Dreaming of Dubai

by Brian on May 8, 2022

in A Parent in Israel,Reviews,Travel

Jody was eating vegan mushroom risotto at the Global Village theme park in Dubai. My wife and I had flown to the United Arab Emirates with our daughter, son-in-law and four-and-a-half-month-old grandson who, with his infectious grin, makes friends everywhere he goes. 

Global Village entrance

A family sitting nearby was enchanted by the baby. Jody struck up a conversation. 

“Where are you from?” she asked. 

“Iran,” replied an eight-year-old boy. “And you?” 

“Israel,” Jody said. We had thus far received nothing but positive comments about where we were from. 

This time was different.

“Israel?” The boy’s face dropped. “Ooh, that’s a very bad place.” 

It was a shock, but we were determined not to let it ruin our trip, which was like nowhere we’ve ever been. 

Dubai is so over the top, it makes Las Vegas look like Lincoln, Nebraska. Every new building, every attraction is vying to one-up whatever came before it: The world’s biggest mall. The world’s tallest building. The world’s widest highways (eight lanes in each direction in some places). 

8 lanes of traffic (with the Burj Khalifa in the background)

About the only thing that was not sky high was the price of gas, at NIS 3 a liter, about half the cost in Israel.

We were only four days in Dubai and, with a baby in tow, our pace was deliberately slower. Yet we packed in so much it felt like we were away for a month. With the Abraham Accords still seeming to hold tight, we highly recommend a visit.

Here are a few highlights.

The Miracle and Butterfly Gardens. Two separate attractions. The former is a massive complex of 150 million flowers and 250 million plants, shaped around airplanes, mermaids, Smurfs and saxophones. The butterfly garden has some 15,000 flying critters who will be happy to land on your head.

Miracle Garden

Global Village. This colossal collection of pavilions from all over the world is now in its 26th year. Ethnic food is everywhere – Asian food in the Thai-inspired “floating market,” Indian snacks, Bosnian barbeque, Mexican tacos and dim sum. (The Village closes for the summer due to Dubai’s high outdoor temperatures.)

Dragon near the Floating Village

Expo 2020. The Global Village is a going concern, whereas the expo closed at the end of March. (It will be back – in Japan – in 2025.) Imagine 192 countries strutting their glitzy Eurovision finest with uniquely designed pavilions highlighting each nation’s best and brightest. Israel’s pavilion was charming (yes, we’re biased) with TV personality Lucy Ayoub hosting a 360-degree wrap-around video highlighting our high-tech and agricultural prowess.

Israel Pavilion at Expo 2020

Burj Khalifa. No trip to Dubai is complete without a ride to the 124th floor of the world’s tallest building. The view is spectacular (and if you come with a baby, you can skip the hour-long line and go straight to the front; we were at the top in under 15 minutes).

At the top of the Burj

Dubai Fountain. Every half hour, from 6 pm until 11 pm, there’s a sound and light show at the Dubai Fountain. Grab an outdoor seat at one of the Dubai Mall’s many restaurants to watch the free show. The Burj, the Fountain and the Mall are all part of one complex.

Dubai Fountain show from our restaurant

Desert Safari. The men in our party took out extra “extreme” travel insurance to cover an afternoon of “dune bashing” in the Gulf’s striking brown-red sand. The drivers deflate their tires to just 15 psi as they careen over the dunes. 

Safari time

“Should we eat lunch beforehand?” I asked our “safari” manager, an Egyptian-American with perfect English.

“Definitely not!” he WhatsApp’d me and, after 45 minutes of crazy twists and turns, I understood why. It took a couple of Sprites to calm my stomach. For an extra fee, you can drive your own “Razor” ATV. (We used Mayer Jacob’s safari service.)

Dubai Marina. The most laid-back part of our trip was a stroll along the seven-kilometer marina, with its restaurants and street vendors. Think Herzilya but with traditional dhow boats. 

Dubai Marina with Dhow boats

It’s a quick three-hour flight from Tel Aviv to Dubai but getting there has been plagued with complications – a security disagreement between the UAE and Israel has led to daily cancellations of flights, including ours. The solution is to fly into Abu Dhabi on Wizz Air, an hour’s drive from downtown Dubai. The flights are also significantly cheaper. We rented a car which is the best way to get around, since everywhere you’ll want to go is at least a 30-minute drive. 

