Consider The Chicken

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I wasn’t even sure what I was doing or where I was anymore. The Crown Heights I knew had been transformed into a Hieronymus Bosch painting set in the shtetl. Several batteries of floodlights illuminated the cloudy night sky; and the standard issue New York City sodium-vapor streetlights cast the whole scene with an eerie orange glow. The streets were unusually packed for a Tuesday night at 8 PM. Several of the stores that would normally have been closed for several hours at that point had their doors open. Children and families were every where. And of course, there were chickens. Hundreds and hundreds of chickens.

The stage was set at Crown Heights’ main thoroughfare, the corner of Kingston avenue and Eastern Parkway. The streets were essentially shut down by the throng of pedestrians flitting this way and that. The Southern Mall of Eastern parkway was loaded with strollers, families and the chicken towers. As I made my way east, the clucking cacophony grew and the smell increased. It was an unpleasant mélange of bochur sweat and chicken feces; and the blood. I will never forget the blood.
Residents of Eastern Parkway are well familiar with the annual trucking of the chickens. A flat-bed truck loaded with stacked with male and female poultry rolls down the service road in front of the NCFJE building. A table is set up where the chickens will….well…you know. Kapparos is the controversial new-year tradition involving the slaughter of a chicken ruffles more than a few feathers every year.(hehe) The chicken is purchased, traditionally one for each member of the family. Either a rooster or hen is used, corresponding to the gender of each person. The chicken is then slaughtered by a shochet. The meat is then contributed to the poor and needy. This is the one part that I feel most can get on board with.

The true source of the minhag of Kapparos is difficult to pin down. Some say it can be traced to the azazel, a beis-ha-mikdash-era goat which was cast down a mountain in atonement for the sins of the Jews, but this is not so clear. Like the goat, the chicken symbolically (and this is important) takes on the sins of the supplicant. The symbolic nature of this transfer of transgressions is important, because as the RambaM says, sins can not be transferred. Also, if we could just “de-sin” ourselves birdstyle, there wouldn’t be any need for fasting the next day.

The practice has always been controversial. Rabbi Yosef Caro discouraged it. The RambaN was against it. Not for the reasons we hear about today, but it’s worth noting, because it wasn’t always  a minhag of the Jewish people; and it should be noted, that the practice is not universal to all Jews even today.

Every year in between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur the script resets and the controversy over kapporos plays out again. The visiting protesters from PETA, who come to Crown Heights for their annual chicken liberation pilgrimage, are treated as a mild and inconvenient pogrom. Accusations and recriminations fly back and forth and precious little discourse is exchanged. The protestors are accused of anti-semitism and “frum baiting.” PETA’s checkered past is also naturally called into question; partly, their practice of animal euthanasia. You can throw all the shade you want at the gawking, screaming, picketers who line the streets of Crown Heights every year and call them whiny, lefty, anti-semitic, tree-hugging, hippies. But that doesn’t mean that they are wrong. The ad hominem attack only serves to expose a serious weakness in your own position.

This blog is clean

While, I myself have many problems with the way that meat is treated in and out of the kosher realm. I wouldn’t join the the ranks of those who picket synagogues and slaughter houses. I find them too aggressive and distasteful, even if they have some solid points. However, I abstain do from the consumption of beef and, for the most part, don’t eat chicken. (I was vegetarian for a long period of time, but I was having trouble with my protein. So, from time to time, I will eat chicken. But i don’t always like it.) There is far too much separation between the slaughter house and the dinner plate for me. The relationship between a man and his living, breathing food should be sacred. I cannot divorce myself from the notion that the food giving me strength was once its own independent being. Furthermore, I would like to know that the food I eat was treated in the most sanctified way possible. I’m often ashamed by the sporadic nature of my vegetarianism, but I still believe in the concepts behind it.

