OyChicago articles

Becoming Dr. Ruth

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Famed sex therapist Dr. Ruth to speak for JUF in Glencoe March 23


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She’s a straight-talking, 4’7’’ superhero.

An international treasure with a joie de vivre. A household name whose mention brings a smile to people’s face. She’s the people’s sexpert before the phrase “sexpert” was coined. She put the candid discussion of sex on the map—and we haven’t shut up about it since. She’s fluent in four languages—English, German, French, and Hebrew—and she’s taught at Yale and Princeton. She’s authored 35 books, including Sex for Dummies, and she even has her own board game. She’s a little woman, who leads a big life.

She’s Dr. Ruth Westheimer, but we all know her simply as Dr. Ruth. And at 85, she isn’t slowing down. She’ll speak for the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, about sex and the Jewish tradition, at Congregation Am Shalom in Glencoe on Sunday, March 23.

When her sex advice radio show “Sexually Speaking” first aired back in New York in 1980, the radio station was so nervous about Dr. Ruth’s frank discussion of sex that her bosses relegated her to the lousy midnight timeslot for a quick 15 minute show. And rather than deal with the risk of listeners calling in live with unvetted questions, people mailed their queries into Dr. Ruth (back when all mail was snail mail) for her to respond to on her show. Within a year, Dr. Ruth had built a larger audience during her midnight slot than many DJs had at rush hour drive time. Eventually, the radio show morphed into a TV show and went national, and she also hosted a similar version of the show in Israel in Hebrew.

Born in 1928 in Frankfurt, Karola Ruth Siegel, as she was called back then, was the only child of Orthodox Jews. In 1939, the then-10-year-old girl said goodbye to her mother and grandmother and her secure and happy childhood, and was shipped—along with 100 other German Jewish kids—to a children’s orphanage in Switzerland. By war’s end, she learned that her parents and grandmother had been murdered in the Holocaust.

At 17, she picked up the pieces of her life and emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine, later Israel. Upon arrival in Israel, she changed her name to a less German sounding name, as German Jews were encouraged to, taking her middle name “Ruth” as her first name so perhaps long-lost family members could still track her down.

In Israel, Ruth joined the Haganah (what would later become the IDF) and helped fight for the country’s independence for a couple months as a scout and a sniper. On June 4, 1948, her 20th birthday, she returned from her surveillance shift to the youth hostel where she was living, when a bomb exploded in the lobby. She was struck by shrapnel all over her body, but her feet were hardest hit. She credits Israeli surgeons with saving her feet from amputation.

Ruth then moved to Paris where she studied psychology, and eventually settled in New York City, where she lives to this day, and where she earned her Master’s in Sociology and a Doctorate of Education in the interdisciplinary study of the family. She happened upon a job at Planned Parenthood, which led her to further her education in human sexuality.

Just last year, an off-Broadway play called “Becoming Dr. Ruth” told the story of the Jewish celebrity sex therapist’s life.

At the start of the New Year, Dr. Ruth and I sat down for a phone interview to talk about changing attitudes toward sex, her biggest legacy, and why she loves turtles.

Oy!Chicago: Over the decades, since you got your start in the field of sex therapy, there has been a huge evolution in the culture in terms of people putting sex out there, from the old days of Lucy and Ricky in separate beds to Miley Cyrus twerking and 50 Shades of Grey-mania today. How do you feel about the evolution?
Dr. Ruth Westheimer: No question there has been a change—some of it good, some of it not so good. For example, people engaging in sex before they have a good relationship is not so helpful. But what definitely has changed is that nobody sleeps in separate beds; you don’t have to have one foot on the floor…and there is a change in [a more open] attitude toward homosexuality…and women and men are more sexually literate—I’m not the only one who talks about sex [now].

What question are you asked most often as a therapist?
I don’t have a number one question, but [I get] a lot of questions about loneliness and finding the right partner.

What is your advice for people in the Jewish community who are looking for the one?
In the Talmud, it says as soon as a boy and a girl are born, it’s already determined who they are going to marry. I don’t think that’s so. There are lots of people who are accomplished and like what they’re doing, but just have not found the [right person].

Part of it is that their expectations are too high. Everybody is dreaming of their Prince Charming, but their Prince Charming might [not be perfect]. Television always shows this ideal of [relationships]. People have to be more realistic….[and] they have to take a risk. For example I have a household full of turtle [figurines]. If a turtle stays in one place, nothing can happen to it. If that turtle wants to move, it has to take a risk—it has to stick its neck out. I want people to be like turtles by sticking their neck out…

Have you always wanted to be a sex therapist?
[At first] I wanted to be a medical doctor. I wanted to be a pediatrician because I’m so short. And today, I do not regret that I did not have the opportunity.

Why did you enter the field?
I was looking for a job and I was offered a position at Planned Parenthood in New York City… and look what happened. I used the data for my doctoral dissertation and I’ve stayed in the field ever since. I thought ‘What’s the matter with these people? Don’t they have anything else to talk about—only sex?... And then 24 hours later, I said ‘Oops, what an interesting subject matter.’ I’m still talking [about it] at age 85.

