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The Garden of Damascus in the Heart of Brooklyn

Jun 16, 2015 11:00 AM | 0 comments

June is Immigrant Heritage Month and Brooklyn has long been a destination for new Americans. Shaped by historic waves of Germans, Irish, Italians, and Eastern European Jews, Brooklyn grew from a smattering of Dutch hamlets to a bustling industrial center rich in cultural heritage. Today, Brooklyn remains a hub of immigrant life; home to communities of more recent immigrants from places such as China, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. BPL is doing storytelling workshops and art discussions at the end of the month, so come see us and celebrate our collective heritage! (Oh, and we have a great booklist up, too!)

New York City's Arab-American community is a culturally rich immigrant community that is sometimes overlooked, specifically the first waves arriving at the turn of the twentieth-century from Syria and Lebanon. Both Brooklyn and Manhattan boasted bustling neighborhoods full of food and clothes foreign to American audiences. Manhattan's neighborhood was called "Little Syria."

Incredibly diverse, this neighborhood, called "the Mother Colony” by many inside it, was a mix of people from all acorss the Arabic speaking world. Much like all immigrant communities, the early Arab-American community was identified as a single entity - Syrian. Yet, there was an incredible amount of regional diversity within the community. Ship manifests and census records listed residents as Turk, Arab, Syrian, Armenian, Assyrian, and sometimes Asian. Little Syria fit right in, as Lower Manhattan was also home to communities of Jews, Italians, and the vestiges of slowly dispersing Germans. 

"Food and Foreigners in New York." Harper's Weekly, 1900. Courtesy of NYPL. Captions read: A Sausage Factory on the East Side, Habib Assi the Syrian Chef, Where the Polish Jews do their Shopping

A large number of immigrants from the Arab world were coming to the United State seeking wealth and fortune, with the intention of returning to their homelands happy, wealthy, and wise. Many others had heard stories of the grandeur of the United States from those who exhibited their wares or culture (or from those who were exhibited) at World’s Fairs in Philadelphia (1976), Chicago (1893), and St. Louis (1904). Regardless of place of origin or reason for immigration, the newcomers created a vibrant neighborhood that was the talk of many a tourist.

In 1892, the New York Tribune reported: “It was a buzzing trading center and middle eastern bazaar transplanted to the first ward where the North and East rivers meet… it was the wellspring of Syrian peddling in America.” The colony, a mix of both American and Syrian costume and food, became not only a cultural center but a commercial one as well. Merchants would rent row houses and fill them with imported fabrics and furniture, while sending out peddlers with carts to entice the shoppers who were both immigrants and Americans.  

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 8 Oct 1905.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter also took a stroll through Little Syria and, in October of 1905, reported on the wonders of foreign fruit: "Stands piled high with melons and onions, tomatoes and okra and cucumbers and queer looking vegetables that one never sees in American markets occupy a large portion of the sidewalk to nobody's discomfiture, apparently, the dark skinned Syrians to whom they belong smoking placidly in the doorways." The Syrian Business Directory was created to help catalog all of the commerce in the area. And it wasn't only English-language papers that reported on Little Syria, as Arabic newspapers also began pop up, the first being Kawkab Amerika, published in 1892. Kawkab Amerika was the first Arabic newspaper in the country. The Kawkab Amerika was closely followed by Al-Hoda, which would move from Manhattan to Brooklyn and then back to Manhattan and be one of the most read Arabic dailies in the country during the early 1900s. 

The community also had smaller, local papers like The Caravan, which the Brooklyn Collection has on microfilm. This paper, focusing on Bay Ridge in the 1950s and 1960s, ran both international stories and local happenings. The Caravan is a fantastic place to look for information about the day to day life of the community.

The Caravan, 15 July 1953.

As this is the Brooklyn Collection, let's go to Brooklyn. There were folks who moved across the river early on, but large development projects (the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, for one) spurred greater numbers to leave the neighborhood. What’s more, many of the Mother Colony’s residents had, for two or three decades, been growing steadily wealthy. It was time for a new promised land across the East River. The Mother Colony was not left unoccupied, however. Until the latter half of the twentieth century one could still find shops and restaurants harkening back to a time when the streets bustled with the newly arrived.

