The turtles that peek out almost everywhere in Ruth Westheimer’s New York apartment—crafted of clay, metal, wood or stone, even encrusted with diamonds—are neither random nor whimsical. They are a statement about Dr. Ruth herself.
“The turtle can stay in its shell and be safe and boring,” explains the 86-year-old famously diminutive sex therapist, “but if it wants to move forward it has to stick its neck out. That’s me. If I have to mention one characteristic I have, it is chutzpa.”
Risk-taking has been a hallmark of Westheimer’s life. She pioneered the art of speaking frankly about sexual matters with her first radio program, Sexually Speaking, a 15-minute call-in show on WYNY that began in 1980, expanded to two hours and ran for 10 years. Her frequent appearances on late-night talk shows magnified her popularity. Today, her explicit, humorous style has spawned a communications network that capitalizes on all forms of mass media: books, syndicated columns, television shows, documentaries, YouTube videos, computer software, a board game and a website (www.drruth.com). She notes proudly that she has 78,400 followers on Twitter (“Put down, ‘and counting,’” she instructs), a number she obtained by calling her publicist, since she does not even have an email account.
Westheimer has overcome incredible odds. In fact, chutzpa might just be another word for courage. Born in Wiesenfeld, Germany, in 1928 and raised in an Orthodox home in Frankfurt, her mother and paternal grandmother (who lived with them) sent her at age 10 to a Swiss children’s home after her father had been deported to a detention camp on the heels of Kristallnacht. She never saw her family again. At 17, she made aliya and became a sniper for the Haganah; on her 20th birthday, she was wounded badly by an ex-ploding cannonball. She credits Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem for saving her feet so she could become “a super good skier” (she stopped only at age 80) and dancer.
Westheimer delivers her irrepressible blend of matter-of-fact advice with a dollop of joyous naughtiness, in a much-parodied German accent. Ever the educator—her doctorate from Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York is in the interdisciplinary study of the family—she keeps her goal in mind. “The Talmud says a lesson taught with humor is a lesson retained,” she notes. She has figured out how to link sex and relationships with almost every subject—and, often, with Jewish values. Even in a recent book, Dr. Ruth’s Guide for the Alzheimer’s Caregiver (Quill Driver Books), she talks “a little about sex because I don’t want to disappoint people.”
Westheimer is dressed in a bright top with splashes of orange and tan over black pants, a style she favors. The necklace she wears every day holds an antique Bar Koch-ba coin fitted in a modern gold setting. “I like the idea of the old and new,” she says. It’s a theme repeated in her latest book: Myths of Love: Echoes of Ancient Mythology in the Modern Romantic Imagination (Quill Driver Books). Stories bubble forth about her life and work: most recently, The Wisdom of Dr. Ruth, a weekly show on the Jewish Broadcasting Service that covers relationships and family life; and Becoming Dr. Ruth: The Unexpected Journey, a one-woman play that has been performed up and down the East Coast.
To make a point to Holocaust deniers, the play—which Westheimer estimates she has seen about 15 times—focuses on her background. “I am one of those who can say it happened,” she says, emphasizing that she calls herself an “orphan of the Holocaust,” not a survivor, because she wasn’t in a camp. At the show’s conclusion, actor Debra Jo Rupp holds up a photograph of Westheimer’s four grandchildren, Ari, Leora, Benjamin and Michal. “Hitler lost and I won,” she says.
Westheimer’s utilitarian midtown New York office is a contrast to her Washington Heights apartment, which is jam-packed with papers, books, music boxes, Judaica, pottery, erotic antique oil lamps and tchotchkes. “I confess that I love the clutter,” she writes in one of her autobiographies, Musically Speaking: A Life in Song (University of Pennsylvania Press). There are photos of her with luminaries from Bill Clinton to Paul McCartney and Zubin Mehta, and a red-brick dollhouse, complete with 1930s furniture, china and carpets, made especially for her. A plaque engraved on its front door reads, “Dr. Ruth Westheimer, sex therapist.” When she left Germany, she gave her doll away to a girl on the train; the only tangible childhood object she has left is a pink-and-white washcloth, which remains in a drawer.
Designer Nate Berkus, who helped westheimer organize her apartment, recalls her insisting, “You cannot tell me to get rid of anything.” In The Things That Matter (Spiegel & Grau), which features 12 of his celebrity clients, he sums her up in one word: amazing. “Not only has she survived tragedy after tragedy, she has somehow managed to keep her soul intact,” he writes. Berkus remembers listening to her radio show: “Dr. Ruth’s voice was like rain in the middle of the desert…. Dr. Ruth, in her no-nonsense way, gave everyone respect, acceptance and permission to be exactly who they were.”
Westheimer attributes her optimistic and resilient spirit to her early socialization—the 10 1/2 years she spent in a loving home (she is always careful to add the precious half-year). “I have a tremendous amount of joie de vivre,” she says, happily recounting a recent shopping expedition to Lancome where, after a lipstick expenditure, she was rewarded with giveaway bags emblazoned with exactly those words. An upcoming autobiography will also be titled Joie de Vivre.
