There’s a special quality to Ruth Westheimer.
You could call it puckish or pixie-like or impish. She prefers “joie de vivre” and “zest for life.”
By any name, it’s impressive. Here is a tiny (4-foot-7) woman with a genial face and a quick wit. As milestones approach – a documentary Saturday on Hulu, three days before she tuns 91 – she seems downright joyous, whether giving sex advice or just having fun.
“I tell everybody not to retire, but to rewire,” Westheimer said. “And I’ve been very fortunate that I’m very healthy. I skied until a few years ago.”
All this joy has followed decades of tragedy. She:
— Was sent by train to Switzerland in 1939, when she was 10. She recalls “the loneliness of me in the railroad, waving.”
— Soon lost everyone to the Holocaust. “My whole family – my parents, my grandparents … perished.”
— Wasn’t allowed to go into town for studies. That was for boys. “Girls … were not permitted to go to high school. We had to learn to be housemaids. I have an official diploma of the Swiss House Maid.”
— At 17, moved to Palestine and then to Israel, where she was trained as a scout and sniper. “On my 20th birthday, I was very badly wounded on both legs, from a cannonball that exploded in Jerusalem.”
— And has been widowed for 22 years.
Emerging from all of that, Westheimer has great zest. She credits the early years.
“The first 10 years of my life, (I’m) in a loving family – a mother, a father, a grandmother (whom) we lived with, another set of grandparents,” she said. “So the early socialization of my life was very successful in terms of religion, from an Orthodox Jewish home.”
The same was true of the others at that orphanage, she said. “I did a longitudinal study. I followed 50 children who were with me, from Germany to Switzerland, who became orphans …. None of them committed suicide, none of them became drug addicts, none of them became clinically depressed.”
They were pleasant souls … including a boy named Walter. Each night, he slipped her his high school books. “I went out on the staircase, because there was a light, and read what he learned that day.”
He became her first boyfriend, but not her first lover. (That was later, when she was 17, in Jerusalem.)
Despite missing high school, she advanced in her studies – first the University of Paris, them Master’s and doctorate degrees in New York. She worked for Planned Parenthood, studied and taught sexuality … then became famous for her sex-advice shows, on radio and the early days of cable.
It’s been a long journey, but documentary-maker Ryan White found some handy roadmaps.
“She had kept all of her diaries from her childhood,” he said. And “all of the letters fom her parents.”
He illustrated those with animation; he also followed Westheimer’s travels. “She was going to Switzerland and Israel and she invited me along,” he said. “So her first boyfriend, Walter, and her best friend (Marga) — those were both trips that she does every year on her own.”
There, she was re-united with people who had boosted her spirits, during a time – more than 70 years ago – of crushing tragedy.
— “Ask Dr. Ruth” documentary, on Hulu, beginning Saturday, June 1