Friday, April 7, 2017

What I learned about love from sex therapist Dr. Ruth

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, better known as the sex therapist Dr. Ruth, is a diminutive 88 year old who is still dispensing down-to-earth advice on sex. She says the best way for older people to have sex is in the morning after a good night’s sleep. Labelled the high priestess of hanky panky, she exudes warmth and sweetness as a grandmother would, so it’s kind of hard to equate her with sex therapy. I didn't learn anything about sex from her. Certainly not when I showed up at her house many, many years ago for Passover!

I was an international student in a sea of American girls in my college dorm. As if being in the United States for the very first time wasn’t enough of a culture shock, I was also smack in the middle of New York city where I saw guys wearing yarmulkes and kosher food served in the dining hall. With a significant Jewish population, the college was closed not only for Easter break but also Passover, a significant celebration on the Jewish calendar when they celebrate the emancipation of Jewish slaves from Egypt during the time of Moses.

Miriam, the resident advisor on my floor, probably took pity on the Asian student (me) who had nowhere to go for the holidays and so invited me to go home with her to have dinner with her family.

We took a bus along the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Morningside Heights. In a spacious apartment, I was introduced to to her parents and brother. Dr. Ruth was just Ruth (I didn’t realize who she was until many years later), a diminutive smiley lady who reached up to give me a hug. I had to resist the impulse to call her Aunty Ruth, because in my Asian culture, we address our elders as Aunty and Uncle as a form of respect.

An assortment of relatives crowded around a large table filled with all kinds of food which looked totally alien to me. The significance of the different foods on the ceremonial plate was explained to me, the only non-Jew there. I wasn’t totally an ignoramus having read Exodus in the Bible, and so could understand why there were items like bitter herbs and unleavened matzo bread.

It struck me that in every culture, when we celebrate, food is somehow involved, and each dish has a significance that is explained to children so that they grow up understanding their heritage.

In Miriam’s house, a little boy, the youngest at the table, asked the ceremonial questions that remind them why this night is different. In a whisper, Miriam gave a running commentary on what was going on, of course, but I gamely sang along and tucked into the feast.

This certainly wasn’t the American family dinner I was envisioning when I went away to college. I imagined a family out in the suburbs with Mom baking a pie and a feast with turkey and ham. I did get to enjoy those celebrations eventually as I made more friends and was invited home with them.

But my first dinner with an American was in Jewish home of Dr. Ruth, of all people. No, there was no talk of sex. She wasn’t the famous sex therapist yet when I met her. But it was obviously a family of scholarly intellectuals who debated every topic vociferously, with young people pitching in fearlessly. That was another culture shock for me, coming from a Chinese family where only the elders spoke and nobody argued at the table.

I was totally intimidated at that dinner table, the only Asian teen surrounded by a Jewish family who sang, cried, ate, hugged and laughed with abandon. They were of course curious about me and asked questions about my background, surprised that I had read some of the Old Testament in church and knew some of the songs they were singing!

At the end of the evening, Ruth kissed Miriam and enveloped me in a big hug as we put on our jackets. At the time, I probably knew that Ruth worked as a psychologist. I lost contact with Miriam as she was a few years ahead of me in college. I didn’t make the connection until years later when I saw Dr. Ruth’s face popping up in the media and was being touted as the sex expert.

Now when we head into Passover and then Easter, it just brings home to me how significant these celebrations are, in bringing families together, observing traditions and remembering. I remember Dr Ruth, the tiny sex therapist who had a keen wit, but I also remember Ruth, Miriam’s mom, who showed me, a kid far away from home, some motherly love. She taught me that mothers everywhere are the same, caring for their kids and giving them unconditional love.

Whatever celebrations we observe, wherever in the world, it should always be about family and love. Happy Passover and Happy Easter!

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