Her seemingly limitless energy enables her to indulge her love of music and drama every night: She goes to plays, operas and concerts and is rarely home before 11 P.M. Despite (or perhaps because of) her Swiss housemaid’s certificate she eats out twice a day. She says she regrets nothing, anticipates sunny days after it rains and does not procrastinate.
When sadness threatens to overcome Westheimer, she looks for something cheery. For many years, she attended the annual Frankfurt Book Fair, the biggest book and media fair in the world, despite the fact that she had to pass the railroad station where she said goodbye to her mother and grandmother. A plaque dedicated to John F. Kennedy’s 1963 visit to St. Paul’s Church, which he called the cradle of German democracy, brought a smile to her face. “I loved Kennedy and I felt that connection to the United States, where I belong,” she explains.
Being short (“I’m 4 foot 7, losing a quarter of an inch as we speak”) has defined her, motivating her to “speak up in order to be heard.” She once thought that no man would be interested in her because she was “short and ugly and stupid,” but she has been married three times, twice briefly. Her third marriage to Manfred Westheimer, a telecommunications engineer, lasted 36 years; he died in 1997.
Westheimer has kept her family out of the limelight. Her daughter, Miriam, lives in Riverdale and directs HIPPY, a home-based early-childhood program; her son, Joel, a specialist in citizenship education, is a professor at the University of Ottawa.
Westheimer has survived “such an unimaginable childhood—so much was taken from her—that she doesn’t want to miss a minute,” says attorney Jeffrey Tabak, a longtime friend who has served with her on the boards of several organizations, including the Museum of Jewish Heritage–A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York. “She is always positive. She is always looking for the next project. No obstacle is too big for her to attack and overcome. At her age we usu-ally pay tribute to all a person has accomplished. With Ruth we do that but there’s still so much more to look forward to.” Tabak adds that people from all walks of life—from waiters to celebrities—stop her and tell her she is a hero who has touched their lives.
Ask Westheimer what intrigues her about sex, and she answers, “Everything!” Yet much of what appears to be about sex is also about relationships and family—perhaps a way for Westheimer to heal from her own loss. She was the only child of Irma Hanauer, a housekeeper, and Julius Siegel, a notions wholesaler and son of the family for which Irma worked. Her father gave her an early grounding in Judaism, taking her regularly to the synagogue in Frankfurt. In Palestine, Westheimer was told to replace her German first name, Karola, with a Hebrew one: she chose her middle name, Ruth, but kept K as her middle initial, hoping it would identify her if her parents were searching for her. She still retains the K to keep her ties to her past alive.
She began teaching kindergarten, then moved to Paris to study psychology at the Sorbonne. In 1956, she visited the United States on her way back to Israel and decided to stay. She received her master’s degree in sociology from the Graduate Faculty of the New School of Social Research in New York on a scholarship for victims of the Holocaust. She later went on to earn her Ed.D. and became interested in public health. A job at Planned Parenthood prompted her to further her education in human sexuality. “I listened to them talking and I thought, ‘These people are crazy! They don’t talk about anything but sex.’ Forty-eight hours later I said, ‘Very interesting. They don’t talk about anything but sex!’”
Westheimer trained for seven years with Helen Singer Kaplan, a pioneer in the field of sex therapy. Beyond her learned skills, her willingness to be controversial allowed her to move sex into the public domain. Today, she says, “Women have heard the message from people like me to take responsibility for their own sexual satisfaction. The vocabulary has changed—it is much more explicit—but the questions are the same: loneliness and sexual boredom and finding a partner.” Her best tip? Communicate and be sexually literate.
Westheimer has taught at several universities, including Yale and Princeton; she is currently adjunct professor at New York University and is teaching a course at Teachers College on how family is depicted in the media. With a multidenominational spirit, she belongs to the Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation of Washington Heights (Reform); the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale; used to be a member of the Orthodox synagogue Ohav Shalom until it closed; and is on the board of the Washington Heights Y, where she was president for 11 years.
She enjoys using her name and re-sources to help others, sponsors scholarships at Ha—zamir: the In–ter-national Jewish High School Choir, the New School and Teachers College and participates in many fundraisers.
“I let them auction me off,” she says. “I take four people to Sardi’s and sit at the table below the caricature of me. I say, ‘Don’t sell me cheap for your organization.’”
Israel remains close to her heart. She uses Hebrew words in conversation, has had her own weekly series in Hebrew on Israeli television and has produced a series of documentaries on different ethnic communities in Israel—Ethiopian, Druze, Bedouin, Circassian. She is an active supporter of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, and recently finished reading Daniel Gordis’s Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul (Schocken) and Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Spiegel & Grau). But since she does not live in Israel, she draws the line at political involvement.
When she visits Israel, as she does every summer, she gets together with her childhood friends from the orphanage (she also visits a Kindertransport friend in Switzerland). Like her, all the women went into the helping professions—helping others because they were saved.
“I didn’t know I would become a sex therapist. but I knew I had to do something for tikkun olam,” she states. “You can take horrible experiences you will never forget, but you can use the experiences to live a productive life.”
Westheimer’s life has come full circle. “When I was looking for a job in the United States I was told to take speech lessons, but they were a dollar an hour—too expensive. Now,” she chuckles at the punchline she is about to deliver, “Debra Jo Rupp had to take speech coaching to learn my accent! It’s good to be Dr. Ruth!”