Gen Z Meets Dr. Ruth

By | Feb 20, 2020
Jewish World, Latest

Within seconds of arriving at her 10th-floor apartment overlooking the Hudson River in New York’s Washington Heights, Ruth Westheimer, aka Dr. Ruth, has offered me cookies, tea, coffee and soda. We need to hurry, says the four-foot-seven Dr. Ruth as she ushers me into her cluttered living room. “I’m the busiest 91-year-old woman in the world. Write that down.” The apartment, in addition to the family mementos and an eclectic collection of dollhouses, is littered with evidence of her exhaustive career: a picture of Dr. Ruth being interviewed on the Tavis Smiley Show, a poster for the 2013 play Becoming Dr. Ruth, photos of her with VIPs, including Bill and Hillary Clinton and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and copies of her latest book, the fourth edition of Sex for Dummies. 

It’s an odd picture: me, a 22-year-old on the older end of Gen Z who grew up with accessible sex education and came of age in the #MeToo era, sitting across from a nonagenarian Holocaust survivor known for mainstreaming sexual education. The nearly 12-inch height difference only adds to the strangeness.

Before 1950, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Wiesenfeld, Germany in 1928, never imagined becoming a sex therapist or media personality. In 1939, at the age of ten, she escaped Nazi Germany on a kindertransport to Switzerland where she lived until she was 17. Dr. Ruth’s family perished during the Holocaust; she knows her father died in Auschwitz, but there is no recorded information about her mother. After discovering her parent’s fate, Dr. Ruth, an only child, moved to British-controlled Palestine, where she served as a sniper in the Haganah. By the way she skitters around, one would never guess that she nearly lost both feet in a shell explosion during Israel’s war of independence. 

In 1950, Dr. Ruth moved to Paris with her first husband and began studying psychology at the Sorbonne. Six years and one divorce later, she moved to New York City with a new French boyfriend, using Holocaust reparations money from West Germany. Once there, she earned a master’s in sociology from the New School and, in 1970, received a doctorate in family sex counseling from Columbia University. Dr. Ruth married the boyfriend, gave birth to their daughter Miriam, and then divorced shortly after. In 1961, she married Manfred (Fred) Westheimer, himself a Holocaust survivor, with whom she had her son Joel. Ruth and Fred were together for 36 years, until his death in 1997.

Dr. Ruth took a job at Planned Parenthood in the late 1960s which inspired her to further pursue sexual education, resulting in a research position with renowned sex therapist Helen Singer Kaplan. In 1980, after lecturing broadcasters about the need for educational programming dealing with family planning, Dr. Ruth’s radio show, Sexually Speaking, premiered on WYNY-FM, a New York NBC radio station. 

Dr. Ruth recording for WYNY. (Credit: Pierre Lehu)

What began as a 15-minute prerecorded segment evolved into an immensely popular hour-long live program with listeners calling in questions. From there, her media career snowballed: Over the past 30 years, she has hosted seven TV shows, written 45 books and appeared on a variety of talk shows, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Today Show and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. In 2019, Hulu premiered the documentary Ask Dr. Ruth, which offered a closer look into her Holocaust survival story.

Dr. Ruth has offered unabashed relationship advice since the 1980s, breaking taboos during in a time when people seldom spoke publicly (let alone explicitly) about sex. Despite conservative critics, Dr. Ruth maintains that her work was necessary to promote healthy sex education.

Today, however, she resists discussing controversial issues, such as those surrounding #MeToo (perhaps because of the negative media attention prompted by her comment on The Diane Rehm Show in 2015 that people can’t change their minds once they’re in bed together). “I don’t talk about that. No,” she said when I asked about her remarks.

Lilly Gelman with Dr. Ruth in her Washington Heights Apartment

So what does a 91-year-old sex therapist who seems to have done it all have to say to a 22-year-old who, thanks to Dr. Ruth, grew up with little to no sexual taboos? Well, if you ask Dr. Ruth, that’s a stupid question: “I’m still teaching courses. I’m very, very busy,” she said with a giggle. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing millennials and those younger in their relationships? 

It’s loneliness. I don’t mind when people use their phones for contacts, but the art of conversation is getting lost because everybody’s on that phone. The biggest problem is that it avoids contact. It avoids people looking at each other. And young people are going to develop a physical ailment in the back of their neck because they’re constantly looking down. 

I’m not saying not to use it, even the apps for dating, but to be careful, anybody can lie. They can say they’re six feet tall! And never meet in a secluded place, only meet in a public place, either a hotel lobby or a concert or a movie.

Young people should also be grateful that there’s more information available about sex now. There are fewer women who don’t know how to have an orgasm and fewer men who are premature ejaculators. There are still some myths, like the myths of a G spot, which I have not seen any conclusive study that shows there’s such a thing. I even told Johnny Carson on his show about the myth that masturbation leads to hair falling out. So I still am talking about issues, and there’s still a lot of educating to be done in terms of human sexuality. But we certainly know more than we knew before, and young people should take advantage of that.

But I certainly don’t want people to engage in sex when they are too young. I certainly am worried that, since sex is so much more available, we’re going to see a rise in AIDS and syphilis and gonorrhea. I’m certainly against one-night stands. I think that you really have to know somebody before you go and have sex. 

How has your advice changed for young people over the years?

