Tag Archives: history

Good News Monday: It’s Not Easy…

But it’s possible to find a little inspiration.  Also some short distractions.  Hoping these links will work for non-subscribers.

The New York Times also recommends several books to entertain, enlighten and inform.  (The Churchill saga is going on my to-do list.) And I’ll add my own current favorite, a beautifully written novel I finished last week: Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger.

THE DAIRY RESTAURANT, by Ben Katchor. (Nextbook/Schocken, $29.95.) The writer and illustrator Ben Katchor has produced a study of, and love song to, Jewish dairy restaurants, which began to flourish in New York City and elsewhere in the late 1800s; a century later, nearly all were defunct. It’s an “obsessive, melancholy and hungry-making” book, our critic Dwight Garner writes. “This is an encyclopedic book, history as told through old newspapers and telephone books and scraps of detail found in letters and memoirs.”

HITLER’S FIRST HUNDRED DAYS: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich, by Peter Fritzsche. (Basic Books, $32.) The historian Peter Fritzsche shows how Hitler and the National Socialists wasted little time after he was appointed chancellor on Jan. 30, 1933, transforming Germany into a place unrecognizable from the republic it had been just a few months before. “There’s something particularly clarifying about the hundred-days framing, especially as it’s presented in this elegant and sobering book, which shows how an unimaginable political transformation can happen astonishingly quickly,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes.

THE RED LOTUS, by Chris Bohjalian. (Doubleday, $27.95.) In Chris Bohjalian’s new novel, a young man disappears and his girlfriend, an emergency room doctor, falls into a new world of uncertainty and danger when she tries to figure out what happened. “Bohjalian strikes a fine balance between disclosure and secrecy” in deciding what to reveal and when, our reviewer Sarah Lyall writes. And “as suspenseful as it is, ‘The Red Lotus’ is also unexpectedly moving — about friendship, about the connections between people and, most of all, about the love of parents for children and of children for parents.”

BEHELD, by TaraShea Nesbit. (Bloomsbury, $26.) In this plain-spoken and lovingly detailed historical novel, the story of the Mayflower Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony is refracted through the prism of female characters. Despite the book’s quietness of telling, its currency is the human capacity for cruelty and subjugation, of pretty much everyone by pretty much everyone. “At the novel’s core,” Samantha Harvey writes in her review, lies “a critique of Englishness itself. There is a contradiction underpinning the whole project of English imperialism, and Nesbit flags it perfectly. On the one hand, the English pilgrims regard themselves as epitomizing civility, manners and thus superiority. On the other hand, they deploy barbaric cruelty in order to defend that superiority.”

THE EXHIBITION OF PERSEPHONE Q, by Jessi Jezewska Stevens. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) This debut novel centers on a young pregnant newlywed in post-9/11 New York City, who unexpectedly finds herself the subject of an ex-boyfriend’s photography exhibit. Implicitly, the book poses the question: How do affections alter appearances? “Stevens’s writing proves that both time and technology are best understood in retrospect, sequences made logical long after each moment has passed,” Haley Mlotek writes in her review. “The novel has a romantic slowness, unfurling gracefully, little by little, to show how quickly the present gives way to the future, or concedes to the past.”

THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, by Erik Larson. (Crown, $32.) Larson’s account of Winston Churchill’s leadership during the 12 turbulent months from May 1940 to May 1941, when Britain stood alone and on the brink of defeat, is fresh, fast and deeply moving. “Through the remarkably skillful use of intimate diaries as well as public documents, some newly released, Larson has transformed the well-known record,” Candice Millard writes in her review. “The Blitz — its tense, terror-filled days, the horrors it inflicted — is palpable throughout this book, often by way of the kind of wrenching, carefully chosen facts that not only bring a story to life but also make a reader stop, look up and say to whoever happens to be nearby, ‘Listen to this.’”

LET THE PEOPLE PICK THE PRESIDENT: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College, by Jesse Wegman. (St. Martin’s, $27.99.) The Electoral College has distorted American politics throughout the country’s history and, as Wegman shows, if it didn’t already exist, no one would think to invent it. “People have been arguing against the Electoral College from the beginning,” Josh Chafetz writes in his review. “But no one, at least in recent years, has laid out the case as comprehensively and as readably as Jesse Wegman does.”

