Dr. Ruth Westheimer is known as a media personality, author, educator, and sex therapist. Her books include “Sex for Dummies,” “Sexually Speaking” and “Doctor Ruth’s Guide to Good Sex.” Always one to keep up with cutting edge culture, she has just released a documentary “Ask Doctor Ruth” on Hulu.
The JCC of Mid-Westchester invited Dr. Ruth to speak June 6 as part of its Arts and Talks series. The event attracted an audience of about 200 people. Some said they came because they had seen Dr. Ruth in the Hulu documentary and others said they were there as longtime Dr. Ruth fans. One woman, Wendy Rice-Hollander, had studied with Dr. Ruth at Lehman College many years ago.
“When she said orgasm we just died,” said Rice-Hollander, “I was just wild about her.”
When Dr. Ruth entered the social hall at the JCC, people all over the room jockeyed for a chance to snag a picture of her before it was too late. Dr. Ruth is notorious for not allowing pictures or videos of her talks — she believes all electronics should be put away in order to create a more human connection between herself and the audience.
After Dr. Ruth settled in, Stephanie Risa-Balkin, director of the Arts and Talks events, introduced the speaker to the crowd. Risa-Balkin’s 4-year-old daughter Ariella and JCC preschool teacher Laurie Wilson presented Dr. Ruth with a large bouquet of flowers as a birthday present.
Dr. Ruth, age 91, has lived a full life. She shared highlights of her early days, focusing in part on what it was like leaving her family in Nazi Germany to go to Switzerland alone.
“My parents gave me life twice,” she said, “once when I was born, and once when they forced me to go to Switzerland.”
She said she remains friends with a few of the kids who were on the wartime train with her from Germany to Switzerland. While she is grateful to Switzerland and how the people there took care of her for six years, she longed for her parents and sought them out in photographs of concentration camps.
After Switzerland, Dr. Ruth moved to Palestine. While in Palestine she became a sniper for the Haganah, a Jewish underground movement that fought for the creation of a Jewish homeland. Dr. Ruth said she never killed anyone, but said she’s proud that she was a great shot, and always hit the bull’s eye in target practice.
Dr. Ruth eventually married an Israeli soldier and the couple moved to Paris where she studied psychology and medicine.
“Girls in those years, especially Jewish girls who did not have any money, could not go to high school,” said Dr. Ruth. “So I don’t have a high school diploma. In the meantime I have a few honorary doctorates.”
When Dr. Ruth came to America in 1956, she started working at Planned Parenthood. At first she was confused as to why all the employees wanted to talk about sex all the time, but by her second day she was hooked on the subject.
When it came to politics, Dr. Ruth said she used to feel like she should stay out of it, given her line of work. Eventually, however, she changed her mind. The three biggest political issues for her are children being separated from families, abortion rights and funding for Planned Parenthood.
Throughout her talk, Dr. Ruth kept coming back to the saying, “A lesson taught with humor is a lesson retained.” Not only is this a mantra that Dr. Ruth has followed throughout her life, but also it was the inspiration for her new graphic novel, “Rollercoaster Grandma,” which recounts her early life.
“Younger people, if we can do it in a good way and not threatening, not in a way that’s frightening, should know about that period in time,” said Dr. Ruth.
Dr. Ruth reaches younger audiences in various ways, such as children’s books and TV shows, but she also reaches them by continuing to teach.
“I will never retire,” she said. She went on to say that she always learns from her students. For six years she has been teaching at Yale and Princeton, four years at Columbia, and she is currently teaching a history of sex education course at Hunter University.
Just as she does at her public talks, Dr. Ruth also forbids the use of phones and computers in her classrooms. She said she believes young people are losing the art of connection and conversation, and she pushes her students to “stick their necks out,” like the turtle in her children’s book “Leopold.”
The takeaway point she wanted the audience to make, from the 4-year-olds to the 90-year-olds, was to never let people be lonely, and to take the initiative when making connections.
In the question-and-answer period following her talk, Dr. Ruth said parents have an obligation to set limits for their children’s use of phones. For online dating, Dr. Ruth advised people to always go somewhere public and “don’t be stupid.” On talking to teens about sex, she told parents to buy lots of books for kids to look at and, as a parent, be open to questions.
“I always told my son that I will get answers even if I don’t have them,” she said.
“Having someone as well known and beloved as Dr. Ruth at the JCC really showcased the high quality of our Arts and Talks programming and exemplified how we bring together multiple generations in our community, from pre-schoolers to seniors,” said Balkin. “It was such a thrill to see our social hall filled with 200-plus people of all ages listening with rapt attention to Dr. Ruth’s wisdom and inspiring personal story.”