Dr. Ruth at 91, always adored, stars at the Jerusalem Film Festival

“It’s a great sensation to see this movie here in Jerusalem,” Westheimer said.

July 31, 2019 08:01
DR. RUTH Westheimer talks to an admirer in Jerusalem.

DR. RUTH Westheimer talks to an admirer in Jerusalem.. (photo credit: AVIAD)

‘Instead of a cane, they gave me a gorgeous young guy with a car,” said Karola Ruth Siegel Westheimer, best known as Dr. Ruth, at a screening of a new documentary about her life, Ask Dr. Ruth, at the Jerusalem Film Festival on Sunday night.

The moving and entertaining documentary by Ryan White will open in theaters throughout Israel on Thursday. The Jerusalem Film Festival will continue at the Jerusalem Cinematheque and other venues around the city through August 4.

Mixing Hebrew with her German-accented English, the petite but extraordinarily charismatic 91-year-old who is the world’s foremost sex and relationship therapist, spoke to an adoring audience in a conversation held by film historian and author Annette Insdorf, in an event that was unquestionably the hottest ticked at the festival.

“It’s a great sensation to see this movie here in Jerusalem,” Westheimer said.

Surrounded by many lifetime friends from around the world, Westheimer, who was born in Germany and found fame in America but who spent key years of her life in Israel, radiated joy and candor as she took questions from the audience following the film.

Constantly interrupting her own answers to greet familiar faces in the audience, she introduced a surprise guest: David Bar-Haim, whom she referred to as “Husband #1,” and asked him and his entire family to stand up.

“I do know you’re going to laugh and you’re going to cry,” she told the audience just before the film was shown.

Ask Dr. Ruth is a portrait of woman who has had an extraordinary impact and an equally impressive life, the story of which has never been told as poignantly or in as much detail before. It opens with her asking an unseen entity she at first calls “Alexis” – Amazon’s household operating system Alexa – to tell her about Dr. Ruth Westheimer. As the disembodied voice recites the key facts about her, Westheimer says, “I’ll keep her.”

The film effectively uses animated sequences to tell stories from Dr. Ruth’s childhood and youth, mixing them with clips from her television appearances, interviews with her and her family, family photos and home movies. She grew up near Frankfurt, the only child of doting Orthodox Jewish parents. After her father was sent to a Nazi work camp the late 1930s, Westheimer went to Switzerland in a kindertransport. There, she cared for the Swiss orphans, wrote in her diary, awaited her parents’ letters (until they stopped coming) and fell in love with a young man named Walter, with whom she is still in touch.

The movie explores how the wartime trauma of losing her parents and having to make her way alone made her both resilient and fascinated by love and human connection. She remembers the cruelty of the young Jewish woman who supervised the orphanage and told her charges that their parents “sent you away because they don’t love you,” which prompts Dr. Ruth, on the eve of her 90th birthday, to make a rare harsh judgment: “There are some things you can’t forgive.”

Another thing she can’t forgive, of course, are the murders of her parents in the Holocaust, and in a touching, sad sequence, she finally, at the age of 89, goes to Yad Vashem to learn her family’s fate.

AFTER THE war, Westheimer made her way to Palestine and lived on a kibbutz and in Jerusalem, where she served as a sniper in the War of Independence and suffered a severe foot injury in a bombing. When she arrived, she was told that Karola was too German a name so she took her middle name, Ruth, keeping her middle initial in the hopes that this would make it easier for her parents to find her if by some miracle they had survived the war.

Westheimer married Bar-Haim, and they went to Paris where he studied medicine and she studied psychology at the Sorbonne – she honored her parents’ memory by always learning, no matter how difficult the circumstances. When Bar-Haim decided to go back to Israel, Westheimer married again and had a daughter, and moved with them to the US, where she and Bar-Haim divorced. Like so many German immigrants, she worked at menial jobs with great cheerfulness and no shame. Eventually, she met her third beloved third husband, Manfred “Fred” Westheimer, had a son and began training paraprofessionals in Harlem in family counseling. She realized she didn’t know the answers to so many questions about intimacy and began studying sex therapy.

Eventually an invitation to appear on a public-service program on WYNY led to her top-rated radio show, Sexually Speaking, and the rest, as they say, is history. The movie details the great impact she had a time when, although the sexual revolution of the 1960s had freed people to have sex, there was still a lack of information and knowledge about the subject. She unflinchingly discussed previously taboo subjects, gleefully uttering once-forbidden words, and in a funny montage, embarrassing a series of late-night talk-show hosts.

But although she seemed to enjoy shocking people – and who can blame her? – she had a serious message: “We don’t know what normal is,” and whatever consenting adults wanted to do is all right – even consenting gay adults at the height of the AIDS crisis. “I’m not going to spend one second blaming this on any group,” she said.

Answering questions after the screening, Westheimer was reluctant to hold forth on issues of intimacy in Israel in the digital age. “If I don’t have scientifically valid data, I can’t talk about it,” she said, adding that she imagined “there are the same problems around the world” of loneliness and people feeling unable to commit.

A tireless advocate of keeping abortion legal, Westheimer said she would break her longtime policy of not discussing politics. “I always said someone who talks about sex so much shouldn’t talk about politics.” However, she felt she had to “speak out about how upset I am when I see children separated from their parents.” Because of her background and forced separation from her own family, “I can’t keep quiet about it.”

In response to a question about gender fluidity, she said, “I am never embarrassed to say, ‘I don’t know,’” and said she couldn’t answer. But she held firm on one issue: “Two people have no business in bed together naked unless they’ve decided to have sex.”

Asked how she stays so youthful and energetic, Westheimer said she tries to “learn something new every day.” Feeling fortunate that “they let me keep teaching,” she said she tries to give every lesson with humor, “so it will be retained, as it says in the Talmud... and it gives me joie de vivre.”

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