YELLOW BIRD: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country, by Sierra Crane Murdoch. (Random House, $28.) This painstakingly reported and beautifully written book, Murdoch’s first, examines the effects of fracking on a North Dakota reservation through the eyes of its title subject: a remarkable Native American woman who, determined to solve a murder related to the oil boom, exposes the greed and corruption that fueled it. “Murdoch resists easy portraiture (Indians as pitiful or pathetic or damaged) and blind compassion (Indians as noble sufferers or keepers of special knowledge),” David Treuer writes in his review. “Rather, she finds a way to balance her journalistic curiosity with respect for these complicated people. And Yellow Bird, as a person and as a guide through the mystery surrounding Clarke, is complicated. A fanatic, an addict, sure, but also brilliant, dogged, brave, funny, prickly, radically informed and just as radically nonjudgmental.”

BARRY SONNENFELD, CALL YOUR MOTHER: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker, by Barry Sonnenfeld. (Hachette, $29.) Sonnenfeld’s moment at the top of Hollywood’s food chain may have been short-lived, but the director of “Men in Black” and “The Addams Family” is an ideal tour guide through the vagaries and hypocrisies of the entertainment industry. “This is also a book about how Sonnenfeld became the artist that he is and the people he blames — namely, his parents — for how he turned out,” Dave Itzkoff writes in his review, noting that the memoir recounts moments of childhood sexual abuse and early work as a cameraman on porn films. But “it’s when Sonnenfeld turns to his career in legitimate cinema that the book really comes alive. As he perceptively observes, the same hang-ups that have inhibited him elsewhere in life are likely what drove him to become a great director of photography.”

THE POWER NOTEBOOKS, by Katie Roiphe. (Free Press, $27.) Best known for her polemical stances on feminist issues, Roiphe here turns her gaze on her romantic relationships, noting moments when she has ceded power to men or even endured their abuse. “Roiphe’s larger goal here is to investigate the lived reality of her romantic dynamics, not to get on a soap box and opine,” Lauren Elkin writes in her review. “The result is a beautifully written and thoughtful book.”

THE DALAI LAMA: An Extraordinary Life, by Alexander Norman. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30.) A longtime associate of the Dalai Lama provides the most detailed biography to date, exploring the 84-year-old’s life on the world stage and his life inside the world of Tibetan Buddhism. Norman “reveals the Dalai Lama to be a sophisticated thinker and consummate scholar, one whose feet remain firmly on the ground, a trait often obscured by his broken English,” Donald S. Lopez writes in his review. “In keeping with a religion so obsessed with prophecy, the book, written in an engaging prose, ends with an insightful prediction of the legacy of the 14th Dalai Lama, and a cleareyed assessment of the challenges that the 15th will face.”

What Hanukkah’s Really About

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Last night, R and I watched a silly Food Network competition called the Ultimate Hanukkah Challenge, in which contestants reinvented traditional recipes with varied success.

This prompts me to address some of the misconceptions around the holiday, as well as its true meaning.

  • It’s not the “Jewish Christmas”, it’s an ancient holiday all on its own that just happens to occur in December.
  • Per the above, it’s historically not a big gift-giving event, so you won’t find massive “post-Hanukkah” sales on the Internet.  There are also no stockings hung by the chimney or anywhere else.
  • No trees are sacrificed, although you’ll occasionally find a “Hanukkah bush” in a Jewish home if someone grew up with a Christmas tree.
  • It lasts for 8 days.  If your relatives drive you crazy after one day of Christmas, just imagine.
  • Fried foods are traditional, commemorating the miracle of the long-lasting oil in the rededicated Temple, e.g., latkes (fried potato pancakes, pronounced laht-kuh(s), not laht-key(s), as the host of the Ultimate Hanukkah Challenge kept saying) and donuts (“sufganiyot” in Hebrew –pronounced soof-gahn-ee-oat). Latkes made from carrots or Brussels sprouts are all kinds of wrong.

So what is it?