How do Jews approach the subject of sex differently than many other religions?
…Sex for Jews has never been a sin. It’s always been a mitzvah.

What do you recall about the early years of your childhood in Frankfurt before the Holocaust?
The early childhood experiences—the early socialization of a child—is crucial and I believe part of what I did accomplish is because I had a wonderful home life. I was an only child with a grandma living with us who had nothing else to do but take care of me, in an Orthodox Jewish, loving household. The early years of my life were very productive.

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Dr. Ruth in Israel.

How did you appreciate your time serving in the Haganah?
I’ve never killed anybody but I’m a very good sniper. I could throw hand grenades. I was badly wounded on my 20th birthday in Jerusalem in both legs. I was lucky that I had a brilliant surgeon. And two nights ago (on New Year’s Eve) I danced half the night.

You’ve done so much in your life? What do you think is your biggest contribution to date?
To be able to say that sex is not something shameful; in the proper context, it should be a joyful experience, and if there is a problem to go for help.

What’s it like to be a cultural icon?
I absolutely love it. You can tell Chicago that I love being Dr. Ruth.

Some of the research for this article came from the 2012 book “The Things that Matter,” written by Nate Berkus.

18 Things You Inevitably Do on Birthright Israel

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Chai List photo

A free trip to Israel? Uhh, yes please.

Taglit-Birthright Israel is fast becoming a staple of the Jewish American young adult experience. And even though every trip is unique and totally the best group/bus EVER, there are some things that no Birthrighter can avoid doing – they unite Birthright participants everywhere, across the more than a decade of Birthright Israel trips.

And whaddya know? Registration for Summer 2014 trips, including Chicago community trips organized by JUF through Shorashim, open today for returning applicants and Wednesday for new applicants! If you’ve already experienced these 18 glorious things, pass this along to someone who has still yet to go!


1. Become giddy with excitement the moment you pass through customs.

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And then contain it, because you don’t want anyone to think you’re going to be the trip weirdo.


2. Eat excessive amounts of falafel and shawarma, drowned in hummus.

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Because it’s sooo much better than what you get in the States. And because you have no idea what anything else is and whether it’s edible.


3. Declare your trip guide the coolest and smartest human being on the planet.

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You will never know this much about anything.


4. Take this picture in front of a waterfall.

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If a hike doesn’t end in a waterfall, it’s just not worth hiking.


5. Ponder your very existence at the Kotel.

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It looks so much bigger than it did in that video you watched in Hebrew school.


6. Drink at the hotel bar.

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How often depends on how old you are – i.e. how recently you turned 18.


7. Ask yourself why there are so many cats.

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Well, it’s quite interesting, actually. The British brought cats to Palestine because of a mice problem, but didn’t spay/neuter them, and then somehow forgot to round up these free-roaming, fertile cats to take them back when all the mice disappeared. Then they had babies. Oops.


8. Gravitate to the nearest Aroma because you are inexplicably obsessed with their iced coffee slushies.

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You might not remember a single Hebrew phrase from your trip, except for “ice-kafeh, b’vakasha.”


9. Wish your trip called for more time in Tel Aviv.

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“Umm, I think we missed that big piece of Israeli history over there by that beach. Or was it that nightclub?” Yallah Balagan!


10. Take this picture atop Masada.

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The most meaningful sunrise in your tiny little Jewish life.


11. Take this picture at the Dead Sea.

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Plus, you worked really hard to be bathing-suit ready for this trip and you want proof.


12. Sleep on the bus. All. The. Time.

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It’s very exhausting ensuring the continuity of the Jewish people.


13. Name your camel. Then take this picture.

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Although 95 percent of the time you keep taking this picture:

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Thanks, C____ the Camel.


14. Struggle to sleep in a Bedouin tent.

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How can you sleep on the ground? … with all your new best friends right next to you!


15. Summon all your courage to haggle with an Israeli vendor and fail miserably.

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Because you’ll always get a good deal when you speak English, wear a backpack and have a giant American nametag around your neck.


16. Hoard Israeli candy and snacks.

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It’s authentic, Israeli merchandise you simply can’t get in America.


17. Buy gifts for people at the airport before going home, mostly to get rid of leftover shekels.

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Better yet, give your shekels as gifts and encourage the recipients to go to Israel! Yay!


18. Have an amazing time.

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Register for Birthright Israel today!

Olympic dream come true

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Local Jewish figure skater Jason Brown is off to Sochi

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Highland Park native Jason Brown performs his “Riverdance” program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston, Mass. He finished in second place.

Nineteen-year-old Highland Park native Jason Brown is an Olympian. Brown earned a spot with a second-place finish at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston on Jan. 12. His “Riverdance” program won the crowd over, dazzled the judges, and has garnered more than 2.7 million views on YouTube.

