On Making Nice

By Masha Leon

Published November 24, 2006, issue of November 24, 2006.
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“There’s enough estrogen at our place to make even Arnold Schwarzenegger ovulate,” said Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO and chief creative officer of The Kaplan Thaler Group, Ltd. She was the featured speaker at The Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York October 30 symposium, held in UJA’s [Manhattan] headquarters. “Ours is the only [advertising] agency owned and run by women,” said Thaler, who wrote the jingle “I don’t want to grow up” for Toys “R” Us, and created the ubiquitous chuckle-eliciting AFLAC duck commercial campaign. With Robin Koval, agency president, Thaler co-authored “The Power of Nice: How To Conquer the Business World With Kindness” (Doubleday) — a book chock-full of personal, professional and political scenarios that demonstrate how a smile, a warm gesture, an insight, transformed an adversary/enemy into a colleague/friend. This quick-read “how to” also offers anecdotal tidbits, such as why beer steins were clinked: the ale would splash together, and everyone would know that the brew was not poisoned!

“Growing up in the Bronx, I learned a lot of four-letter words. One of them was ‘nice’…. We are becoming an ever-ruder society. We are taught that being nice gets you nowhere, but… nice people get sued less, live longer, divorce less… are better employers…. You should be nice to everyone, because you never know.” Thaler quoted Anne Frank: “‘No one has ever become poor from giving,’” and mentioned that “a rabbi in New Mexico delivered a Yom Kippur sermon on “The Power of Nice.”

In the chapter “Help Your Enemies,” Thaler recalls a 2005 National Press Club panel at which Newt Gingrich “was heard praising Senator Hillary Clinton, saying such things as ‘Senator Clinton is exactly right…Hillary is so correct in the direction that she laid out.’” Yet in the mid-1990s, Thaler notes, “Gingrich, as majority leader of the House, lacerated Clinton’s health care proposals and called for the impeachment of her husband. Now suddenly they are best buddies?” Admitting that this did not signal “a permanent detente between the Democrats and the Republicans,” Thaler proposed that “if Newt and Hillary can work together at least some of the time, surely we can all look for common ground with our own so-called enemies.”

Which reminds me of my own “nice” encounter with Gingrich in 1995, when he was the recipient of the Intrepid Freedom Award aboard the Intrepid Sea & Air Space Museum. My daughter Karen and I had been invited as both guests and press. (We had met Zachary Fisher, who had saved the Intrepid from being scuttled and had evocative memories of the Forverts from his childhood). That night, the crush and jostling of photographers was so disruptive, the Secret Service and security crew hustled them out of the reception area but allowed Karen and me to join the guests on the receiving line. When our turn came, I asked Gingrich for a photo-op for the Forward. He smiled and put his arm around me. Just then, Karen’s camera jammed! After half a dozen attempts the camera seemed to be kaput. As the security crew was about to escort Karen out of position, Gingrich called out: “Hold it! Let her stay! Come on Karen, keep trying,” he urged. As he waited patiently, she coaxed the camera back to life. Politics aside, this “nice” moment was a perfect example of how perceptions are influenced by unexpected gestures of graciousness.

Founded in 1995, The Women’s Foundation of New York addresses the needs of women and girls in the New York Jewish community that focuses on economic, religious, social and political issues, domestic violence and women new to Judaism. “Working It Through” is a recent program for women in the Israeli army. It’s designed to help them maintain their identity as women in what has been a male-dominated institution.


“People flock to museums because these public spaces provide refuge from day-to-day problems, a shelter from storms of politics and war, places to wonder at the miracle of life and the importance of art,” said Stephen Lash, president of the American Friends of the Israel Museum, at the museum’s October 30 architecture gala at the Waldorf-Astoria. “Museums… reflect our ability, our duty…to create such places of reflection for successive generations in order to remind them that the human spirit at its most inspired strives to build, not destroy; aims for peace, not war; seeks to preserve not forget, and prepares for and welcomes the future by celebrating and acknowledging the past.”

Bathed in floor-to-ceiling columns of blue fluorescent lights, the ballroom was breathtakingly beautiful. Oblong silver-cloth covered tables seating 10, graced by white-orchid centerpieces that displayed name cards separating couples, thus encouraging new encounters and fresh conversation. Among the black-tie and gowned guests were honorary gala chairs Judy and Michael Steinhardt, gala underwriters Ingerborg (a newly minted Forward subscriber) and Ira Leon Rennert and Marion Wiesel.

