So many words have been written and spoken about Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer since all four feet, seven inches of her first walked onto the public stage in 1980.
She appeared on talk shows hosted by the likes of David Letterman and Arsenio Hall more than really anyone else. She has taught in literally hundreds of different classrooms. Not even Dr. Phil McGraw has had the kind of media attention Dr. Ruth has had over the last four decades. And let’s not forget the dozens of books she has authored in her lifetime, including her kids-focused 2018 autobiography “Roller Coaster Grandma: The Amazing Story of Dr. Ruth” she penned with Pierre Lehu.
She’s lived just south of us in Washington Heights since well before she was known outside her circle of friends. And many of her family — including a daughter and grandchildren — call Riverdale home.
So when I rang the doorbell to her apartment on a windy Manhattan day last week, I had a bit of a conundrum: Are there any questions left that Dr. Ruth Westheimer hasn’t already answered? Is there anything about this 91-year-old national treasure that we don’t already know? Especially in our neighborhood, where Dr. Ruth is a regular at Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale, where she has worked closely with Rabbi Barry Dov Katz.
Dr. Ruth climbed into her favorite chair, at a small round table covered in newspapers, clippings and flyers from just the past week or so. Just seeing how comfortable she was there, you knew Dr. Ruth didn’t pick this particular spot at the table by accident. Her back is to the kitchen, but her view is — well, it’s the Hudson River, and the Palisades that raises New Jersey off the banks of that waterway.
I grab a chair just across from Dr. Ruth, set up my laptop, ready to take notes. And just like that, both eyes are on me. This is Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer. A woman who, when I was a kid and teenager, could be identified simply by opening her mouth to speak. She was the woman who could talk openly and frankly about human sexuality when no one else even dared. And here I was, at least for this small window of time, the complete center of her …
“Did you see my pin?” she asks me, looking down at her collar. Dr. Ruth had not only carefully planned the blouse she wanted to wear for Julius Constantine Motal’s camera lens, but she also took the time to attach a small pin to it featuring the American and Israeli flags separated by the logo for American Associates Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.
This is important, because that pin is exactly why I was sitting in Dr. Ruth’s apartment that day. The school — named for Israel’s first prime minister (and one of the country’s founders) David Ben-Gurion — plans to award Dr. Ruth an honorary doctorate this spring on one of her annual visits to the country. Having actually earned her own doctorate while working to put food on the table and raising a family, the honor is nice.
But that’s not what has Dr. Ruth excited the most. In fact, she has promised the university she will endow a scholarship in her name to support students studying psychology at the school.
“They didn’t ask me for anything,” Dr. Ruth said. “But I said I would raise enough money to create this scholarship. I didn’t want it to be just in sex therapy. I wanted it to be broader. And I wanted it to be something they could give forever and ever.”
Although she is known as a media personality for many decades, Dr. Ruth was already 52 when she first found fame hosting a weekly radio show, “Sexually Speaking,” on what is now WQHT-Hot 97. She spent a lot of the time before that teaching at various post-secondary schools, including Lehman College. In fact, she credits then-mayor Ed Koch for creating the Dr. Ruth we know today.
“Thank God for the city budget crisis,” she said. “I lost my job when the city had no money for schools. I was an associate professor, but I did not have tenure, so I lost my job. And thank God I lost my job, because I probably would still be there now.”
At least at the time, CUNY professors were only allowed to take on so many hours of outside work per week. If she had been in the classroom when her chance to host a radio show had come around, she likely would have never gotten behind the microphone.
Teaching. Helping people. Making a difference. Dr. Ruth has no plans to retire, not even plans to slow down. She told a reporter a couple years ago she doesn’t need canes because she can hold onto “good-looking guys” instead. I don’t know if I fit into the “good-looking” category, but I have had the honor more than once of walking Dr. Ruth through New York (and into waiting Ubers we have shared in the past), hand-in-hand.
This work is very important to Dr. Ruth. Her family was killed during the Holocaust, and she survived only because she was whisked away to Switzerland as a very young girl, where she grew up an orphan.
God, religion, being Jewish — those are cornerstones of who Dr. Ruth is. And she wouldn’t have it any other way. At the same time, her devotion to Judaism also helped her successfully build a reputation of opening conversations about sex, without it having to feel dirty or even sacrilegious.
“Part of my success it that I’m so Jewish, and so deep into the Jewish tradition,” she said. “Sex has never been a sin. Sex has always been an obligation from a husband to a wife. And in the Jewish tradition, the word for ‘sex’ literally means ‘to know.’ Sex is not just about the sex acts. It’s about the relationship.”
While many credit her with this new sexual revolution of the 1980s and 1990s, Dr. Ruth admits it could’ve still happened without her.
“I was just part of the attitude that was growing about sex back in those years,” she said. “There were many voices, and I was just one of them. I was a loud one — with an accent — but I wasn’t the only one.”
Today, her pop status remains with Baby Boomers and Gen Xers like me, she no longer rolls off the tongues of younger people. But Dr. Ruth is OK with that. She made a difference, and that’s what matters to her most. And whenever reporters from news outlets like CNN, The New York Times or even The Riverdale Press come calling, she treats all of them equally with the same fervor and excitement.
Which only adds to the pressure of what to ask Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer, to get an answer she has never shared in any of her countless interviews before. That would make you, the esteemed reader, satisfied for sticking through to the end.
But it’s not easy, because Dr. Ruth is looking right at me again with those soft blue eyes and that bright smile, waiting for me to ask something profound. The last thing I wanted to hear her respond with was “stupid question,” as she’s been known to do.
Finally I got it. I stopped typing for a brief moment, and leaned back in my chair, smiling.
“You are a woman who has lived an amazing life, has learned so many things,” I ask Dr. Ruth. “Is there anything, anything that you don’t know?”
“More than you know,” she said. “I am never embarrassed to say I don’t know, and if I don’t know, I ask someone who does. I do it when I speak, I do it when I write books.”
In fact, Dr. Ruth had to use “I don’t know” when the publisher of her 1995 book “Sex For Dummies” wanted to print a fourth edition.
“There’s a lot I don’t know, especially with some of what’s happening in the world today, like the ‘Me Too’ movement,” she said. “I always want to make sure that if I give any message to young people, it’s that they can admit they don’t know. And once they admit they don’t know, they can learn.”