Rabbi's Son Visits Bible Belt In 'My Jesus Year' In an effort to reconnect with his Jewish faith, Georgia-native Benyamin Cohen explored the Christianity across the "Bible Belt" of America. He documented his experiences in My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith.
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Rabbi's Son Visits Bible Belt In 'My Jesus Year'

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Rabbi's Son Visits Bible Belt In 'My Jesus Year'

Rabbi's Son Visits Bible Belt In 'My Jesus Year'

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is on assignment. On Saturday, Benyamin Cohen observes the Sabbath. Like other Orthodox Jews, he attends synagogue and follows religious ritual. But for one year of his life, Sunday was another story. In the hope of reconnecting with his Jewish faith, Benyamin devoted a year to exploring Christianity. He watched Christian wrestling matches, accompanied Mormon missionaries, even confessed his sins to a Catholic priest. As he describes it, he spent 12 months in a Disneyland of Christianity that he created.

He tells the story of that journey in his new book, "My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith." Benyamin Cohen joins us today. And later in the hour, is American literature really too insular and ignorant to win the Nobel Prize? Two critics weigh in. But first, have you ever explored another faith? And if so, did it strengthened your faith or weakened it? Tell us your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org and you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Author Benyamin Cohen, joins us now from member station WABE in Atlanta. So good to have you with us.

Mr. BENYAMIN COHEN (Author, "My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith"): Good to be here, Lynn. Thank you.

NEARY: So, tell me how did this whole exploration of Christianity begin? What motivated it?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I think Jews in general walk around America as a minority, and we see Christians, like around Christmas time. It looks like they're having so much fun while we're persecuted and have to eat kosher and observe the Sabbath. So I think by nature, Jews fantasize about what it would be like not be Jewish. In particular, you know, I grew up the son of an Orthodox Rabbi, and I was pushed head-first into the deep end of the Jewish pool and I was told, you know, do this, do that, without ever being told the reason, you know, what - why I was doing those things. So for me, I never had that spirituality attached to my religion. It was just a set of laws that I felt that I had to follow. So as I got older, and I wanted to make Judaism my own, I decided that I needed to shake things up a bit.

NEARY: Yeah, and it's interesting, too, that your wife is a convert to Judaism from Christianity. And I had the sense that you kind of wanted to have that feeling that a convert has. You wanted that experience of really - the sort of spiritual excitement, I guess I would say that a convert has. Is that right?

Mr. COHEN: It's absolutely right. Even not just converts. There are plenty of Jews who grow up not religious and become religious later in life. As a matter of fact, my dad as a rabbi, he would reach out to these people, and we'd have secular Jews over for Friday night dinner, for the Sabbath, and I always looked at them longingly like, this was their first Friday dinner, and they were able to access Judaism on their own. The same thing with my wife who converted to Judaism, everything was something - she chose it. And you know, as Jews, it's the quintessential paradox. We're the chosen people, but what if we don't want to be chosen? That's what I kind of dealt with growing up.

NEARY: But why did you think that going out and exploring Christianity would bring you to that point, would renew your sort of interest in your faith?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I needed to do something. As an Orthodox Jew, you know, I pray three times a day, I keep kosher, I go to synagogue, I keep the Sabbath. So I was already doing all of these things, and I had too much Jewish guilt not to do those things. So I had to find something that would allow me entree to a different spiritual realm and that would give me a fresh perspective of Judaism.

NEARY: And we should make it clear that you really weren't what is thought of as a seeker, that is someone is sort of really looking for a different faith experience possibly. In fact, you continued your practices as an Orthodox Jew. You even got a rabbi to approve this venture. Now why did you need that seal of approval?

Mr. COHEN: Oh. I grew up across the street from a Methodist church, and I was told that I was never allowed to go in there, like it was a witch's house. You know, don't walk up that hill over there to that building. And the Jewish law - strict Jewish law states that you're not really - Jews aren't supposed to go into a church, specifically during prayer services. So I knew that if I wanted to go on this mission, the one thing ironically that was stopping from going on this journey was Jewish law, which says I'm not allowed to go into church.

