This Normal Life All about "normal" life in Israel Sun, 19 Jun 2022 18:14:46 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Can electric cars cure climate change…or will they make it worse? Sun, 19 Jun 2022 18:14:44 +0000

In the summer of 2012, exactly ten years ago, my wife, Jody, and I bought a Renault Fluence Z.E., the 100% battery-powered car sold in Israel by high-flying battery swap startup Better Place. We were, at the time, staunch electric car champions. 

A decade later, though, my electric enthusiasm has started to lose its charge.

We were sold on Better Place because we believed electric vehicles (EVs) represented a small but significant step towards reducing the ravages of climate change. EVs would help wean the world off fossil fuels, reduce pollution-related illness and death, while providing a smoother, faster and more sophisticated ride.

None of that has changed, per se, but EVs, it turns out, aren’t as carbon neutral as I’d once hoped.

The problem isn’t while cruising around town, where the emissions from EVs (there are none) are far superior to their gas-guzzling counterparts. Rather it’s what happens before the car is even assembled – and what happens when it’s time to put that EV out to pasture.

Steve Greenfield, founder and CEO of Automotive Ventures, a venture capital fund focused on investments in the mobility space and author of the forthcoming book The Future of Automotive Retail, shared with me some sobering facts.

One of the key elements making up the modern electric car battery is lithium. Mining it is far from climate friendly, requiring some 70,000 liters of water to make a single ton of lithium. 

More than half of global lithium resources is located in the so-called “lithium triangle” between Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. The lithium must then be sent – on decidedly carbon unfriendly ships – to China, where 80% of the world’s lithium-ion batteries are made.

EV batteries also require cobalt, where the waste generated from mining this metal pollutes both air and soil, leading to decreased crop yields, contaminated food and water, and respiratory and reproductive health issues. As for the atmosphere, mining cobalt releases both CO2 and nitrogen dioxide. 

There’s also the human cost

More than 70% of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an estimated 200,000 miners – including 25,000 children – can be found digging underground in small-scale “artisanal mines” with little oversight and even fewer safety measures.

“Cobalt is an essential mineral for the green transition,” says Anneke Van Woudenberg who directs the corporate watchdog Raid, “but we must not turn away from the abusive labor conditions that taint the lithium-ion batteries needed for millions of electric vehicles.” 

At the other end of an EV’s life, another environmental calamity awaits: Electric cars have nowhere to go to die

Traditional internal combustion engine vehicles, after they’ve reached a certain age, are either stripped down for parts or, if they’re still roadworthy, sent to emerging economies where they embark on a second life. 

In the first case, when an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle passes its prime, a network of global “dismantlers” stands at the ready to take it apart and sell off any raw materials. Dismantlers have serious concerns regarding EVs, however, Steve told me: Electric car batteries have been known to explode and the chemicals in them can be toxic if not handled carefully. 

As for giving EVs a second life, there’s little appetite for them at the present moment in much of Africa, India or Asia, where electric charge spots are nearly non-existent – although, as Yosef Abramowitz, CEO of Gigawatt Global, told me, “Distributed solar charge spots could be a good solution” in places where the power grid is spotty and reliable delivery of fuel is tenuous. 

Despite all these very real problems, nearly every automotive manufacturer has plans to electrify its offerings in the coming years. General Motors CEO Mary Barra says her company will stop making gasoline-powered cars entirely by 2035. And the success of Tesla is undeniable: In February of this year, the company’s valuation was roughly six times the market value of GM and Ford combined.

It’s understandable why battery-powered electric vehicles have become the next big thing. Batteries are a well-understood technology that can be tweaked to provide better range and energy density, as opposed to something entirely new that still requires years of R&D.

And yet, I sometimes feel that electric car enthusiasts and manufacturers have a blind spot when it comes to the EV’s overall benefit in ameliorating climate change.

I don’t mean to be a curmudgeon by throwing shade on the electric battery juggernaut that has enraptured so many. The problems with lithium-ion battery disposal and recycling will eventually be solved. New battery technologies are coming that will reduce our reliance on cobalt

Other fuel types – hydrogen in particular – hold promise, too, if not for cars (that train has long since left the station) then for transportation that entails longer distances than a rack of limited-range batteries can handle (think air travel, where being forced to land a dozen times en route in order to recharge is a non-starter). 

