Dr. Ruth: A Passionate Life

While reflecting on our anniversary, we were reminded of how many women have come before us, paving the way for straightforward conversations about women's sexuality. This is the second in a series (read the first here) launching our sixth year with gratitude to them!

The name of the world-renowned sex expert Dr. Ruth immediately brings to mind her warm, German-accented voice. Dr. Ruth Westheimer, 88 years old, has her own YouTube channel, where you can find clips of her answers to important questions such as I’m over 65—can I still have sex?, her frisky report on a kiss from President Obama, and even her thoughts on Fifty Shades of Grey.

Though only four foot seven in her prime, she’s been a huge figure in sex education since the early ’80s, when she started a fifteen-minute radio show,“Sexually Speaking,” on a local New York station. At first, the station was so wary of the subject that her show aired Sundays at midnight, and Dr. Ruth answered written questions only. Soon that evolved to an hour-long live call-in show with a seven-second delay. Live TV was next. She made several appearances on the David Letterman show, her radio and TV shows were syndicated, and she was on the cover of TV Guide and People magazine. She taught the nation that sex can be talked about, and on live TV!

She was reassuring and compassionate on-air with nervous people, especially the young—asking questions, putting them at ease. Even in her younger days, she exuded a grandmotherly air. It’s hard to imagine that, tiny as she was, she’d been trained as a sniper in Palestine.

She had a narrow escape from the Nazi horror. When she was 10 years old, her mother and grandmother sent her to safety in Switzerland. She spent the war in an orphanage with many other Jewish children, refugees from Germany. After learning in 1945 that her parents had been murdered in the Holocaust, she went to Palestine and trained in the army. She relates, “When I was in my routine training for the Israeli army as a teenager, they discovered completely by chance that I was a lethal sniper. I could hit the target smack in the center further away than anyone could believe.” But, she says, she never killed anyone. “Even today I can load a Sten automatic rifle in a single minute, blindfolded.”

She went on to study psychology in Paris, then immigrated to the United States, where she made her home in Manhattan. She earned advanced degrees from the New School and Teachers College, Columbia University, then did post-graduate work in sexuality with Helen Singer Kaplan from Vienna, a psychiatrist who pioneered scientific research about sex.

She retains a close association with Israel and Judaism. “For years, I wondered why I could talk about the things I talk about so openly. Now I know. For us Jews, sex was never a sin.” In her book Heavenly Sex: Sexuality in the Jewish Tradition, she writes, “The great rabbi Simeon ben-Halafta called the penis the great peacemaker of the home.”

In addition to her many books and recorded programs, Dr. Ruth’s Family Encyclopedia of Sex & Sexuality is available on-line. Those who helped her escape from Nazi Germany made possible a well-lived life, with a great legacy.

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