Hanukkah (or Chanukah) celebrates the triumph of freedom over oppression.  Specifically, it commemorates a miracle that occurred during the rededication of the synagogue following decades of persecution and war.

When the fortress which guarded the Temple was finally captured by the Jewish rebellion, the soldiers found only a small amount of the pure oil that could be used to re-light the Temple menorah (branched candlestick).  Although there was only enough to burn for one day, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough for new oil to be prepared.

 

The history (per JewishHistory.org)

In the wake of Alexander’s appearance in and departure from Jerusalem, relations between Jews and Greeks were so good that an exchange of cultures took place. Each influenced the other. For the Jewish minority, however, what began as a small undertow of assimilation — such as giving children Greek names and speaking the Greek language — became a surprisingly powerful, high-speed rip current threatening to drag the caught-off-guard Jews out to the sea of complete assimilation.

Jews who embraced Greek culture at the expense of Judaism became known as Misyavnim, or Hellenists. Estimates are that a third or more of the Jewish population was Hellenist, including those who reversed their circumcision, ate pork, bowed to idols and even became self-hating enough to side with the enemies of Israel. Hellenism threatened to annihilate the Jewish world through assimilation in ways tyrants tried but could not do by force.

Had the situation continued as it was, the Greeks would perhaps have won the battle by default. However, they overstepped themselves.

Here Come the Greeks

At the beginning of the year 190 BCE, the situation between the two great post-Alexandrian empires, the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic, deteriorated badly. The Seleucids mounted an invasion that took their army through the Land of Israel, which was sandwiched in-between.

Whenever a foreign army comes into a country it changes the view of the populace. Instead of an attractive culture, the Greeks were now an occupying enemy. Instead of something to be imitated, now they became something to be resisted.

The Jewish people are very stubborn. The same person who is so stubborn that he will not observe the Torah in freedom will observe it with passion if forbidden from observing it. He becomes stubborn the other way.

A good case could be made that if the Communists in Russia had left the Jews alone they would have completely assimilated. However, once told that they could not be Jewish a certain percentage of Jews decided to be Jewish at great risk. That happened with the Greeks as well.

Progressively More Intolerable Laws

The Greek army exerted a very heavy hand against the Jews. First, they forced Jews to finance their war through collection of taxes. Then they forced them to quarter their soldiers in Jewish homes. Finally, the Greeks were determined to crush the Jewish religion.

First, they took the statue of Zeus and mounted it in the courtyard of the Temple. Next, the Greeks banned the observance of the Sabbath on the pain of death. Then, the Talmud (Kesubos 3b) records, there was a period of time which lasted a number of decades when the Greek officer in town had the right to “live” with a woman on her wedding night before her husband-to-be.

The Greeks also banned circumcision. Whoever circumcised his child was put to death; both child and father were killed. Then the Greeks demanded that altars to the Greek idols be established and that sacrifices be offered on a regular basis in every Jewish town. Finally, the Jewish educational system was entirely interrupted.

The Jews Rebel

About the year 166 BCE, a group finally stood up to the Greeks: Matisyahu (Mattathias) and his family, known as the Hasmoneans. We do not know much about them except that they were of noble descent from the priestly class (Kohanim), including those who had served as High Priests.

They lived in a small town called Modin, which was about 12 miles northwest from Jerusalem. (The town exists today, and is about 20 miles west of modern Jerusalem.) One day, a Greek contingent marched in, set up an altar, gathered all the Jews and forced them to sacrifice a pig to Zeus.

They then asked for a Jewish volunteer to perform the sacrifice. One stepped forward. As he approached the altar Matisyahu stabbed him to death.

Chaos broke out. The Greek army attempted to subdue the crowd, but the Jews were armed and slaughtered the entire Greek patrol. There was no turning back now.

The Maccabees

Matisyahu had five sons, all of whom were people of great organizational leadership as well as pious, committed Jews: Johanan (Yochanan), Simon (Shimon), Jonathan (Yonason), Judah (Yehudah) and Eleazar.

They ran to the caves and organized an army – not to fight an open war, but a guerilla war. Originally they organized of force of about 3,000 men. Eventually it grew to 6,000 and never reached more than 12,000 men.

