Sex, science and sojourns to Israel
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Sex, science and sojourns to Israel

The Israeli Presidential Conference had much more to offer than President Shimon Peres’s birthday or Sharon Stone’s visions for peace

Ricky Ben-David is a senior news editor at The Times of Israel.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer giving her 'master class' on sex at the 2013 Israeli Presidential Conference. (Ricky Ben-David/Times of Israel staff)
Dr. Ruth Westheimer giving her 'master class' on sex at the 2013 Israeli Presidential Conference. (Ricky Ben-David/Times of Israel staff)

Amid the movers and shakers at the 5th Israeli Presidential Conference, discussing important issues such as the changing Middle East landscape, the shifting nature of war, and the challenges to the global economy, Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s “Master Class” on sex was the climax of the day for many.

Among a hodgepodge of meetings with interchangeable names like “The World Order: Facing Tomorrow’s Challenges” and “Will Tomorrow Be Better?,” it’s no wonder her straightforward session attracted hundreds of people who lined up nicely at the entrance of the hall some 20 minutes before it was due to begin. No small feat.

The chatter outside was upbeat, with a few giggles as people recounted previous sessions they had attended or radio segments by the tiny, German-Jewish 85-year-old psychosexual therapist they had listened to.

“Who’s Dan Ariely?” deadpanned one Dr. Ruth-enthusiast, referring to the famous professor of psychology and behavioral economics who was hosting a session in an adjacent hall.

Westheimer began her lecture by lamenting the short time she was allotted for her talk. “They only gave us half an hour, that’s like a quickie,” she cracked, revealing a very liberal interpretation of the term.

She went on to talk about new research being done on a Viagra-like pill for women to increase sex drive and how this worried her, because it omits the emotional and mental relationship, between the two people having sex, from the equation.

People may be more sexually literate and know a lot about how sex functions or should function, but “the relationship has to be established, cultivated and has to be a good one,” she said.

“People think, alright, I’ll pop a pill, as if you have a headache and it would solve the issue of the libido, the sexual desire. Not so.”

Illustrating her point with an anecdote, she told about a man who had taken Viagra, rushed home to his wife and urged her to get into bed, acting as if “this was the last erection of his life.”

“But what happens is that if he forgot her birthday, if he forgot — in the United States particularly, if there is a sporting event — he might not have talked to her in three days, and all you women know what that wife told him to do with that erection,” she said to wild applause from the ladies, somewhat less from the men.

She concluded by dismissing the common complaint she hears from couples, especially those with children, that they have no time for sex, and urged them to try something different, like “adventurous positions” or “going to a motel.”

“Sex has to be a priority,” she prodded emphatically.

Westheimer’s session may not have broken any ground, but it was a welcome break from the policy talk for many and an entertaining interlude. Maybe next year, they’ll allow her the equivalent of two “quickies” for better satisfaction.

Not far away from the pint-sized elderly sex expert, conference-goers were taken with a state-of-the-art optical system that will allow visually impaired people to hear what is in front of them. Basically, the OrCam consists of a small camera attached to a pair of reading glasses, wired to a unit the size of a walkie-talkie that interprets the image and then relays it via earphone. The technology was developed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the product sells for $2,500.

Exhibitors and attendees were having a great time having cookie labels and article passages read out to them, as people milled around waiting for their chance to have a go at the device.

For a short demonstration on how it device works, watch the following video:

OrCam was part of another refreshing attraction at the conference. Its science exhibition, “Tomorrow State of Mind,” showcased developments in brain research by Israeli universities and hospitals and Israeli-made products and gadgets.

Makeshift booths were set up for each exhibit featuring the presentations on big screens or iPads or both. And while, for most non-scientific people, terms like “neurons,” optogenetics” and “sensitive proteins” tend to be somewhat intimidating, making one want to slink away with a meek “thank you” lest the enthusiastic scientist carry on, exhibitors did a good job of breaking it all down into real-world terms.

For example, an exhibit on optogenetics showed how scientists have managed to use light to control certain brain patterns that affect memories. The research will, in the future, be useful for persons with PTSD, for example, for whom a traumatic memory can be terminated at will. So far, only mice have benefited from having their painful memories vanish, though it’s unclear what bad memories a mouse would have — even though many of them grow up on the street.

On a last science-related note, for a fascinating lecture on how the human mind works, how parents, for example, are terrified of strangers abducting their children but not of them becoming obese, how we can get worked up about gay marriage but not about global warming, watch this 12-minute video by Prof. Dan Gilbert, a social psychologist at Harvard University.

Lastly, Birthright, the goliath of free trips to Israel that promotes 10-day heritage tours for young Jews from all over the world, also made a splash at the Presidential Conference.

Young women set up shop throughout the conference grounds, displaying a photo album of the life of “Jennifer,” a young American Jewish woman, contrasting her progressive life experiences — college years, Friday dinners, her wedding, her son’s bar mitzvah — with and without having gone on Birthright. A small tablet placed on top of the pictures sans Birthright displayed the ones that show she had been on the trip, implying potentially that those who do not go will end up with decidedly less Jewish lives. It made for an interesting, to-the-point presentation.

The following video shows Birthright’s pitch on Jennifer’s life:

“You’d be surprised by the amount of people who don’t know about the program. Or who misunderstand it. On Tuesday, when the conference consisted of mostly dignitary attendees, people asked if this was the trip where boys and girls sleep with each other and drink the whole time,” said guide Ariela Aharoni, a young woman from Pittsburgh born to Yemenite-Israeli parents, who moved to Israel six months ago. “The people here now know a lot more about it and they just want to play with the album,” she added.

The purpose, as told by the young ladies, was to show that Birthright — famously lampooned by the Israeli satire show Eretz Nehederet — is more than just a free 10-day, fun- (and booze and sex)-filled trip to Israel, an approach the program has been taking for some years now.

And with panels like “The Campus As a Crossroads in the Life of a Young Jews,” and “Changing of the Guards: The Tomorrow of Jewish Leadership,” Birthright made its presence known at the conference, even if they did it a bit quieter than Birthrighters usually make their presence known.

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