by Liz Pearl
SOLD OUT! Opening Night of the 38th Annual Neuberger Holocaust Education Week
Holocaust Education Centre ASK DR. RUTH: From Refugee to Celebrity Sex Therapist
By Liz Pearl @ PK Press
Dr. Ruth Westheimer is well-known as a pioneering sex therapist, hosting a popular call-in radio show in the 1980s (as a gen Xer, I remember it well). Tonight she uncovered several layers of her personal story; and her life story is indeed an incredible personal narrative to be shared and documented.
Dr. Ruth was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt, Germany in 1928. She was an only child brought up in an Orthodox Jewish family, and she recalls a happy childhood including playing with dolls and attending synagogue with her father.
She witnessed her father’s arrest by the Gestapo and Kristallnacht at age 10. She was sent to a school in Switzerland with the Kindertransport shortly afterwards, which became an orphanage for German Jewish youth. While Dr. Ruth survived, her entire family was murdered, likely in Auschwitz. While living in the orphanage she was trained to become a Swiss house maid. During this formative period she faced the painful reality that Germany was no longer her home and she became an ardent Zionist, yearning for a Jewish homeland.
At 17, she went to Israel where she fought in the Haganah as a skilled sniper and was wounded; she later moved to Paris, studied social sciences at the Sorbonne, and eventually immigrated to the US in 1956, where she furthered her education, completed her doctorate, and discovered a passion for sexual education.
Her subsequent career as an outspoken psycho-sexual therapist and host of noted radio program, “Sexually Speaking,” grew into a multimedia sensation, spanning the globe and media platforms. Dr. Ruth is the recipient of numerous awards and an honorary doctorate from HUC.
At 90, she is busy as ever, currently teaching at her alma mater of Columbia University’s Teachers College as well as at Hunter College and promoting her recently-released graphic novel, Roller Coaster Grandma: The Amazing Story of Dr. Ruth. Currently, the legend is working on a biographical play as well as a feature documentary detailing her incredible life story.
The Opening Night of HEW was generously co-sponsored by the Rifkind and Mansell families and by the German Consulate General of Toronto.
This has been a very difficult week for all of us. Tonight’s timely presentation provided a welcome opportunity to reflect upon some very dark chapters in our history as seen through the bright eyes of a brilliant, wise and not-so-old 90-years-old woman.
I was fortunate to be amongst the attentive all-ages audience, hosted by The Neuberger for an intimate, insightful, and at times entertaining conversation with Dr. Ruth. The renowned Canadian author / Yiddishist Michael Wex served as the moderator; however, the audience soon discovered that Dr. Ruth has a unique voice, a colourful narrative and most definitely puts forth a commanding one woman show.
My Pearls of Wisdom gleaned from this captivating evening:
- Do not judge a book by its cover. Dr. Ruth is a tiny woman, yet she is powerful and feisty.
- Age is just a number. Age is a state of mind. Dr. Ruth gives 90 great appeal.
- Let’s listen to our elders, including our parents and grandparents, they have a lot to teach us.
- The gift of gab is truly a wonderful gift, and a knack for speaking several languages is remarkable. Dr. Ruth speaks English, German, French, and Hebrew with clarity and fluency. And her audience listens.
- Humour is an effective modus operandi that can often help to ease the expression of difficult (or awkward) subject matter. Dr. Ruth has an entertaining style of laughing at herself‒her thick German accent, and most often, her diminutive size.
- We are each unique; and yet, we are more the same than we are different. Dr. Ruth’s personal narrative clearly demonstrates so much of the universal human condition: love, passion, sorrow, family and resilience.
- The Jewish immigrant story is familiar to most of us. Dr. Ruth has a story that includes the ups and down and many twists and resonates deeply with us all.
Dr. Ruth has a multitude of skills and talents, however here’s a lesser known fact: she is a black diamond skier! She retains her middle initial K (Karola) to “remain somewhat anchored in my past”. And she is proud of her many accomplishments, including of course, her four grandchildren. Classic Bubby.
Her advice to the younger generations: Stand-up and be counted. Be vigilant. We have an obligation to educate about anti-Semitism, anti-gay, or anti-anything.
This evening exceeded my expectations and fuelled my passion for sharing wisdom harvested from inspiring life stories. And who knew, Dr. Ruth could provide valued sex tips to a recital hall filled with members of the Toronto Jewish community participating in the opening event of Holocaust Education Week.