My objection is not in the slaughter of course, but in the treatment, that being the ’T’ in PETA. I believe that shechita ritual animal slaughter is humane. This assessment is also held by renowned animal scientist Temple Grandin. Grandin herself received an award from PETA for being a visionary. Grandin said that she had no problem with animals not being “stunned” before they were killed by traditional Jewish methods. Her objection, was in the animals’ treatment prior to their necks being cut. And herein lies the question at hand. Is there a problem with their treatment? Well…

There is definitely something off-putting about the sight of so many creatures stuffed in to bird cubicles. Barely able to move. Anybody who has ever been on a farm will know that chickens move around. They were given legs for a reason and wings…for…well something. This is a video of one of last year’s daylight chicken sessions. I found it difficult to watch. And I would imagine anybody who is not at least somewhat bothered by the images of the birds flopping helplessly on the ground are neck-deep in cognitive dissonance.

Some of it is pretty gross

Torah and rabbinic literature is replete with references to animal welfare being an area of concern. These most often culminated in the broad topic of  “Tzar balei Chaim” There is some debate over whether this important issue is D’oraisa (from the Torah) or D’Rabbonim (from the Rabbis of the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods). What is clear though, is that it predates the modern practice kapporos. And in my opinion, should override it, but eh whatever. I’m not too attached to my opinions.

Furthermore, the practice has outlived the conditions that may have made it more meaningful. Back in old Russia times, a chicken that you ate was owned by your family. So when you had your chicken killed, it served as an actual sacrifice (not in The Torah sense, that would not be okay without the temple) It meant something. This animal which you raised, you were giving up in atonement of your misdeeds.(also it wasn’t transported across state lines in a chicken stack, but not the point I’m bringing here) Nowadays, there are very few people who keep chickens in Crown Heights.

It’s hard to see that pain and sacrifice on many of the smiling faces who tweet, Instagram and Facebook themselves holding the chicken over their head. For them, touching the bird is an once-a-year novelty.

It should be noted again,that unlike the Azazel, this chicken is not scattered for as carrion. It’s distributed to be eaten by the needy. For this reason, many use money for kapparos as a substitute. The money then would ostensibly be donated to charity. Others use fish.

I don’t want to condemn anybody for how they choose to go about the next few days. G-d knows I have a lot more than some chicken shaped skeletons in my closet. However, we are in the midst of the aseres yomei teshuva (the ten days of repentence). Is now not the appropriate time for reflection and introspection. We still have some time before our sin clocks reset to zero; and I choose to take that time to ask the question. Is this something we should still be doing? If Jews do one thing right, it’s hold steadfast to it’s traditions.

The name of the song is not…♫ adaptatiooooon adaptation♪

But, there are things we don’t do anymore. We no longer execute transgressors of shabbas. We no longer pass off the childless widow to her husband’s brother. Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this. Not this way.

I don’t know if there is something inherently wrong with transporting living beings in cramped quarters to their imminent deaths, but as a Jew, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Gmar Chasima tova

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It’s time to move on from 9/11

A boy born on Tuesday September 11th 2001 would have had his Bar Mitzvah now. That boy would have began to be held culpable for his decisions and been taught how to survive as an adult in this world. It’s time that we grew up from the scared, paranoid children we became that day.

There is a scene from “The Siege,” the 1998 film, starring Denzel Washington about a wave of bombings that hit New York. Washington’s character is sitting at a security briefing when a phone rings. Then a beeper goes off; then another cellphone then another. The rising pitch of the score let the audience know that something was up. There was a terrorist attack in progress.This movie sums up my 9/11 experience several times over.

During my “where was I when” moment, I was crossing the quad at Towson University. Less than a week into my college career, I was not yet 18. A friend told me some vague account of a plane hitting the WTC and another hitting THE Pentagon. I looked up and all around me, every one was on their cellphone. Thirteen years ago, before obsessive smartphone attachment became the norm, it was quite unnerving. I sprinted to the student union, to the large-screen television there, just in time to see the growing plume of dust that would cover the country for the coming decade; maybe more.

I became obsessed with “The Siege.” Many of its events seemed prophetic in 9/11’s wake. The paranoia, the fear, the depression, the crackdown on personal liberties played out before my eyes just as scripted. The only difference, was that it ended. The climax of the film sees a standoff between the FBI and the final terrorist cell. The good guys win the war is over. The Army General who overstepped his authority is punished, roll credits.