Lash noted that among the nearly 670 international guests (of whom 10% came from eight countries), there were “163 young supporters” who helped raise $2.75 million” to “reinvigorate the buildings” of the 40-year old museum campus, including the “powerfully expressive Shrine of the Book.” Situated on Jerusalem’s Hill of Tranquility, the world-class museum boasts more than 500,000 objects, including collections of European Old Masters, contemporary art, and rare objects from America, Africa, Oceania and the Far East. Construction is due to begin in 2007, with a completion date of 2010. The aim is to add 80,000 square feet of new construction with 140,00 square feet of renewed gallery space “within the museum’s existing 500,000 square-foot envelope.”

Citing New Yorker magazine architecture critic Paul Goldberger, Lash noted: “’Architecture is more essential, not less essential, in times of difficulty…. Abraham Lincoln insisted that the building of the dome of the Capital continue during the Civil War, even though manpower was scarce and money scarcer still; he knew that the rising dome was a symbol of the nation coming together Lincoln also knew that there was value in making new symbols as well as preserving old ones, and that building new was one way of affirming a belief in the future.’”


Fanya Gottesfeld Heller hosted the October 26 cocktail reception for Paideia-The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, at her Fifth Avenue apartment. Recently returned from Stockholm, where she had been the first Holocaust survivor to speak at Paideia, Heller declared: “They want to be Jews… Jewish learning has to be continued…. Yiddishkeit has to be continued.”

Moshe Halbertal of Hebrew University, Paideia’s chairman of the board, told the select gathering: “I grew up a son of a Holocaust survivor. How to fill this void, to re-create what was lost? We must resist the fatalism of our horrors. The issue is the capacity of religion…to embrace modernity in a full way…. We are all concerned how to pass on to the next generation of Jews…what was something very deep in previous generations…. Paideia represents deep learning in a pluralistic space. Paideia does not reject what is good about modern values. [It’s] a Yeshiva with open windows…. If observant, you have to be willing to study Torah next to someone who is totally assimilated, and possibly not even halachically Jewish.”

According to Halbertal, the “elite cadre of 25 students and graduates from 22 European countries [who come to Paideia] “are not Jews by persecution…. They don’t feel that sense of gut solidarity with Israel [that’s] instinctual. Today [for them] Jewish identity can be based on real intimate learning…a knowledge of Jewish past and culture,” Halbertal stressed. “These are accomplished people…. You can’t infantilize them. They have not been corrupted in their youth by reading the text. In Israel we are experiencing the same thing — young Israelis are searching for Jewish identity.”

Barbara Spectre, founding director of Paideia, commented that on average the students are 30 years old “and oozing with talent and ability.” Paideia deputy director Noomi Weinryb, also a graduate of the program, told me her grandparents came from Piotrokow, Poland. “They arrived in 1945 in the ‘white buses’ [provided by] Count Bernadotte, who brought refugees to Sweden…. Stockholm’s Jewish community has become like a laboratory [for the students] to practice how to integrate their Jewish interpretation of texts and rituals. What do you do? How do you live in your professional life?” Someone mentioned that one student, a lawyer from Portugal, whose mother had been a Marrano, wanted to learn to speak Yiddish! According to Judy Peck, director, Paideia USA, [an unnamed] German professor at Paideia had “three conversions — first Reform, then Conservative, and finally settled on Orthodox.”


The November 6 American Friends of Sheba Medical Center Tel Hashomer Lunch/Fashion Show Benefit, held at New York’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, featured Israeli designer Mira Zaellinger’s haute couture (not sure how you say it in Hebrew) fashion show, displayed by asparagus-thin models strutting down a runway set up amid the luncheon tables. Israeli chanteuse Karin Lapidot in a strapless black slinky satin dress belted out Israeli hits, and London-based Alisa Moussaieff’s stratospherically priced diamond, ruby and emerald necklaces, rings, bracelets and earrings completed the glitz portion of the luncheon. Sheba’s director, Zeev Rotstein, who flew in from Israel for the event, touted Sheba, the largest medical center in Israel and the Middle East. Sheba’s medical community comprises 6,000 health professionals including 950 doctors who treat more than 107,000 inpatients and more than 1 million outpatients a year. Situated on a 150-acre campus outside of Tel Aviv, it delivers more than 10,000 babies each year, and it is the main clinical trial venue for human health scientific studies conducted by the Weizmann Institute of Science, Tel-Aviv and Bar-Ilan universities, and more. Sheba also operates Israel’s only Eating Disorders Clinic for Adults; its Rehabilitation Hospital is Israel’s national center for victims of terror.

My first connection with Sheba Medical Center was in 1994, when I received an invite to cover a fundraiser hosted at the Bel Air home of Diane and William Ellis. If I remember correctly, the admission was $25,000 a couple. The evening was oversubscribed. Jehan Sadat who, in the past had presented the Sheba Award to Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli, said to the evening’s honoree, Leah Rabin: “Tonight is special, because we have with us Mrs. Rabin, wife of a courageous leader who is changing the map of the Middle East…”

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