The General of the Army was the great Judah, known to the world as Judah the Maccabee (or Judas Maccabaeus as he was called in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost). “Maccabaeus” is the Greek word for hammer, but the Jews took it, as Jews are wont to do, and made it Jewish by declaring that “Maccabee” stood for the first four letters in Exodus 15:11, meaning, “Who is like You, God?” — which was said by Moses and the people after the miraculous drowning of the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds.

An enormous Syrian-Greek army, numbering almost 50,000 men, marched into Judea. Judah the Maccabee marshaled his forces and with guile and courage outmaneuvered the far larger Greek army, forced it to divide and then destroyed its various components, killing many thousands and forcing the survivors to flee north to Syria.

It took many years, but their hit-and-run tactics wore down three great Greek armies. However, the Jews paid a very heavy price in terms of blood. Matisyahu died in the early going. Judah Maccabee was killed in the third great battle. Eleazar died while attacking an elephant. Johanan and Jonathan were killed as well. The only Maccabee brother who survived was Simon.

The Miracle

The last famous battle was for the fortress of Antonius, which guarded the Temple. When Antonius fell, the Jews came back to the Temple. They shattered the statue of Zeus and cleaned the Temple to the extent that they could. Any priests who worked for the Greeks were sent away or executed.

They only found one small flask of uncontaminated oil with the seal of the High Priest. By Torah law, the flame of the Menorah (Candelabrum) in the Temple could only be lit with specially prepared pure olive oil. The amount of oil remaining in the one uncontaminated flask was only enough to burn for one day, and it would take eight days to produce a new batch of pure oil.

What could they do?

They lit it — and it miraculously burned for eight days. That is why Chanukah lasts eight nights (the festival was established a year later by the Rabbis).

What is Chanukah?

The Talmud does not say much about Chanukah. There are perhaps forty lines spread out in different volumes, whereas almost all the other holidays have an entire Talmudic volume about them. In addition, the few words the Talmud has to say about Chanukah are cryptic. Perhaps that is why Chanukah has been subject to reinterpretation, as it has been in our time. People make whatever they want to make out of it. However, that is a mistake, a tragedy.

In the Western world, it has the misfortune of falling in December. Therefore, in the homes of many Jewish people it has sadly became the Jewish version of the December holidays, a mixture of commercialism and non-Jewish traditions and ideas.

What the Talmud does say is that the important thing is to “advertise the miracle.” People have to recognize that a miracle took place. It is vital to keep the wonder in Chanukah. That is why the rabbis gave more emphasis to the miracle of the lights than the military victory.

Wars come and go. Even the glow of miraculous victory can fade. Young people today do not think that Israel’s War for Independence in 1948 was such a miracle. In 1967, Jews expected a second Holocaust. Now people brush the miraculous Six Day War off as nothing special.

History provides numerous examples of outnumbered forces defeating a superpower using guerilla tactics. Was the Maccabean victory so miraculous? That was the question Jews at the time must have asked themselves.

However, when the small flask of pure oil that could only last one day lasted eight days it proved that there was a miracle that happened there. The little flask of oil shed light on the big military campaign. “Not by the army, not by power, but through My Spirit, says God” (Zechariah 4:6). Chanukah is about the little light that sheds a great light.

There is an indefinable, spiritual, electric charge that binds the generations together that cannot be found in any book. It can only be had when parents and grandparents do things like sitting together with their children around the Chanukah lights celebrating, discussing and advertising the miracle; experientially getting in touch with the wonder of the past, the wonder of the present, the wonder of life.

What Ever Happened to the Hellenists?

Chanukah is a very popular, emotional and beautiful holiday. However, the necessity for Chanukah begins with the story of the invasion of Greek culture and the weakness of the Jews in responding to it. It originates from the growth of an enormous sect of Hellenists within the Jews, who even supported the Greeks during the war.

What happened to the Hellenists? Their influence all but collapsed in the wake of the defeat. They would never return again as Hellenists, because the war brought out their true colors as traitors and they lost whatever appeal they could have had to the Jewish people.

Most of them retreated to the city of Caesarea, which remained a Greek city (and later would become a Roman city). They were just not part of the Jewish people any longer.

