Ask Dr. Ruth starts with a great device – getting Dr Ruth herself to ask Alexa “Who is Doctor Ruth Westheimer?” Because of her strong German accent, she needs a couple of goes to be understood, but Alexa then provides the brief explanation to those who missed the Doctor Ruth phenomenon. Doctor Ruth is a sex therapist turned media star, a German Jewish immigrant who became suddenly and unexpectedly massive in the US and beyond in the 1980s.
Her current gopher is on hand to explain that she’s still keeping herself busy. There’s the lecturing at Universities, the magazine columns, the media appearances, and the 3 books written that year (most of the filming was done in 2018 in the run-up to Dr. Ruth’s 90th birthday). So, while she may have passed her peak of media attention, she’s showing no sign of slowing down.
The film uses three timelines. Cataloguing the birthday preparations give us a sense of where we are. These scenes are interspersed with her tv appearances in the 1980s. At the time, I was aware of the existence of the 4 foot 7 woman with a foreign accent who spoke a lot about sex on telly, but never knowingly watched any of her programmes, assuming that she was a kind of benign Jerry Springer – a novelty circus act who was all show and no content.
The clips show how wrong I was to have made those assumptions. Emerging in 1981 at the beginning of the Reagan years, when state sponsored moralism was on the rise, Westheimer spoke clearly and articulately about the need for abortion rights. As the decade progressed and the AIDS crisis heightened, she used plain speech to explain that this was a problem for us all, and that trying to blame gay men or drug users didn’t help anyone.
All this is just a palette cleanser before we hear her remarkable life story. Born in Frankfurt-Main in 1928 to Jewish parents, she was only 10 when she boarded the Kindertransport to Switzerland. With the other refugee kids she was housed in an orphanage which was operating clear double standards. The Jewish kids had to clean and cook for everyone else. The woman running the orphanage told them that their parents obviously didn’t love them as they’d let them go.
Ruth must have been around 14 when she was no longer allowed to go to school – why would a girl need to know anything? So, her first boyfriend used to hide under her bed each evening to explain everything that he’d learned that day. There is a touching reunion with the ex-boyfriend who is still living in Switzerland with his wife.
At the end of the war, the kids were herded into a room where they were told whose parents had survived the Holocaust. No discussions were had with individual children, and Ruth’s parents were not on the list. So, she recollects, as she wasn’t Swiss and was not wanted by the Germans, she went to Marseilles to get the boat to Palestine. It was there that she adopted her middle name of Ruth, dropping her original name Karola, as that sounded too German and everyone still hated the Germans.
As Palestine became Israel, Ruth joined the army and trained to be a sniper, though she is relieved that she never killed anyone. Looking at the weapons used in the late 1940s, she expresses remorse that people died, though the experience of the Holocaust means that she believes that Jews do need a state where they can be safe. This point is not dwelled on, so we can’t say much more here.
One marriage later she was off again, joining her second husband in Paris, where he had gone to study. Using a law which helped people who could not complete their studies because of the Holocaust, she too enrolled at the Sorbonne. When her husband wanted to return to Israel, she let him have their car, while she kept their little girl.
Studies over, she sailed with her daughter fourth class to the US. They were supposed to stay below decks at all time, but on the final evening they sneaked into first class, so they could gaze at the Statue of Liberty as they sailed past. The following years in Manhattan were spent studying, working and organising parties, taking her daughter with her wherever she went. She calls herself an early prototype of the single parent family.
In the States, she acquired a husband, a son, and a job at Planned Parenthood, then a very small organisation. One day, a researcher came into the office, looking for an interview partner for a radio station. No-one else was interested as there wasn’t any money in it, so Ruth ended up taking the gig. She was so good that they eventually offered her a show of her own.
At the time, most radio stations based their programming mainly around music, but were legally required to provide a certain number of hours of Public Service Broadcasting – which they put on in the middle of the night when no-one was listening. Despite this inauspicious start, Dr. Ruth’s radio show gradually gained more listeners than many music-based breakfast shows.
I’ve banged on more than usual about this film because there is so much to report. I haven’t really started to go into the questions it raises. One of which is trying to understand how Westheimer can be so empathetic a doctor and tv host and yet be so guarded with her own emotions. We see her smiling all the time, but her daughter only saw her cry once – at her husband’s death.
A scene at the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem is particularly illuminating. Accompanied by the cameras, Ruth learns the fate of her parents for the first time. Her father died in Auschwitz, her mother was just unaccounted for. Ruth is obviously moved, but her face is impassive. She jokes that as Jews in Germany they learned not to cry.
The whole back story is so compelling that the film would have worked if the subject was as dull as ditchwater. And Ruth Westheimer is anything but. Always lively and engaged, she entertains throughout. It’s a film that both delights and informs, and should work even for people who were unaware of Dr. Ruth until now. Definitely worth a watch. Then tell all your friends.