In terms of picking a hotel, there’s one for every budget and even the 5-star properties are less than what you’d pay in Israel for something similar. Many are tens of stories high and boast rooftop infinity pools. Customer service is impeccable. (We stayed at the Canal Central in the Business Bay neighborhood.)

If your Hebrew is proficient, join one of the Facebook groups for Israelis traveling to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where no question is too dumb.

Dining out can get expensive unless you eat as the foreign workers do. Skip the fancy restaurants in the mall or your hotel and head to one of the Indian cafeterias. We also found a cute American-style cafe run by a lovely Pakistani expat that we used as our breakfast base.

Dubai no longer requires PCR tests to enter if you’re fully vaccinated. Indoor masking is still the rule, but it’s enforced sporadically. That would have bothered me more if we hadn’t just recovered from Covid a week before our trip!

On the way back from dune bashing, another vehicle had broken down. The driver asked if we could transport his passengers part of the way. It turns out our new car-mates were also from Iran. “It’s a two-hour flight from Tehran,” they explained.

When the Iranians subsequently asked, “And where are you from?” I braced for a repeat of the Global Village put down.

The reply this time was quite different. 

“Israel? We love Israel!”

And then came the kicker: “We’re sorry about our government!”

I wrote about our trip to the UAE for The Jerusalem Post.

I’m not the only Post writer to visit Dubai. Here’s another piece by Gloria Deutsch.

Pictures all taken by yours truly.

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In 2011, my family and I joined 1,000 other Jews, mostly young post-army Israeli backpackers, at the Yak and Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu for what’s described as the largest Pesach Seder in the world. 

Chabad Kathmandu

Run by the local Chabad, that Seder in Nepal was certainly the most unique we’d ever been to. But if we were hoping for an uplifting, even spiritual, experience, we would be sorely disappointed. Rabbi Chezki Lifshitz essentially speed-read the Haggadah as if it were a greatest hits album. We finished the entire story and were washing for matzah in under 50 minutes – including extended breaks to sing Ma Nishtana and Dayenu

Nor was the food any better. No expense seemed spared to import hand-made shmurah matzah and, for some reason, gallons of coleslaw. But when it came to the meat, there were just seven small nuggets of chicken on a plate at the center of our table.

We were nine people.

The evening wasn’t an entire flop. My wife, Jody, won first prize in the pre-Seder raffle – a bungee jump off a 160-meter (525-foot) high suspension bridge. (She gave it to one of the young Israelis.)

Our Passover in Kathmandu has led to a new Seder tradition where I ask everyone assembled to recount their most memorable Pesach experience. This year I opened the question up to friends. 

Here’s some of what they shared.

Debbie Zimelman was in Leningrad in 1988, “to convince Russian Jews to make aliyah.” Like our meal in Kathmandu, Debbie’s was minimalist, consisting of just “beets, potatoes and wine. For an added bonus, I drank the water – and got a parasite. No one told me it wasn’t OK to drink the water in Leningrad!”

Sara Hirschhorn had more food than Debbie, but it was augmented by a crunchy tradition from the Seder leader, a Jew from Gibraltar, who “literally shaved a bit of brick into the charoset,” presumably to accentuate the slave and mortar metaphor. 

That might have been more appetizing compared to what Lynnsie Balk Kantor experienced at a Seder in Rome in 1982 when “instead of a little piece of bone for the shank bone on the Seder plate, they had a part of a leg of some animal – complete with fur!”

Debra Askanase found herself with food but no Haggadah while working in Nicaragua in 1997. “We were three Jews and four non-Jews at an Italian restaurant, trying to remember the words! We did the best we could and literally pointed to imaginary items on a large plate at times.” 

Tal Berlinger was on an exchange program in Germany where she “tried making Seder and explaining it to the other students. After five minutes, the stories sounded so ridiculous, I just served them dinner and sang the songs for myself after they left.”

Rachel Yona Shalev may have had the closest experience to our family’s. In 1992, she was in a Himalayan village. “We created a Seder from what they had, including burning the chapatis to look and taste like matzah.”

