Now 90, Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer, the noted sex therapist and outspoken radio and TV personality, doles out some advice…about aging.
“Make sure that you keep busy and that you stay away from boring people, or from people who talk only about disease,” she said, adding with her trademark sense of humor and famous German accent, “Stay away from boring people, except if it’s your mother-in-law. Then you have no choice.”
She follows her own advice, at least about being busy. In advance of her June 4 birthday, she spoke with NJJN about her children’s book, “Roller-Coaster Grandma: The Amazing Story of Dr. Ruth,” published in February by Apple and Honey Press, an imprint of Behrman House, now based in Millburn.
“I love that book,” she said about her graphic novel illustrated by Mark Simmons. She credited Pierre Lehu with the hard work. “I talk, and he writes,” she said matter-of-factly about Lehu, with whom she has collaborated for 35 years on many of her books.
The book juxtaposes colorful scenes of Westheimer and two fictional grandchildren (in real life she has four) enjoying an afternoon at an amusement park with sepia tone images of her early life escaping Nazi Germany, serving as a sniper in the Haganah in what was then Palestine, and finding her way to the United States and becoming the famous radio personality and sex therapist.
“I love that book because it tells about my childhood: It tells about how my father was taken by the Nazis, but it also tells about my childhood, that I believe that people should be free,” said Westheimer, who was born in Wiesenfeld, Germany, and raised in Frankfurt. An example of her freedom-loving tendencies occurs early in the book when Westheimer, then a 5-year-old named Karola Ruth Siegel, sets free geese from their pen, much to her grandmother’s chagrin.
She’s adamant about the importance of discussing the Holocaust, especially among her novel’s target age group, children between the ages of 8 and 12. (“For that book only, not for my talking about sex,” she adds quickly.)
With the book’s publication she sets out to combat not only Holocaust deniers, but also Jews who use the language of “Holocaust fatigue” to suggest the community spends too much energy discussing the Holocaust.
“I have to stand up and be counted for people who say, ‘Holocaust fatigue, stop talking about it already, it’s so long ago, it’s already in enough literature.’ I’m saying we can’t afford not to talk about it,” she said. “I need the next generation, my grandchildren, to know — not the details of Auschwitz, but to know. They don’t have to know all of those horrible details at their tender age, but they do have to know that terrible things happened.”
She added, “Those people who deny the Holocaust have to have witnesses like me.”
She is careful to call herself a Holocaust “orphan” rather than a Holocaust “survivor,” since she was never in a concentration camp. After Kristallnacht, and following her father’s arrest by the Nazis, her mother and grandmother put her on a Kindertransport to Switzerland. She stayed there through the war in a school for girls that became an orphanage — never seeing her family again.
Her indomitable spirit is really the book’s takeaway. It is the key to her success, whether in big ways, like insisting on receiving the same education available to boys, or in small gestures. In one spread in the book, she is sitting on the train heading to Switzerland. She gets all the children to sing a song to feel less frightened. Shortly after, she makes the decision to give her doll to a girl she decides needs it more. Many years later Westheimer met that woman in the United States. “She didn’t remember it,” she said. “I could have smacked her!”
Westheimer has published over 30 books. Most focus on sexuality, but there are also a few other children’s novels, and a 2001 autobiography, “All in a Lifetime” (Grand Central Publishing). Westheimer holds a doctorate in education and a master’s degree in sociology. She became a media personality through her radio show, originally titled “Sexually Speaking,” that ran from 1980 through 1990 and became nationally syndicated. She went on to host television shows.
She often tells people she has lived in the same apartment in New York City for 55 years, but is quick to point out to this New Jersey reporter that she loves “overlooking the George Washington Bridge, the Palisades, and the Tappan Zee Bridge,” adding as many New Jersey references as she can think of for the local audience.
She tosses out her frequently cited Talmudic tenet, “A lesson taught with humor is a lesson retained,” but then returns to her father, pointing out that he was her biggest Jewish influence. “That emphasis on education is something I got from my father before he was taken to the labor camp,” she said, explaining that she was raised in an observant Jewish household. “That attitude of teaching with humor was instilled in me in that early childhood time.”
At 90 she has no plans to slow down. In fact, she has another children’s book to be released next year, also by Behrman House. It will focus on diversity, but more than that she wouldn’t say.
In case you were wondering, she did have a birthday party. It was held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, where she serves as a trustee.
Honestly, the most exciting thing about talking to Dr. Ruth? It was neither her generosity of spirit nor her advocacy or humor. It was hearing her say my name in that unmistakable voice, and then having her say she thinks it’s beautiful. After that kind of thrill, who needs to talk about sex?