NEW YORK — What if your sex therapist was an adorable Jewish grandmother, who giggles while insisting whip cream is the mother of all tools for oral sex?
“Becoming Dr. Ruth,” the new off-Broadway show now playing in New York, vividly tells the story of how Karola Ruth Siegel became the acclaimed sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
The 90-minute play transports audiences through her many struggles — from surviving the Holocaust to joining the Haganah to marrying three husbands — and clarifies just exactly how the world of sex counseling is a good place for a nice Jewish girl.
Debra Jo Rupp, the actress best known for playing the wacky mother Kitty Forman in “That 70’s Show” stars as Westheimer. She delivers a stellar performance, making the audience roar with laughter through the dirty jokes — and there are many — yet still capturing the heartbreak and poignancy of a Jew who lost everything during World War II.
“Debra somehow managed to master my every mannerism, from my walk to the way I answer the phone,” Westheimer said one fall morning in a phone interview. “I’ve seen the play about 15 times, and with each performance, I sit at the edge of my chair and I’m pinching myself saying, ‘Who is that on stage?’ I have to keep reminding myself to stay quiet.”
Westheimer admitted she was hesitant to have a tell-all story of her life be performed on Broadway (or near-Broadway, as she prefers to call it). When playwright Mark St. Germain originally approached her with the idea, she was only sold after seeing his “Freud’s Last Session.”
Westheimer gave St. Germain a selection from her 31 published books, including her autobiography. The playwright and actress Rupp two studied the books and worked with Westheimer on the script.
The setting of “Becoming Dr Ruth” finds Rupp in 1997, inside Westheimer’s New York City apartment, recently widowed and packing up. Rupp is chatting on the phone when she looks up to the audience and tells the person on the line, “I have to call you back, I have company!” She spends the rest of the play pulling tchotchkes off her shelves, using the items to personify her living memoir for the audience.
A dishtowel with her initials is her only tangible memory of her life in Germany: Westheimer fled the Nazis at the age of 10. She was one of 300 children chosen for the Kindertransport, and spent her teenage years living in a Switzerland orphanage. Rupp reads Westheimer’s diary entrees from those years, in which she wonders whether her parents and grandmother are still alive.
While Rupp never gives the audience a straight answer of what happened to Westheimer’s family, the uncomfortable silence that follows is enough.
After World War II, Rupp tells of joining a kibbutz in Israel before becoming a sniper in the Haganah. She survived an exploding shell during the War of Independence in 1948 and spent many months recovering. Rupp tells the audience she was surrounded by wounded Israeli soldiers and would have spent more time in the hospital if she could. Rupp also tells the audience of how Westheimer lost her virginity — under the stars, without contraception.
“It is certainly weird to share so much information,” Westheimer said. But then again, Dr. Ruth is not one to shy away from sharing. Throughout the play, Rupp’s monologue is frequently interrupted by phone calls from clients, and in one scenario, she encourages the caller to “love your penis!”
Westheimer said she was able to maintain a certain privacy about her life by choosing what to include in the play. Rupp, in her performance, explains, “there are some things even Dr. Ruth can’t talk about” as the audience discovers Frank, her third husband and the love of her life, died two months before the timing of the play.
Westheimer’s work with Planned Parenthood was the source of inspiration behind entering the field of sex therapy. Westheimer said some of the most valuable lessons she learned in her life were from Planned Parenthood, and she felt the need to educate the world about sex because of the Jewish value of “Tikkun Olam.”
‘A million and a half Jewish children died in the Holocaust, but I survived. This is what I’m giving to the world’
“I made the decision a long time ago to be an advocate because I know I have something to contribute. A million and a half Jewish children died in the Holocaust, but I survived. This is what I’m giving to the world,” she said.
Westheimer identifies as an Orthodox Jew — though in the play, Rupp tells audiences she belongs to two synagogues so she can tell each one she attends the other on Shabbat.
She noted that while some of the topics she addresses, like contraception, abortion, and sex in general seem taboo to religious Jews, she never faced backlash from the community.
“Sex has never been looked at as a sin for Jews. For us, its an obligation, especially on Friday night,” she giggled. “I have plenty of clients who are Orthodox Jews or members of the Catholic church. They all know sex is something I take very seriously and I never advocate for anything that does not align with the client’s beliefs.”
Westheimer’s open attitude towards sex helped her rise to success as a media star and cultural icon from the 1980s. Her NBC radio show “Sexually Speaking” received national attention, and while it aired, the Wall Street Journal reported people working in Rockefeller Center would gather outside her studio to hear her, “a cross between Henry Kissinger and Minnie Mouse.”
Over the years, she often appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman,” where Rupp tells audiences the television crew would frequent pranks on Westheimer. Playboy magazine even named her #13 of the 55 most important people in sex over the last 55 years.
At the age of 85, Westheimer is still the matriarch of sex therapy. You can find her on Twitter, providing snappy sex tips in 140 characters or less.
So did you meet anybody at a Halloween party? Did u have any problems getting out of your costume? Something to think about for next yr.
— Dr. Ruth Westheimer (@AskDrRuth) November 1, 2013
Earlier this year, she was honored at Planned Parenthood’s annual gala for promoting open conversation about women’s sexuality.
“The event was amazing. Aside from my award, President Obama kissed me on my cheek!” she boasted. “I didn’t wash my face for a while.”
I asked Westheimer why she thought she had become such a success story, and after pausing for a minute to think, she proceeds to quote the Talmud.
‘A lesson spoken with humor is a lesson retained’
“A lesson spoken with humor is a lesson retained. I think people feel very comfortable with me because I try to use humor when I teach about sex but I’m also well trained.”
“Becoming Dr Ruth” runs at the Westside Theater at 407 West 43rd Street through January 12.