Plus, the only emissions from a hydrogen-powered vehicle are water vapor, although producing hydrogen remains problematic. (Reconfiguring the grid to generate electricity from renewables such as solar, wind and hydro will be key here – for charging EVs, too.)

I loved our Better Place Fluence Z.E. Despite getting burned when the company declared bankruptcy in 2013, we will probably buy another EV when the time comes. 

But let’s be prudent and remove our ideological blinders. EVs are not a magic panacea. They may be the most immediate and functional approach to addressing climate change on an individual level, but there is still much work to be done. 

The future of transportation technology will ultimately be more nuanced than today’s evangelical all-or-nothing EV approach.

I first waxed pessimistic about EVs and climate change at The Jerusalem Post.

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Would you give up on orgasm? Mon, 06 Jun 2022 19:25:11 +0000

My six-month-old grandson doesn’t know what sex is. Heck, he doesn’t know what food tastes like or what walking, crawling or even sitting up entails. 

Would you say he has the cognitive capabilities to give up on any of those future abilities – for the rest of his life?

No, of course, you wouldn’t. These types of major decisions should only be made by someone who has already experienced them first hand and knows what he or she’s forsaking. So why are medical experts encouraging young children to embark on massively disruptive procedures that could prevent them from enjoying some of the greatest pleasures of living.

I’m talking about prescribing puberty blockers and other meds that prep pre-teens for a transition from one gender identity to another. However, new research reveals a shocking side effect: Gender dysphoric kids who take puberty blockers – which are meant to delay or entirely block the normal development of secondary sexual characteristics – may never be able to have an orgasm. 

Dr. Marci Bowers, a vaginoplasty surgeon who herself transitioned when she was 38, spoke recently at a virtual conference hosted by Duke University. “Every single child or adolescent who was truly blocked atTanner Stage 2 [when hormones begin their work of advancing a child to adulthood] has never experienced orgasm. I mean, it’s really about zero.”

The problem is most acute for boys, where going on blockers means the adolescent won’t generate enough, if any, testosterone. As a result, the boy’s genitals won’t develop to maturity, leading to a “lack of skin for creating a female vulva” if vaginoplasty is eventually chosen, Bowers added.

Former editor of The New Republic and host of The Dishcast, Andrew Sullivan, got even more graphic on a recent episode of his podcast

“If you are a prepubescent boy and they decide to put you on puberty blockers and, in due course, on cross-sex hormones before the natural testosterone of puberty hits you, one of the side effects is that the boy won’t have the material to turn into a clitoris,” Sullivan said. “So not only will this boy be sterilized, he will never experience orgasm as a woman. How do you explain to a nine-year-old that they will never have an orgasm when they don’t even know what an orgasm is!”

But the decision-making process has been set up as a false binary with parents being admonished, “Would you rather have a live girl or a dead boy?” Sullivan noted, referring to data from the Trevor Project that found half of pre-transition transgender boys and girls considered suicide in the past year. 

But are meds and surgery the only way to prevent such outcomes? 

Jewish tradition is surprisingly supportive of what we’d today call gender fluidity. The Mishna, for example, describes six different genders. In addition to “male” (zachar) and “female” (nekevah), we also find:

  • Androgynos – one who has both male and female physical sexual characteristics.
  • Tumtum – one whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured.
  • Ay’lonit – one who is identified as female at birth but at puberty develops male characteristics.
  • Saris – one who appears male at birth but later takes on more typically female biology either naturally or through human intervention.

I have no problem with individuals choosing to change their sexual identification. Rather, it’s the pushing of irreversible medical intervention before consent can be reasonably given that gets my gender goat.

That’s not the position of the American Medical Association, which states that “standards of care and accepted medically necessary services that affirm gender or treat gender dysphoria may include mental health counseling, non-medical social transition, gender-affirming hormone therapy, and/or gender-affirming surgeries.”

The tide may be changing. 

In addition to Bowers’ clarion call, clinics in Finland and Sweden have now “stopped routine hormonal treatment of youth under age 18 and put psychological interventions and social support ahead of medical interventions,” wrote Carol Tavris in Skeptic.