The Arab American National Museum (located in Michigan) has a traveling exhibit about Manhattan's Little Syria that will soon be a part of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. The exhibit will run from October 1st of this year until the 9th of January, 2017. You've got a lot of time, so go see it!

Brooklyn’s community settled in Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights with Atlantic Avenue (between Court and Hicks Streets) as the main thoroughfare. Restaurants, butcher shops, and places selling exotic merchandise lined the street. In the 1950s and 1960s, Atlantic Avenue was said to be “the Syrian shopping center of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and New Jersey.” As of 1939, the Brooklyn Academy of Music was a popular destination for Arabic films and various radio stations had programs in Arabic. 

Most of the early Arab-American immigrants were Christian and Catholic. Brooklyn, the "Borough of Homes and Churches," had many Syrian and Lebanese houses of worship, including Our Lady of Lebanon. Our Lady of Lebanon was founded in a brownstone on Hicks street and is now located in the old Church of the Pilgrims on Remsen and Henry. The congregation is Maronite, an eastern sect of Catholicism. Our Lady of Lebanon was designated a cathedral in 1977 and is the seat of the Diocese of St. Maron of Brooklyn (which covers the entire eastern seaboard). And, as a fun aside, Our Lady of Lebanon will be the temporary home of the Brooklyn Heights Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library during its time of transition.

Our Lady of Lebanon R.C. Church. Brooklyn Eagle, 1951. 

The community organized socially and politically during WWI and WWII. During the WWI the community organized a Boy Scout Troop and a branch of the Red Cross, both sited as a way to support the United States and declare their status as proud Americans. The Syrian American Club, Syrian Ladies Association, and Syrian Young Men's Association all organized parties and gatherings throughout the early and mid-twentieth century. 

And then there is the food! The famous Brooklyn institution Sahadi's opened in Manhattan in 1898 and has been selling Middle Eastern foods in Brooklyn since 1948. In 1945, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle profiled a confectionary shop run by Muneer Alwan and his four brothers, all immigrants from Damascus.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 13 May 1945.

The brothers made candy and sent half of every batch to service men overseas. Muneer talked about the close knit neighborhood: "Moslem-Christian understanding has never been a problem on Atlantic Ave. The Alwans are friendly with their next door neighbor, John Rizk, a Christian Syrian who is proprietor of a restaurant on Atlantic Ave. where the specialty is sheeshkabab, lamb on skewers, some think like the American barbecue." Atlantic Avenue, between Court and Hicks Streets, was said to be the one of the "largest Syrian business sections in the East." Hard to imagine a time before sheeshkabab. 

Fresh From Bakery. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1948. 

Urban renewal and rising rents forced many Syrians out of their Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights homes. Bay Ridge was quickly becoming the new center of community life, as development projects in the late 1950s had created a wealth of housing options and travel was easy via subway.

In 1924, with the Johnson-Reed Act, the United States severely limited immigration from Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, and the Middle East. Syria, Palestine, and Turkey were all given quotas of 100. Thus, all immigration drastically slowed during the 1930s - early 1960s. In 1965, with the Hart-Celler Act, the United States lifted its quota system based on race, which allowed new waves of Middle Eastern immigrants to enter the country. They moved to areas in which their language and culture was already rooted: Bay Ridge and the surrounding neighborhoods. A key difference was the bulk of the new arrivals were Muslim. Thus, a new community began to grow and prosper, just as the previous had. 

New York City is a city of immigrants. We are diverse in language, religion, cultural customs, and dress. This is the month to celebrate that diversity and relish in the global experience we have every time we walk out the door. 

Our Streets Our Stories: Community Scanning Events

Jun 11, 2015 11:00 AM | 0 comments


In collaboration with the Metropolitan New York Library Council and Queens Library, the Brooklyn Collection will spend the next year hosting an exciting new project. As a recent winner of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight News Challenge, “Culture in Transit” will be working to democratize the cultural heritage of New York City. Here in Brooklyn, we will be operating under the name “Our Streets Our Stories,” working closely with Brooklyn Public Library's ongoing oral history project of the same name. 