So, as well as my wife who - you know, she was still dripping wet from the conversion waters and here I was saying, hey, by the way, I want to take a look at Christianity. She was making moves on Moses, and I was still jonesing for Jesus. So I had to get a rabbinic approval for all of this. So actually, I spoke - I've actually spoke to a bunch of rabbis and found a couple actually, Orthodox rabbis who said I could go on a couple of conditions. They said, first of all, it's an educational thing. We know you're not going to convert. And he gave me two conditions on going. Number one, I had to wear my Jewish skullcap at all times so that people knew I was Jewish. And number two, I had to wear my press pass so that people knew I was an observer and not there to pray.

NEARY: You a couple of times refer to yourself as an anthropologist, that you were visiting some of these churches and having some of these experiences with Christianity really as - not even just as a journalist, but as an anthropologist in a way.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. I felt like a fly on the wall at a lot of these churches. You know, I live here in the Bible Belt, and you know, I pass - there's more churches on street corners here than Starbucks and I pass by them all the time never knowing what goes on inside. I think a lot of people drive - you know, don't know what's going on. And there's so many, you know, within different denominations, different things go on inside. So for me, it was truly an exploration of all these different cultures that live right here in my own city.

NEARY: We are talking with Benyamin Cohen about his book, "My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith." And we want to hear from you if you've ever had an experience where you have looked into another faith. Did it strengthen your own religious beliefs or did it change them or weaken them in any way? Give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255. You can also send an email to talk@npr.org. So let's talk about some specific examples. You were saying that you had to indicate that you were Jewish and you opened the book with this pretty funny description of you at a gigantic mega-church and seeing yourself suddenly up on this big screen. Maybe you can describe was what happening there.

Mr. COHEN: Sure. I figured if I'm going to go to church, I might as well jump into the deep end. So the first church I went to was the New Birth Baptist mega-church in Lithonia, Georgia, which if I recall correctly is the 13th largest church in America. And they have about 22,000 members there. And the Sunday I was there, they had about 15,000 people who were there. You have to keep in mind, the synagogues I go to are lucky to have 25 people in them, so this was a real culture shock for me. And so I went in there and I have a friend who - a co-worker who I work with who actually attends this church and she apparently told them I was coming.

So when I got there, at the beginning of services, they announced that I was there, we'd like to welcome our Jewish friend, Benyamin Cohen. I think that was the first time I've ever had the word Jewish friend attached to my name. And they have, you know, all these video cameras swooping around, getting pictures of congregants. And so they - cameras came in on me and there I was, my Jewish face on Jesus' jumbo-tron, two big jumbo-trons in front of the whole church.

NEARY: That kind of scared you, didn't it?

Mr. COHEN: It was - I guess you can call it baptism by fire. It was really an interesting way to get - to kick off the whole year. But to my surprise, everyone - you know, the second they heard I was there - I was Jewish journeyman, you know, seeking out spirituality, they all came, everyone gave me a little hug. And you know, that kind of bridging the gap, maybe a little too closely between our two religions.

NEARY: Yeah. Let's take a call now. We're going to go to Jan. And she is calling from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Hi, Jan.

JAN (Caller): Well, hello and l'shana tova. It's just past our new year. And I did want to say that over the years, I embraced a lot of different religions. I was born Jewish. And I have - I was actually first introduced to Christianity because I wanted to work for Chuck Colson's prison effort. And they insisted that I read the New Testament, and then it turned out that they wanted to save prisoners for Jesus, and I wasn't quite ready to take that kind of leap of faith. But I did appreciate the fact that I was getting an exposure to Christianity. And I think that God has presented truth in many different ways to many different people, and I think it behooves us to investigate goodness and religion as a shining light and a way to inspire us in our lives.

I really appreciate the fact that the Christian right has really started embracing Israel more so nowadays. I used to feel very persecuted by the religious right, and I feel now more of a sense that they're opening their arms and such. And it's my personal plan to - I'm a massage therapist currently but I'm planning on going back to school because I would like to become a rabbi. In fact, my daughter's currently in Israel, right now, but...