So-called “detransitioners” (people who transitioned from one gender to another and then returned) are starting to speak up, too. 

“I have this intense rage over the harm that was done to me,” detransitioner Julie, 27, told Common Sense contributor Suzy Weiss. Julie called her treatment a “collaborative idiocy,” drawing together her parents, therapists and doctors. “It took a goddamn village.”

What should we do instead? The answer may be found in an experience my wife, Jody, and I had while attending a class reunion at Oberlin College a few years back.

Oberlin is a big biking town, so shortly after we arrived, we visited the campus cycle shop to rent two-wheelers for the weekend. We were greeted by a lovely salesperson with a long beard and a deep voice wearing a dress

I didn’t ask if our salesperson had plans to medically transition at some point. That wasn’t the point, in any case; rather it was that you can identify however you like without medication and without surgery.

Why can’t we promote this kind of approach instead of puberty blockers? It would take a societal change, to be sure – an acceptance of new modalities for gender identification – but isn’t that better than inflicting indelible changes on youth too young to know what they’re signing up for? After all, a biological male in a dress with a penis can still experience orgasm.

Corrina Cohn, who had sex reassignment surgery when she was 19, may have what’s the most felicitous last word. “Sex is essential in healthy relationships,” she wrote in The Washington Post. “Give it a chance before permanently altering your body.”

I first shared my discomfort with puberty blockers at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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Coping with “Pandemilash” Fri, 20 May 2022 13:33:44 +0000

Consider the following snapshots from our mid-2022 coronavirus reality show.

Collecting masks on a plane

Covid is over. So many people have been infected that the end must be near. Or maybe it’s not, since Omicron’s evil stepchildren (the BAs) can reinfect us all – potentially, according to some reports, just a couple of months after a first bout.

A judge in Florida struck down the U.S. government’s mask mandate on public transportation. Flight attendants were shown in videos gleefully collecting masks, chanting, “Wave ‘em in the air like you just don’t care.” Passengers were equally jubilant – except for those who were caught psychologically unprepared for what’s being dubbed the “choose your own adventure” phase of the pandemic. Israel will end its own mask requirement on international flights leaving the country next week.

Masks on or off, Israel halted PCR testing for visitors – Israeli citizens and tourists – at Ben-Gurion Airport as of today, May 20. Yet, by mid-April, nearly 4,000 tourists caught Covid while in Israel. How will we stop future spreads without testing?

It’s enough to give even the most casual observer whiplash. Or in the spirit of the day, “pandemilash.”

I get it, I do. The last two plus years of Covid-19 restrictions have been characterized by rules that zig every time the virus zags. Let’s not forget how Israel dropped its indoor mask mandate in 2021 – for all of two weeks before Delta came raging in and the requirement was quickly reinstated. 

Are we making the same mistake this time? Or has something profoundly changed – vaccines that prevent severe cases and hospitalization; treatments like Paxlovid, Evusheld and monoclonal antibodies, a (currently) less virulent variant – that means we can lighten up and live with the virus?

I’m not immune to the joys of shopping maskless or eating out in restaurants indoors. Once you’ve gotten Covid, as my entire family has now, you tend to feel invincible, like a protein spiky superhero. I had resigned myself to wearing a mask indefinitely, but in the last few weeks, I’ve been to parties, art exhibits, even ridden on public transit – all without my Sonovia. It’s felt fabulous.

After all, “What’s more fun than coming to a holiday celebration, without masks?” asked Prof. Yehuda Adler, an expert in cardiology and internal medicine, before adding the caveat: “I think that [the authorities] acted too soon.

Part of the dilemma is that those of us who’ve had Covid know better what to expect. It’s true that the next time could be very different, but it seems my body can in fact mount a reasonable defense, such that Covid will unlikely be fatal – for me at least. (Long Covid is another worry entirely.)

As a result, the idea of getting reinfected has gone from being an existential terror to a minor, albeit non-trivial, annoyance. 

Let me be clear: I absolutely don’t want to get reinfected. Researchers at Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge have found that serious cases can lead to a decrease in IQ of up to 10 points – equivalent to 20 years of aging!

But I’m feeling pretty confident that if I do get corona again – and unless it’s while traveling in a country where I might not have access to the most potent antivirals – it won’t fell me.

