Jews are “known” for not having sex. That’s a myth put out there by Jewish comedians who have discovered that they can get an easy laugh by complaining that their wives always seems to get headaches when the subject of sex is brought up. But the Jewish religion is very specific about the importance of sex. Not only is it a religious duty for a husband and wife to engage in sexual relations, but he must make sure that she is pleased—that is to say, has an orgasm. I wrote a whole book on this subject, "Heavenly Sex: Sex in the Jewish Tradition" (with Jonathan Mark of Jewish Week), so I’m not going to repeat myself here.
But despite being Jewish, despite having lost my family to the Nazis and having fought for Israel’s independence, in the course of my career as Dr. Ruth, the only time I ran into protests about what I do was from my fellow Jews. It was 1982, and my radio show was just starting to take off. I was invited to give a lecture at a Jewish center in Rego Park, Queens, a place not thought of as a hotbed of conservatism. But it seems a small group of Orthodox thought that my appearing in this Jewish center was somehow offensive, and they made threats that they were going to demonstrate. If that were to happen today, I would just have canceled. Who needs that sort of aggravation? But back then, I didn’t want to allow anyone to force me to back down from what I believed in. I knew that what I planned to say that evening was not anything shocking but actually a part of Torah, what the Jewish law says to do. It was the middle of June, and the week before I’d been out in LA to do "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. Perhaps that type of national attention was what drew the protestors; I don’t know. What I do know was that on the way out there, I was nervous. I’d had a talk with the director earlier that day.
“Dr. Ruth, I don’t want to make you worried, but we’ve been told there are going to be demonstrators tonight.”
For someone who’d been through Kristallnacht, the idea of demonstrators was actually a bit terrifying, even if I was told they were fellow Jews.
“Are you sure you can guarantee my safety?” I demanded.
“Yes, yes, I’ve been in touch with the local police captain, and he said that he’ll maintain control.”
Back in Germany, the police had looked on while ruffians beat up on Jews, and then they’d walked away. But I had a good relationship with the police department in New York. Every year my Y threw a breakfast for the local police precinct, and after I’d become famous, all the cops at the breakfast wanted my autograph so that they could show their wives. So part of me felt confident that I’d make it through the evening unscathed, and part of me felt very nervous, especially if this demonstration drew a lot of press coverage. A car was sent to get me. I sat very quietly in the back, which is not my style; normally I ask the driver all about himself. But on this evening I preferred to keep silent. I needed to gather myself so that when we arrived, if conditions were really out of control, I would have either the courage to be able to push through the demonstrators or the guts to say enough is enough and order the driver to turn around and get me home.
As we approached the Jewish center, I could see the police presence. There were at least fifty policemen in front of the building— some in riot gear—and there were a dozen police cars parked this way and that, blocking traffic. What I couldn’t see were the demonstrators. We pulled up to the entrance; a big, burly policeman opened the door for me; and as I got out of the car, I could hear some shouting.
Altogether there were eight demonstrators, who’d been penned behind some police barriers across the street. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, and I didn’t try to pick out their words as I walked quickly through the doors. I was relieved that the demonstration was minor, and very grateful for the show of support by the NYPD. And so in all these years of giving hundreds of lectures all around the world, that is really the only time that I was heckled in any way—and it was at the hands of my fellow Jews. Oy!
What was unfair about having those demonstrators at that event is that I am always so careful not to offend the Jewish community. When I speak to a Jewish group, I know that what I am saying is 100 percent appropriate for adults. (I never allow anyone under eighteen at my lectures when speaking to adults because I want to be able to give the audience permission to have good sex, a permission I wouldn’t grant teens. At the same time, I also don’t let adults in to my lectures when I am speaking to teens, as I know that it will make the teens feel uncomfortable and be less open to me. Both positions sometimes get some pushback, but I always stick to my guns.) For example, if I am asked to address a group on a Friday night and suspect that many in the potential audience might be Jews, I won’t accept the date. I don’t do this because of my religious objections to working on a Friday night but because it would exclude those Jews who wouldn’t go to the event, and that would be insulting to them on my part.
Another example is the time I was asked to decorate a Christmas tree for a charity fund-raiser. Various celebrities were decorating trees near the holidays that would be auctioned off to raise money for the charity. It’s something I wanted to do, but I wasn’t going to decorate a Christmas tree. I came up with a compromise. Instead of calling my tree a Christmas tree, we called it a Hanukkah bush—I used little dreidels and other Jewish symbols in the decorating process. And the big winner was the charity, because a gentleman who became a friend of mine, David Mitchell, bid $10,000 for my tree, and then he bid an additional $10,000 so that another had to be made. Wow.
By the way, just because I wouldn’t decorate a Christmas tree doesn’t mean that I don’t get along with Christians, including members of the Catholic clergy. I was once dining at the Four Seasons restaurant when I noticed that there was a group dining in a private dining area. I didn’t know who was in that room, but I’m not shy and I’m always curious, so I peeked inside. It was all priests and nuns, and they greeted me with enthusiasm and insisted I come in to say hello to them all. And despite my stand in favor of the right to abortion, even New York’s Cardinal Dolan seems to be a fan. Before the Steuben Parade (the German American parade I was made grand marshal of, which I mentioned earlier), Mass was celebrated in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Of course I attended and was seated in the first row, both because I was an honored guest and also because I always make sure I’m in the first row so that I can see what’s going on. After the cardinal said the Mass, he came over to greet all the dignitaries. When he came to me, he gave me a big smile and a kiss on the cheek while I put my hand on his cheek. So this little Jew gets around!
