Listening to Music With… Dr. Ruth

Dr. Ruth Westheimer counts sex and music among her favorite things — but not when they are happening at the same time.

“Music during sex? Absolutely no!” says Westheimer. “People should use their brain to concentrate on being with a loved one, and they don’t need to be distracted by music.”

But Westheimer, the international sex guru who currently co-teaches a Calhoun College seminar, “Personal Fulfillment and Intimacy in the American Family,” is quick to point out that this is more of a personal opinion than a professional one.

“I said for me, I’m not saying for other people,” Westheimer exclaims. “Some people get aroused by Bolero, and I say fine. If that’s what arouses you, then go have a good time.”

Westheimer has traveled a long way to become the Michael Jordan of sex therapy, and music was one of the few things that maintained a constant presence in her life. Born to a Frankfurt Jewish family in 1928, Westheimer fled to Switzerland as a child when the Nazis came to power. Trading the grand nationalist melodies of Germany for the pastoral strains of the Alps, she gained a bittersweet affection for the songs of the country from which she knew she would be ejected at the war’s end. When the Allies emerged victorious, Westheimer discovered that both of her parents had been killed in the Holocaust.

Westheimer moved to Palestine in 1945 and lived for two years on a kibbutz. Her musical diet there consisted mainly of traditional Horah dance melodies and uplifting Zionist songs, which “helped us to clean the toilets,” she says. After her time on the kibbutz, Westheimer joined the Haganah — the forerunner to the Israeli Defense Force.

“For some strange reason, I was trained as a sniper,” says Westheimer, who is 4 feet 7 inches tall. “I can put a stem gun together with my eyes closed, I can detonate a grenade … but I’ve never killed anybody.”

Westheimer herself was almost killed during her army stint when Arab militants fired a cannonball into the barracks in which she was staying. But in the inimitable way that could only be the result of a life so deeply mixed with tragedy and joy, Westheimer finds a way to make light of the shrapnel wounds her feet suffered during the attack.

“That’s not why I’m short,” she says. “I would have been short anyway!”

At the end of her tour of duty, Westheimer moved to Paris to study psychology at the Sorbonne. She also spent time as a kindergarten teacher and learned to play the recorder.

“A kindergarten teacher must play an instrument!” Westheimer exclaims. “But I can’t sing. I can’t even carry a tune.”

She also developed a love for French music. Westheimer says she particularly admired Edith Piaf “because she was short,” and because of Piaf’s song “Je Ne Regrette Rien,” whose tone of optimism in the face of adversity resonated deeply with her. In 1956, Westheimer came to the United States, never dreaming she would settle down in America and become “Dr. Ruth.” During her first years in the country, she was so feverishly engaged in studying psychology at Columbia and learning English (her fourth language after German, Hebrew and French) that she barely had any time to listen to music.

“I was too busy to even notice those four guys from England,” she says, pausing to recall the band’s name. “The Beatles.”

After receiving her doctorate in 1970, Westheimer began working at Planned Parenthood, where she was inspired to further pursue her studies of human sexuality. She spent five years as an adjunct at New York-Cornell University Medical Center, and in 1980 she debuted her radio show, “Sexually Speaking.” Since then, Westheimer has developed a sexual media empire that includes television shows, dozens of books, a website and even a board game called “Dr. Ruth’s Game of Good Sex.” In 2003, Westheimer took a break from writing books about sex and authored “Musically Speaking,” a memoir in which she explores the effect that music has had on her life.

Today, despite her heavy workload, Westheimer still makes sure to save time for music. She especially enjoys live concerts at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, where music always takes center stage.

“I don’t like background music,” she says. “I love music when I can concentrate. I love to soar with the music. But I don’t like to go to restaurants where there’s music. I don’t like music in the elevator — what’s that called? Yes, elevator music.”

Before our interview, she had never heard any songs by the orthodox Jewish reggae sensation known as Matisyahu, but her trademark smile stretched across her face when she finally heard his hit song “Got No Water.”

“I certainly like the beat … it certainly would make me want to dance,” she says. “Next time I hear he’s performing somewhere, I’d like to go.”

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