NEARY: Interesting.

JAN: Yeah. Yeah. But I think that if we - in the '60s the idea of one world was the idea that people should look at their - the fact that they're more alike than they are different and try to embrace as much as possible other peoples' thoughts and feelings, and part of that being their religion, which I think is just a way of helping to shape your life.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for your call, Jan.

JAN: Thank you. Bye-bye now.

NEARY: Interesting perspective what Jan was talking about. And one thing I wanted to ask you, Benyamin - am I pronouncing your name correctly? You said it a little bit differently, I think - Benyamin.

Mr. COHEN: It's Benyamin.

NEARY: Benyamin.

Mr. COHEN: It's Benjamin with a Y.

NEARY: OK, Benyamin.

Mr. COHEN: Either way is fine.

NEARY: What I was wondering was, by approaching this sort of - from this anthropological point of view and as a journalist, do you think that in some ways it kept you from fully exploring different forms of Christianity in a deep way, that it kept you a little bit on the surface?

Mr. COHEN: Well, as a journalist, by nature, I'm a cynic. So I think that was, you know, certainly a stumbling block during the course of this year. At the same time, I knew I was not going to be leaving Judaism, so that again, I guess, was a stumbling block. But besides that, you know, I did try to open myself up to spiritual growth. And you know, like I said, obviously I was not going to convert to Christianity. I didn't have any intentions of converting to Christianity.

So I was going with my journalist's notepad in hand. And the first few times I went to church, it was much more of that. But as the year went on and I started hanging out with - besides going to churches, I hung out with Christians one-on-one a lot, especially with my wife's family who are partly evangelical Christians. And that to me was the more meaningful stuff that happened during the year.

NEARY: Yeah, and of course, you experienced Christmas, and I want to get into that in more detail. We're going to have to take a small break, but I think you had a little bit of an epiphany or a little bit of a moment of realizing the difference between, you know, the Christmas that's all about the nutcracker and the Christmas tree and what Christmas is really about. So we're going to get into a little bit more of those kinds of experiences that you had during your year when we return from a short break. Our guest is Benyamin Cohen, the author of "My Jesus Year: A Rabbi Son Wonders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith." If you'd like to give us a call, the number is 800-989-8255. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. A bit later in this hour, we'll get into the controversy over the Nobel literature prize. One of the judges says American writing is too insular and ignorant to win. We'll find out what two book critics have to say about that. Right now, were talking with Benyamin Cohen, his new book is titled "My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wonders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith."

And of course we want to hear from you. Have you ever explored a religion other than your own and did it bring you closer to your faith or push you away? Give us a call at 800-989-8255 or send us an email to talk@npr.org. And Benyamin, we were talking - I was talking to you about Christmas just before the break, and that was interesting because you kind of went into that, wanting to just, you know, throw yourself into everything, got into an argument with your wife over getting a Christmas tree even. But at the end, you realized you kind of left feeling like it hadn't been everything it had - you'd wanted it to be.

Mr. COHEN: Sure, I think I say in the book, I had a Christmas hangover.

NEARY: Right.

Mr. COHEN: You know, I spent - from Thanksgiving forward, I spent my days immersing myself in the mass-market commercialization of what we call in America, you know, Christmas season. And so I went to the mall, and I bought gifts, and I went to the Nutcracker. I bought eggnog, kosher eggnog, of course. I went to a tree-lighting service, I did all these things because those really tangible things that I saw growing up and even as an adult that this is what Christianity was about. It was all about this pomp and circumstance. So I wanted to, for once, just be a part of that. And what I discovered when I woke up Christmas morning, was I felt empty inside, it was all tangible things, it wasn't anything internal, it wasn't anything spiritual.

NEARY: Right. And what did that ultimately - what did that insight sort of teach you ultimately?

Mr. COHEN: You have to be Christian to enjoy Christmas. I think that's really what I learned.

NEARY: But you did, you did. Did you get any insight into the spirituality of Christmas or the religious meaning of Christmas, at all?