I mentioned earlier that Jews are actually instructed to have satisfying sex—that is to say, sex where both partners reach orgasm. This certainly applies to Orthodox Jews, who must also obey other religious strictures, including one not to engage in sexual relations while the wife is having her period and for seven days after that. At that point she goes to the mikvah, a ritual bath. When she comes home, the couple can have sexual relations. Here’s one more case where you could look at the glass being half empty or half full. You could say that because of their religion, almost half of the time Orthodox Jews are not allowed to have sex. Or else you could say that every month, after this time set aside for abstinence, they are literally desperate to get into bed with each other, and that those times when they have sex are the best times because of their heightened arousal. Joie de vivre is a matter of attitude, and anyone who takes a positive attitude toward sex can actually find great pleasure, no matter what the challenges.
I know that the readers of this book aren’t necessarily Jewish and may not even believe in God. Most anyone can experience joie de vivre; however, those who are cynical to the extreme and believe in nothing will have a much harder time. Being a human is very special. You don’t have to believe that God has given us our life force, but if you look at the world without appreciating all the blessings we have, the beauty of the earth, the goodness and kindness of its inhabitants, the love that can be shared, then you’ll never feel real joy. So . . . believe in something and embrace your passions!
* * *
What is life without love? And what is love without heartache? I’ve had three husbands. In two cases, it’s the love that died; in the third—and longest—it was my husband who passed away. But as Edith Piaf sang, “Je ne regrette rien.” I don’t regret any of it because without the vibrancy of love, life is very pale.
A lot of young people go through an awkward stage, but eventually they grow out of it, and soon enough someone from the opposite sex is showing some interest in them. Since I’m only four foot seven, I never entirely grew out of my awkward stage, and for a long time in my youth I was certain that no man would ever find me attractive. I’ve already told you about my first boyfriend, Putz, and the male nurse with whom I had an affair—and that I’ve had three husbands—so obviously, my predictive powers were off back then. But I also know that my realistic assessment of my situation was important because it helped me to be proactive. If I couldn’t rely on my statuesque figure to lure men, then I had to have a backup plan. And part of that was exhibiting joie de vivre, even though at that time I had no idea what that meant. On the one hand, I felt very low when I was by myself, very unsettled with my life in Palestine, and even more uncertain about my future. On the other hand, when I was with my friends—say, at the dances that we had on the kibbutz on Friday nights—I let my real personality shine through, and the male friends that I’d made responded appropriately. Of course I did more than just be myself. For example, there was one man I liked and who liked me. Actually, he liked me more than I liked him, but I certainly liked the attention. I figured out how to time it so that when he went to lunch at the kibbutz, I’d go in at exactly the same time and we’d sit together. This technique had the desired effect, and his affection for me grew. However, when I met his brother (who was a soldier—I found his uniform very sexy), I quickly changed my sights, and future sniper that I would become, I hit the mark.
But during all of this, there was another man who was my real object of desire. We were friends, and the time we’d spend together was both satisfying and frustrating: he liked someone else “that way.” Unrequited love is a joie de vivre killer because your heart is stuck on someone who doesn’t feel the same way about you. Every time you’re with that person, you’re walking on air, your hopes soaring with the slightest glance or casual touch. But then, as soon as you’re apart, you’re faced with the reality of your situation, that this person is really unavailable to you. I get questions from people caught in such situations, and my advice to them is to keep yourself as far from this person as possible. That might mean switching schools, jobs, or even cities. To feel joie de vivre to its fullest, you can’t have this glass ceiling above you that keeps you from soaring.
I lost my virginity on the kibbutz. I won’t say with whom because I am still friendly with him and he is married to someone else—and she and I are friends too—but it was in a hayloft, which provided not only privacy but a softer environment than our hard beds, and it was wonderful. We visited that hayloft again and again (and that I didn’t wind up pregnant was a minor miracle, because we weren’t using any form of birth control).
One phrase that the French use for an orgasm is la petite mort, “the little death.” It’s meant to describe not so much the orgasm itself as that feeling you get right afterward, a slight blackout one might feel, as the life forces you exerted leave your body for a while. And, in fact, if an orgasm is strong enough, you might feel like you’re going to burst open and die. In that sense, one could almost say that an orgasm goes beyond joie de vivre—you experience death in some small way, rather than life. But that’s not true, because actually joie de vivre encompasses many more emotions than only joy.
To fully live life, there’s an entire range of emotions that you need to feel, and that even includes sadness. If you experience only happy times, you’re going to appreciate them less than if you can compare them to sad times. So a feeling such as nostalgia isn’t exactly joyful, but it’s an emotional experience that makes you more alive. Joie de vivre isn’t only about experiencing joy, but being open to all your feelings.
Let me illustrate with a personal example, one of motherly love. My daughter Miriam went to Israel and served in the Israeli Defense Forces. Of course, I missed my daughter because she wasn’t nearby. And I worried about her because being in the army, even if there is no war, is inherently dangerous, as there are firearms and training exercises. But I was also very proud of her for showing the same devotion to Israel that I had. As an American, she didn’t have to go to join the army. But it was something that as a Jew she felt was important. And then when she moved back to New York, the elation I felt at having her back was indescribable! While she was away, my heart hurt, but I would call her as often as possible, visit when I could, and pray that she would come home safely. I didn’t let her being over there kill my joie de vivre, because having a child leave home is part of life. But boy, was I excited at having her back!
I could have gone around with a long face the entire time Miriam was in Israel. But working yourself up over something that you can’t change is a mistake. It’s OK to spend a few minutes every day being sad or worrying, but then you have to put those negative emotions aside, because life is too precious to waste even one day of it.
Excerpted from "The Doctor Is In: Dr. Ruth on Love, Life, and Joie de Vivre" by Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer. Published by Amazon Publishing. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.