The Real Significance: a Victory of the Spirit

Their demise punctuated the fact that more than a military victory, the miracle of the oil signified that Chanukah was a victory of the spirit of the Jewish people, a victory that granted them the right to observe the Torah. That is why its memory and the people who observe it have endured.

A Lighthouse In Winter

Although our local lighthouse is attractive in the summer, I find its stark winter beauty even more compelling. Yaquina Head, Oregon’s tallest lighthouse, rises a majestic 93 feet above the westernmost point of the basalt headland which juts one mile into the Pacific Ocean.

The lighthouse has guided ships along the west coast since August 20, 1873, when the first keeper climbed its punishing 114 steps to light the oil burning wick.

Today, of course, everything is fully automated.

But on a crisp, cool day with few visitors, it’s easy to imagine how lonely and desolate this remote spot must have seemed to the lightkeeper’s family.  IMG-1653.jpg

 

Good News Monday: Your Obscure Talent

Are you the only one of your friends who can decipher your doctor’s scrawl? The US Library of Congress has a request.

Their program, By the People, is looking for volunteers to help transcribe and review historic documents, diaries and more that can’t simply be scanned by machine.

Sign me up!

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Who Was Mrs. Grundy?

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Have you ever heard a person described as a “Mrs. Grundy” (a humorless arbiter of strict conventionality) and wondered about its origins? I did.

Turning to Wikipedia, I discovered that Mrs. Grundy was a fictional English character whose unwavering adherence to rigid respectability came to represent other people’s judgement of everyday behavior. She’s first mentioned (though she never appears onstage) in Thomas Morton’s 1798 play Speed the Plough, in which one character, Dame Ashfield, continually worries about what her neighbour Mrs. Grundy will say of each development.

By the 19th century, this figure of speech was commonplace, and the tendency to be overly fearful of what others might think was sometimes referred to as Grundyism.

[Excerpted from Wikipedia]:

The Play

In the first scene of the play, Dame Ashfield’s mention of Mrs. Grundy provokes a scathing response from her husband.

Ashfield. Well, Dame, welcome whoam. What news does thee bring vrom market?
Dame. What news, husband? What I always told you; that Farmer Grundy’s wheat brought five shillings a quarter more than ours did.
Ash. All the better vor he.
Dame. Ah! the sun seems to shine on purpose for him.
Ash. Come, come, missus, as thee hast not the grace to thank God for prosperous times, dan’t thee grumble when they be unkindly a bit.
Dame. And I assure you, Dame Grundy’s butter was quite the crack of the market.
Ash. Be quiet, woolye? Aleways ding, dinging Dame Grundy into my ears — what will Mrs Grundy zay? What will Mrs Grundy think — Canst thee be quiet, let ur alone, and behave thyzel pratty?

A real Mrs. Grundy?

During the reign of William IV (1830–1837) a Mrs. Sarah Hannah Grundy was employed as Deputy Housekeeper at Hampton Court Palace one of Henry VIII of England‘s most famous residences, a position that would have required her to keep a sharp eye out for various infractions.

Ernest Law, chief historian of Hampton Court, noted that a “Mrs Grundy” did really exist.

“That lady was, as a fact, embodied in the housekeeper of that name at Hampton Court Palace in the late ‘forties and early ‘fifties of [the 19th] century. Her fame is perpetuated in a dark space — one of the mystery chambers of the palace — the door of which is rarely opened, and which is still known as ‘Mrs Grundy’s Gallery.’

Here she impounded any picture or sculpture which she considered unfit for exhibition in the State rooms; and here she kept them under lock and key in defiance of the authority and protests of the Queen’s surveyor of pictures. The story goes that on one occasion the First Commissioner of Works, on a visit of inspection, sent for Mrs Grundy. In answer to the First Commissioner’s request, she declined to open the door for him. It was not until the early 1900s that a leaden statue of Venus, which had been sent from Windsor, and was stored in Mrs Grundy’s Gallery, was brought forth to adorn Henry VIII’s pond garden. “What would Mrs Grundy say?” 

