Energy and optimism

We sit down with straight-talking sexologist and Shoah survivor Dr. Ruth on the occasion of her 90th birthday.

MOST PEOPLE don’t know that Dr. Ruth Westheimer has cheated death twice. (photo credit: AMAZON)
MOST PEOPLE don’t know that Dr. Ruth Westheimer has cheated death twice.
(photo credit: AMAZON)
In 1980, before Dr. Ruth Westheimer had become a household name, she gave a lecture about sexuality and pregnancy to a communications class in a New York City college. It never occurred to her that a woman sitting in the audience, Betty Elam, the community affairs manager at WYNY-FM, a popular New York radio station, would be so excited about Westheimer that she’d invite her on the spot to host a late-night program for the minuscule sum of $25 a week.
The program, Sexually Speaking, which first aired in September 1980, and was broadcasted for 15 minutes every Sunday just after midnight, was an immediate hit. Just 139 cm. tall, the Jewish grandmother with the incessant smile who dared to speak openly and sometimes even provocatively about sex has helped thousands of listeners with their problems in the bedroom.
“The radio show was a success right from the get-go,” Westheimer says in an interview that took place on her 90th birthday. “I don’t think that if I’d been young when I started airing the radio broadcast it would have been such a hit. I had been planning to move back to Israel, but I couldn’t stop the momentum.”
In 1982, millions of listeners around the world were following the show, which became known as the Dr. Ruth Show. Westheimer became the most famous sexologist in the world. She currently has 91,000 followers on Twitter, and so I tried my luck and tweeted her with my email address. Not five minutes passed before her manager, Pierre Lehu, wrote me asking for my telephone number. Thirty seconds later my phone rang and I saw the name Dr. Ruth Westheimer appear on the screen.
“Ruth?” I said into the phone, still in shock. She laughed wholeheartedly and then replied, “Yes, it’s me. You won’t believe this, but I’m in Israel now. I’ve come to promote my books and I just finished up a visit at Yad Vashem. I might be 90 years old, but I still feel it’s important for me to visit Israel once a year. This is my real home. Do you want to do an interview? I’m so busy getting ready for my 90th birthday party – maybe you can call me in a week when I’ll be back in New York?”
When I called her the next week, I was once again overwhelmed by Westheimer’s energy and optimism, considering she came close to death twice.
“You know it’s an absolute miracle that we’re talking right now. Every time I visit Yad Vashem, I think about all my family members who died in the Shoah – I should have died too. I remember everything from my childhood. I was 10 when the Nazis banged on our door in Frankfurt and then took my father away to a work camp. He sent a postcard from there on which he wrote that I needed to travel with a group of children to Switzerland if he was to be allowed to come home. He did that to save my life. I didn’t have a choice, and so I left. I never saw my father, mother, grandmother or grandfather ever again. If my father had not sent that postcard, I wouldn’t be alive today.”
As Westheimer manages to do during every conversation, she finds a flicker of hope within that tragic story about the Shoah.
“I’d been extremely lucky to spend the first 10 years of my life with loving parents and grandparents, and as a result, my internal development was shaped positively. Children who are not fortunate enough to grow up within a loving environment can become quite damaged.”
WESTHEIMER WAS born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany, and grew up in Frankfurt. Although she was separated from her parents in 1939, she continued receiving letters from them until 1941. Only after the war did she find out that all of her family had perished in the Shoah.
“I think knowing that 1.5 million children had died in the war, but that somehow I had survived, is what made me such an optimist. I still get together with the group of children with whom I escaped to Switzerland.”
In 1945, Westheimer made aliya as part of the Ayanot group at Kibbutz Ramat David. As many new immigrants from Europe did, Westheimer changed her name from Karola to Ruth and happily engaged in agricultural work on the kibbutz.
“Next, I went to live for a year at Nahalal, and then Kibbutz Yagur. In 1948, I moved to Jerusalem and began studying early childhood education at Eshkolit Seminar.”
Westheimer was eager to contribute to the defense of the young Jewish state, and so she joined the Hagana, where she experienced another miracle.
“During the War of Independence, exactly on my birthday, I came back to the dorm where I was living at 32 Radak Street in Jerusalem,” Westheimer recalls. “Suddenly, an air-raid siren began sounding and I knew I should run to the bomb shelter, but I’d just received a new book as a present for my birthday and so instead I ran inside the building.
“This turned out to be a big mistake. Just as my fingers touched the cover of the book, a mortar came in through the window from the direction of Herbert Samuel Street and killed to two girls who were right next to me. I was injured in both of my legs, but luckily I survived. I was brought to Hadassah Hospital where I underwent emergency surgery. I still remember the name of the surgeon – Katz – who was a Jewish German immigrant. Slowly I learned to walk again. This was the second time I was given the gift of life.”
In 1950, after a long period of rehabilitation, Westheimer moved to France and began studying psychology at the Sorbonne. In 1956, she moved to the US and as a single mother (for the second time) she completed a master’s degree in sociology and then a PhD in education from Columbia University.
