How a Jewish grandmother forever changed America's ideas of sexual education and literacy.
Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women's Archive.
In the last two decades of the twentieth century, there were many reasons not to celebrate sex. The fear of AIDS brought to the surface the connection between passion and death that has always been a dark strain in the human mind. A fundamentalist Christian reaction against the sexual revolution threatened to re-enthrone Puritan values. On the other side of the coin, millions of children were bearing children, many of them damaged by drug and alcohol abuse.
Against this desolate background, a cheerful Jewish grandmother who called herself Dr. Ruth marched forward and said, with undeniable sincerity and forthright common sense, that sex was good, indeed "heavenly." To the astonishment of many Americans, who tend to associate religion with sexual repression, Ruth Westheimer declared that her message of liberation had its origin in Orthodox Judaism.
Karola Ruth Siegel was born in Germany on June 4, 1928, the daughter of Irma Hanauer, a housekeeper, and Julius Siegel, a notions wholesaler and son of the family in which Irma worked. Julius Siegel gave his daughter an early grounding in Judaism, taking her regularly to the synagogue in Frankfurt, where they lived. When Karola was ten years old, shortly after the infamous Kristallnacht, her father was taken to a detention camp. Her mother and grandmother then sent the little girl to Switzerland, where she lived in an orphanage for six years.
After the war, unable to find any other members of her family, sixteen-year-old Karola went to Palestine. There, she lived on a number of kibbutzim and joined the Haganah, the underground army. Later, she taught kindergarten, before going with her first husband to Paris, where she studied at the Institute of Psychology at the Sorbonne. After a divorce, she came to the United States.
In New York, she entered the New School for Social Research on a scholarship for victims of the Holocaust. While studying, she married her second husband and gave birth to her first child, Miriam. After a second divorce, she met Manfred Westheimer. They were married in December of 1961, and their son Joel was born in 1964. The next year, Ruth Westheimer became an American citizen and, in 1970, received her Ed.D. from Columbia University.