NEW YORK — “I have a restlessness in me!” the minuscule, AARP-aged woman declares from the stage, her index finger darting up as if channeling a disco move, the “r” in restlessness emerging from way in the back of the throat, through accents accrued from multiple cultures and countries, a lilt to the voice rich with history.
The actress is Tovah Feldshuh, long beloved on the American stage, and regularly appearing on television and in films. Even if you don’t know the name, you’ve seen her work. The character is Dr. Ruth Westheimer, yes, the woman you remember from radio and late-night television in the 1980s and 90s talking, loudly and directly, about contraception, masturbation, and orgasm, and always with a warm, maternal chuckle.
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” is a one-woman show written by Mark St. Germain, and this new production is at the sizable off-Broadway Edmond J. Safra Hall located within the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Tribute to the Holocaust near Battery Park in Lower Manhattan.
I attended one of the final previews, a matinée, and had the disorienting experience of being seated mere inches from the real Dr. Ruth, seated by herself. I’ll never know if she chose the blouse she wore because she knew it was the exact shade of coral that Feldshuh wore on stage. (I did overhear her say that she’d seen the show before.)
During the performance, I did glance over once or twice during some of the bigger laughs. She was smiling, naturally. I felt it would have been indecent of me, however, to look during some of the many poignant moments. The house lights are dimmed for a reason.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer, if you do not know, lived (lives!) one hell of a life. (A documentary from a few years back is streamable on Hulu.) She was born in Frankfurt and last saw her father as he was carted away by police days after Kristallnacht. She was sent to Switzerland on a Kindertransport, receiving letters from her family until, eventually, the letters simply stopped coming. While she eventually accepted that they had been killed by the Nazis, the never-quite-knowing left her with a profound hollowness, which she chose to fill through a dedication to education, and to motivating people with good cheer. Quite a turn.
Before she found a groundbreaking avenue to fame in New York City as a sex therapist and broadcaster, she lived in pre-state Israel, and, to prove that some urban legends are true, she was in fact a sniper for the Haganah during the 1948 War of Independence. She was also gravely wounded, but remembers her convalescence fondly, as she was the only young woman in a ward full of men.
Before New York (and her third husband) there was a stay in Paris, where she studied at the Sorbonne. All of these chapters in her life are worked into St. Germain’s play as we watch her collect and wrap assorted tchotchkes as she prepares to move out of her apartment overlooking the George Washington Bridge in 1997.
As we’ll learn, it is just a few months after her husband Fred’s death, and she finds living in the home they made too painful now. So as she packs, she talks to us. “Oh, I have company,” she says facing the crowd early on, admittedly a bit of a cliché, but Feldshuh-as-Westheimer makes it work.
Even if you do not have pleasant memories of this woman (growing up in the New York area as I did, I can safely call her presence ubiquitous in the 80s and 90s) I doubt anyone will not be charmed by Feldshuh’s performance. Her reproduction of the (as she puts it) German-Swiss-Hebrew-French-American accent is absolutely spot on.
A one-woman show based on a well-known person can be a bit of a double-edged sword, however. Luckily, Feldshuh is not simply presenting an act of mimicry, but digging into a performance. This is found primarily in those moments I alluded to earlier, when I felt it would have been uncouth to glance at the actual person depicted on stage who also shared my row.
A proud yekke, Dr. Ruth says a true German Jew never cries, and we get the sense early on that she doth protest too much. Despite the genuine cheer and joy that erupts from this diminutive woman, there is also a bone-deep sadness.
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” was first produced in New York City in 2013 (and earlier elsewhere, under a different title) and while this production is certainly skillful, with some sharp lighting and music cues, smart use of the set, and electronic screens for windows that change with the text, there are moments when it feels a little less-than-current. Who is crying out for Bill Clinton jokes right now?
Occasional wrong notes aside, this is a delightful night (or day) out at the theater, especially (let’s just be honest here) if you need somewhere to bring your mother. For Tovah Feldshuh, she now concludes a trilogy of playing extraordinary Jewish women, after starring as Golda Meir in “Golda’s Balcony” (which holds the record as longest-running one-woman show on Broadway) and as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “Sisters in Law” opposite Stephanie Faracy as Sandra Day O’Connor. (Aha! That title is a pun!)
For 90 minutes without a breath, Feldshuh runs the gamut of emotions, and there’s even a bit where she belts out a string of important dates though her personal history. How someone can commit an entire show like this to memory and still, I dunno, tie their shoes will forever be a mystery to me. (Ask me what I had for breakfast today: I won’t be able to answer.) As a feat of mental athleticism, it’s remarkable. As a rich performance, it’s even better.
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” is in limited engagement at Edmond J. Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust through January 2, 2022. Tickets can be purchased through their website.
During a global pandemic, one tiny country is producing research that's helping to guide health policy across the world. How effective are COVID-19 vaccines? After the initial two shots, does a third dose help? What about a fourth?
When The Times of Israel began covering COVID-19, we had no idea that our small beat would become such a central part of the global story. Who could have known that Israel would be first at nearly every juncture of the vaccination story - and generate the research that's so urgently needed today?
Our team has covered this story with the rigor and accuracy that characterizes Times of Israel reporting across topics. If it’s important to you that this kind of media organization exists and thrives, I urge you to support our work. Will you join The Times of Israel Community today?
Nathan Jeffay, Health & Science Correspondent
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.