In 1961, Westheimer married her third husband, Manfred Westheimer, with whom she lived until he died in 1997. Together, they raised their son Joel, and Miriam, Ruth’s daughter from a previous marriage. In the early 1970s, Westheimer set out to accomplish her next goal: a post-doctorate in human sexuality. “I ended up focusing on this topic after working at Planned Parenthood. I even gave lectures in Israel.”
In the 1980s, Westheimer became a well-known TV and radio personality who dealt with the field of sexology.
“There are many excellent sex therapists out there, but because of my age, my strong German accent and the open and humorous way I spoke about private issues, I guess people loved to listening to my show. I certainly never planned on turning into a guru – it just happened. I guess I was just in the right place at the right time.”
OVER THE years, Westheimer penned 45 books dealing with human sexuality and taught courses at NYU, Yale and Princeton. She traveled around the world to hold workshops and in 2016 her autobiography was finally published in both English and Hebrew. Westheimer is currently starring in a film that covers her early years in Germany, Switzerland and Israel, as well as getting ready to participate in a new TV show in the US.
When I ask her about her active Twitter account, Westheimer admits that her manager, Pierre, is actually the one who runs her Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“But I read every message that comes in, and I tell him exactly what to write in response. It’s important to keep up in these modern times.”
How helpful do you think Facebook and matchmaking apps are for people looking to meet someone?
“They’re very helpful. Look, the worst thing in the world is to be lonely. There’s nothing worse than that. So, if two people connect through Facebook and a relationship forms as a result, that’s wonderful. But it’s very important to hold the first in-person meeting in a public space that’s well lit so you can give yourselves time to get to know each other. Ideally, the meeting should be held in a café or a hotel lobby.”
At this point in the interview, Westheimer begins barraging me with a series of personal questions about myself, which I manage to deflect somehow. She then tells me, “The most important elements of a relationship are love and mutual respect. The moment these disappear, the passion dissipates and then everything else falls apart. Many people try to create passion without building a foundation, but this always leads to failure. You always need to go back to the foundation and keep the flame alive from there.”
What’s the most common question people have asked you over the years?
“In the early years, many women would ask me how to reach an orgasm, and many men would ask me how to prevent premature ejaculation. These questions don’t arise as much these days because there are so many books that have been written about these topics.”
What’s the most important advice you’ve ever given?
“If you don’t have a solid relationship, your sex life cannot improve. If you’re not willing to work on your issues first, don’t waste your (and my) time and just go see your lawyer.”
What has changed over the years you’ve been working as a sexologist?
“Not much. Nowadays, though, people who approach professionals have a much better knowledge base from research they’ve done on the Internet.”
How should people handle sex education talks with their children?
“You need to start talking to your children about sex the moment they begin asking questions. Parents should be prepared with age-appropriate answers even for very young children. You should never just respond with something off the top of your head. If a child asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, tell him, ‘I’m going to go to the library and look up the answer in a book. Then I’ll come back to you with the answer.’ You need to take responsibility for their sexual education.”
Are you a big fan of the institution of marriage, considering rising divorce rates?
“Yes, that’s a big problem. It’s not easy to live on your own, that’s for sure. Even I got married three times – only in my third marriage was I successful at having a healthy relationship. You need to be very mature to keep a marriage going. I’ve never told a couple to stay together for the sake of the kids if they hated each other. But when a couple splits up, they need to tell their kids, ‘We’re not separating because of you. You are not responsible for this. We’re splitting up because we don’t understand each other anymore. But we’re going to continue to be your parents.’”
Is there a secret to maintaining an active sex life later in life?
“You need to make time for it. Couples need to have a date night once a week and decide not to talk about the kids. Even after a woman enters menopause, her partner must make sure she reaches orgasm. It doesn’t matter that she can no longer get pregnant.”
Do different religions have varying attitudes towards sex?
“In contrast to other religions, Judaism has never considered sex a crime. This is a great advantage we have over other religions.”
As a Holocaust survivor, have you ever experienced antisemitism in a professional context?
“No, I’ve never personally experienced an antisemitic incident. By the way, I attend a sexuality conference in Germany every year, and I’m always welcomed there graciously.”
What’s your dream now that you’re 90?
“To continue teaching until I’m 120. And to find a partner who’s willing to dance with me. I met my third husband while skiing, but since I don’t ski much anymore, I’d like to meet a man who can dance with me at my speed.”
You’re a very energetic person. What’s your secret?
“I walk a lot. I don’t exercise, but I’m always walking places. And I’m always focusing on my next project, my next book, my next lecture. That’s what keeps me young.”
What does your typical daily schedule look like?
“I don’t offer many private therapy sessions anymore. I’m happy to leave this to the younger generation. I give lectures in the mornings and in the evenings I always go out – to dance, or to eat in a restaurant or to listen to good music. That’s what makes me happy.”
Have you considered in recent years coming back to live in Israel?
“No. My kids and my professional activities are here in the US. But, as you know, I visit Israel every year. And Israel will always be my home and close to my heart.”
At the end of our interview, Westheimer tells me, “I want to meet you in person next time I come to Israel for a visit. I’m a very curious person and I love meeting people I’ve spoken with and whom I’ve told all about my life. That’s a lesson I learned from my parents. Promise me that when I publish another book on my 100th birthday, you’ll call me for a follow- up interview, okay?”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.