Mr. COHEN: A little bit. I mean, just from experiencing it - just from seeing other people experience it, whether it was my wife's family, or I went to a midnight mass service and I saw the beauty of that service. But for me, I was never going to be able to enjoy it the way they were enjoying it. And I think it was an important lesson for me that as much as I want to put a costume on and pretend to go through these emotions, it's never going to inculcate itself within me.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now. We're going to go to Caruna(ph) who's calling from Sonoma County California. Hi, Caruna.

CARUNA (Caller): Hello. Thank you so much for this show, it's really fascinating. I'm a Jewish convert. I converted about five years ago after I was ordained as an interfaith minister. I grew up Catholic, and one of the - and I chose Judaism because of some of the requirements for my ordination, and what I discovered in my journey to Judaism - I converted to Reconstructionist Judaism which is different than Orthodox. But it my journey, what I discovered was I was able to heal some of my own Catholic wounds in my studies, and I had a particularly pivotal moment at a Yom Kippur service at the very end of the (unintelligible) service where I actually felt for the first time in my life that I was forgivable.

I was not this horrible person that had to supplicate myself all the time which is what I felt in Catholicism, in the Catholic faith. And in the mass, you know, I am not worthy to receive you is repeated over and over again. And when I came to Judaism, I had a very different experience, and especially the Reconstructionist movement as well. So, I can really appreciate what you were trying to do with your own journey.

COHEN: Thank you.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Caruna.

CARUNA: Thank you.

NEARY: And I want to read an email to you, Benyamin. This is from Carrie from Rochester, New York. As a teenager, I began questioning my native religion of Catholicism and exploring other religions, Protestantism, Wicca, Buddhism, Hinduism. As I learned, I slowly discovered that each was equally valid and that none were particularly convincing. Over time, I realized that practitioners of any religion pick and choose what to retain or believe and what to discard. This selectively made me realize that I couldn't genuinely commit to any. Now, years later, I'm a complete and total atheist. Did your guests have any similar experiences?

Mr. COHEN: It's an excellent question. Like I said earlier on, I grew up in the belly of Jewish life. We had a - my dad actually built a synagogue attached to our house, so we had services there every Saturday. So for me, it was so ingrained in my being, my very being that I don't really think I had that choice to not be Jewish. I think the choice for me was how do I live with this Judaism in a way that's spiritually fulfilling for me.

NEARY: Yeah, here's a letter - here's an email from Katherine. She's writing from Jacksonville, Florida. I was raised a Christian and married an Israeli man. I studied about Judaism first for him and then for myself. I fell in love with Judaism and I love everything about it. However, I have never been able to shake the belief that Jesus is in some way the son of God and have lately come back to church. I think this has weakened my faith and strengthened it. I can't really follow either religion totally, but it has strengthened it so that I have a much deeper faith with many facets to it. What's your reaction to that, Benyamin, the idea that, well, she's feeling a little bit alienated from both faiths, but on the other hand feels that she has a deeper faith with many facets?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I think there's two aspects. Number one, there's spirituality, and to access spirituality in today's society, I think there are many avenues that we can use to access that, so whether it's through different religions - but for religion, religion, whether it's Christianity or Judaism or Mormonism or Islam, it requires a commitment, and that's something, I think, that's crucial, you know, in able to - in order to access religion. But spirituality can be accessed in many different ways.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now from Scott, and Scott is calling from Ypsilanti, Michigan. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

NEARY: I'm good.

SCOTT: Thank you for taking my call. Contrary to Mr. Cohen's experience, I am the son of a Presbyterian minister. And while I grew up within the church and within the faith, my father always encouraged me to seek out other faiths and to find my own. And what I found myself over time, starting from when I was about 15, and I'm 35 now, you know, and having explored Islam and Judaism and other sorts of Protestant religions and Catholicism and even the old religions from the Celtic world, you know, modernly known as witchcraft, is there are grains of truth throughout all of them, even including Buddhism and Taoism and these principles, are that, you know, whether it's the message of Yahweh or the message of Christ or Muhammad, is that we have an obligation to each other to treat each other as equals and to respect the world that we live in, and that while there may or may not be this individual that exists that is omniscient and omnipotent, there is an element of divinity simply in existence.

