She dazzled us on just about every talk show and television program available in the 1980s, leaving our mouths and minds wide open through her radio show, “Sexually Speaking.”
Today, Dr. Ruth Westheimer is 90. But she’s still talking sex, this time at one of her home synagogues, the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale. There, the frank talk icon discussed her childhood escaping Nazis, her legacy, and of course, sex.
“All they do is talk about sex,” said Westheimer about the Planned Parenthood she worked at that initially inspired her. “But then I realized, ‘Oh, this is really interesting.’”
With her granddaughter and a few other relatives in the audience, it was a new experience for Dr. Ruth as she doesn’t typically talk about doing the deed in front of her family. Yet it was an open — and free — forum for all at CSAIR, hosted by the synagogue’s Sisterhood, which included a chance to get an autographed copy of her books, “The Doctor is In: Dr. Ruth on Love, Life and Joie de Vivre,” and “Roller Coaster Grandma.”
Moderated by Rabbi Barry Katz, the staple question of the event was, how did the woman born as Karola Ruth Siegel become Dr. Ruth?
Westheimer wouldn’t be Dr. Ruth without her undeniable German accent, which she chose not to stifle with speech therapy early in her American residency. But it was a good thing, because it was that accent that helped radio audiences immediately recognize her. Westheimer’s show, “Sexually Speaking,” aired on WYNY-FM in 1980, and it’s what put her on the cultural map in the first place.
Throughout her life, Westheimer has spoken and taught at academic institutions across the country, including Lehman College locally, and appeared on a number of talk shows — like her regular stint on shows hosted by David Letterman — and even more recently appeared in a television commercial.
But before Dr. Ruth became a household name, she was a child growing up in a Germany about to be engulfed by World War II. That wasn’t good for a young Westheimer, especially since her family was Jewish. Her parents tried to protect her by sending her away to an orphanage in Switzerland through the Kindertransport, a transportation effort meant to keep Jewish children safe.
This allowed Ruth to escape the Holocaust, but unfortunately her parents weren’t so lucky, both dying in concentration camps.
But she vowed to live a good life in their honor, accomplishing anything no matter what the odds.
Even though she stands at just 4-foot-7, she joined Jerusalem’s Haganah where she trained as a scout and sniper. Although she never actually killed anyone, Westheimer was wounded in combat and almost lost both of her legs. But, the longtime Washington Heights resident joked, that’s not the reason for her challenged height.
In 1956, she immigrated to the United States, earning her master’s in sociology three years later. She then went on to Columbia University, earning a doctorate in education.
Yet, it was the passion Westheimer met at a Harlem Planned Parenthood where sex would become a big part of her life, and public persona.
“It was a wonderful experience for me because I followed 200 women and their abortive histories, and I could use all of their data,” Westheimer said. “I used it for my doctorate dissertation, and I am very concerned. I don’t talk about politics at all, ever, but there should be funding for the Planned Parenthood.”
When Sisterhood member Jackey Gold asked Westheimer how she felt about how the gap between men and women in this era of “Me Too” could be bridged, the outspoken sex therapist shied away from the question, uncharacteristically, instead suggesting an age-old remedy where men and women should not be left alone in the same room unless married.
Society has changed a lot in the decades since Dr. Ruth first broke onto the scene, especially now when celebrities like Kim Kardashian posts a nude picture of herself on a near-monthly basis, pornography is just a Google search away, and sex education is now commonplace in classrooms.
Yet, Westheimer still has a few lessons up her blouse sleeve. Like the importance in understanding the difference between reality and fantasy.
“Like ‘50 Shades of Grey,’ that’s fantasy,” Westheimer said. “But it proves the point that I’ve been making, and yes, people do get aroused by sexually explicit material and they should use it by having good sex with their partner,” while remembering that life rarely lives up to fantasy.
Although it’s good to see information about sex so readily available through the power of the internet, sexual education remains vitally important, Westheimer said, and it has to start early.
“Parents have an obligation to teach sexual literacy and the knowledge about sexual awakening, because girls are menstruating at an earlier age,” Westheimer said. “We have an obligation so that children cannot be scared or think there is something wrong with them. We should teach little ones that no other person is permitted to touch them, but they can touch themselves in privacy in their bedroom or the bathroom.”
Westheimer gives advice not only to heterosexual couples, but same-sex couples as well — even when that was virtually unheard of at the beginning of her career. Parts may be different, but the foundation for a healthy partnership is the same, coming down to good communication, she said. And conversation.
“I think that we have better knowledge, especially in the U.S., about issues in the United States,” Westheimer said. “And we have no choice but to make sure that everyone knows about good sexual functioning in a very healthy and uplifting way.”