Dr. Ruth: Pleasure Yo’ Self!
In 1948, when Dr. Ruth Westheimer was just 20 years old and living in Palestine, she was seriously injured by an exploding shell, and almost lost her legs. While recovering in the hospital, she set her sights on a cute male nurse, and convinced him that she needed him to feed her, even though her hands were perfectly fine. Dr. Ruth laughingly recounts this story herself in the new documentary about her life, Ask Dr. Ruth, and in doing so demonstrates how she found joy and even amusement in an otherwise dark situation. For me, this story so perfectly encapsulates Dr. Ruth’s life, and who she is as a person.
Dr. Ruth was born in 1928 in Germany as Karola Ruth Siegel. When she was just ten years old she witnessed Kristallnacht, and saw her father rounded up with other Jewish men to be taken to a concentration camp. Soon after, her mother and grandmother put her on a train to Switzerland with other Jewish children—she never saw her family again. Much later in life, Dr. Ruth found out that her father was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942. Her mother was killed as well, but the details are unknown. But seeing this four foot seven Jewish woman whose light shines so bright and who seems to be the dictionary definition of a bubbe, you might not guess any of this. You probably also wouldn’t guess that she was a sniper in the Haganah!
Perhaps it’s not surprising that someone who had such a rough start in life (obviously this is an understatement) and who experienced so much pain, trauma, and loss, would make a name for herself by helping others find pleasure—literally! Dr. Ruth earned a master’s in sociology from the New School and an EdD from Columbia. She spent several years doing post-doctoral work in human sexuality before making an appearance on a local radio show in 1980. This led to the creation of her own show, Sexually Speaking, where she answered questions from listeners. Since then, her popularity has exploded; she’s written dozens of books on sexuality, has had her own TV shows, and has appeared on The Tonight Show, Late Night, Hollywood Squares, and more. In addition to her presence in popular culture, Dr. Ruth has taught, and still teaches courses at various colleges and universities.
Although Dr. Ruth approaches her work with an air of lightheartedness, it’s clear that she takes sexuality and pleasure very seriously, and knows how important these things are. In the documentary, you hear people expressing such immense gratitude to Dr. Ruth for her advice, some even going so far as saying that she saved their lives. You hear others thanking her for giving voice to non-heterosexual relationships at a time when it wasn’t mainstream to do so. It’s hard to capture in mere words the impact that Dr. Ruth’s work has had on so many people over the past 40 or so years. Not only has she found light and joy in her own life after beating such incredible odds, but she actively works every single day to bring others out of the darkness, and, let’s be honest, to orgasm!
Since I’m writing this piece for the Jewish Women’s Archive, and as a feisty Jewish feminist myself, I feel I have to ask: “Is Dr. Ruth a feminist?” You might be thinking, “Of course she is!” And I’d agree with you. There’s a wonderfully funny scene in the documentary in which Dr. Ruth’s Jewish, feminist, teenaged granddaughter asks her if she’s a feminist, and expresses true bafflement and frustration when the answer she gets is, “No!” How could a sex therapist who talks about things like the need for abortion access and professes the importance of sexual pleasure not be a feminist? Your guess is as good as mine. The best explanation I can give is that it’s made very clear in the documentary that Dr. Ruth almost never expresses her political beliefs in public, and perhaps not openly identifying as a feminist is part of this. My sense is that Dr. Ruth’s priority is to help everyone, and that she wouldn’t want anyone to be put off by her personal beliefs.
There’s so much more I could say about Dr. Ruth, but I want to end by emphasizing her power, her resilience, her intelligence, and her tireless work to improve the lives of others. She may look like a cute little Jewish grandma, but make no mistake, she’s a total badass. Cheers to you, Dr. Ruth! I’ll think of you next time I’m using my favorite sex toy.