TORONTO — As the only child of Jewish parents who died during the Second World War, Dr. Ruth Westheimer says she grew up feeling like she had to “stand up and be counted.”
“Because I am a survivor, an orphan of the Holocaust, I had to make a dent in society,” the 90-year-old celebrity sex therapist said during a recent interview in Toronto.
“I didn’t know I would be talking about orgasms and erections.”
The frank-talking media personality — who’s charmed audiences for decades with her four-foot-seven frame, German accent and squeaky-voiced ”Grandma Freud” personality — opens up about her life, career and childhood in the new documentary “Ask Dr. Ruth.”
Opening Friday in Toronto and Vancouver, the film is a look at not only her smash success spearheading candid conversations around sexuality on TV and radio, but also the loneliness and challenges she faced growing up.
At age 10, she was sent to an orphanage in Switzerland to escape the Holocaust back home. Her parents stayed behind and did not survive. Records show her father was killed at the Auschwitz concentration camp and her mother disappeared.
Westheimer found herself having to take charge of her own life early on, which she says helped her realize women “have the responsibility for themselves and for their own sexuality.”
With headlines swirling over migrant children being separated from their parents in the U.S. — as well as changes to abortion laws, Planned Parenthood and Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum — Westheimer feels “the timing is right” and that “the film is just perfect for this year.”
“It will make a real stand for sexual literacy, for the importance of having the guts to do something that wasn’t done before, and for being concerned about what happens in society,” she said.
“While I’m not a politician, while I never talk about politics — I’m upset when I see children being separated and I’m upset about the issue of abortion being on the carpet again, and that there’s not enough funding, in Canada and the United States, for Planned Parenthood. So if people can show … my film at events to raise money for Planned Parenthood, I’d be very happy.”
Los Angeles-based Ryan White directed the doc, which opens May 24 in Montreal and throughout the spring in other cities.
It’s the “story of the American dream,” he said.
“I think it’s very easy in the U.S. right now to demonize refugees and I think Dr. Ruth’s story stands for how special America is when we can embrace refugees and give them that opportunity.”
Cameras follow Westheimer in the New York apartment she’s lived in for over 50 years and going about her career, which is still thriving with various appearances and more books on the horizon.
“I have no time to retire; I have to rewire,” she said.
Westheimer plans to publish two new books this year, including a children’s book on diversity called “Crocodile, You’re Beautiful!”
The other is a new edition of “Sex for Dummies,” in which she addresses issues for millennials — particularly their attitude towards relationships and how they’re “losing the art of conversation,” as well as the often-reported claim that they’re not making enough time for sex.
“I don’t know if that’s true but the newspapers say so,” she said, ”and I say, ‘Hold it, watch out. If that’s true, you are stupid. Here is an activity that doesn’t cost money, here is an activity that enhances your relationship — don’t put it on the back burner.’”
Young adults also need to “be savvy and to know what is trash, what is unrealistic” when it comes to incorporating sexting and other forms of technology into their sex lives, she added.
“In pornography they’re showing things that are unrealistic — nobody has an erection from the floor to the ceiling every minute,” Westheimer said.
Talking so candidly about sex is something Westheimer chalks up to her cultural background and work as a postdoctoral researcher at New York-Presbyterian Hospital for Helen Singer Kaplan, a doctor known for her leadership in the field of sex therapy.
“In the Jewish tradition, sex has never been a sin. It always has been an obligation for a husband to engage in sex, especially on Friday nights when they cannot do anything else, so it’s a good time to make babies,” she said with a chuckle.
“So part of it has to do with my being Jewish, part of it has to do with that I’ve been very well trained. Helen Singer, I was very fortunate to be on her staff. And I have the chutzpah — chutzpah in Hebrew means ‘the nerve’ — to state what I believe in.”
The film also sees Westheimer with her friends and family, including her son Joel Westheimer, who has American and Canadian citizenship and is an author and professor at the University of Ottawa. She said she often visits him and his family in Ottawa.
At one point in the film, Westheimer’s granddaughter asks if she’s a feminist, to which she says she’s not.
Looking back on that scene, Westheimer clarified: “I don’t consider myself a feminist; I consider myself equal rights for equal work.”
“I certainly was a single mother when it was not so accepted but I don’t have that (feminist) label on me,” added Westheimer, who was married three times.
“So we finally agreed with my daughter Miriam and my granddaughter Leora that I’m a feminist but not a radical feminist.”