Back in reality, the war never ended; not after the Taliban fell, not after Al Qaeda was dismantled; not after Saddam hung from the gallows; or when Bin Laden had his eye unceremoniously replaced with a bullet after nearly a decade on the run.

I had hoped that the war would see a drawdown after the end of the same Bush administration that had seen its inception. But President Obama pulled the troops from one front and put them in another. Targeted killings and drone strikes increased in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and now it seems all but certain that we are about to write the next chapter in the Iraq war trilogy.

Our various law enforcement  agencies were given unimaginable powers, justified by the continuing threat of domestic agents. These powers have not been given back. The power that they wield has only found new targets in lieu of the previously stated ones. Laws written post 9/11 to combat terrorism are being used to crackdown on minor drug offenses. I don’t think that this is the vision any of us had in the waning months of 2001.
We have all been subject to the increased scrutiny of the TSA blue shirts. I have yet to see any evidence that their increasingly invasive and humiliation searches have made us any safer.

How many flags must we see draped over the coffins of our sons and daughters? How many Americans must suffer the indignity of losing their freedoms under the banner of a war meant to protect those freedoms?

It’s forgivable and understandable that our collective post-traumatic stress would have had more staying power than any other national tragedy, but part of being adults is mediating your emotional state with your rational understanding of what is best for you.We have long ago exceeded any rational mourning period for the thousands who are no longer with us. It’s harsh when you have to end the mourning period. After shiva (the seven-day Jewish mourning period) eventually one has to stand up. One has to go back to work. One has to move on with his or her life. It’s not easy, but it’s what is done.

I am in no way advocating that we forget the ones we lost, forgive those responsible, or ever ignore the ever-present threat of terrorism. However that obsession doesn’t need to play a central role in our lives.
No healthy person defines their identity by their worst tragedy. Jews no longer define themselves by the holocaust. It is an inextricable part of our makeup, but we are much more than that. It’s time for the post 9/11 mentality to give way to the post-post 9/11 world.

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Why I ride: A New Yorker’s love affair with urban cycling.

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I know that the best sunsets in the five boroughs are inaccessible by subway. I know the fastest way crosstown isn’t by bus or taxi. I know how to sweat, how to grind how to make every light, and piss off every motorist twenty times a day and keep my cool while doing so. I love the hum of my two aluminum wheels as they roll on open pavement. I love the feeling of how rough my palms feel after gripping my handlebars for six hours straight. I love the ache of my legs after a day of climbing bridges, hills, and forest paths. I ride.

It’s 8:35 and I’m late. I should be 25 blocks ahead by now. I’m going to be late for work and there’s little I can do about it. There are no shortcuts to take, no trains to hop and no gears to shift on my single-speed, fixed-gear, SE Lager. Now accelerating to 18 mph on the Bedford avenue slalom course southbound, I escape the claustrophobic confines of the bike lane. It wasn’t doing me any good anyway. The double-parking capital of the world cares little for the convenience or safety of its two-wheeled counterparts; and I’d rather not get decapitated by a parked, box truck rental driver that forgot to put his hazard lights on.
Immediately the chorus of horns echoes through the brownstone trenches that cut their way from river to bay. One driver rolls down his window to scream me off the road, as if I wasn’t fluent in translating wordless, honking melodies of rush-hour Brooklyn. I whip my head around and take everything in every truck, car, pedestrian, tree, construction worker, pigeon and pothole. I see it all in about a quarter of a second and trust that a little computer somewhere in the base of my brain will ‘Malcolm Gladwell’ the whole scene and guide me swiftly and safely.

Act and react. I ride with my legs, eyes and brain. Everything else is secondary. I take my safety into my own hands (and legs). They hate me. They hate us. They think we’re lawless, running red lights, taking stop signs as a suggestion riding outside of the aforementioned bike lane. Well they’re right. I hold little regard for the municipal infractions that help rookie cops meet their ticket quotas. I could follow every law in the book and I still might not be safe, but I’d definitely be bored.

