heroes the mystery of death and suffering is somehow beyond human comprehension, locked in the mind of God and inaccessible to any of us.


Excerpted from Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmudby Barry W. Holtz. Copyright © 2017 by Barry W. Holtz. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Barry W. Holtz is Theodore and Florence Baumritter Professor of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He is author of five previous books and the recipient of a National Jewish Book Award. He lives in New York City.

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