Debbi Hirsch Levran shared that her most memorable Seder “was actually the one year I didn’t celebrate. I was an exchange student in France. For the first night of the holiday, our group was on a trip where we slept in a monastery. The evening’s activity was…baking bread!”

Several friends noted that their Seders alone during the Covid-19 lockdowns were their most “unique” Passovers. 

“For my solo Seder, I decided to wear a beautiful embroidered green silk bathrobe,” Ruthi Soudack told me. “How often can you wear a bathrobe to a Seder? I was the best dressed host and the best dressed guest at my Seder!”

Seders are family time – even if that can sometimes conflict with Jewish Law. Leonie Lachmish relates how, at a Seder she attended in 1970, among the guests was a family who had just escaped from Lebanon. 

“The father was a magnificent pianist,” Leonie explains. “He went straight to the piano after the Seder and played the most wonderful music. We weren’t about to tell a man who was celebrating the miracle and relief of his personal freedom that, according to halacha, he shouldn’t be playing the piano on a festival. We literally danced until someone said, ‘It’s time to say the Shema!’” 

For profound Seder experiences in dark times, though, it’s hard to top that of Scott Lenga’s father, Harry, who, along with his two brothers, marked Pesach in the German slave labor camp in Wroclaw, Poland during World War II. 

The Lenga brothers were watchmakers who had fixed the timepieces of some of their captors working in the kitchen. “I asked them to give us a little flour. We mixed it with water and put the dough on the top of our little iron stove to cook three kleine matalach (little matzas),” Lenga writes in the memoir compiled by his son, The Watchmakers: The Story of Brotherhood, Survival, and Hope Amid the Holocaust (to be published in June, preorder at scottlenga.com). 

“We took turns reciting sections by heart, but quietly – in whispers,” Lenga continues. “If the Germans found out what we were doing, they would have killed us.”

When it came time for the second half of the Seder – when participants traditionally sing joyous songs of praise to God – the brothers cut their Seder short. “We weren’t happy enough. Instead, we asked God, ‘Why do you let this happen to us? We were angry at God. But we had made a Seder” – a declaration that for Lenga proclaimed, “We still exist, and we still can do a thing like that. But who knows for how long?”

Kind of puts into perspective those seven little chicken nuggets in Nepal.

I originally shared stories of exotic Seders around the world at The Jerusalem Post.

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I had finally resolved to go in for the Evusheld shot I wrote about recently (“How many antibodies are enough?”) – the prophylactic Covid treatment from AstraZeneca that injects antibodies into immunocompromised people like me who don’t create enough (or any) antibodies on their own from the vaccines.

But it was too late. After taking extreme precautions for over two years, I finally caught Covid. 

Not just me but my entire family. 

It’s easy to trace the chain of connection: Our daughter Merav, son-in-law Gabe and four-month-old Ilai got it from someone in Merav’s mothers’ group. (When someone flippantly posted on social media, “Babies never get sick from Covid,” I wrote back in fury, “Tell that to my grandson who spiked a fever of 104 degrees Fahrenheit and had to be rushed to the ER by ambulance!”) Jody and I caught Covid from them. Our youngest son Aviv caught it from us. And Amir, our oldest, presumably picked it up at a Purim party.

Friends who we told of our diagnosis were empathetic. “You were so careful! You got all the vaccines and boosters, you masked up everywhere.”

Everywhere except with our new grandchild. We had heard stories about grandparents who hadn’t seen their generational offspring for two years, to keep from catching Covid. Jody and I decided that was not going to be us. 

We’d be careful: If anyone was feeling under the weather, we’d wear a mask. We ate outside whenever the weather permitted. We sometimes asked everyone to do a home antigen test before unmasking if an indoor Shabbat meal was the only option. Not being able to see our family was where we drew the line.

It worked very well. That is, until it didn’t.

Jody and I have both been very averse to catching Covid. Me, for obvious reasons: My cancer means we don’t know if my immune system will be functioning well enough to keep Covid mild. Jody just didn’t want to risk long Covid, which the latest stats say affects 13% to 30% of Covid patients. 

Our symptoms started off mild a couple of days after our exposure. But the next day, Jody and I both spiked fevers. Twelve hours later, the results of our PCR tests came by SMS.