Living life fast is way too fun to limit it to mere five block increments. And I’d rather get ahead of the light and ride for a quarter mile with the road to myself. Because for every rebel roadie out there, there are a dozen soccer moms, cabbies and workmen who disregard the speed limit, forget about their turn blinker, and have no respect for the double unbroken yellow line. Rules are for schoolyard and the teacher is nowhere to be seen. Rules are for cars. It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s just how it is. If I get careless, I’m not taking a family of five with me. But I don’t get careless. There is an extreme order to the apparent chaos of my cross-city navigation. It’s been five years since I’ve been knocked off my wheels. You’re going to have to be trying to hit me; and you’re going to have to try very hard.

It would seem counterintuitive that I would like this danger-adjacent hobby. I am after all very worrisome, often lazy and prone to extreme fits of anxiety.

But my bicycle is the best therapist, most potent anti-depressant and one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

Ask anybody who regularly rides their bike to work.Everybody should have a bike. You should get one right now. It allows you to tolerate the intolerable, saves you from murdering incompetent coworkers, and keeps the stresses of the 9-to-5 in the office where they belong. It didn’t surprise me that Robin Williams was an avid rider. The catharsis of cycling is quite powerful. A man with his demons could definitely escape them with blinding speed in the saddle of a $10,000 road bike.

So, hate all you want on the growing number of urban Lance Armstrongs filling the city streets. We’re growing. The streets are as much ours as they do belong to the internal combustion engine. And I don’t care if my ride runs on pancakes and quinoa. I’m not going anywhere except forward, and I’m doing it as fast as my legs can take me.

 

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Michael Brown: Not Martyr We Deserve, but the Martyr We Need Right Now

Today was the funeral of Michael Brown. The man with an all-American name was laid to rest after several weeks of chaos following his violent death. First, let’s start with an admission. The shooting of Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, is not a good test case to represent the current state of relations between Law Enforcement and the African-American Community (or America at large).  It’s time to admit it. Brown has been described by his mourning family as a gentle giant, sweet, kind and loving. I have no problem believing this is true. Brown’s baby-faced portrait disseminated by the media does not give the impression of a violent thug.

Unfortunately, Brown was not a model citizen of Ferguson, Missouri on the day he died. He was not minding his own business. He was certainly not gentle. He was committing a crime against an innocent business owner, who did nothing to deserve it. Video released by Ferguson police showed Brown stealing shows him stealing cigars, then pushing aside the store minder who confronted him about it. What does this mean? It does not mean that Michael Brown was a thug. It does not mean that he deserved to die. It also does not preclude the possibility that a law enforcement officer exceeded his mandate to protect and serve.  What it does mean is that the situation is muddied.

The only information we have about Darren Wilson, the police officer who fired the fatal shots into Brown, is that he received a commendation from Ferguson six months before the incident. That is all we truly now for now. Everything else is lost unclear. There are conflicting eyewitness reports as to what happened that day. These testimonies are just not reliable.

 

It’s difficult to admit, but with what is presented, the benefit of the doubt goes to Officer Wilson. Which is fortunate for him. As of yet, I cannot feel overly angry or vengeful against the officer without knowing more of the details of what happened. Again, this in no way saying that Michael Brown was a bad person or deserved to die. Nor am I saying that there shouldn’t be a thorough investigation into the circumstances of the shooting. But as a poster child goes, Michael Brown has serious failings.

However, there are a mounting number of cases of police brutality and corruption in this country that are troubling to say the least. Injuries, false imprisonment and death are occurring at an alarming rate.

The consequences for assaulting a police officer are severe in this country, however there seems to be little-to-no consistent consequences for police officers who maim, beat and kill the private, often law-abiding citizens they claim to protect. In a system where there are no consequences for corruption, corruption will run rampant, even amongst the most noble in society. Then you will have cases like Michael Brown.

What makes this most depressing, is that there are dozens, hundreds of instances of police brutality and/or corruption that have escaped the attention of the national media and The Justice Department. Many of these cases are more worthy of being a focal point for a debate on the role of law enforcement in our society, how much power we give them, and how they are culpable for their actions and misdeeds; or how the justice system is so heavily stacked against the poor, disenfranchised and, of course, young black men.

