(photo credit: shelly paz)
"Do 50-year-old couples have any hope left, sexually wise?" an Israeli man whispered in embarrassment to Dr. Ruth Westheimer, as he and his wife plucked up the courage to approach her at the entrance to the Western Wall plaza this week.
The renowned American sex therapist, who wraps up a three-week visit to Israel on Sunday, had no similar inhibitions. She responded loudly. "Of course! Go home now. Don't wait until the evening. Now," she ordered them.
"Really?" the couple asked as they stared at Westheimer.
"Now," she insisted. "Go home, don't waste any time."
While Westheimer has become an international name thanks to her frank talk about sex, she is in Israel to research and film a documentary on a subject that garners much less attention: the plight of Beduin women in the Negev.
"The film is about Beduin women who for the first time ever get a paycheck and what it does to the family structure. I talked to the sheikh, to the religious people, to Beduin men and women. This is not about sex, this is all about relationships," she said.
After spending time with Beduin in the South, members of a traditional society who are in the course of moving from tents to stone houses, Westheimer says this polygamist culture is on the verge of great changes. "I spoke to woman No. 1 and woman No. 2 and I am not a prophet, but I do know that it will change to monogamy eventually. The way of life they live there doesn't fit modern life and they will have no choice."
Westheimer, not known for her shyness, refrained from asking directly about their sex lives. Nonetheless, she found a way to learn about the issue.
"I got to meet and interview the first woman Beduin gynecologist. I went to see her in Beersheba and as one professional to another I could ask questions about sex, but not personal questions."
After she finishes "digesting" this new material and the movie is completed, it will be aired on the US Public Broadcasting Service. It will be accompanied by a book Westheimer is writing together with Israeli writer Gil Sedan, who opened the door for her to do this movie, as he did with The Olive and the Tree, a film about Druse family life that they made last year.
That documentary will be shown soon on Channel 10. In it Westheimer and head producer Michael Greenspan examine the changes that the Israeli Druse community is going through and how their closed society manages to maintain its traditions and yet fit so well into Israel's Western society, including serving in the IDF.
"I wanted to show what happens in their childhood that holds through the army. For example, there was a mother who tells me in the movie how her five-year-old child came home from kindergarten and told her he was going to marry so and so. The mother laughed, but her mother, who was sitting next to her, told her off and said to her not to laugh at this issue. 'From today on you have to tell him: We are friends with everybody, we love everybody, but you can only marry a Druse.'"
Contrary to what most people may think, Westheimer's main interest is studying the effect of early childhood on individuals and the structure of societies.
"My doctorate is not in the study of sex, it's in the interdisciplinary study of the family and I keep my two feet in that field. But I still talk about sex all day long," she said.
As a Holocaust orphan who grew up alone, Ruth Westheimer developed an interest in families that she turned into an academic pursuit.
As she stared at several haredi families walking toward the Western Wall, Westheimer enthused at the way the children helped their parents and siblings. "Look," she said, "she [the wife] is not touching her husband... I am not saying it's good or not, I am saying that's the tradition."
According to Westheimer, behind every tradition there is an arranged logic. "The Jewish tradition, for example, in terms of the Jewish family, is brilliant. On Friday night, they wanted the couple to have sex because there is nothing else to do, right? So what did they do? In the Shir Hashirim [Song of Songs] prayer [it actually comes from Proverbs], there is one sentence that every Jewish man says to his wife on Friday night: 'A woman of valor, who will find?' which means the man tells his wife: 'There are many wonderful women out there, but you are the very best.'
"In the entire literature of sexology, I cannot find a better sexually-arousing sentence than when he says to her: 'You are the best.'"
At the Western Wall, Israelis and tourists alike interrupted Westheimer every five seconds or so.
"You are my hero," said a Canadian woman who pounced on her.
Westheimer was not always so well known. She was born in 1928 in Frankfurt, Germany. In January 1939 she was put on a train to an orphanage in Switzerland. In 1945, she learned that her parents had died in the Holocaust. She immigrated to the Land of Israel, joined the Hagana in Jerusalem and was seriously wounded in the legs during the War of Independence in 1948.
In 1950, she moved to France where she studied and taught psychology at the University of Paris. In 1956, she emigrated to Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood, where she still lives.
She earned a master's degree in sociology and a doctorate in education from Columbia University's Teachers College, and completed post-doctoral work in human sexuality at New York Presbyterian Hospital.
Her big break came thanks to her pioneering radio program, Sexually Speaking. It started in 1980 as a 15-minute taped show that aired on Sundays after midnight in New York. Within a year, it became a live one-hour call-in show airing at 10 p.m.
Her third marriage, to Manfred Westheimer, lasted until his death in 1997. She has two children, Miriam and Joel, and four grandchildren.
On the air and off, Westheimer captivates with her humor and constant laughter.
She introduced her driver, Nethanel. "I have this nice looking officer for the day," she told whomever she encountered, "but he is married."
But she was serious as she placed a note between the stones at the Wall.
"I put down a [wish for] good health for everybody, peace and thanks, Toda in Hebrew, for being alive and that I can do the things I am doing. Since my husband died, I put down every year that I would find a good lover. This is the first time I didn't put it down." She laughed: "I thought, it is not important enough."