Our Streets Our Stories has a simple objective: to provide community members with the tools and technology to share their Brooklyn memorabilia and culture heritage materials with the world. Many items that can help tell Brooklyn’s story are sitting forgotten in apartments and basements all over the borough, being lost due to improper storage conditions and neglect. We want to encourage patrons to dig out these items and bring them to the library. We're looking for materials like photographs, fliers and documents from Brooklyn families, businesses, block parties, community organizations, and anything else that tells the story of Brooklyn.

Our mobile ditization lab, all packed and ready to go!

What makes this project different is that we're not looking to keep your items, just a digital copy. Here's how the project will work: Focusing on one neighborhood each month, we bring a mobile digitization lab (scanner, laptop and camera) to library branches and invite neighbors to bring in these items. Patrons don’t need any technical background; all scanning will be handled by us and our volunteers. Once digitized, all items will be returned to the patron, including a flash drive with digital copies. Patrons will also be invited to share copies with the Digital Public Library of America and on BPL’s own digital catalog.

Our Streets Our Stories isn't just about digital preservation. We want community members to be active participants in the effort to shape Brooklyn's history. By contributing and sharing materials they are choosing how their neighborhood will be represented and remembered, playing an important role in the democratization of culture heritage. This is a great opportunity to meet neighbors, share stories and engage with local history in a unique way. 

Scanning at the Brooklyn Collection

Our first scanning event is scheduled to coincide with Williamsburg's annual Giglio Feast, a weeklong celebration hosted by Our Lady of Mount Carml that dates back to the neighborhood's first Italian immigrants. The Leonard Library will be hosting us from 6 - 8pm on Tuesday, July 14th and 11am - 3pm on Saturday, July 18th. In addition to scanning, we will offer our donors the opportunity to participate in the Our Streets Our Stories oral history project, sponsored by the Department of Outreach Services. 

In the coming months we will be hosting scanning events at braches all over the borough; here's what we have planned so far:

July 14th and 18th: Leonard Library

August 29th: New Lots Library

September 30th and October 3rd: Kings Bay Library

October 20th and 24th: Flatbush Library

We hope to see you there! Don’t forget to keep up with our progress by following us on Twitter.

Putting Out Fires Since 1865!

May 1, 2015 10:58 AM | 0 comments

  Early Fire Engines

Our Firemen, 1887

2015 marks 150 years of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) bravely serving New York City. I am proud to say my brother-in-law is a FDNY firefighter who started out as a volunteer firefighter. For years, Brian responded to fires whenever the loud siren was rung at the Oceanic Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 in Travis, Staten Island. As Staten Island's oldest volunteer fire house, Oceanic received its charter in 1881 and is today -- out of the ten volunteer fire houses in the city (here's a bit more about that) -- one of only two recognized and dispached by the FDNY. Both are located in Staten Island. 

Organized firefighting dates back to 1648, but it wasn't until 1731 when fire brigades were put into service and all able-bodied people were required to respond to alarms. Due to an ever-growing population, the volunteer Fire Department of the City of New York was established in 1737. The requirements: men needed to be "able, discreet and sober."

Our Firemen, 1887;

With the introduction of the steam engine, the need for men to pump water to extinguish fires were no longer needed.

Gradually volunteer fire houses were closed and replaced by paid companies.  Today, the FDNY has more than 11,400 Fire Officers and firefighters. You can read the complete history of the FDNY here.

As for Brooklyn, the first record of organized firefighting in the city was in 1772, when six men were recruited to fight a fire near the ferry landing on Fulton Street. In 1785, seven men were appointed at a town hall meeting to be the offical firefighters for Brooklyn. In 1788 it was announced that all appointed firefighters would be exempt from jury duty and militia service -- needless to say, this resulted in men busting down the doors to sign up.  1785 brought the first organized fire house in Brooklyn.

During the Civil War, the City of Brooklyn replaced cisterns with hydrants, providing a reliable source of water to fight fires.