And what I found is that I actually left the Christian faith, and left all faith in general, and my own path, which I would describe as modern pagan, is to pick and choose principles from these different faiths that I am comfortable with and that resonate with me, and to create my own traditions, and it's really turned out wonderfully. And I was wondering if your guest had a similar experience, and I will happily tape my comments on the air.

NEARY: Thanks so much for that, Scott. It's interesting to hear the spiritual journey you've been on for your whole life. I think it's somewhat different from what you've been through, Benyamin, but that's also because you really didn't set out to - you set out to explore Christianity for different reasons, it sounds like.

Mr. COHEN: I didn't set out to find the things that I liked about Christianity and start practicing those things. I wanted to find out why Christians, it seemed to me, were so excited about their religion. You know, I grew up at a synagogue where people - everything is done by rote, and people come and they shuffle in, and they're checking their BlackBerry, and they're doing all these other things except talking to God. And so I wanted to be able to see how other people access God and how other people access spirituality and take that part of it and bring it back and strengthen my own Judaism.

NEARY: Now, interesting because, you know, you went to some events like, you know, Christian wrestling, things like that. I think at one point you said you went through a sort of Disneyland of Christianity, that you had made up a Jesus theme park. But the experience that really, I think, maybe had the, one of the biggest effects on you were that - was actually going to confession the way a Catholic would. And in order to do that, of course, you had to lie, but you did go to confession and that seemed to have a pretty - how did that affect you?

Mr. COHEN: All the other places I went to - like you said before, I was kind of an anthropologist just sitting in the corner taking notes, and I was one person in a room with many. But with confession, it was - literally I had an audience of one and so it was very hard for me to hide from myself and from the priest I was talking to. It was probably one of the most nerve-wracking experiences I had during the year which may be one of the reasons I saved it for the end of my journey. And like you said, I did have to fib a little bit because I found out that only Catholics are allowed to go to confession.

So I went with a Catholic friend of mine and we stood in line, and we went into confession and I mean, I was sweating bullets and I didn't know what to say. I had thought about this for so long. When I finally get into the confession booth, I had forgotten the most important part of a confession. I had forgotten to come up with a sin. So I was kind of speechless at the time.

NEARY: In the end, you did come up with some sins, so to speak, and although you write about it, we don't necessarily have to go into it here. But ultimately, what was the insight that you brought out of that confessional booth with you?

Mr. COHEN: Well, the priest actually gave me some really prescient advice. He said, you got to go services. Even if you don't want to, you got to go and you got to go often. He didn't realize I had been going to multiple services every week, but there's a phrase in Hebrew called "shelo lishma ba lishma" which means if you do things for the wrong reason, eventually you'll do them for the right reason. And I think that's kind of what the priest was telling me. You know, go to services if you don't want to go to services, even if you're too lazy, you don't want to wake up, just go. Eventually, it'll rub off on you, it'll have an effect on you and if you keep going and keep going, it'll incorporate itself and you'll enjoy it on a spiritual level which up until that point, I hadn't really been doing. So I think he gave me some good advice.

NEARY: OK, we're going to go Henry in East Lansing, Michigan next. Hi, Henry.

HENRY (Caller): Yes.

NEARY: Hi, go ahead.

HENRY: Thank you for taking my call. I grew up in Mexico as Jewish, but my background was more like a cultural Jew. My parents claim to be atheists and I remember as a small kid, feeling - I did not live in the Jewish community so I was surrounded by Catholics and I felt kind of that I didn't belong there. So I would tag along with all my friends to church and pretend that I was Catholic just to belong there. Not because I - I don't really think that I ever felt any emptiness. I think my parents brought me up to understand that there is a spiritual life that isn't linked necessarily to organized religion and we were very proud Jews from the cultural point of view. But I was totally in love with the iconography that we did not have in the Jewish tradition, in a synagogue, the representational aspect is not there...

