Sex, Jews, and the Undeniable Resurgence of Dr. Ruth

The 85-year-old former Kindertransport child and Haganah sniper is still talking sex in the media and making waves.

America’s only 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, Haganah veteran and sex therapist is back, bringing her legions of fans more of her practical (imagine it said with a richly rolling “r”) wisdom about relationships and intimacy in a German accent so impressive it could cut streuselkuchen.

“You changed sex for America!” comedian Jerry Seinfeld told Dr. Ruth Westheimer on her television show in 1986 (a clip that can be seen on her YouTube channel.) Though the author of 35 books lectures widely and never truly went away, she is enjoying an undeniable resurgence. An Off Broadway show about Dr. Ruth’s life opened in late October (she hopes to bring it to the Cameri Theater, she said in an interview) and a new television show, “The Wisdom of Dr. Ruth Westheimer,” is scheduled to debut November 18th on cable television channel Shalom TV.

If a few brief advance clips are any indicator, the 15-minute weekly broadcast will feature Dr. Ruth’s usual down-to-earth directness about all matters sexual and emotional, but also integrate more of her personal history than she brought up on her earlier radio and television shows, which started with “Sexually Speaking” as a radio show in 1980 and became a TV show two years later. The new show “will use a lot of my knowledge about the Talmud and Jewish tradition, but it is basically about sex and relationships; family life and values. It will be about my values,” Westheimer told Haaretz.

The Off Broadway show (“I like to say ‘Near Broadway,’ not ‘Off Broadway,’” quipped Westheimer), titled “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” recently got a negative write up in The New York Times. The critic slammed “lackluster writing” and “pedestrian direction,” but praised Westheimer for her “courage, resilience, humanity and intellect” and “the tremendous suffering she endured on the way to becoming the beloved matron who taught 1980s America not to be ashamed of sex.”

While Westheimer’s public persona is well known to Americans, her personal history is less familiar.

Born in Germany in 1928, her father was imprisoned on Kristallnacht. When she was 10, her mother put her on a Kindertransport train to a Jewish school in Switzerland, “which became an orphanage,” Westheimer said. She never saw any of her family members again. In 1945, at 17, she went to Palestine. “All of us joined some group to make sure that Israel exists and I was a member of the Haganah,” she told Haaretz. In the Haganah she served as a sniper and lookout. She was badly wounded on her 20th birthday, when a cannon shell fired from Jordan crashed into Beit Hahalutzot, a student residence in Rehavia, killing three students and injured many more. Part of her right leg was blown off, the 1.4 meter Westheimer told Haaretz, but “that’s not why I’m short. I would have been short anyway.”

“I was lucky in having the perfect surgeon. I can dance a whole night if I find a good partner. Until recently, I was a real good skier and water skier,” said Westheimer, who gave up extreme sports five years ago but remains an avid hiker. “Last year I went hiking with my 50-year-old son and his family in the Swiss Alps and did very well!”

In 1951, Westheimer and her husband (the first of three) moved from Israel to Paris, where he studied medicine and she ran a Jewish kindergarten. In 1956 she came to New York on a visit, “and I stayed,” she said, while he returned to Israel and they divorced. “And looked what happened. I became Dr. Ruth,” she said.

But she became Dr. Ruth “by chance,” she said. She had no burning desire to become America’s most famous sex therapist and surely remains the only 85-year-old woman in America who has endorsed a vibrator touted in a banner ad at the top of her website.

Westheimer first worked in a research department at Columbia University’s school of public health and then moved to Planned Parenthood of New York City, where she trained paraprofessionals to counsel Harlem residents on family planning. She earned a doctorate in education from Columbia’s Teacher’s College and continued her professional development at Cornell University Medical Center, where Dr. Helen Singer-Kaplan became her mentor. That led to the radio program, which led to the television program. All the while she raised a son and a daughter in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in northern Manhattan, which was at the time populated heavily by German-Jewish immigrants.

The radio people “said I should lose my accent. I ignored it. I didn’t have the money to go to speech therapy,” Westheimer told Haaretz. And no one could pronounce her last name, which is why she became known as “Dr. Ruth.”

Her 1980 radio show was an almost instant success. Everyone in New York, it seemed, was listening to this woman with a thick German accent talk about sex.

“You didn’t have to be embarrassed to be listening to her show,” said Bat Sheva Marcus, a sex therapist who is co-founder and clinical director of the Medical Center for Female Sexuality, in Manhattan and Westchester. “Until then, everyone was whispering about sex. And all of a sudden you could listen on the radio and talk about it afterward with your friends. At Yeshiva University everybody would be sitting in the halls listening to the radio” when Dr. Ruth was on, said Marcus, who says that her patients often exclaim “You remind me of Dr. Ruth!” because they are both short.

Westheimer’s was “really the first and only show where people were talking about sex in an everyday, non-histrionic way. And that was really amazing,” said Marcus. “Her biggest contribution was that she brought it into the mainstream conversation. She made talking about sex very accessible.”

While lots has changed since Dr. Ruth first hit the airwaves, some things remain the same. “Women have learned they have to take the responsibility for their sexual satisfaction,” Westheimer told Haaretz, when asked about what has shifted in her time as a sex educator. “There is certainly more explicitness. If it’s in good taste and coupled with a relationship I have no trouble with it,” she said. Asked about the Miley Cyrusification of sexuality in the public sphere, she politely demurred, saying, “on that I don’t comment.”

But many of the things she is asked are perennial. “The questions I get are still are about loneliness and specific questions about sexuality,” she said.

Being halfway through her octogenarian years isn’t slowing Westheimer down. She regularly lectures at universities from Princeton to Yale, and in the spring term is slated to teach as an adjunct professor at Columbia Teacher’s College. Her third husband, Manfred Westheimer, whom she met in 1961 on a ski vacation, died in 1997. She continues to travel every year to Israel and to Switzerland, the countries where she grew up. Last summer, while traveling with a 97-year-old former cow dealer in Switzerland, she saw how a cow was artificially inseminated. “Now I’ve done it all,” she laughed in an interview. “Even my friend had never seen that.”

She is currently working on two new books, one titled “The Myth of Love” and another about what she calls “the Scrooge effect. “People who are very tight with money can’t be good lovers, because to be a good lover you have to be generous and rejoice in the pleasure of the other person,” she explained to Haaretz.

When asked if she has considered retiring, Dr. Ruth is adamant. “Never,” she said. “Next question. I don’t retire, I rewire.”

AP
AP
Pierre Lahar