There’s Patrick Dorismond who was murdered outside a nightclub by undercover NYPD officers trying to get him to sell weed. There’s the case of Tanya Weyker who was charged with DUI (despite being sober) when an officer rolled through a stop sign and hit her, breaking her neck in four places. Then of course, there is the case of Eric Garner, who was killed in broad daylight by NYPD using an illegal choke hold. There are many more.

These people and many more would make ideal examples for how an overzealous and out of control law enforcement officer has the potential to be as dangerous as any criminal in any prison. But they haven’t carried the message as far as Michael Brown has. He’s what we have. So, let’s carry on.

 

 

 

 

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Shame shaming and Shock: Another post about Robin Williams

Can we talk about mental health now? Nah just kidding lets just wait a week and go back to business as usual. That’s the plan right? You know it is, but you’re not willing to admit it.

Robin Williams didn’t kill himself. You did; and I did I know that seems harsh. I apologize. I didn’t mean it. But we did. We did it when you forced him to put on a smile for the past 40 years. We did it when we made it not okay to admit when you’re sad; or having a bad day. There this idea that you shouldn’t share when your sad, angry or having a bad day on Facebook. “Just people wanting attention,” some will say. As if posting the twenty pics of baby’s first visit to the petting zoo was you trying to be inconspicuous.

I call it shame shaming. It’s the culture of encouraging people to hide their problems and only share good times, great times. Share pictures of your wedding, but try not to talk about your divorce. Nobody wants to hear about it. It’s the an unfortunate double standard that creates an artificial air of success and happiness that is just unrealistic. It encourages people to put on their happy face even when it doesn’t fit.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say the past couple days have been a little rough for anybody who has dealt with these issues in the past. Robin Williams was successful by any possible metric of success, but still at 63 hadn’t run far enough to outpace his demons. And if he couldn’t do it. How long before the rest of us mortals are tracked down and dragged kicking and screaming into darkness.
Somewhere in the more optimistic recesses of my mind (the parts that have yet to be crushed by thirty years of living in this world) I kind of hope that this night galvanize the movement to take mental illness more seriously. Maybe Williams will become what Magic Johnson was to AIDS.

He wasn’t a coward. Maybe the true cowards are us, the one who not only hide the pain, but make everybody else hide theirs. Maybe he just got tired. He put on his happy face until he just couldn’t anymore. And maybe we are all responsible.

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I support Mimu Maxi

 

ColLive, continuing in their never ending quest to make mountains out of mole hills, hit the polemic jackpot when they called attention to what should have been an innocuous post by local enterprising women. Mimi Notik Hecht and Mushky Notik sisters-in-law and business partners are founders of Mimu Maxi a self-styled modest-yet-fashionable clothing line marketed primarily to women in the frum community, but has been slowly branching out into modest Christian and Muslim women. They recently raised the hackles of stupid people when they reposted an image posted by an American muslim fashion blogger.

 

Collive felt this was a pressing and urgent matter to the community and submitted it to their battery of semi-literate misanthropes who proceeded to rain hate on the women. The website, which often publishes controversies within Crown Heights and the Chabad movement, has reached a low point. Knowing full well that this would result in senseless hatred between Jewish people within there community they posted the story, damaging Mimu Maxi’s reputation most likely against halacha. Mimi Hecht responded with a statement published on the facebook and instagram which was reposted on Collive.

 

The comments that followed were perplexingly hate-filled and cruel. I don’t care to share any of them, because I don’t deem them worthy of being propagated on my forum. In summation the bulk of the commenters felt that the timing of the photo was insensitive to Israelis currently enduring bombings and rocket attacks, failing to draw a solid connection between the Islamic Instagrammer and the terrorists currently bombing Israel.

What makes this so disturbing is that the level of hatred, animosity and anger has reached such uncontrollable levels, that many of us don’t know what to do with all of our negative feelings. The constant barrage of propaganda from both sides have left us embittered and ready to lash out at anybody who doesn’t perfectly fit our world view. I myself have abruptly ended several arguments during these dark days, merely because I didn’t want to foment any hatred.