On May 5, 1869, the act to "reorganize the Fire Department of the City of Brooklyn" was passed (the previous attempt in 1858 was defeated), which made way for the paid fire department. With the passage of the act, four fire commissioners were appointed and firemen's salaries were set at $800 a year. The cities of Brooklyn and Williamsburg transitioned their volunteer fire departments into paid companies by 1870, followed by New Lots in 1886; Flatbush, Gravesend and New Utrecht in 1894; and Flatlands in 1896. The Brooklyn Fire Department merged with New York's Fire Department with the 1898 consolidation of New York City.

"In 1823, an act was passed incorparting the Fire Department of the Villiage of Brooklyn."

As a side note, a few months ago when I was on a tour at Green-Wood Cemetery, I came across the grave of William Chin(n). I was intrigued by the inscription on the stone: "In memory of William J. Chin, Private of Engine Co. No. 20 Brooklyn Fire Department who was killed by being thrown from a supply wagon while in the discharge of his duty as a fireman on the morning of December 28, 1889."

Grave of William Chin, Green-Wood Cemetery

Civil War veteran Chin served as a driver for the Volunteer Fire Department. According to the Times, he was injured en route to the Brasher Oil-Cloth Works fire on 18th Street and 8th Avenue when he was "thrown from his seat by the shying of the horses at a blazing log and the wheels passed over his chest."  He experienced severe internal injuries and died shortly after on January 3, 1890.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 5, 1890

Emma Chin, his widow, sued the city for negligence, citing a defect in the street that led to her husband being thrown from his truck. The defense argued that the street was not in disrepair and that Chin was leaning over the dashboard reaching for a rein when he was jolted back as his truck hurried over to the fire. She sought $5,000 in damages in City Court but it was dismissed on January 21, 1891, after the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict (it was 11-1 in favor of Chin). A life-sized sculpted marble fireman marks his grave.

To round out this blog (and lighten the mood) here are some pictures of firemen in parades:

Volunteer Firefighters at the 1930 Parade

These men aged 80 and 92, respectively, are adorable in their uniforms!

"These eye-filling young drum majorettes strutted their stuff in the volunteer fireman's parde yesterday." Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 23, 1941

Check out those men checking out those women!


Thank you for serving and protecting us for 150 years!

In the Shadow of the Bridge

Apr 27, 2015 10:09 AM | 0 comments

 “At times...I feel an enourmous power in me - that seems almost supernatural. If this power is not too dissipated in aggravation and discouragement I may amount to something sometime. I can say this now with perfect equanimity because I am notoriously drunk and the Victrola is going with that glorious Bolero.” – Hart Crane

The poet Hart Crane may not have been a Brooklyn native (as so many of us aren’t), but his time here would radically change not only his life, but American poetics as well. Born on July 21, 1899 in Garrettsville, Ohio, Crane moved to the city when he was 17, after dropping out of high school. But it wasn’t until 1924, when he arrived at 110 Columbia Heights that he began to “live in the shadow of that bridge.”

From his new apartment Crane had a perfect view of the bridge which would become the topic of his most famous work. He wrote to his mother:

“Just imagine looking out your window directly on the East River with nothing intervening between your view of the Statue of Liberty, way down the harbor, and the marvelous beauty of the Brooklyn Bridge close above you on your right! All of the great new skyscrapers of lower Manhattan are marshalled directly across from you, and there is a constant stream of tugs, liners, sail boats, etc in procession before you on the river! It’s really a magnificent place to live.”

The bridge itself would grow to encompass Crane’s world, symbolizing his success, when Otto H. Kahn offered him $2,000 to compose an epic poem called The Bridge. He accepted but he was an undisciplined creator and the bridge was an elusive muse. An outsider who sought anonymous sex with sailors, Crane’s encounters often led to brutal beatings. Drinking heavily, struggling with the poem (he had an end but no beginning) and running out of money, Crane followed his lover Emil Opffer, Jr. to Los Angeles. But by 1928 he was back in New York, first at 77 Willow Street and then again at 110 Columbia Heights, before flitting off to Paris in 1929.