This time, we were positive.

I immediately went into damage control: If I hadn’t been able to get the Evusheld before catching Covid, the next best thing would be to get a package of Pfizer’s Paxlovid pills that reduces the chance of severe illness in people at risk by up to 89%.

According to a study published in the journal JAMA Network, some 2.7% of Americans are considered immunocompromised – that’s about 7 million people in total. Millions more have diseases, like AIDS and Crohn’s that impact immunity. 

The immunosuppressed have a higher chance of hospitalization and death than healthier individuals, take longer to clear the virus and are increasingly known as being a vulnerable vector for incubating new variants. An Israeli study conducted during the Delta variant surge found that 40% of hospitalized breakthrough cases are in immunocompromised people. 

That’s definitely “a variant of concern.”

It took most of the next day to get the prescription approved by the “Covid committee.” Amir’s girlfriend, Tal, made the pilgrimage to the Maccabi Pharm Agrippas Street to pick up the meds.

“You may have saved my life!” I gushed to Tal. I wanted to impress upon her exactly how grateful I was.

Paxlovid is a big commitment: Three large pills, twice a day for five days. 

I don’t know if it was the Paxlovid or my immune system is working as it’s supposed to, but within five days, my symptoms started to subside. My fever went down, the coughing decreased, and my headache transitioned into more of a dull throb than a piercing knife. 

Jody’s recovery was not as rapid as mine, which got me thinking: Why can’t Paxlovid be given to anyone with Covid, not just those at high risk. I know all the usual reasons: it costs some $500 for a course of treatment and there aren’t enough pills yet in the country.

But maybe this treatment – or something similar in the future – will be what transforms Covid-19 into something more akin to the flu (just as the anti-vaxxers have been clamoring for). If priced right and made ubiquitous like antibiotics or antivirals such as Tamiflu, Paxlovid could become the latest must-have accessory to pack in your luggage. (“Got my eye patches, my hiking boots and my Paxlovid!”) 

That looks more likely after the announcement from Pfizer that 30 companies around the world, including Teva in Israel, will begin producing a generic, low-cost version of Paxlovid. Pfizer says it will not receive royalties from sales of generic Paxlovid.

For two years, I’d been terrified of Covid. In the end, it wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined. I’m well aware that, had I caught the virus before there were vaccines, pills like Paxlovid or prophylactics like Evusheld, my outcome could have been tragically different. For me, Paxlovid has been nothing short of a miracle.

Plus, there’s an ironic silver lining. As it’s unlikely any of us will be reinfected with whatever variant we got just now (was it Delta? Omicron? Deltacron?) in the coming months, maybe we can feel just a tad less anxious about eating indoors or taking our masks off at a rock concert.

At least until the next variant arrives.

I first wrote about Covid and Paxlovid for The Jerusalem Post.

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It was bound to happen but it’s still shocking. 

Gigi Hadid is a supermodel whose curves I cannot seem to excise from my social media feed. Hadid might be competent walking down the runway, but when it comes to expressing her views on international affairs, she’s in way over her lingerie.

Gigi Hadid’s inflammatory Instagram post

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine was just two weeks old, Hadid posted to Instagram, “I am pledging to donate my earnings from the Fall 2022 [fashion month] shows to aid those suffering from the war in Ukraine, as well as continuing to support those experiencing the same in Palestine.” (Emphasis is mine.) 

Hadid then concludes: “HANDS OFF UKRAINE, HANDS OFF PALESTINE. PEACE. PEACE. PEACE.” 

Hadid has over 70 million followers on Instagram and this particular post garnered some three million likes.

With the war in Ukraine generating tragic new headlines on a near hourly basis, do we really need a not-so-super supermodel to hijack the world’s most urgent news item to falsely accuse Israelis of doing to the Palestinians what the Russians are doing to the Ukrainians?

The backlash came quickly. 

“Hadid’s recent Instagram post trivializes the plight and pain of the Ukrainians while also endangering the Jewish people by spreading defamatory accusations and vilifying Israel,” noted watchdog group StopAntisemitism.