Or as Dr. Anthony Fauci put it, “Things are looking good. We don’t want to get overconfident, but they look like they’re going in the right direction.”

Still, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that I may be putting myself (and others) at unnecessary risk, even as I follow the Ministry of Health’s most recent regulations. 

“Nobody is going to be able to tell us what will happen,” Anne Rimoin, an epidemiologist at UCLA, told The New York Times. “The ending is not written yet.”

“When you’ve got something as transmissible as Omicron, you don’t need it to be incredibly severe to really screw things up,” warned Bill Hanage, a public health researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Or as Kate Cagney, the director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, said in an interview with Vox, “We don’t have a consistent algorithm that we’re all following.”

Perhaps the biggest cause of the “pandemilash” so many of us are experiencing is the sudden shift from concern for the common good to an attitude of “what’s in it for me?” 

That shouldn’t be so surprising 

Anti-maskers have long positioned this as a question of personal liberty. That is, if one is not personally at risk, why wear a face covering at all?

The official attitude has transitioned from an initial approach of “avoid infection at all costs” to “getting infected is a largely acceptable risk of getting life back to normal,” wrote Dylan Scott in Vox.

Even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control website has revised its guidance. “Wear a mask with the best fit, protection and comfort for you” (emphasis mine), the CDC website states.

When Washington Post columnist Kate Cohen was recovering from her own Covid infection, she asked a health department employee when it would be safe for her to be around others. 

“Use your conscience,” the worker said with a shrug. 

“I wish I didn’t have to,” Cohen wrote. “But without a mandate to make us act out of concern for others, conscience is all we’ve got.”

Unfortunately, it’s our sharply divergent consciences that got us into the “pandemilash” we’re in today.

I first coined the term “pandemilash” at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo by Lukas Souza on Unsplash

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Dreaming of Dubai Sun, 08 May 2022 10:14:56 +0000

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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What was your most unique Pesach Seder? Sun, 24 Apr 2022 12:26:53 +0000

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 

“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 got Covid. Paxlovid saved my life Sun, 10 Apr 2022 09:30:25 +0000

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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Palestine is not Ukraine Sun, 27 Mar 2022 07:21:14 +0000

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 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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With Covid, how many antibodies are enough? Sun, 13 Mar 2022 10:39:52 +0000

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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Israeli TV for my mom Mon, 28 Feb 2022 11:49:16 +0000

My mother loves Israeli TV. 

Scene from Fauda

She got hooked after her first visit here in 2012. Since then, she devours anything in Hebrew (with English subtitles) and she looks to me, her son in the Holy Land, for advice. She’s not squeamish, so she can handle the violence of Fauda, and she loves a good romance, making the Baker and the Beauty a top pick.

With those criteria in mind, here are my top Israeli TV picks for Mom.