Paris was good to Crane and while he was there Harry and Caresse Crosby offered to publish The Bridge on their press, Black Sun Press. Upon accepting the offer, Crane started to celebrate, a bit too much, at Cafe Select. He argued with the waiters over the bill, then with the police, and was subsequently arrested.

Returning to Brooklyn, Crane came back to Columbia Heights, this time in a basement apartment at 130 where he finally finished The Bridge.

...Under thy shadow by the piers I waited
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year ...

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God....

The poem won Poetry magazine’s Helen Haire Levinson Prize followed by a Guggenheim Fellowship for its author. Under the Fellowship, Crane headed to Mexico, ready to write, when tragedy struck. A trifecta of difficulties - his father’s death, his mother withholding his inheritance and an affair (probably the only heterosexual affair of his life) with the wife of his friend -  led to a severe depression.

On April 27, 1932, crossing the Gulf of Mexico on the Orizaba, Crane was beaten up after making an unwelcome pass at a crew member. Just before noon, drunk and despondent, he walked into Peggy Cowley's cabin in pajamas and a topcoat and said, "I'm not going to make it, dear. I'm utterly disgraced." Accustomed to such remarks, she told him to go get dressed. He agreed, said goodbye, headed for the stern and climbed the railing of the ship. He shouted “Goodbye everybody!” and threw himself overboard.

Hart Crane was 32 years old. His body was never found.

After his death, his poem The Bridge would divide critics. It brought lofty comparisons to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland as well as deep criticism. The New Yorker found it, “an impressive failure. . .[that] varies wildly in quality, containing some of Crane’s best writing and some of his worst.”

But what did the poet think of his work, and about the majestic structure that so captivated him?

“The very idea of a bridge is an act of faith. The form of my poem rises out of a past that so overwhelms the present with its worth and vision that I'm at a loss to explain my delusion that there exists any real links between that past and a future destiny worthy of it.”


Evan Hughes, in his book Literary Brooklyn, summarized Crane's death with the following:

"In his personal life, Crane was probably too well-aligned with the New York City of the 1920s. Of that time in the city, Fitzgerald wrote, "The catering to dissipation set an example to Paris; the shows were broader, the buildings were higher, the morals were looser, and the liquor was cheaper; but all these benefits did not really minister to much delight. Young people wore out early." So it was for Crane, who crashed along with the twenties when the dark thirties came. In his work, however, Crane bucked the tide of his times. The roar of the capitalist economy held no appeal for him, and he set himself against "shorter hours, quicker lunches, behaviorism and toothpicks." But rather than embrace the pessimism of the poetic age of Eliot, he embraced an "ecstatic goal." His dramatic death, often mined for meaning, obscures his wider significance; he grew into greatness in an era that was out of step with his ideals." 

A Night to Remember

Apr 22, 2015 10:00 AM | 2 comments

It is once again upon us; that century-old ritual of courtly grace and sequins! Prom! 

Prom, short for 'promenade,' has been around since the late 19th century. Starting at colleges, the dances served as a more egalitarian version of the ever-popular debutante balls cherished by the upper classes. The dances were fancy, but usually more high tea than black tie. Because proms served as socialite training grounds, it makes sense to see them listed in Brooklyn Life's "Dances" section along with the other society happenings. The magazine, published weekly for Brooklyn's upper crust and now digitized on, had a section devoted to which fancy person traveled to which fancy country and another detailing which lucky young lady took a ride with which handsome young man (and his mother, inevitably). Think one step down from Downton Abbey, Brooklyn style. (Netflix, I'm going to need that show created. Thanks.) 

Brooklyn Life Magazine 1915.

The only proms that appear in the news (be it the Brooklyn Daily Eagle or Brooklyn Life) around the turn of the century are those held at elite girls' schools. The first mention of a prom in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle can be found in 1897 in reference to the Packer Institute, originally one of Brooklyn's preeminent all-girls schools. Along with the Packer Institute, there are many refrences to the Berkeley Institute (now the Berkeley Carroll School). Girls High School makes an appearance in the early 1910s. 

