Thursday, October 25, 2018

Dr. Ruth Visits Forest Hills - Lessons From America's Best-Loved Therapist!

By Michael Perlman

Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer, often known as Dr. Ruth, “America’s best-loved therapist,” discussed her courageous life experiences, offered her wisdom, and shared and signed copies of her two most recent books at the Central Queens Y on October 15, packing the lecture hall to capacity, while some people had to be turned away. At 90, she remains active, and has earned various titles throughout her life including sex therapist, radio and TV host, professor, and author.

She miraculously escaped death during the Holocaust, and was placed on a kindertransport en route to a Swiss orphanage. Valuing education, she studied in secrecy, since only boys would receive an education. After the Holocaust, she worked on an Israeli kibbutz and trained as a sniper. She would pursue her studies and taught psychology at the University of Paris in 1950, and in 1956, started a new home in Washington Heights. She became a US citizen in 1965. Determined to live a better life, she achieved an MA degree in sociology at The New School and an EdD degree from Teachers College.

Her book, “The Doctor Is In: Dr. Ruth on Love, Life, and Joie de Vivre,” also authored by Pierre A. Lehu, shows readers how she learned to master “joie de vivre” (living life to the fullest) at any age despite challenges, tragedy, and loss. Her expertise is shared through private stories from the past and present.

Another one of their works, “Roller-Coaster Grandma: The Amazing Story of Dr. Ruth,” with illustrations by Mark Simmons, is a graphic novel aimed at pre-teen and teen readers that offers a biographical journey of Dr. Ruth and her grandchildren through an amusement park. Despite the twists and turns, it becomes apparent how she is a role model, and pinpoints her childhood and being a grandmother. Imagery distinguishes the past in sepia tone from the present through color.

Dr. Ruth recalled various vivid accounts. In Frankfurt am Main, she was an only child of Orthodox parents. She praised the early socialization of a child at home, citing two loving parents and a grandmother who had nothing else to do but take care of her. She said, “I did a study later on about the children who went with me to the Swiss children’s home that became an orphanage. None of them became drug addicts. This is because the early childhood education was so successful.”

In November 1938, there was a conference called ‘Save German Jewry,’ which failed. She reminisced, “Out of that conference came a cry, ‘Let’s at least save the children.’ England, despite the fact that they had dark clouds on the horizon, took 10,000 German Jewish children to England. Holland, Belgium, France, and Switzerland took 300 each. If I had been on the list to Holland, Belgium, or France, I would not be alive.”

After the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht), the Nazis came to their Frankfort apartment. Dr. Ruth recalled, “There was no hitting or shouting, but they took my father. I remember my grandmother having a long skirt, and in the seam she had some money, and she gave it to the Nazis and said to take good care of my son. Then my father went out in the street. I looked out the window. I could see a truck, but couldn’t see what was in it because it was covered, but I did see my father turning around, and smiling because he saw me. That was the last I ever saw of my father.”

He was taken to a labor camp. Then a card came, that I have to join the group of children to Switzerland, so that he could come back to Frankfort from the labor camp. I did not want to leave, but I had no choice. My mother and grandmother brought me to the railroad station, and I did what my father did. I wanted to cry, but I remembered that my father was smiling, so I smiled. I had one doll with me. There was a little girl in the same group to Switzerland, and she was crying. I felt that she needed the doll more than me, and gave it to her.”

She would receive letters from her parents until 1941, and in 1945, she learned that they were killed, likely in Auschwitz.

Switching gears, she also focused on her sex therapist career. A highlight of Dr. Ruth's radio show career was her debut “Sexually Speaking” on WYNY-FM in 1980, and among her most memorable TV shows was “The Dr. Ruth Show” on Lifetime in 1985.

In the Talmud, it states that “a lesson taught with humor is a lesson attained,” which Dr. Ruth referenced. As decades have passed, she has not lost her humor and spunk. As for her sex therapy radio shows, she said, “I got the program. I did it for one year. Taping on Tuesday afternoons, nobody at NBC worked. I told people to call and write me questions. Then I did it for 10 years from 10 to 12 on Sunday nights, which was a wonderful time slot. People came from the Catskills or the Hamptons. They got into their car at 10. By 12:00 they were home and sexually aroused.” Then she pursued 450 TV shows.

Sometimes advice remains as solid as decades ago. “For the questions that I got on radio and TV, many of those questions are the same today. In those days, nobody knew about AIDS. I said how careful you have to be, which I am still saying today.” She also discussed why it was an easy task to publicly speak about sex. “I’m very Jewish. I have ‘Chutzpah.’ In the Jewish tradition, sex has never been a sin. It always has been an obligation of a husband and wife.” 

In an interview, Dr. Ruth had a message to Holocaust deniers. “My obligation is to stand up and be counted, so that for those people who deny the Holocaust are just not educated enough to know that it did happen. Some people have Holocaust fatigue, and they may say ‘enough already!’ I have to talk about it, so that those people who deny it or have fatigue are going to be quiet.” She pointed out that her entire family was killed, and she was the only survivor, since she was sent to Switzerland for safety. “That’s why I call myself an orphan of the Holocaust; not a survivor,” she said.

Also part of the interview, she advised millennials to stay tuned. She stated, “Millennials, listen! I am going to do a brand new television show. I’m 90-years-old and my co-star is 31. We’re going to be relevant for relationship and sexual questions to everybody who is going to view us.” She also offered advice for young couples, since time is precious. “For those people who have found a significant other, do get married. Don’t hang out there and think that something better is going to come up.” 

A similar version has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column:

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