Jewish German-American sex therapist, talk show host, author, professor, Holocaust survivor and former Haganah sniper Dr Ruth Westheimer has been described as ‘Grandma Freud’ and the ‘Sister Wendy of Sexuality’. Over the course of her long and varied life, Westheimer has been a mouthpiece for issues surrounding sex and sexuality, has hosted her own radio show, appeared on many television programmes and has written more than 45 books.
Westheimer’s ‘Jewish grandmother’ figure has proved to be an unlikely source for much of her advocacy, especially since she has declared that her message of sexual liberation is, contrary to much strict religious doctrine, rooted in Orthodox Judaism.
Indeed, her life has rarely been predictable, and has witnessed a great deal of tragedy. Orphaned when both of her parents were killed during the Holocaust, Westheimer grew up in an orphanage before eventually making her way to the US.
Here are 10 facts about Dr Ruth Westheimer’s fascinating life.
1. She was an only child
Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel in 1928 in the small village of Wiesenfeld, central Germany. She was the only child of Irma and Julius Siegel, a housekeeper and a notions wholesaler respectively, and was raised in Frankfurt. As Orthodox Jews, her parents gave her an early grounding in Judaism.
Under Nazim, at the age of 38 Westheimer’s father was sent to Dachau concentration camp a week after Kristallnacht. Westheimer cried while her father was being taken away, and remembers that her grandmother handed the Nazis money, pleading with them to take good care of her son.
2. She was sent to an orphanage in Switzerland
Westheimer’s mother and grandmother recognised that Nazi Germany was too dangerous for Westheimer, so sent her away just a few weeks after her father had been taken. Against her will she travelled on the Kindertransport to Switzerland. After her family said goodbye to her, aged 10, she states that she was never hugged again as a child.
She was one of 300 Jewish children at the orphanage of a Jewish charity in Heiden, Switzerland. She corresponded with her mother and grandmother until 1941, when their letters ceased. By the end of World War Two, nearly all had been orphaned because their parents were murdered by the Nazis.
Westheimer lived at the orphanage for six years and was given a degree of responsibility as a mother-like figure for the younger children. As a girl, she wasn’t allowed to receive an education at a nearby school; however, a fellow orphan boy would sneak her his textbooks at night so she could secretly educate herself.
Westheimer later learned that her entire family had been killed during the Holocaust, and describes herself as an ‘orphan of the Holocaust’ as a result.
3. She became a sniper with Haganah
After the end of World War Two, in 1945 sixteen-year-old Westheimer decided to immigrate to British-controlled Mandatory Palestine. She worked in agriculture, changed her name to her middle name Ruth, lived on the worker settlements of Moshav Nahalal and Kibbutz Yagur, then moved to Jerusalem in 1948 to study early childhood education.
While in Jerusalem, Westheimer joined the Haganah Jewish Zionist underground paramilitary organization. She was trained as a scout and a sniper. She became an expert sniper, though stated that she never killed anybody, and claimed that her small height of 4′ 7″ meant that she was more difficult to shoot. Aged 90 she demonstrated that she was still able to put together a Sten gun with her eyes closed.
4. She was nearly killed
During the 1947-1949 Palestine war and on her 20th birthday, Westheimer was seriously wounded in action by an exploding shell during a mortar fire attack. The explosion killed two girls right next to Westheimer. Westheimer’s injuries were near-fatal: she was temporarily paralysed, almost lost both of her feet and spent months recuperating before she was able to walk again.
In 2018 she said that she is a Zionist and still visits Israel every year, feeling that it is her true home.
5. She studied in Paris and the US
Westheimer later became a kindergarten teacher, then moved to Paris with her first husband. While there, she studied at the Institute of Psychology at the Sorbonne. She divorced her husband then moved to Manhattan in the US in 1956. She attended the New School for Social Research on a scholarship for Holocaust victims, and worked as a maid for 75 cents an hour to pay her way through graduate school. While there, she met and married her second husband and gave birth to her first child.
After a second divorce, she met and married her third husband, and their son Joel was born in 1964. The next year, she became an American citizen and in 1970 she received a doctorate of education from Columbia University aged 42. She then trained as a sex therapist for seven years at the New York Cornell Medical School.
6. She studied, and then taught, the subject of sex and sex therapy
In the late 1960s, Westheimer took a job at Planned Parenthood in Harlem, and was appointed project director in 1967. At the same time, she carried on working and researching sex and sexuality In the early 1970s, she became an associate professor of Lehman College in the Bronx. She went on to work at a number of universities such as Yale and Colombia, and also treated sex therapy patients in private practice.
7. Her show Sexually Speaking propelled her to stardom
Westheimer gave lectures to New York broadcasters about the need for sex education programming to break taboos around subjects such as contraception and unwanted pregnancies. This led to her being offered a 15-minute guest appearance on a local radio show. It proved to be so popular that she was offered $25 a week to make Sexually Speaking, a 15-minute show that aired every Sunday.
The show was an instant success, was lengthened to an hour and then two hours long and opened up its phone lines to listeners who asked their own questions. By the summer of 1983, the show attracted 250,000 listeners weekly, and by 1984, the show was syndicated nationally. She later went on to host her own television programme, first known as Good Sex! with Dr. Ruth Westheimer, then The Dr. Ruth Show and finally Ask Dr. Ruth. She also appeared on shows such as The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman.
8. Her catchphrase is ‘get some’
Westheimer has talked about many taboo subjects such as abortion, contraception, sexual fantasies and sexually transmitted diseases, and has advocated for funding for Planned Parenthood and research on AIDS.
Described as being a ‘world-class charmer’, her serious advice combined with her honest, funny, frank, warm and cheerful demeanour quickly made her universally popular, known for her catchphrase ‘get some’.
9. She has written 45 books
Westheimer has written 45 books. Her first in 1983 was Dr. Ruth’s Guide to Good Sex, and during the 21st century, she has so far published around one book per year, often in collaboration with co-author Pierre Lehu. One of her most controversial is Heavenly Sex: Sexuality in the Jewish Tradition, which draws upon traditional Judaic sources and grounds her teachings on sex in Orthodox Jewish teaching.
She has also written some autobiographical works, called All in a Lifetime (1987) and Musically Speaking: A Life through Song (2003). She is also the subject of various documentaries, such as Hulu’s Ask Dr. Ruth (2019) and Becoming Dr. Ruth, an off-Broadway one-woman play about her life.
10. She has been married three times
Two of Westheimer’s marriages were brief, whereas the last, to fellow Nazi Germany-escapee Manfred ‘Fred’ Westheimer when Westheimer was 22, lasted 36 years until his death in 1997. Of her three marriages, Westheimer said that each had a formative influence on her later work in sex and relationships. When the couple were asked about their sex life on the TV show 60 Minutes, Fred answered, “the shoemaker’s children have no shoes.”