Susan Weidman Schneider with photographs by Joan Roth
She came to the U.S. not, she makes clear, as a Holocaust survivor. “I am a Holocaust orphan, not a survivor.” Dr. Ruth Westheimer is very clear about many things, including the importance of “sexual literacy.” She has been dispensing her wisdom on sex for decades—in numerous books, on radio and t.v., from the theater stage (well, with someone playing her in “Being Dr Ruth”). And for Joan Roth and me a few weeks ago, from the living room of the memento-filled apartment in upper Manhattan where she has lived for 55 years.
At 89, she sets the agenda. “I don’t talk politics,” she announces. And “I don’t talk about anything I have not researched.
But she’s happy to talk about the evocative objects on the furniture surrounding her petite self. Among them are dozens and dozens of turtles—sculpted, painted, bejeweled. “I wore this one to read Elie Wiesel’s Night at the Museum of the Jewish Heritage yesterday.” She stores it in a box with another turtle. “I don’t like people to be lonely, so I have them together.” And a turtle named Leopold is the title character in Dr. Ruth’s new book for children. But why turtles? “A turtle is safe and secure only when its head and legs are inside the shell. To encounter the world, a turtle has to stick its neck out. It has to take risks.”
Dr. Ruth (the name by which everyone seems to know her) is no stranger to risk-taking. Sent as a 10-year-old on a Kindertransport train from Germany to a Swiss children’s home—later an orphanage for Jewish children—she never again saw her parents. On her coffee table is a sculpture of Kindertransport children standing on a railroad track. “I look at it every night,” she says.
Alongside curio cabinets stand two large dollhouses, taller than Dr. Ruth herself. “The dollhouses are not for my grandchildren or for anyone to play with. They are for me. They give me comfort. I like them because I have control. I had no control over my family. But I have control over the dollhouses. Someone even made me miniatures of my book Dr. Ruth’s Guide to Good Sex for the dollhouses.” (Her latest is The Doctor Is In.) How did she become Dr. Ruth the sex guru? She came to the United States from Israel, where she fought in the army, and after she cleaned houses “for 75 cents an hour” she earned an academic degree with research on women and contraception, and worked with pioneering sex therapist Helen Singer Kaplan, who “lifted the veil on Victorian attitudes,” says Dr. Ruth, who soon had a job at Planned Parenthood.
“I came home and told my husband, ‘These people I work with at Planned Parenthood are crazy. All they talk about is sex’. Twenty-four hours later I realized that this was great subject matter.” Clearly, the subject was a great fit. “I was very well trained. And I have chutzpah.”
She spoke about same-sex relationships when others did not; “I believe that all people deserve respect.” This includes respect for people’s sexuality as they age. She worries about the risks of internet dating for older women. “We are going to have more aids at every age. People think they can be sexually active with any partner.”
And for an older woman with a male partner, she has special instructions: “Don’t have sex in the evening, but in the morning. There’s a bigger erection for an older man in the morning after a good night’s sleep. Get up,have breakfast, go to the bathroom, and get back into bed.
“Even after menopause, in Judaism it is written that a man is obligated to provide sex to his wife. Sex in Judaism is not just for procreation but for recreation.” Dr. Ruth notes—while insisting “Take a cookie!”—that the Talmud stresses “caressing. They knew how important that the man must bring his wife to sexual satisfaction before he ejaculates.” And the Woman of Valor verses a Jewish man chants to his wife on Friday evening may be an aphrodisiac. “He says ‘There are many wonderful women out there—but you are the very best’. No other sentence is more sexually arousing to a woman than to hear ‘you are the best’.
“A woman must take responsibility for her sexual satisfaction,” and Dr. Ruth has endorsed the Eroscillator vibrator. But what about women more cloistered, say in ultra- Orthodox circles where “brides’ classes” may be the only form of sex-ed? Dr. Ruth is upbeat. “If properly taught, these classes should be taught everywhere. In Hebrew School, in synagogues.” Her mantra, in person as in her books: “The most important thing is sexual literacy.”