Let’s talk about sex at the Classic

October 28, 2019 by Toni Susskind
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This year’s 28th JIFF kicked off in Melbourne last Thursday night at the Classic Cinema, signposting the start of a three-week movie feast, that focuses on Israeli and Jewish-themed films.

Similarly to last year, the sold-out event began with several hundred people standing in the foyer listening to jazz music from Alma Zygier, whilst eating canapes and drinking from the in-house bar. The one difference was the quirky inclusion of an Eskel stand, where people were able to eat pickles to their heart’s content. After several jazzy upbeat songs, including a soulful recital of the Leonard Cohen classic Hallelujah by Eddie Tamir, the patrons retreated into the cinemas to watch the movie Ask Dr Ruth.

Directed by Ryan White and a film favourite at the Sundance film festival, Ask Dr Ruth, is a candid, yet often funny exploration of the woman who is known throughout the world as Dr Ruth.

Born Karola Ruth Siegel in Germany in 1928. Ruth was 10 years old when her father was arrested and taken to a work camp. Fearing the worst, her mother and grandmother arranged for her join 300 children leaving for Switzerland. She never saw her family again.
Using a mix of animation and interviews, the story documents Westheimer’s life, from moving to Israel and joining the Haganah, to her quest for education and three marriages.

As the documentary unfolds, we learn that Westheimer’s career as a popular sex therapist was an accident. Working at Planned Parenthood she noted the high interest in sex and sexual education. Fascinated with the topic, she moved into postdoctoral work with Helen Singer Caplan, a renowned sex therapist.


Falling into the role of talkback host, Dr Ruth was given a 15-minute midnight slot to talk about sex therapy. It was so popular that the show expanded to 1hour and then 2 hours until it was the most popular talkback show across America. This popularity translated into a series of cable tv shows.

What was most fascinating about the movie was watching Dr Ruth herself. Although she is in her early 90’s, she continues to live life with gusto and joi de vivre, continuing her speaking engagements across America and writing books. When asked why she keeps publishing books, she responds with “What a stupid question.”

Summing up the ethos that she lives by, the diminutive grandmother tells her audience, “I have an obligation to live large and make a dent in this world.”

May we all do so.


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