However, a book published in 1836 shows that the expression was already in common use before the arrival of the Hampton Court housekeeper. In The Backwoods of Canada Being Letters From The Wife Of An Emigrant Officer, Illustrative Of The Domestic Economy Of British America, by Catharine Parr Traill, the author writes: “Now, we bush-settlers are more independent: we do what we like; we dress as we find most suitable and most convenient; we are totally without the fear of any Mr. or Mrs. Grundy; and having shaken off the trammels of Grundyism, we laugh at the absurdity of those who voluntarily forge afresh and hug their chains.”

The Victorians

The Victorian era ushered in a new morality comprised of decency, serious-mindedness, propriety and community discipline, as well as hypocrisy and self-deception. In the 1841 novel Phineas Quiddy, author John Poole wrote, “Many people take the entire world to be one huge Mrs. Grundy, and, upon every act and circumstance of their lives, please, or torment themselves, according to the nature of it, by thinking of what that huge Mrs. Grundy, the World, will say about it”.  In 1869, John Stuart Mill referred to Mrs. Grundy in The Subjection of Women, noting that “Whoever has a wife and children has given hostages to Mrs. Grundy”.

Will future lexicographers describe behavior that is embarrassing, belligerent, ignorant and vulgar with the expression, “Trumpism”?

 

Independence Day

Happy 4th of July to all in the US! This really, though, should be an international holiday.

Let’s declare July 4th to be Independence Day Worldwide. With independence from:

  • Bullying
  • Bigotry
  • Pettiness
  • Negativity
  • Intolerance
  • Humorlessness
  • Bad pizza
  • Bad hair days
  • Bad skin
  • Our exes
  • Know-It-Alls
  • Money worries
  • Indifference
  • Climate change denial
  • Holocaust denial
  • Bad grammar
  • Lack of imagination
  • Fear
  • Garden pests
  • Overpriced anything
  • Lousy service

I could go on and on…. what would you add?

Happy #IDW!

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Good News Monday: Fool Me Once

Happy Hilaria (aka, April Fools’ Day)!  If you’re curious about its origins, this is a great summary of the holiday from history.com:

“Although April Fools’ Day, also called All Fools’ Day, has been celebrated for several centuries by different cultures, its exact origins remain a mystery.

Some historians speculate that April Fools’ Day dates back to 1582, when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, as called for by the Council of Trent in 1563.

People who were slow to get the news or failed to recognize that the start of the new year had moved to January 1 and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through April 1 became the butt of jokes and hoaxes.

These pranks included having paper fish placed on their backs and being referred to as “poisson d’avril” (April fish), said to symbolize a young, easily caught fish and a gullible person.

READ MORE: 9 Outrageous Pranks That People Actually Fell For

Historians have also linked April Fools’ Day to festivals such as Hilaria, which was celebrated in ancient Rome at the end of March and involved people dressing up in disguises.

There’s also speculation that April Fools’ Day was tied to the vernal equinox, or first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, when Mother Nature fooled people with changing, unpredictable weather.

April Fools’ Day spread throughout Britain during the 18th century. In Scotland, the tradition became a two-day event, starting with “hunting the gowk,” in which people were sent on phony errands (gowk is a word for cuckoo bird, a symbol for fool) and followed by Tailie Day, which involved pranks played on people’s derrieres, such as pinning fake tails or “kick me” signs on them.

In modern times, people have gone to great lengths to create elaborate April Fools’ Day hoaxes. Newspapers, radio and TV stations and Web sites have participated in the April 1 tradition of reporting outrageous fictional claims that have fooled their audiences.

In 1957, the BBC reported that Swiss farmers were experiencing a record spaghetti crop and showed footage of people harvesting noodles from trees; numerous viewers were fooled. In 1985, Sports Illustrated tricked many of its readers when it ran a made-up article about a rookie pitcher named Sidd Finch who could throw a fastball over 168 miles per hour.

In 1996, Taco Bell, the fast-food restaurant chain, duped people when it announced it had agreed to purchase Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and intended to rename it the Taco Liberty Bell. In 1998, after Burger King advertised a “Left-Handed Whopper,” scores of clueless customers requested the fake sandwich.”

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