 

As for the actual timing of the post itself, was it inappropriate, insensitive etc? Let us pretend for a moment that while hunkered down in bomb shelters praying for their lives, Israelis are passing the time reading Islamic fashion blogs. That might have been a bit glib. It is possible that some of Mimu Maxi’s 2,680 followers are currently residing in Israel and they saw the post; and their feelings of terror were exacerbated after seeing their repost of The Hipster Hijabi’s photo. It’s possible, however it’s far more likely that the picture of the slender Muslim was spread by the muckraking ColLive, trolling for clicks and ad revenue.

Is what they did wrong?

We are in a conflict with Muslim terrorists. Everyday a high-profile Islamic cleric calls upon his followers to engage with the enemy, The West, Israel, and the Jewish people. It is a frightening time with a frightening enemy who would like to kill us.This is why it is the perfect time to post. I feel like I’m beating the dead horse once again with the not-all-Muslims-are-terrorists-line, but not all Muslims are terrorists. Over the past few weeks I have been appalled at the constant barrage of anti-Muslim and anti Arab hate propaganda that has decorated my news feed. It was so wonderful and refreshing to see somebody exit the fog of war to collaborate on something so basic so simple, to highlight the most common threads that draw us together.

Today, we condemned Hamas for failing to hold to a ceasefire for even one day. Then how can we condemn these three women for coming together for a moment to share similar interests. If we are to ever have any hope at peace, the walls of mystery and ignorance must come crashing down and the only way to start is to discuss where we can come together even if it is on something as simple as a lime-green skirt.

Edit: Added links to Mimu Maxi response statement.

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A Tale of Two Hashtags

I was half-way through a post about the hashtag wars; just another reminder that I need to spend more time writing and less time lurking through reddit for funny dog videos. The post read like this.

“Children are being kidnapped; still, in 2014. When I see kidnapping, I think of the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the creepy Dickensian-dressed villain who threw children into his horse-drawn buggy. It’s a cartoonish crime meant for cartoonish characters and not flesh and blood adults in a modern age. Yet, it happens; a lot it would appear. In our age children are a front in wars; perhaps because they represent the future. Yet, in the age of such passé villainy, it is the battle of the dueling hashtag which have captured the attention of most.”

I discussed the difference between the two hashtags, #bringbackourgirls and #bringbackourboys. Many in Jewish social media and blogs lashed out at people like Michelle Obama, who displayed the former hashtag in solidarity with the nearly-300 Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, a Muslim Jihadi group operating in that country. I would have argued that the preference of the hashtag championing the return of the girls, did not necessarily represent an underhanded anti-semitism.

But, just before I was able to finish, the news we are all now familiar with, filtered through. The boys Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach, have likely been found dead, buried in shallow grave near a Palestinian town. In spite of reason, I had been trying to optimistically look forward to a joyous reunion; similar to the one we had with Gilad Shalit. But it was not meant to be. Sad as it is, I will now continue my thoughts on the matter.

Yes. The hashtag #bringbackourgirls got more play. In fact, it got the attention the First Lady of the United States, but no #bringbackourboys sign from FLOTUS. Leading to accusations of ant-Semitism from some; and the satirical “it’s only three Jews” hashtag from others. However, the critics ignored some basic facts about the two different cases. In the case of the Nigerian girls, there were 276 girls missing; and it was clear that the intent was to forcibly convert the girls, sell them into marriage, rape etc. Despite this, the Nigerian gov’t was basically inactive in the fifteen days following the abductions. It wasn’t until after the highly-successful social media campaign started by two of the girls’ fathers that did the Nigerian government start to make earnest efforts to find the captives. Even foreign governments got involved, including Israel and to date several dozen girls have been returned.

Israel however did not wait fifteen days before mounting rescue efforts. Within thirteen hours, an alert had been issued and security forces were looking for he boy and the perpetrators of the abduction.This is where the difference is.

Israel holds the life of all of its people sacred and doesn’t need a social media campaign to galvanize itself into taking the most obvious action when faced with a clear attack.

“What good does a hashtag do?” said many naysayers. I was always a bit annoyed at this, but social media is 100% voluntary, no need to answer back. No, the boys did not come back. They are lost, but the hashtag didn’t fail. For three weeks a nation an a people were unified behind the banner of three youths, may that be a central to their eternal legacy.

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