  1. Fauda. Israel’s breakout hit on Netflix, Fauda tells the ongoing story of Israeli counterterrorism agents who operate (mostly) incognito in the West Bank, Gaza and, in its coming fourth season, Europe. It’s gripping and well-acted with cliffhangers every few minutes.
  2. Hit and Run. Starring Fauda’s Lior Raz, this Netflix-funded thriller set in Tel Aviv and New York was canceled despite a gripping first season finale cliffhanger. We enjoyed it even knowing the mysteries wouldn’t be resolved. Raz plays a tour guide trying to get to the bottom of who killed his American-born wife.
  3. Tehran. With a similar vibe to Fauda and Hit and Run, Tehran stars Niv Sultan as a crack programmer and Mossad agent who’s sent to Iran to sabotage the country’s defense systems. Sultan naturally runs into problems … and romance. The twists and turns will have you looking forward to Season 2, coming May 2022.
  4. False Flag. Based on the real-life headlines where the Mossad allegedly stole the identity of several Israeli-British citizens in order to take out a Hamas terrorist in Dubai, False Flag shifts the story to the kidnapping of the Iranian minister of defense in Moscow. AppleTV+ just released an American version, dubbed Suspicion.
  5. Yellow Peppers and On the Spectrum. These two Israeli shows revolve around three individuals on the autism spectrum looking for love. (Please note: This is not the same as the Netflix reality series, Love on the Spectrum.) I’ve never been able to find either series with English subtitles. However, Jason Katims, who memorably created the character of Max Braverman for the TV series, Parenthood, has remade On the Spectrum as As We See It. Yellow Peppers was relocated from Israel’s Negev desert to Britain’s Lake District and renamed The A Word. 
  6. Prisoners of War. This is the Israeli series that spawned U.S. megahit Homeland. But don’t be fooled: The two are very different and it’s worth watching both, which involve prisoners who return from years-long captivity and are suspected of being double agents. Homeland is more action packed than Prisoners of War, which delves deep into the Israeli psyche.
  7. Kathmandu. A loosely based dramatization of Nepal’s first Chabad emissaries, Chezki and Chani Lifshitz, Kathmandu is notable both for its exotic Himalayan locations and the appearance of a young Gal Gadot. We watched this after our own trip to Nepal and loved it. 
  8. The Good Cop and Kupat Rashit. The original version of The Good Cop (not the American remake) is a supremely silly show will keep you in stitches if you can get past the over-the-top racist, sexist and misogynist situations that take place at a small-town Israel police station. Kupat Rashit (“Checkout!” in English) is the Israeli equivalent of the American series, Superstore, but with situations that will be uproariously familiar to anyone who has ever shopped in a local supermarket.
  9. Our Boys. I didn’t want to watch this at first as I thought it would be too triggering. A mini-series that starts with the real-life kidnapping and killing of Israeli teenagers Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frankel in 2014, the program focuses most of its 10 episodes on the revenge murder of East Jerusalem teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir. It evolves into a smart procedural that shows how the police ultimately cracked the case.
  10. Valley of Tears. Also on the “Do I really want to watch a show about war and death?” list, this drama about the carnage of the Yom Kippur War was certainly devastating although it’s ultimately more about the characters’ humanity than any fighting. Still, there’s no way to sanitize the 1973 war that took the lives of 2,656 Israelis.
  11. Autonomies. I bought a subscription to streaming service Topic just to watch this show, which imagines an alternate reality where Jerusalem secedes from the state of Israel, creating an all-Orthodox autonomous region with borders and passport control. When a young girl is discovered to have been switched at birth, conflict ensues.
  12. Other shows about Orthodox Jews. Fascination with “the other” is part of what turned Shtisel into a surprise Netflix hit. Shtisel is joined by Mekimi, a five-part drama based on the real-life transformation of TV personality Noa Yaron-Dayan into a haredi woman; Srugim, Eliezer “Laizy” Shapiro’s three-season exploration of the lives of national religious singles in Jerusalem; Kipat Barzel, a drama about an ultra-Orthodox combat unit; and Shababnikim, a comedy about rebellious yeshiva students in Jerusalem.
  13. American remakes of Israeli shows. False Flag was just one of a string of Israeli TV hits that have been remade recently. Also included: The Baker and the Beauty (skip the remake and watch the original on Amazon Prime); Hostages (ditto, the original is far superior); When Heroes Fly (to be called Echo 3 when it’s released later this year in the U.S.); Euphoria; Your Honor; and In Treatment.
  14. Still on my list: I watch a lot of TV (and even more during the pandemic) but I haven’t seen everything. Still on my list: Losing Alice, The Girl from Oslo, Black Space, Chazarot (Rehearsals), A Touch Away, Embezzlement, Asylum City, Mossad 101 and Stockholm. 

The only question is who will get to these first – me or my mom?

I first proposed some Israeli TV shows for my mom at The Jerusalem Post.

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Playing Space Invaders with my eyes Mon, 14 Feb 2022 16:17:49 +0000

Zap, crackle, ping. 

Dr. Geller’s vitreolysis laser in Florida

Dr. Scott Geller is playing Space Invaders with my vision, aiming a high powered (and very real) laser beam into my eyes to “pulverize” the floaters that have made my life an optical misery following complications from cataract surgery in 2019.

Space Invaders, of course, refers to the popular video game released in 1978. But the laser Geller uses is the real deal, not some pixelated version on the screen of a machine in the corner of a dank gaming arcade. And the cost, at $2,500 per eye, is far more than a few lonely quarters spent during a midnight study break at university.