Basically, nothing has changed because I’m still very concerned that young people have to find partners. I’m not saying to get married right away but to find partners, not to be lonely. These new on-demand services are bad for relationships because, first of all, young people are going to get fat because they’re home and at the refrigerator every minute. And it will not allow them to expand their relationships. What has changed is that I tell them to do anything they can in order to go to events, to go to fundraisers, to go to theaters, to go to any place where there are other young people. And I’m saying to people, don’t give me that excuse that you’re tired. Look at me! I’m 91 and a half and working every day. So make sure that you keep an open mind and that you find a partner. The most important piece of advice that I’ve always given is that you have to put in the effort and say I need to find friends, I need to find a partner.

Why do you think that people are having less sex nowadays?

I don’t know if that’s true. I see all of these headlines, but I think it’s nonsense. When people tell me they don’t have time, that’s even more nonsense, because people who worked, for example, in the needle trade in New York City, immigrants, they certainly worked from morning until night and there’s no question that there was enough time for sex, otherwise the next generation wouldn’t be there. I would have to see a scientifically validated data study that this is really happening and not just an article quoting that “a study shows.” If it is true, it would be very sad because I do believe that people need a significant other in their lives. 

What new advice should readers be looking for in your fourth edition of Sex for Dummies?

In this edition, I address the changes in knowledge and attitudes about sexuality, specifically in a couple of chapters for millennials about loneliness and about the difficulty in finding partners. I also talk to some experts about the things that I don’t talk about, things that are not in my area of expertise, such as the more recent issues of #MeToo, sex changes and all of the things that young people are talking about. I certainly stay on top of things, but I also never talk about things that I don’t know about.

Did you ever think about studying and becoming an expert in the issues of consent, transgender relationships and homosexuality? 

No, no. I’m not going to become an expert. It’s nice to know what you don’t want to do. On the other hand, I was instrumental in raising awareness about AIDS and about homosexuality, even though it was very controversial in the Jewish tradition. But I’m not going to be an expert in any of these issues today. Let other people, young people, do that.

Since you moved to America in 1956, you’ve lived in New York City’s Washington Heights. What do you think about the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in New York and other areas around the globe?

I certainly will talk about that. A few years ago, I never—put down never underlined—would have believed that people would have to march in New York City against anti-Semitism. I didn’t march: At my age, you don’t go to marches. That their march was about anti-Semitism is incredibly tragic and shows that we continuously need to stand up to be counted. It’s very upsetting for somebody like me, who lost all my family in the Holocaust and fought for a Jewish state in the Israeli War of Independence, that this would happen in this great country of the United States. But I’m not an expert, and I don’t have solutions. You have to talk to the experts.

Previously, you’ve made it very clear that you don’t discuss politics. Is that still your policy?

I have made it clear that I don’t talk about politics because I talk about sex so much. However, lately, I have changed my mind and I do talk about three things. I talk about how upset I am when I see children being separated from parents at the border because that’s my story; how upset I am that abortion is again being used as a political football; and that in this great country of ours, with so much money, there’s not enough money for Planned Parenthood or family planning. I don’t talk about anything else. 

In the Hulu documentary Ask Dr. Ruth, you mentioned that you’re not a feminist. Why don’t you like the title?

I didn’t belong to the women’s liberation—women who didn’t change their last names when they got married. I changed mine all three times. I don’t like the title “feminist” because it’s so radical and I’m not so radical. I certainly stand up for abortion to remain legal and for Planned Parenthood. I am probably a forerunner of the feminist movement and certainly was a forerunner when I was a single mother. I’m a “feminist” but not a “radical feminist.” Anything that I stand for, you can put under the heading of feminist. I just don’t use that heading.

When you began studying psychology at the Sorbonne, could you have imagined the type of influence you’d have on culture across the globe with respect to sexuality?

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said that what happened to her could only have happened in America. What has happened to me in terms of success on the radio and television and in terms of my career could only have happened in New York, because New Yorkers are very generous with people’s accents. And so I’m very grateful that I did the radio in New York and that I’m still talking about sex.

Let me tell you something funny. When I came to this country, they said I had to take speech lessons to lose my accent so that I could do the radio. I never had money to take speech lessons, so I didn’t. Debra Jo Rupp, in order to play me in the show Becoming Dr. Ruth, had to see a speech therapist to be able to mimic my accent. That makes me laugh!

I think I’m one of the people who were fortunate enough to get attention on the radio. When people turned on the radio, they knew it was me because of the accent and because of my knowledge.

Dr. Ruth on The Today Show. (Credit: Pierre Lehu)

What does Judaism have to say about sex?

In the Jewish tradition, the word for sex is lada’at, which means “to know,” which is very important because that’s what I’m talking about from morning to night, that you really ought to know each other before you have sex. So I did a book called Sexuality in the Jewish Tradition, and I certainly say that in Judaism, sex has never been a sin. It always has been an obligation of a married man to provide sexual satisfaction to his wife, and especially on Friday night. 

On Friday night, there’s a prayer that the husband says, eishet chayil mi yimtzah, “a woman of valor, who can find.” There’s one sentence towards the end that says: “there are wonderful women out there who do wonderful things, but you are the very best.” In terms of the whole sexual attitude, there is nothing better than to say you are the very best. So, we in the Jewish tradition are fortunate because sex within relationships, not just picking somebody up, is very important.


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