INTERVIEW: The One and Only Dr. Ruth
Tiny German dynamo Dr. Ruth Westheimer is as busy as ever in her 87th year. She comes to town next week to speak at the National Museum of American Jewish History for its annual Dreamers and Doers series. The therapist who made her reputation with frank talk about sex, still has plenty to say.
On Monday, Westheimer speaks about her two most recent books (she’s penned 37!): Her memoir, The Doctor is In: Dr. Ruth on Love, Life and Joie de Vivre, and her children’s picture book about courage, Leopold.
On Tuesday, Westheimer attends the preview of the play about her life, Becoming Dr. Ruth at Walnut Street Theatre. It follows her life beginning when she fled the Nazis and Frankfurt at age 10. Taking part in Kindertransport, the evacuation of Jewish children to Switzerland, she never saw her family again. The play follows her as she gets older and joins the Haganah (Israel’s freedom fighters), through her years in Paris, marriages, children, single-motherhood and life in New York City. Westheimer will participate in a talk-back live session that follows the show. Get your sex questions ready!
We spoke with Westheimer by phone from her home in New York City, where she has lived in the Washington Heights section for more than 50 years.
Do you think because you’ve experienced true horror — losing your family in the Holocaust — that it gives you a unique authority to give counseling, or that people are more receptive? I don’t think unique authority, but what it certainly does — since I was an orphan at the age of 10 — is it gives me the purpose to help others, because I survived and one million and a half Jewish children did not. A longitudinal study of the children with me in that Swiss orphanage showed a tremendous sense of having to do something to make the world a better place. Many of us became nurses, social workers, kindergarten teachers. We went into the helping professions.
In your book you introduce the Jewish idea of Tikkun olam, of repairing the world and bringing healing to it. One of your largest contributions is helping people enjoy their sexuality. How did you get on that path? I didn’t know my Tikkun olam would be about sex, talking about it from morning to night. [laughs] That was by chance. I worked in public health but the money ran out for that government project, so I needed a job, and got a position with Planned Parenthood in New York City. I’d talk to the clients and they’d only talk about sex. I thought ‘Wow, they don’t talk about politics, or literature, or anything else.’ 48 hours later, I thought this is interesting subject matter. Next, I taught how to teach sex education. I realized I didn’t know enough. I was fortunate to be working with Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan at Cornell Medical School [where Westheimer received her certificate as a psychosexual therapist]. I haven’t stopped talking about sex, interpersonal relations and sexuality since. I did 10 years of [syndicated] radio, my show aired in Philadelphia on Sunday nights. Then I did 450 TV shows on cable … And here at the age of 87, I come out with a new book and a new children’s book Leopold. It’s about a turtle, because I believe in that image of the turtle — if it stays in one place, it’s safe. But if it wants to move, it takes a risk and has to stick its neck out.
You’ve visited the Frankfurt Book Fair to promote your books. What’s it like returning to your former hometown? I don’t like to go to the railroad station, because that’s the last time I saw my mother and grandmother. But I have no problem with younger Germans, and they’ve helped Israel greatly. Many younger Germans go to Israel to help Holocaust survivors in assisted living facilities.
Many of our readers would be surprised to learn that in the 1940s you were trained in the Jewish paramilitary organization, the Haganah, as a sniper. How good were you? I only use those skills now on journalists who don’t ask good questions. [laughs] For a short period of time, I served in the Haganah. In 1948, on my 20th birthday, I got badly wounded by a shell exploding near me, killing the girl next to me and some others, but I never killed anyone as a sniper. I don’t know why they picked me to become a sniper. They must have found out that I could put five bullets in the red target circle. I was very fast, too. But since the Columbine shooting, I wouldn’t touch a gun, even for fun.
Much of your advice is based in action: taking risks, moving forward, and not wasting time because life is short. How should a couple know whether they should work at a relationship or not? Sometimes they have to see a therapist. That person might be able to tell them that they have so many good things going for them, here are some problems let’s work on them. But without therapy, people should be grateful they’ve found somebody to share their lives with and try to make best out of it.
What if the sex is lousy but they’re in love? Or what if the sex is great but the love is gone? They have to see a therapist, no question. I believe that the best sexual relations have to be in a loving relationship — not like in Hollywood, or your first love or the first night of sex, but in an enduring relationship, and realize how grateful we are that we have someone who cares for us. I’m not against divorce, in the Jewish tradition if a couple can’t work it out, they can divorce and go on to remarry. And do not stay together for the sake of the children! I was married three times. The first two were legalized love affairs, but the last one was my real marriage.
I read in your book that you had your own wine: Vin D’Amour, a low-alcohol wine. That’s a pretty definitive endorsement for mixing sex and alcohol. What’s the value of alcohol with sex? That didn’t work out so well, because it was a dessert wine, red, rosé and white. It was too sweet, but I did have a great time working on it. There was almost no alcohol in that wine. that’s why it was so sweet. I do not endorse getting drunk, but to have a glass of wine to forget a little bit of the problems of everyday life. The two of you can relax and have a glass of wine, go look at the Liberty Bell or go to a park, then please do that.
Why not endorse a line of sex toys? That’s a very important question. I did endorse one that sells very well and is superior, the Eroscillator, a vibrator. It was started by a scientist from Switzerland [Philippe-Guy Woog]. He also came out with the first electric toothbrush. I thought that was funny.
In your book you talk about an encounter with a sex columnist at Playboy who grumbles that there are only 10 questions that everyone asks over and over. What’s the No. 1 question people have about their sex life? I think the one question people have about their sex life is how to keep sex from becoming boring. That’s what I say they have to watch out for. Make sure sex is not routine, make sure you have a date night if you have kids, go out, and if you have no privacy check into a motel for two hours and have good sex. Everyone is a little bit different, but if there’s one concern, that would be the one.
What’s your No. 1 issue with today’s youth? What’s very worrisome is this hooking up. I’m very worried about everyone on their iPhones, maybe while holding hands, but still on their phones. I’m concerned that young people take pictures of themselves naked and put them on the internet. I’m worried about bullying or them thinking they can retrieve those pictures. There’s no such thing. I’m mainly worried about the inability to have interpersonal relationships.
How do people find the courage to make changes to get that joie de vivre? I say take a deep breath and, like the turtle, take a risk. Sometimes they won’t succeed, but without taking risks and using courage they don’t advance.
See Dr. Ruth for yourself so you can ask her some of your own questions. Dreamers and Doers: Dr. Ruth takes place on November 16th at 6 pm at the National Museum of American Jewish History. Becoming Dr. Ruth runs at Walnut Street Theatre from November 17-December 27.
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