Dr. Ruth, the pocket-sized 91-year-old sex therapist, has officially put me on notice. “Be careful, journalist!” she shrieks in her thick German accent. “If anybody doesn’t write well [about me], I can still put five bullets into the little red circle!”
She’s kidding (I hope), but the 4-foot-7 sexpert is indeed handy with the steel, having briefly served as a sniper in the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary force in then-British-controlled Palestine—that is, until an artillery shell exploded at her feet in 1948. The injuries she suffered to her legs were so bad it took her months of intensive physical therapy to regain the ability to walk.
“I was lucky, I never killed anybody…but I could have,” she tells me. “And I was so fortunate that the physician fixed me. I’m a black-diamond skier and can dance the whole night—if I find a good partner!”
Indeed, the nonagenarian’s boundless energy and enthusiasm is on full display in Ask Dr. Ruth, a Hulu documentary chronicling Ruth Westheimer’s exceptional life, from Holocaust survivor to world-renowned sex therapist who’s published over 40 books.
She was born Karola Ruth Siegel, the only child of Orthodox Jews, in Wiesenfeld, Germany. In 1939, after her father was arrested by the Nazis, her mother and grandmother shipped her off to an orphanage in Heiden, Switzerland, where she waited out the war. Filmmaker Ryan White chose to render these scenes in striking animation, with Dr. Ruth describing the extreme alienation and isolation she felt in voiceover.
“I was worried, what will these animation people do?” she says, her voice shooting skyward. “Will I look like Pinocchio or Mickey Mouse? But they did a wonderful job.”
The most powerful scene of the film sees Dr. Ruth visit Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, Israel, and look up her parents in the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names, where four and a half of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis have been catalogued. She discovers that her father perished at Auschwitz; her mother’s cause of death, on the other hand, is unknown.
And therein lies the reason why Dr. Ruth agreed to partake in this deeply personal documentary, which took up a year and a half of her life: never again. She was horrified by the images she saw on the news, of refugee children separated from their parents and placed in cages by the Trump administration—images that recalled her own past in Nazi Germany—and vowed to no longer be silent, breaking her self-imposed life-long ban on discussing politics publicly.
“I don’t talk about politics—except these days, I’ve changed my mind,” she says. “I do stand up to express how upset I am when I see children being separated from their parents—because that’s my story, of my life—and also how upset I am about the issue of abortion and the issue of family planning, because that is what I worked on my entire professional life. In a sense it all fits together, and it permits me to state my philosophy.”
“I am on the board of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and right now we have an exhibit about Auschwitz that came from Spain. It’s called: Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away. It’s an exceptional exhibit,” Dr. Ruth continues. “I learned a great deal about the history of anti-Semitism, and some of the sad lessons that people did not listen to and did not adhere to about the rise of anti-Semitism. I would never have dreamt that I would live in this country and that we would see swastikas painted at the door of a psychology professor at Columbia University. That’s why people like you and me have to stand up, and speak out.”
After rehabbing from her wartime injuries, Dr. Ruth moved to Paris, where she studied and taught psychology at the Sorbonne, and then immigrated to Washington Heights, New York, eventually earned a Doctorate in Education in 1970. Shortly thereafter, she worked for Planned Parenthood—an experience that encouraged her to pursue the study of human sexuality, and to advocate for family planning and reproductive rights.
And, now that the Supreme Court holds a conservative majority, we are seeing Republican lawmakers launch an all-out assault on women’s reproductive rights, passing bills that effectively ban abortion in states like Alabama and Georgia. Dr. Ruth finds this appalling.
“The crucial aspect here is that there always will be some unintended pregnancies—a condom can break, etc. There will always be issues where an abortion is necessary,” she explains. “What upsets me very much is, if it becomes illegal again, only women with money will be able to obtain an abortion, because they will fly to Mexico or Europe, and the other ones will go to abortionists or coat hangers. So I’m very concerned about it, because the issue of needing an abortion is always going to be prevalent in our society, because there always will be some contraceptive failures.” She emits a deep sigh. “It’s so sad what’s happening.”
Of course, in addition to her tragic upbringing and ardent activism, Ask Dr. Ruth explores her four-decade career as the world’s preeminent sex therapist—first on her New York radio show Sexually Speaking in 1980, and then on TV with The Dr. Ruth Show in the mid-‘80s. Her unique combo of cute-old-lady innocence and frank (and explicit) sexual wisdom also made her a popular guest on the late-night talk circuit, with the likes of Carson and Letterman blushing at her gift of sexual gab. As the late, great Robin Williams once said: “She talks about the penis like it’s a cooking show.”
According to Dr. Ruth, many Americans have difficulty speaking openly about sexuality due to the confines of religion, and because she is Jewish, she is more uninhibited.
“It matters a great deal that I come from a Jewish background,” she offers. “In the Jewish tradition, sex has never been a sin—it always has been an obligation of a husband to a wife, especially on a Friday night. So, I never had the problem that sex is to be dirty, or not something to be talked about.”
She pauses. “It’s also interesting how, in Hebrew, the term for sex is yada—which also means ‘to know.’”
In addition to the documentary, which Dr. Ruth urges everyone to go see (“It is magnificent!”), she is releasing an updated version of her bestselling 1995 book Sex for Dummies, that will include a new chapter on millennial sex.
So…what’s the problem? “It’s mainly the problem of how the art of conversation is getting lost, and also, because of the apps and all the ability of the dating,” she says. “I’m not against that, but be smart. Don’t meet somebody in a secluded area, or in a hotel room. Meet them in a public place. And I’m not for ‘hooking up’; I’m for people making sure that they have a relationship in order to have good sex.”