Tony-nominated actress, singer, playwright and author Tovah Feldshuh shares her relationship with the great Dr. Ruth Westheimer before her performance as the legendary sex therapist and Holocaust survivor in Becoming Dr. Ruth.
Becoming Dr. Ruth
It’s spring 2021. I am about to play the iconic Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
I’ve a home court advantage. Ruth Westheimer’s a family friend. She sambaed at our children’s weddings. When I see her, I literally pick her up in the air to hug her. That is, till she said, “You cannot pick me up anymore, I’m an endangered species!”
When Ruth hears I’m to portray her, she exclaims, “Terrrrrrrrr-IFIC!” with such irrepressible optimism that even the end of the word upticks. Ever the Supporter-in-Chief, Ruth throws open the doors of her Washington Heights and Lake Oscawana homes and gifts me with a bounty of phone calls. My job? Drink her in: her history, her view of the world and how these affect her speech pattern, walk, clothing. … How personal did I get? On opening night, Ruth is escorted on stage during curtain call and, unplanned, is wearing the exact same outfit as my costume!
Her apartment explodes with unforgettable pictures with the “unforgettables” of the planet: presidents, prime ministers, even maestro Zubin Mehta, with whom she waltzes. The topper? Thousands of turtle figurines! Why turtles everywhere? I learn: “Turtles have no natural predators.”
Ironically, Ruth has had much experience with predators: In 1938 at age 10, with her father already in Buchenwald, she’s ripped away from her mother and grandmother and selected as one of just 300 (of over 500,000) German Jewish children to be sent on a Kindertransport. Though this stroke of good fortune saved her life, it tore her from her roots, her immediate family, her country, her heritage.
Ruth thought she’d be in Switzerland’s Wartheim Orphanage for six months. She was there for six years. From the crucial ages of 10 to 13, she was never physically embraced, not even touched. It wasn’t until she fell in love with Walter, “a younger man … I was 13, he was 12,” that Ruth came alive. Walter not only hugged and kissed her, he snuck his textbooks to her so she could, in secrecy, educate herself long after curfew.
“Walter saved my intellectual life.”
That Ruth grew up to become THE renowned international sex therapist from such an adolescence is extraordinary.
Denied a high school education, she was certified as a professional Swiss maid at war’s end. Instead of cleaning houses, she left for Palestine, joined the Jewish underground army (Haganah), trained as a sniper (and is still a great shot) and fought in the War of Independence. When a grenade critically wounded her, blowing off the top of her right foot, against all odds, Ruth re-learned to walk, then to run, and has never stopped.
Ruth Westheimer right sizes your life. How can one complain about sketchy Wi-Fi in the north woods of East Hampton, or bumper-to-bumper traffic on the LIE, once we know what Dr. Ruth soldiered through and triumphed over? In my just-released memoir Lilyville, I write of my childhood challenges, which, for me, were vividly potent but pale next to those of the indomitable Karola Ruth Siegel who would become “Dr. Ruth.”
There’s a Jewish precept: Tikkun Olam. It states that each person is put on this planet for the purpose of healing the world. Ruth’s biggest Tikkun was revolutionizing how we, the world, regard sex.
“When it comes to sex, the most important six inches are the ones between your ears.”
She took sex out of the private shadows of the bedroom and shed light on every person’s right to sexual fulfillment. She legitimized our entitlement to, and responsibility for, our own orgasms.
“Tell your lover exactly what you need.” And if you still can’t get it? Ruth recommends the Eroscillator. Go ahead: Google it!
The more I study her, the clearer it becomes: She’s a universal healer to us all. As I continue my artistic journey of “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” as the play moves to New York City by year’s end, Ruth continues to inform me how to better my own life. Stay away from negativity, run toward solutions.
“See it, believe it, become it.”
She epitomizes Proverbs 31:
“A woman of valor, who can find? Her worth is far above rubies …
She speaks with wisdom, and the law of kindness is on her tongue …
She looks to the future cheerfully …
She eats not the bread of idleness.”
Many women do valiantly, but you, Ruth, surpass them all.
Tovah Feldshuh, a six-time Tony and Emmy nominee, will star as Dr. Ruth Westheimer in the Bay Street Theater production of Becoming Dr. Ruth by Mark St. Germain, directed by Scott Schwartz, December 4–30 at Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC.
Her memoir Lilyville: Mother, Daughter and Other Roles I’ve Played is available at Sag Harbor Books.
For further purchase of Lilyville and updates about future ticket sales for NYC’s Becoming Dr. Ruth, visit tovahfeldshuh.com.