NEARY: Yeah.

And I thought it was interesting to, you know, to wander. Sort of I - I did feel like I was incognito or like a voyeur. I would look at everybody else and what they did and I would mimic what they were doing. When they knelt, I knelt.

NEARY: It sounds similar to what Benyamin went through, I think. Thanks so much for your call, Henry.

HENRY: Thank you.

NEARY: Not dissimilar from your own experience, Benyamin, it sounds like.

Mr. COHEN: Not at all.

NEARY: Kind of fascination with Christianity.

Mr. COHEN: I think voyeur is a good way to put it. I went to a Christian retail trade show where they were having, this is iconography in the mundane sense of it. They had Christian dolls and toys and all those kinds of things and I was very jealous of that. I wish I had that growing up. The truth is they have all these Old Testament toys. It was another thing I learned during the year, was how fascinated Christians are with the Old Testament. I never realized that. I thought it was just the New Testament. So I'm walking around the floor of this trade show and there's a Moses figurine and a Samson doll and a Noah's Ark board game and all these things. There's no reason why we couldn't sell that stuff in a Judaica gift shop.

NEARY: I just want to remind our audience that you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And here's an email. This email is from Paul. And he says "How did your guest spend Good Friday and Easter during his experience?"

Mr. COHEN: Well, Easter, I tried to squeeze as much as I could into Easter. I don't know if your listeners are familiar with - there's a civil - Confederate memorial here in Georgia called Stone Mountain, which is one of the largest pieces of exposed granite in the world. It's kind of like a Mt. Rushmore kind of thing. And they have sunrise Easter services on top of that mountain, which is kind of strange to have a Confederate memorial and it was, actually, at one point in history the base of locations for the Ku Klux Klan. But here it is on Easter morning on sunrise, you know, as the sun is rising, everyone is trekking up the mountain and having services up there. So I did that and then I went to one of the largest Easter services in the country. It's held at the Georgia Dome and they had about over 50,000 people there celebrating Easter. So I had two different kinds of experiences on Easter. I don't think I did anything for Good Friday because the sun was setting and I had to start taking in the Jewish Sabbath.

NEARY: All right. Let's get one more call in. Let's go to Chona(ph) and she's calling from Cleveland. Hi, Chona.

CHONA (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

CHONA: I'm Orthodox Jew. I just wanted to ask Benyamin. I'm a little confused. He knew he was going to stay Jewish. He wasn't looking to convert. So why not look within his own religion for more spirituality if that's what he thought he was lacking?

Mr. COHEN: That's a good question. I mean, I grew up with all the spirituality around me and I went to Israel and I have rabbis in my family. All my siblings are rabbis and I learn with rabbis, I still learn every week, you know, Jewish stuff. It wasn't doing it for me. So it wasn't a lack of trying. I had tried my entire life to get spirituality out of that and it just wasn't working. At the same time, I had always been jealous of Christianity and I think that was a stumbling block in my spiritual growth that if I didn't get that out of the way, I never would be able to spiritually mature. So it was kind of - I wanted to tackle that and be able to - no pun intended - to cross it off my list.

CHONA: Did it work?

Mr. COHEN: It did work. Absolutely. My family's very appreciative that it worked. My converted wife is very appreciative that it worked. I look at Judaism with fresh eyes now. I realize that the grass is not greener at the church across the street and it made me appreciate Judaism in a fresh new way that I never would have been able to do. I'm not recommending all the people try this at home, you know, each person is different. But for me, it was a very spiritually uplifting year.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Chona. And thanks to you, Benyamin. Benyamin's book is called "My Jesus Year." And Benyamin Cohen is the founder and editor of American Jewish Life and the online magazine Jewsweek. He joined us from WABE, our member station in Atlanta. So good to talk with you, Ben.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you so much, Lynn.

NEARY: And up next, the transatlantic literature war. Is American writing really too insular and ignorant for the Nobel Prize? Stay with us. I'm Lynn Neary. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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