When Dr. Ruth Westheimer calls to chat about the upcoming documentary about her life, Ask Dr. Ruth, I’m sitting in my grandparents’ living room in Montreal, helping my grandmother get everything ready for the first night of the Passover seder.
The eve of a holiday celebrating the Jews’ liberation from bondage in Egypt is the perfect time to talk to the petite Jewish sex therapist who, over the course of her career, has helped to free countless Americans from the stigmas and taboos around sex.
At almost 91 years old, Dr. Ruth is a cultural force to be reckoned with. The former host of WYNY-FM ‘s Sexually Speaking has written approximately 40 books, and hosted five successful television shows. She’s made cameos on everything from Quantum Leap to Ally McBeal, been (lovingly) parodied on Saturday Night Live. and starred in one of the most iconic commercials of the early 90s.
Most significantly, she taught American men and women to be sexually literate, offering encyclopedic knowledge with her trademark frankness. No subject was off-limits — she advocated for masturbation and the use of sex toys before either were remotely mainstream — and everyone was welcome. “There’s no such thing as normal,” was her de-facto mantra.
But the joyful ebullience of America’s sex bubbe masks much darker origins. Born Karola Siegel in 1928 Germany to Jewish parents, she was sent to Switzerland right before the outbreak of World War II, on the eve of her 10th birthday. In 1942, her mother and father were deported from their home in Frankfurt-am-Maine, and murdered by Hitler’s regime. She never saw them again.
Ryan White’s documentary balances that deeply ingrained sorrow with the mirth we’ve come to identify with the 5”4 force of nature. A scene of her juicily describing an affair she had with her boyfriend’s even hotter brother precedes a somber one of her at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, to discover the brutal details of her parents’ fate. And yet, there’s something incredibly Jewish about that interplay of light and dark. We laugh, we suffer, and we laugh again.
Using a mix of animation and archival footage, and combined with her own narration, White gives us a full picture of Dr. Ruth’s past — first in the Swiss orphanage, then as a young woman, training to be an Army sniper to fight in Israel’s 1948 War for Independence, and through the ups and downs of her own love and sex life, and career ambitions.
As it happens, the film’s theatrical release coincides with Jewish American Heritage Month in May. And so it was that I ended up talking to Dr. Ruth about her own grandmother, her Jewish identity, and Millennial sex.
Refinery29: Hi, Dr. Ruth! How are you?
“I hear that you loved the movie?”
I did love the movie! I laughed, I cried, I felt all the emotions.
“That’s exactly what I love to hear! I want people to say ‘I laughed, then I cried.’ Go ahead.”
The movie shows you trying to feed everybody. Are you making something special for Passover tonight?
“Thank god, I don’t have to make the Seder! I used to host 30, 40 people but since my late husband passed away, I just go to my daughter’s. My son has a Seder in Ottawa, in Canada, and I go [to] my daughter’s [in the U.S.]. So, I don’t have to do the Seder, I just bring matzo.”
I’m actually in Canada right now!
“Where are you?”
“Say chag sameach, happy holidays to everybody!”
Do you think your Jewish identity has influenced the way that you think about sex?
“Absolutely! First of all, I did a book called Sexuality in the Jewish Tradition with Jonathan Mark. For us Jews, sex has never been a sin, it’s a mitzvah, an obligation, for a husband to engage in sex on Friday night with his wife. And also, the word in Hebrew for sex is ‘L’daat,’ which means ‘to know.’ And that’s a wonderful way of explaining my philosophy, which is that people have to know each other to have good sexual relations.”
Judaism also has an emphasis on women’s pleasure, right?
“And not only that, it says that if a man brings his wife to sexual satisfaction before he ejaculates, she’s going to bear sons! But I don’t know if people can engage in sex after the Seder. Because they’re going to be up late, and they’re going to be tired. They have to wait until Chol Hamoed, after the two Seders — the half holiday!”
Over the years, have you noticed a shift in the kinds of questions that people are asking you?
“Yes. I get less questions about women not being able to have an orgasm. I get less questions from men about premature ejaculation. People are a lot better sexually educated. But I still get a lot of questions, so a lot of research has to be done, and a lot of talking, in order for everyone to be sexually literate.”
What’s the most common thing women ask you about?
“It used to be asking about the inability to have an orgasm, but that is not true anymore. There are less women who don’t know how to do that. Right now, I get many more questions about relationships. About boredom. About loneliness. That’s why I’m doing a new edition of Sex for Dummies for the Millennials, talking about loneliness and talking about the issue of the art of communication. Because everyone is on their phones. Very often they say they don’t have time, which is very sad. Everyone has to make time for good sexual experiences.”
There have been all these studies and articles recently about how Millennials have less sex than previous generations. Why do you think that is?
“I can’t comment on the study. I just think it’s sad if that is proven to be true, because I believe that two consenting adults who love each other should have sex! So, I can’t comment on [something] where I don’t know the scientifically validated data. But you should tell all the Millennials in Montreal, and every place where you are to find a significant other — I want them to get married and have children, and I want them to have good sex!”
What prompted make this documentary now?
Producer Rafael Marmor called me I said, ‘No, enough already,’ and then I changed my mind when I saw his film, No Place On Earth. It showed 31 people in Poland surviving [the Holocaust] because they were underground in a cave, and the villagers supported them for a year and a half. So, I decided that I like that, I like the title No Place On Earth, because I felt that when I had to leave Nazi Germany. He wanted to go with Ryan White, I met Ryan, I watched all of his films. And I’m glad I did.
The Keepers, White’s Netflix docu-series,is so good, right?
“I told him, he owes me seven hours of my life!”
You’ve been branded as American’s Jewish sex grandma. In the film, you share memories of your own grandmother. What lessons did you learn from her?
“From my grandmother I learned total devotion, and she and my father, her son, gave me that strong message of how important education is. That nobody can take education from you. And so I was lucky. The first years of my life were in a home with two loving parents and a grandmother, and another set of grandparents in the village.”
“Don’t tell anybody! But that’s correct, a secret between you and me!”
...have you prepared your acceptance speech yet?
“Not yet, but I will! Okay, have a good Pesach, bye bye! Shalom, shalom.”
"Ask Dr. Ruth" hits theaters May 3 and will stream on Hulu starting June 7.