“When Israel is painted as oppressive, Jews all over the world pay the price. Numbers don’t lie: Anti-Israel messaging leads directly to antisemitic attacks globally,” the pro-Israel Hasbara Fellows Canada tweeted

“It is totally irresponsible…to publish a quote comparing Russian actions in Ukraine with Israel. As a Jewish woman, I am appalled and scared,” wrote an (ex?) Hadid follower.

How it could be “the same” in Ukraine as in Palestine? asked a confused reader. “Ukraine doesn’t threaten to erase Russia off the map and then shoot 4,500 rockets at it” as Palestinian terrorists did to Israel during the last Israel-Gaza war.

There’s a lot I’d like to say about the war in Ukraine, but I’m no armchair military expert. I do have opinions when my country and my people are being singled out – again – through the convenience of antisemitism disguised as woke anti-Zionism and using an unrelated atrocity as a way of further poking the Jews in our collective kishkes. 

Hadid is, sadly, not alone.

It infuriates me, for example, that some of my favorite musicians – including, most recently, former Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel – would sign an open letter tarring Israel as a “settler-colonialist” society. I already gave up on Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame, but Gabriel is one of my lifelong musical heroes.

It’s insulting when protesters in Ferguson link the killing of Michael Brown with Israel/Palestine, waving Palestinian flags at rallies, while insisting that, since some U.S. police staff have trained with Israeli police and military units as part of a program of cooperative learning exchanges, it’s Israel that’s actually guilty of murdering black and brown people in the United States. 

It’s maddening when organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) state that the only reason the Israeli government is taking in Ukrainian refugees is to “settle” them “on land it illegally occupies [in order to] prevent seven million Palestinian refugees from returning…Israel is giving Jewish Ukrainians citizenship not out of kindness and generosity, but rather to cement a Jewish demographic majority in Palestine.”

While there’s no shortage of outrage, I want to return to our fashionable friend, Gigi Hadid. Perhaps the best take-down of her reprehensible linkage comes from Noa Tishby, the Israeli actress who transformed herself from soap opera hottie to hasbara (public diplomacy) honcho after moving to Los Angeles some 20 years ago. 

Tishby’s main claim to fame (after her local star turn in “Ramat Aviv Gimel’) was selling to HBO the show that would become the hit TV series, “In Treatment.” She’s worked as a producer and a connector in Hollywood ever since.

But Tishby never lost sight of her roots and, lately, she’s also become a passionate defender of her homeland. Her book, “Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth,” is a brilliant primer written in the kind of colloquial casualness that appeals to casual readers. 

In 2011, Tishby founded “Act for Israel.” She’s brought professionals to the region to see what’s really going on “beyond the conflict,” has spoken in front of the United Nations several times, and continues to act in TV and movies, although she admits that advocacy is now her true calling.

In her most recent Facebook video, Tishby doesn’t pull any punches. Here’s a lightly edited version of her rebuttal to Hadid’s screed.

“I can’t believe I actually have to say this, but let’s be clear. Ukraine is not Palestine and Israel is not Russia. Russia launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign democracy, in order to place it under Russian influence. 

“And yet supermodels like Gigi Hadid blatantly make this false and dangerous equivalency, reporting it as fact. By trying to coopt the war in Ukraine, one which has nothing to do with Israel, people like Gigi Hadid not only harm the real victims, the people of Ukraine, they help flame anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments all over the world. 

“If you want to help the people of Ukraine, stop hijacking their horrific war. Stop bringing the only Jewish state into your false activism. This war is caused by one man and one man only. Stop lying about it. Stop bringing Israel into it.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you, Noa Tishby. Now go out and buy her book. Or better yet, order an extra copy and have it express mailed directly to Gigi Hadid.

I first ranted about Gigi Hadid at The Jerusalem Post.

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Is my body capable of producing antibodies against Covid-19 following my four Pfizer doses? Or, because I am immunocompromised due to past cancer treatments, does my immune system leave me bereft of antibodies even after multiple jabs? And most important: Would I want to know, or would I prefer to “act as if” and hope for the best?

Antibody treatment for the immunocompromised

This question has been reverberating in my brain for as long as Covid vaccines have been available. From 2018 to 2019, I received a bi-monthly injection of Gazyva, an immunotherapy drug, to shrink the tumors of my lymphoma. Gazyva and its close cousin Rituximab are highly effective but, at the same time, are among the most harmful drugs when it comes to depleting the body’s ability to produce antibodies.

