'Ask Dr. Ruth' profiles America's sex therapist extraordinaire

Size doesn’t matter — in more ways than one.

Ruth Westheimer is exactly 4 feet, 7 inches tall.

“Short people make the best lovers,” she jokes. “When it comes to sex, the most important six inches are the ones between the ears.”

In the entertaining new documentary “Ask Dr. Ruth,” which opens Friday at the cozy little Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville, director Ryan White chronicles the extraordinary life of a Holocaust orphan who became America's most beloved sex therapist — a kind of godmother to its sexual revolution. White captures her playful spontaneity and quick wit.

“Alexa, am I gonna get a boyfriend?” she asks a new smartphone device at the film’s outset and delights in Alexa’s response: “Sorry, I don’t know that.” But as the narrative shifts between the sunny present and traumatic childhood, her natural lightheartedness gives way to serious reflections on the losses and upheavals in her life.

'Ask Dr. Ruth'



  • Starring: Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
  • Rating: Unrated but PG-13 in nature for sexual subject matter.

As 10-year-old Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt, her last memory of her father was seeing him arrested and taken away the morning after Kristallnacht in 1938. Two months later, she was sent to an orphanage in Switzerland by her mother as part of the Kindertransport.

After the war, she emigrated to Palestine where she joined the Haganah (forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces) as a scout and sniper (“I never killed anybody, but I know how to throw hand grenades and shoot.”) She was seriously wounded in action by an exploding shell in 1948 during the Israeli independence struggle and, upon recovery, moved to Paris to study — and later teach — psychology.

Thence, in 1956, she went to New York and earned advanced degrees at the New School and Columbia University. The storied media career began in 1980 with her controversial WYNY-FM radio show “Sexually Speaking” — the nation’s first — which ran for a decade and served as a springboard for her half-dozen television shows on the Lifetime et al cable channels and some 40 books on sex and sexuality.

“Say the words!” (vagina, clitoris) she tells the embarrassed Johnny Carson and Arsenio Hall. And to her callers: “Don’t just sit there and suffer — DO something about it!” with a hearty laugh, in a voice once described as “a cross between Henry Kissinger and Minnie Mouse” and an accent so thick you need an electric carving knife to cut it.

There’s no such word as “frigid,” she declares. “Show him how you like to be touched! Women have to take the initiative and be responsible for their own satisfaction.”

It was a revolutionary idea at the time. Before Ruth, says Gloria Steinem, “I never heard women tell the truth about sex in public in my life.”

Charming scenes with her articulate children Miriam and Joel are incorporated, and a fine moment in which her granddaughter gently chides her about not being a feminist. The director employs a device I’m not fond of — animated enactments — but with restraint, to complement the storytelling.

The most compelling scene takes place at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center: The Nazis, in good Teutonic fashion, kept excellent records. We are with Dr. Ruth when she learns exactly what happened to her father, Julius Siegel: “murdered at Auschwitz, March 25, 1942.” Her mother Irma is listed simply as “vershollen” (disappeared).

No tears or histrionics from Ruth, just solemn stoicism.

“I cry when nobody is around,” she says quietly. “German Jews don’t cry in public.”

Indeed, the irony of “the goddess of good sex” (as Joan Rivers called her), who made sex and the bedroom public, is that she’s not inclined to express or share her own emotions.

White doesn’t press her. His documentary style is rather formulaic, but he does justice to his heroine’s amazing life force and energy. If size doesn’t matter, neither does age: She turned 90 last June and has no intention of retiring.

She brought sex out of the closet, for health and hedonism alike. She helped bring respect to and enlightenment about the LGBT communities during the hysteria of the Reagan era, when Billy Graham called AIDS “a judgment of God upon us, paying us back for our promiscuous society.”

All the while she has remained strictly apolitical, even as she has paved the way for others, such as the intrepid Dan Savage, to be politically incorrect in defining people.

Rick Santorum would disagree with that — which is fine. It’s just another subject, and another reason, to “Ask Dr. Ruth.”

Opening Friday only at the Row House Cinema, 4115 Butler St., in Lawrenceville.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: parispg48@aol.com.

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