Aspen Ideas Fest: Dr. Ruth still engaging in good conversations
Special to The Aspen Times
When asked for details about her own sex life, the response from the venerable Dr. Ruth Westheimer will invariably be a swift “next question.” Other than that, though, there’s no topic or query that surprises or embarrasses her. And really, there are few subjects on which she has little to say.
It’s precisely because of the depth of her opinions, expertise and long and storied career that Dr. Ruth is the subject of a new documentary, “Ask Dr. Ruth,” which will be screened tonight at Paepcke Auditorium as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival, followed by a panel discussion that includes the esteemed sex therapist herself.
It’s not her first foray into film, yet it marks the first time the larger-than-life, pint-size German-Jewish immigrant has gone deep about losing her parents in the Holocaust and surviving it herself, plus a stint as a gunner in the Israeli army. She previously executive-produced documentaries on family values through the lens of grandparents in 1970s communist Russia, and another one that focused on Jews in Ethiopia. Both are still being screened in the classes she continues teaching at Columbia Teachers College in New York City.
“I go to Israel every year, and the reason I did those films instead of just being on vacation is so I can teach about different cultures and how they deal with family values,” Dr. Ruth said Wednesday from her home in Manhattan.
In fact, Dr. Ruth attributes much of her success to her unending focus on family and religious values. She sees the relationship between them and sex as an evolving one, even if for her, the connection has been a constant.
“I’m very Jewish and in the Jewish tradition, sex has never been a sin,” she said. “I have no problem (talking about sex) because in Judaism, it’s always been an obligation for a husband to have sex with his wife.”
Dr. Ruth has arguably led much of the charge about not just changing but also loosening conversations about sex and the language of sexuality. She says people are now more open on the topic and using the language surrounding it “more correctly,” including how expectant women these days are referred to as “pregnant” instead of the more old-fashioned “with child.”
While her name instantly conjures up things like premature ejaculation and sex toys, Dr. Ruth has been deeply entrenched in the feminist movement for decades, even if she bristles at being called the F-word.
“‘Feminist’ implies ‘radical,’ like bra burning,” Dr. Ruth said. “But my daughter and granddaughter are right: I am a feminist. I want to engage in good discussions.”
She’ll inspire even more dialogue next month when celebrating the release of the newest edition of “Sex for Dummies,” which she wrote with Pierre A. Lehu. New in the fourth volume of the popular book is her concern for millennials.
“I’m not against the (smartphone), but only if it’s not a substitute for time spent and good conversation,” she said. “I’m concerned about loneliness: Millennials are losing the art of conversation.”
Communication is so integral to Dr. Ruth yet she shies away from politics. Still, she feels strongly that everyone should go — twice — to New York City’s Museum of Jewish heritage, where she sits on the board, and the new “Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away.” exhibit on the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany.
“I’m very concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism,” she said. “When you go once (to the Auschwitz exhibit), you’ll be upset. The second time you’ll learn. It’s really like a graveyard for my parents — for the people who don’t have graves.”
This weekend isn’t Dr. Ruth’s first time in Aspen. A former avid hiker and skier, she knows Colorado well, claiming her most beloved memories occurred east of Aspen in some place called Vail.
“China Bowl was always my favorite to ski,” she said. “You can tell that to the people in Aspen; it’s OK.”
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