Dr Ruth 88.
(photo credit: courtesy)
Before descending from a Jewish National Fund tour bus in the Negev on Monday afternoon, Dr. Ruth Westheimer asked the driver whether she could leave her sizable black tote bag on the bus.
"All my books about sex are in it," she chirped in fluent Hebrew with a distinct German accent before hopping out into the desert sun at Givot Bar, a new community for young Israeli families.
"Can grandparents move here, too?" she asked.
Dr. Ruth, as the popular psychosexual therapist is widely known, arrived in Israel on Sunday evening.
"I was invited to watch the soccer match on Sunday night and knew I had to get up at 5:30 to go on Channel 2," she said.
"Then Ronald Lauder invited me to join this JNF visit to the Negev," she explained as she surveyed the barren landscape. "Knowing me, what did I say? I said I'd do it all."
At 78, Westheimer - whose show Sexually Speaking aired for the first time in 1980 - is a nationally syndicated television personality, as well as the author of 24 books and a lecturer at Yale, Princeton and New York universities.
Westheimer's love affair with Israel, however, started long before she became a pioneer of media therapy. A native of Frankfurt, Germany, she left home as a 10-year-old on one of the children's transports that departed from Germany, and survived the war in a Swiss home for Jewish children. Her entire family perished in the Holocaust. After the war, Westheimer came to Israel, joined the Hagana, and was trained as a sniper.
"I was a kibbutznik when I first came here," she said. "Then I moved to Jerusalem and lived in Beit Hahalutzot (a residence for women pioneers) while training at Schneller camp. On June 4, 1948 - my birthday - a shell hit the building and exploded."
The diminutive Westheimer was severely wounded in both legs.
"But that's not the reason I'm so small," she laughed.
Over the next month, Westheimer will be hosted weekly by Channel 2, where she will expound upon one of her favorite topics of conversation - sex. Her first appearance, last Sunday, included a presentation of her book Fifty-Two Lessons on Communicating Love, which has just been translated into Hebrew. In addition, she offered her own commentary on the previous night's last World Cup soccer match.
(In case you were wondering, she does approve of sexual intercourse before an important game if a soccer player has a steady partner. If he doesn't, she admonishes, "Going to a bar and trying to pick up somebody and then spend half the night in a passionate embrace is not a good idea.")
Between one television show and the next, Dr. Ruth plans to have Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem with her daughter and her grandchildren, who are also visiting Israel this month.
As she recounts in her new autobiographical book Musically Speaking: A Life Through Song, Westheimer grew up as an only child in an Orthodox Jewish home before World War II broke out.
There is no doubt, she told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday in Tel Aviv, that her experience of the war shaped her professional choices and drive to succeed.
"I always felt that I had to stand up and be counted - that I had to make a difference because I survived and six million didn't," she said.
Interestingly, she noted, the other girls who survived the war with her in the same Swiss home all went into the helping professions.
Her appreciation for life and her interest in human vitality and pleasure, she said, are also related to the realization that she had miraculously survived, while her entire family had been killed.
"More and more, I realize how fortunate I am," she said.
Before marrying her first husband, an Israeli, and leaving with him to study psychology at the Sorbonne in Paris, Westheimer studied at a teachers' seminar in Jerusalem and was planning to become a kindergarten teacher.
Looking back upon her own childhood before the war, she said, she understood that it was her early years in a loving, nurturing home that enabled her to survive emotionally and to flourish after the war.
As a result, Westheimer has developed a wide-ranging interest in early development in different cultural and social contexts. In September, a new documentary she co-produced with Michael Greenspan will air on PBS in New York, and will later be broadcast elsewhere in the US and on Channel 10 in Israel.
In The Olive and the Tree: The Secret Strength of the Druse, which she filmed in Israel last year, Westheimer set out to explore the Israeli Druse and the reasons they manage to adhere to the rule of marrying only within their own community, despite their relative integration into Israeli society.
"In one sentence," she said, "what I found out is that it all had to do with early childhood education."
When she turns to look at Israeli society in general, Westheimer said, she finds no difference between the kinds of emotional and sexual challenges Israelis cope with in their relationships and those that Americans are preoccupied with.
Nevertheless, she conceded, Israelis do experience an unusual amount of tension in their everyday lives.
"Tension can have a negative side, which is expressed through feelings of pessimism," she said. "But it can also have a positive impact because people say to themselves, 'Thank God I have this person in my life.'"