You know Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer as a world-renowned celebrity sex therapist. For the past four decades, she has delighted and enlightened radio listeners, TV viewers, college students, readers and her own patients with her candid, no-holds-barred advice about human sexuality.
But did you know that long before becoming a household name, “Dr. Ruth” was a scout and sniper for the Haganah paramilitary organization that fought for the establishment of Israel?
Born Karola Ruth Siegel in the Bavarian town of Wiesenfeld, Dr. Ruth, 92, describes an idyllic childhood that ended prematurely in November of 1938 when her father was seized by the Nazis.
To keep her safe, Dr. Ruth’s mother and grandmother sent her to live in a children’s home in Switzerland. She would never see her family again.
When World War II ended, Dr. Ruth, already a passionate Zionist, decided to emigrate to British-controlled Mandatory Palestine and fought in Israel’s War of Independence. She moved to the United States in 1956.
Now, Dr. Ruth, a mother of two and grandmother of four who lives in New York, returns to Israel every year. A devoted supporter of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, she participated in an FIDF webinar June 11 in support of the organization.
Dr. Ruth recently spoke with Jmore about her commitment to Israel, her latest book “Roller Coaster Grandma: The Amazing Story of Dr. Ruth” (Apples & Honey Press), the 2019 Hulu-made documentary about her life “Ask Dr. Ruth,” and more.
Jmore: What are you up to these days?
Dr. Ruth: At the end of the month, on June 20th, my book ‘Heavenly Sex: Sex in the Jewish Tradition’ [which was first published by Continuum in 1996] will be reissued as a classic. [New York Jewish Week Associate Editor] Jonathan Mark worked on it with me. It will never go out of print! Whoever gets the book will always have good sex!
Also, I have a new children’s book, “Roller Coaster Grandma: The Amazing Story of Dr. Ruth.” It’s for junior high school-age children. It’s not about Auschwitz, but it does talk about my father being taken away [by the Nazis]. And the movie “Ask Dr. Ruth” which is still on Hulu. Part of the movie is animated and augments the book for the junior high school students because there’s very little [about the Holocaust] for that age.
I am getting an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. It’s my first honorary degree in Israel! And I just did a big fundraiser. I will raise enough money for an endowed scholarship in psychology at Ben-Gurion. Anyone who donates, will have good sex for life!
What was it like to serve in the Haganah?
Not only was I a member of the Haganah, I was a sniper. I was able to use a Sten gun and hand grenades. But I was there for a short period of time before I was wounded on my 20th birthday.
I went to Jerusalem and heard the siren sounds. Instead of going straight to the shelter, I went to my room to get a book first. That was a big mistake. When you hear the alarm, go to the shelter. A cannonball exploded, killing two girls next to me. I was badly wounded in the legs.
But a German Jewish surgeon fixed me so that I was able to ski all my life — I was a black-diamond skier — and to dance the whole night. I don’t dance anymore, except a little bit on my birthday. My daughter is an Israeli folk dancer.
I think of my service with pleasure because we all participated in one way or other in the Independence War.
Later, you worked at Planned Parenthood in New York City.
I worked at the Columbia University School of Public Health on a research project. But the money ran out, and I was offered a job at Planned Parenthood.
At the beginning I thought, ‘What’s wrong with these people? All they talk about is sex!’
Then, in about a half-hour, I thought, ‘This is pretty interesting stuff!’
How do you feel about calls to defund Planned Parenthood?
I do not engage in politics. However, lately I have changed my mind.
I am upset by seeing children separated from their parents at the [U.S.-Mexican] border. When I see children separated, I think of my being separated [from her family] and how terrible that was.
And I need abortion to remain legal. I stand up to be counted to make sure there is funding for Planned Parenthood. Otherwise, only women with money can get [safe] abortions.
Your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement?
I went with my daughter [to a June 7 rally] and I held up a sign in Riverdale [N.Y.]. It was organized by rabbis and only five people at a time [could demonstrate because of the pandemic]. My sign said, ‘Enough is enough.’ My daughter Miriam’s sign said, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ I stand up to be counted. And of course, I vote.
Why do you advocate that people talk openly about sex?
In the Jewish tradition, sex is never a forbidden subject. It’s an obligation for a husband to engage in sex with his wife on Friday night. Sex is never considered a sin.
Should parents talk to children about sex?
They have to talk to kids. Parents have to be sexually knowledgeable and be askable. At school, the teacher must give the kids books [about sex] and have them write down questions without their names, put them in a shoebox and then read and answer the questions.
How does it feel to look back on a life of so much success and influence?
It feels very good and I’m grateful, even though I’m stuck at home [because of the pandemic]. I’m at home in Washington Heights, N.Y., where I’ve lived for the past 56 years. I look out at the George Washington Bridge, the majestic Hudson River, the Cloisters [museum]. I’ve been on the board of the Washington Heights Y for 50 years. I stayed here because it’s where I feel at home.
For information about Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, visit fidf.org. To watch the FIDF virtual interview with Dr. Ruth, visit https://www.fidf.org/covid19/engage.
For information about the Baltimore-based Mid-Atlantic regional chapter of the Friends of the IDF, visit https://www.fidf.org/act-local/our-chapters/midatlantic-region.
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