Although he’s been skating since he was about 4 years old, Brown, with help from his parents, Steve and Marla, also set aside time growing up for connecting with Judaism and the Jewish community. He attended Hebrew and religious school at Congregation Solel in Highland Park through his Confirmation year and went to Jewish summer camp at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) for five summers.

Brown spoke with Oy!Chicago about his viral success, balancing his commitment to Judaism with his skating ambitions, and what he’s looking forward to at the Sochi games this month.

Oy!Chicago: Now that you’ve had some time for it to sink in, what has been your feeling and reaction so far to all this excitement?
Jason Brown: I went to Nationals really well-trained and ready to put out two clean skates and that’s what I’ve been working so hard this whole year to do, so it was not surprising to me that I was able to do it. What I think has been out of this world is the reaction afterwards … the magnitude of what happened I did not ever expect. I cannot express how fortunate, and lucky and blessed I feel. I can’t even express the amount of people that have reached out to me, I can’t even put to words – I really can’t.

Have you received any funny or crazy reactions since you “went viral”?
So many people are Tweeting at me or writing about me that they’re not into skating and I got their attention, and I think that’s something that is a skater’s dream because you want to expand the sport, you want non-skating fans to become skating fans and that definitely took me by surprise and means so much to me. The Riverdance cast wrote me, which is just the most insane thing in my life. They’re such inspirations to me … Today I got a Tweet from Bill Whelan who composed the music of Riverdance. I don’t even know how to respond. It’s so beyond anything I ever thought would happen. It’s beyond even if I skated my best, it’s not what I thought would happen.

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Highland Park native Jason Brown performs his “Riverdance” program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston, Mass. He finished in second place.

A lot of people have praised you for being a great performer. Is that what you think is really drawing people in and causing this reaction?
For me, I love to perform and I love to perform for the audience, to the audience, at the audience. I think that’s something I’ve always loved to do since I was little. I think because I don’t have the biggest technical marks, I work so extremely hard in every other aspect in skating and I love it so much … Nothing makes me happier than to know that the audience enjoyed it and had a good time watching it.

When did you know that skating was more than just an activity for you?
I went through a two-year period where I told [his coach, Kori Ade] I didn’t want to compete again; I got so nervous being in front of a crowd. My coach, I love her to death – she’s literally my second mom – somehow turned me around mentally and showed me the joy that competing and performing brings. From there she started to take me to different training sites all over the country and that was really inspiring … It was about 2006 in those Olympics when I first was like, “this could be something I really want to do.” When I was 11, I won the juvenile title and that is when I started to believe, “let’s see where I’ll go,” that’s when I became a bit more serious. As the years went on, that drive to train and become more dedicated kept growing.

What Jewish experiences do you feel have influenced you?
I went to OSRUI for five years and I think their support through it all—they allowed me to go for three weeks or two weeks [of a four-week session] and leave, they even let me come back for the last couple of days. I wasn’t able to take that much time off [of skating]. Just the family atmosphere ... I have so many memories at that camp. Growing up, I went to Hebrew school until I was a sophomore and I read Torah at confirmation. Being part of that community and having their support means so much to me … The Jewish community and that feeling is something that I can’t be more grateful for.

What was it like trying to balance skating with a commitment to Judaism?
There are times when you have to start to give up things because you can’t do it all. I think what was so great was having the balance made me so much more of a well-rounded person. I was able to have a life outside of the rink. Skating never defined who I was, and it still doesn’t to this day and I can’t thank my parents enough for that. I wasn’t always forced to be at the rink, and having that balance made me a more balanced person and athlete.

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The Brown family on vacation in Arizona (left to right): Steve, Jordan, Jason, Dylan and Marla.

What is your mindset heading into the Olympics?
I’m just taking it like I’d approach any competition. I’m going to do the best that I can and just train really hard and take it day by day. That was my mentality for Nationals and that’s a mentality I’m going to keep for the Olympics. That’s where [my and Kori’s] focus is – training very consistently and keeping it very schedule-oriented, just do your job every single day.

Any athletes you’re looking forward to meeting?
I think it’s going to be so incredible to be around so many athletes of so many different sports. People like Shaun White, to actually see them in person, or Bode Miller. I think that’s going to be insane. It’s crazy that I’ll be there when the U.S. hockey team is playing and the speed skaters – Shani Davis – those are the type of experiences that I’m so excited to have because I’ve seen them on TV for so many years and it’s like, wait, I’m going to be there? It doesn’t register yet. I don’t know when it will, if it ever will.

You have such a big support network of family and friends who saw you perform at Nationals and have reached out to you since. What has that meant to you?
There’s nothing more important to me than family and family friends, the people you surround yourself with. I couldn’t have asked for a better support system. They’ve all been there at my lowest lows; they’ve been there at the moment with the highest highs and they’ve never stopped believing in me … Sometimes it’s hard as an athlete; in any sport there are times when you fail, there are times when you don’t succeed. I know there are some athletes if you don’t succeed your family and friends say that wasn’t good enough. I never ever get that. It’s learn from it, grow from it and keep going. They’ve never stopped being proud of me and it means the world to me.

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