Most people with this antibody problem have taken Gazyva or Rituximab more recently than me, but still I was curious – and fearful.

There is a simple blood test to check whether your body can mount an antibody response. But the HMOs in Israel don’t offer it because, as my hematologist told me, “We just don’t know what the numbers mean.”

That is, if your IgG levels for the “Anti-S” Covid test contain more than 50 au/ml of antibodies, you’re considered to have had a response. But does that protect you? What if you have 1,000 au/ml? 10,000 au/ml? No one knows yet what number is going to do the job. So, the HMOs don’t want to pay for it since they don’t know what to do with the answer.

You can, of course, purchase a serological test privately. At NIS 217 ($65), it’s not a huge impediment. 

I had pretty much decided to stay in the dark…that was, until Evusheld became available in Israel in February.

Evusheld is a new medication from AstraZeneca designed specifically for people who are immunocompromised. Unlike Paxlovid or monoclonal antibodies such as Regeneron’s REGN-COV2, which are given after one has contracted Covid, Evusheld is administered before you get Covid and gives you all the antibodies your body didn’t create on its own in response to the vaccines.

According to the U.S. CDC, about 7 million people in the U.S. are considered immunocompromised, whether from cancer, an organ transplant, or an auto-immune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Evusheld is what’s known as “a passive vaccine.” It combines two monoclonal antibodies (tixagevimab and cilgavimab) given in two shots that bind to different sites in the virus, preventing it from entering the cells and reproducing. Evusheld results in an 83% reduction in the rate of symptomatic coronavirus, with protection lasting for six months. The drug is also appropriate for people who had an extreme reaction to one of the main Covid vaccines and, as a result, can’t take more.

My doctor felt I should get Evusheld as I tend to progress from cold or flu to pneumonia more rapidly than people who haven’t had cancer treatments. But if it turns out I do have Covid antibodies, then I wouldn’t need Evusheld, right? 

Had the time finally come to test my levels?

I decided to go for it. 

So, on a recent Tuesday, I visited the “Executive Checkup” center on the first floor near the main entrance of Hadassah Medical Center’s Ein Kerem campus.

Executive Checkup is unlike anything I’ve seen in Israeli medicine. A tastefully decorated space with soft lighting, architectural flourishes, comfy chairs, free WiFi and the kindest, English-speaking front-desk staff, it was worth the price just to enter. The nurse who took my blood was so gentle I didn’t even feel the needle prick.

All that was left to do was wait for the results. They came 24 hours later.

I had 6,684 au/ml of antibodies. Hallelujah! I have protection as a result of the vaccines, I rejoiced. Or perhaps I had an asymptomatic case at some point in the last two years and never knew it.

Not so fast, cautioned my doctor, throwing her usual pragmatic water on the flames of my enthusiasm. “There’s not enough data. You should still get the Evusheld.”

An unauthorized visit to Dr. Google was no more conclusive. No website or journal was willing to state whether my 6,000+ antibodies bodes well. The armchair experts I reached out to on social media were similarly stumped.

I have a prescription for Evusheld now. Will I follow through and get it? The side effects from getting a couple of Evusheld shots are supposedly no more than from the vaccines, and all I experienced from my Pfizer jabs was a sore arm and a bit of nausea in the first couple of days.

If I need any extra inspiration, maybe I should listen to my friend Laurie Kleinman Heller who has been urging me to get the Evusheld shot after she received hers. 

Laurie was interviewed on Ynet about her own terrifying situation (she has an immune deficiency known as CVID as well as lymphoma) where she makes zero antibodies. For the duration of the pandemic, she’s been mostly confined to indoors. “The most remote place I go to is to the park across the road,” she says. 

All that’s changed now.

Raya Cohen, a nurse, was even more emphatic. “There are quite a few people like me who have been imprisoned for almost two years,” she told Ynet. “I need this vaccine like breathable air.”

Evusheld or not, we all could use a little more air to breathe at this point.

I first wrote about my to-Evusheld or not-to-Evusheld dilemma for The Jerusalem Post.

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