Floaters are a natural part of growing older. Microscopic fibers within the jelly-like vitreous humor can clump together, casting shadows on the retina as they float about (hence the name “floaters”). For most people, they’re innocuous – little black flecks or semi-transparent strands that look like sperm cells under a microscope.

For an unlucky few, though, they can be incredibly bothersome: large grey blobs and clouds of thousands of dots and squiggles that bounce around anytime you change your gaze. Stare them down and they dart away. Ignore them and they show up when you’re least expecting them; tiny flies that you can never escape from but that you’ll find yourself trying to swat away just the same.

My floaters got so bad that it became hard to drive, read or work on the computer. I had both a blob (technically known as a “Weiss ring”) and a cloud that blurred my vision, swishing from side to side with windshield wiper-like alacrity. 

The gold standard to “fix” floaters is called a vitrectomy. A retinal surgeon pokes three holes in your eyeballs and drains the vitreous fluid, along with any floaters, replacing it with a saline solution. It’s invasive and eye doctors are generally reluctant to do it.

The laser alternative, vitreolysis, seemed much safer to me, requiring no cutting or recovery period, just some well-aimed, high-powered zaps. 

There are only a few doctors in the world that specialize in vitreolysis. Geller is one of the pioneers of the treatment and has done some 20,000 laser sessions over a 30-year career. He uses a Swiss-made laser that costs $500,000. He has two of them in his office in Ft. Myers, Florida, which is where I flew last year to get zapped. 

The trip itself was nerve-wracking: Florida during the pandemic has not exactly been the safest place to be and the hassles of traveling under the specter of Covid are not for the faint of heart. But I was determined.

Here’s how vitreolysis works: After I was fully dilated, Geller affixed a contact lens with a metal appendage that looked like a small silver saltshaker to my left eye in order to focus the laser (and keep my eye from blinking). 

I leaned into the machine. A blinding light made me squirm. 

“Hold still,” Geller instructed, as he adjusted my chin slightly to the left. 

Three red beams appeared and began to circle. Those were not the laser, but a tracking ray that helps the operator identify where to shoot. 

And then – a sudden flash of red lightning with an audible zing. I could actually see the floaters splatter apart. If my floaters were missiles from Gaza, Geller’s laser would be my tiny Iron Dome.

Another shot, then another and another, 438 in total. 

Geller turned to my other eye, which had less floaters and required “only” 96 shots. 

“That’s it for today,” Geller said, finally. “We’ll meet up again tomorrow.”

Geller’s methodology includes up to four treatments on subsequent days, as long as there’s no increase in intraocular pressure. (There wasn’t.) 

Struggling to see my phone’s screen through my light-sensitive dilated eyes, I called an Uber to return to my room at the Ft. Myers Crowne Plaza.

I climbed into bed where, for the next five hours, curtains drawn tightly shut, my eyes continued to ache and burn; it felt like a knife was stabbing directly into my cornea. I drifted in and out of delirium.

The next day, we did 200 or so shots on the left eye and 47 on the right. Each session, the zaps decreased (the pain unfortunately did not) as Geller tried to break up any remaining blobs and flecks. On the last day, he fired a mere 19 shots.

As the anesthesia wore off after the fourth and final treatment, I surveyed the world around me. The result was…disappointing. Geller had managed to pulverize the biggest gray blob, which was an achievement, but there were now smaller flecks. And he wasn’t able to address the cloud of floaters at all.

Then, a week after the treatment, the gray blob started to re-form.

Geller’s office asks patients to sign a plethora of forms stating that the treatment is not guaranteed to work, so he wasn’t being duplicitous. Geller knows his stuff and deserves his reputation as having the most experience with vitreolysis in the world. 

Am I frustrated that it didn’t work the way I’d hoped? Absolutely. If I’d known the outcome in advance, I wouldn’t have made the pilgrimage to Ft. Myers in the midst of a pandemic. But at least now I can decide what comes next from a place of knowledge, with no regrets or second guessing. 

Vitreolysis is most appropriate if you have just a small and discrete Weiss ring. If, however, your floaters include a large cloudy haze like mine, vitrectomy may be your only option. 

That will be my next step. And this time I won’t have to fly all the way to Florida. There are surgeons right here in Jerusalem, covered 100% by our socialized health insurance.

I first wrote about my adventures in Florida for The Jerusalem Post.

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