In 1915, Brooklyn Life described the Packer Senior Prom: "...the members of the class of 1915 transformed the gymnasium in which the dance was held into a bower of green with blue conflowers and yellow tulips intermingled, showing the class colors. In the library a cheerful fire was blazing, lighting up, with the glow of electric lamps, the couches and cozy corners around the room." The magazine also wrote that "preceding the Packer Institute 'Prom' on Friday evening of last week, Mrs. Horace L. Rutter gave a dinner for her daughter, Miss Kathleen S. Rutter, who was the head of the 'prom committee'" (Brooklyn Life Magazine 20 Feb 1915). Being on the committee looked great on a society resume and often netted you a beautiful photo in Brooklyn Life.

Brooklyn Life Magazine 24 Feb 1923. 

The Brooklyn Collection has a great collection of dance tickets from the early twentieth century, most from social club gatherings like the ones listed above in Brooklyn Life . The cards illustrate the popularity of dances and society parties and provide an interesting window into the social life of middle- and upper-class Brooklynites of the day. I was hoping to find a ticket or invitation to a prom, so I started flipping through the binders.

Apparently, there was always a reason to dance.  

Third Annual Halloween Dance, Bath Beach Olympics, Inc. 1932. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

Dinner-Dance, Lincoln Social Club, 1938. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

Look! It's a "Lincoln Eve" dance! I'm throwing one of those next year. 

First Annual Dance, Hob-Nob Club, 1938. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

And then I found what I was looking for:

Brooklyn Tech Junior Prom Card, 1932. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

An invitation to Brooklyn Tech's junior prom, held in the Jade Room of the Brooklyn Elks Club on Livingston Street. The attire is specified as "Informal - Red and Gray Collegians" and the cost is $1.50 per couple.

The 1930s and 1940s saw proms move into the mainstream, popping up at schools across the borough. As reported in the Eagle in 1943, "At Namm's party and fashion show held yesterday in the Colonial Room on the third floor the loudest applause was for a prom party dress of heavenly blue, the satin bodice trimmed with narrow pleating and the skirt of yards and yards of matching net. Priced at $16.95. A single string of blue pearls at her throat and a gleaming white gardenia in her hair completed this graduate's costume" (30 December 1943). The 1950s, with the rise of the "teenager," the suburban dream, and the disposable income, proms became more involved affairs replete with taffeta and tulle. 

"Prom Delights." Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1949. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle documented a few 1950s proms, like the one below at Prospect Heights High School. 

McNamara, C.E. "Seniors Take Over." Brooklyn Eagle 1954. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

Sadly, proms aren't always fun and games. For one, someone always cries at prom. Always. But, in all seriousness, there is certain antiquated feel about many of the customs involved in the evening. Aspects of prom feel very traditional and tradition can sometimes get in the way of progress. 

You might recall the 2010 story of Constance McMillan, a lesbian student in Mississippi who asked to attend her prom with her girlfriend who was also a student at the school. The school board refused to allow her to attend unless she came alone or brought a male date. In the end, the school board cancelled the prom entierely. Just last year there was a story of the first integrated prom in Abbeville, GA. The battle for inclusivity has also been fought right here in Brooklyn.  

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 22 April 1920. 

In 1920, six young women were told they could not attend the Girls High School prom because of the color of their skin. One of those young women had a fairly famous father: W.E.B DuBois.  When DuBois was notified that his daughter was barred from the dance, he and other parents and distinguished community members went to speak with the principal, Dr. William L. Fetter. The paper reported that the concerned parents "got no satisfaction from him." The parents then went to see the superintendent who was "astounded when he learned the facts of the case." Thus, the principal was given an ultimatum: cancel the prom or integrate it. 

Dubois' daughter attended the prom. 

The last paragraph of the article reads: "A suggestion was made that in leiu of the prom, a theater party be held for the colored girls, but that was voted down." Youbetcha it was voted down! Separate is not equal, not then, not now. 

We wish all students a safe, memorable, and inclusive prom!