Interview: The Iconic Dr. Ruth Discusses BECOMING DR. RUTH, the Secret to a Long and Happy Life & More

Dr. Ruth discusses her childhood as an orphan of the Holocaust, shares how she feels about changing the country's attitudes towards sex, and much more.

By: Dec. 16, 2021
Get Show Info Info
Cast
Photos
Videos
Get Access To Every Broadway Story

Unlock access to every one of the hundreds of articles published daily on BroadwayWorld by logging in with one click.




Existing user? Just click login.

Becoming Dr. Ruth

At 93 years old, or "93 and a half!" as she'll proudly correct you, Dr. Ruth Westheimer has now been a staple of American culture for over four decades, and the vivacious, hardworking icon is showing no signs of slowing down.

The root of Dr. Ruth's unstoppable "joie de vivre" as she calls it, lies within her personal history. Born Karola Ruth Siegel in Germany, 1928, Dr. Ruth was orphaned at age 10 by the Holocaust, in which both of her parents were killed, and sent as part of the Kindertransport to a children's home in Switzerland. As a young adult, she left Switzerland for Palestine, becoming a sniper in the Haganah, and then traveled to France, where she studied and then taught psychology at the University of Paris. She made her way to the United States in 1956, where she proceeded to earn an M.A. in sociology from The New School, an Ed.D. degree from Teachers College, Columbia University, and worked as a postdoctoral researcher for sex therapist Helen Singer Kaplan at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Dr. Ruth went on to become a media personality and change the way the country discussed sex and sexuality, beginning with her radio show Sexually Speaking. The show was on the air from 1980 to 1990. Dr. Ruth was also the host of several television shows and is the author of 45 books.

Dr. Ruth and her incredible life are at the center of Mark St. Germain's play Becoming Dr. Ruth, which opens tonight at The Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, starring Tovah Feldshuh as Dr. Ruth. The play is set to run through Sunday, January 2, 2022.

You can purchase tickets at mjhnyc.org.

We spoke with Dr. Ruth about how it feels to watch her story be told on stage, her personal history and where her zest for life comes from, her advice to people today, and much more.


Let me first ask, what does it mean to you that the play Becoming Dr. Ruth is now being presented at this very meaningful, important venue, the Museum of Jewish Heritage?

It is fantastic! I am on the board of trustees at the museum. And for me personally, Tovah Feldshuh - who is fantastic - plays me, at the museum where I am very involved, it's a wonderful memorial to my entire family who perished in the Holocaust. So, for me this is very meaningful. I am going to see it again and again! I already saw it a few times. Tovah does a wonderful job. And the auditorium at the museum was refurbished, and the set is fabulous. I hope you get to see it!

I spoke to Tovah the other day, and she told me that you two are close, personal friends.

Yes!

How has it been helping her as she prepares to play you?

We have been friends for many years. She is a fabulous, fabulous, very hardworking actress. And the play, I predict the play, after the run at the Museum of Jewish Heritage - a living memorial to the Holocaust, will go someplace else. Hopefully on Broadway!

I hope so too! You just said you've seen the show a bunch of times, what does it feel like to watch your story be told on stage?

I tell you, every time I watch it I discover something new! Mark St. Germain, the playwright, did a fabulous job. Tovah came to my house and read the whole play a few times. Fortunately the museum is open and we can celebrate.

Dr. Ruth, as a child you were sent away from Nazi Germany as part of the Kindertransport to Switzerland, and both of your parents were killed in the Holocaust. You faced more challenges in your very early life than most people do in a lifetime. How did your childhood affect your mindset and how you moved through the world?

Very good question. I did a longitudinal study for my Master's, and I followed some of the children who left Germany with me in 1939 to find out what happened to them. The ones that were with me in the children's home that became an orphanage. And I have to tell you, most interesting, none of us fell by the wayside, none of us became clinically depressed, none committed suicide, they all made something out of their lives. Nobody else became Dr. Ruth, only me, but I know why that happened. Because in my case, in the early years of my childhood, until 10 and a half years, I was in a loving household with a mother, father, grandmother, in Frankfurt, I went every holiday to Am Riesenfeld, a Little Village not too far, where the other grandparents lived. So I had, and the others had, a wonderful early childhood socialization. And that carried us through. But they all made it. Which is an important lesson to be taught, how important the early childhood years are for a child for the rest of their lives.

There is only one Dr. Ruth, like you said, and you are known for being so optimistic, such a preserving person. That joie de vivre, as you say, where do you find that?

I'll tell you where! The joie de vivre, the zest for life, has something to do with my having survived. If I had not been in Switzerland for six years in that children's home that became an orphanage, if I had been on a Kindertransport to Holland, Belgium, or France, I would not be alive. And the early childhood that I just explained to you, and my being very Jewish, and having had such wonderful parents, and a grandmother who had nothing else to do but take care of me, that's where my joie de vivre comes from. I had an obligation to make something out of my life, because I was alive while one million and a half other Jewish children were killed. I did not know that that zest for life would be talking about sex from morning till night, but I have no complaints!

How does it feel knowing that you changed the way people discuss sex, sexuality, and relationships?

That's fantastic! That has something to do with my being so Jewish. I did a book about that called Heavenly Sex: Sexuality in the Jewish Tradition, it's an NYU Press book, it was just now declared a classic, it will never be out of print. I explain how in the Jewish tradition it is an obligation of the husband to satisfy his wife. And it had something to do with my being able to talk on the radio, television, all over the world, about sex and how in the Jewish tradition it was never a sin. So, that helped me greatly. Also what did help me, my accent! It's not put-on. And Tovah mimics me wonderfully well.

Your life is so incredible, you are 93 years old and you have never slowed down. What would you say is the secret to a long, happy life?

First of all, I am very fortunate that I am so healthy. And I'm 93 and a half! It's like little children who say, "I'm four and a half!" I say, "I'm 93 and a half!" I'm also careful, I'm an endangered species because of my age. I'm vaccinated, I've had the booster, I'm lucky I have a daughter living ten minutes from me, who takes me for those shots. I have a son. That helps a great deal. I live in the same apartment where I raised my children, where I'm now talking to you.

This area of Washington Heights, at the beginning of the war, when people could still get here, accepted many, many refugees from Germany and Austria because it's high up in Manhattan, and it gave them a little bit of a feeling of the countries that they lost in Europe, and refugees loved Fort Tyron Park. So, I never moved!

It's hard to believe that you've been in the same apartment in New York for that long!

That's why you have to see the play, the play beautifully portrays that I was thinking for two minutes, to move downtown after my late husband Manfred Westheimer died from a terrible stroke, and then... I can't tell you the rest of the story, you have to see it!

We're all trying to get back on our feet as we live through the pandemic, do you have any advice for people that you would like to share?

Yes, I would like to tell everybody to be grateful. We have survived, where so many people did not. People do not forget bad times, I do not forget that I was an orphan at the age of 10, but I try to make the best of it. And what we all have to do now, is to help others who may be a little bit more sad or depressed or have lost people. To say, "Make the best out of the time that you have." Don't complain about the bad times, we all have had, now, bad times. That's a fact of life. But make sure that you do something positive with your life. As long as older people like me are stuck at home, do something with your life on the phone, call somebody that you haven't talked to in a while. Don't complain. Everybody has reason to complain, but that doesn't help. Find something positive to talk about. Say, for example, in your case, Rabinowitz, say "Hallelujah, Broadway is alive! And we have to be grateful for that!" Play that song 'Give my Regards to Broadway'.

Every time I listen to that song now I'll think of you!

Please do!




Videos