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The Long Life of a Short Woman : ALL IN A LIFETIME by Dr. Ruth Westheimer (Warner Books: $17.95; 225 pp.)

January 10, 1988|Laura Geller | Geller is a rabbi and the director of the Hillel Jewish Center at USC

"All in a Lifetime" is the autobiography of Ruth Westheimer, nee Karola Ruth Siegel. It opens on Jan. 5, 1939, when the author, 10 years old, is at the Frankfurt train station on her way to Switzerland to escape the Nazi persecution. Six weeks before, the Gestapo had awakened her family early in the morning to take her father away. Like good German Jews, "more German than the Germans," her family didn't talk too much about what had happened.

Karola never saw her family again.

As difficult as Karola's life was at the children's home in a Swiss village, she was one of the lucky ones--she survived. This sense that she was fortunate, that she ought to be grateful, made it difficult for her to complain about her desperate loneliness, the harsh conditions in the home and the terrible sense of having been abandoned.

She recalls these years primarily through excerpts from her diary and letters from her parents. The letters stop in 1941.

The diary is a strange mixture of normal adolescent worry about boyfriends, attractiveness and self image (she was extremely short and thought of herself as ugly), as well as the agony of dislocation, loss, and fear for the safety of her family. Surprisingly absent from the author's description of this difficult time is any real self-reflection. She admits that although she carried her diaries and her letters from her parents throughout her life, she never looked at them until she had to in preparation for this book. She closed herself off in order to survive.

Ruth Westheimer is a survivor. She describes herself as like a German doll that has lead in its base. When you put it down flat, it stands right back up again.

After the war she went to Palestine with a Zionist youth group. It was there that she changed her name from the "German-sounding" Karola to her middle name, Ruth.

She joined the Haganah, the Jewish underground army, and was wounded during the War of Independence. After the war she married David: "handsome," "well-educated" and "short." They went to Paris to study, but grew apart and divorced.

Ruth used reparations money to go to the United States with her new lover Dan who is described as "good-looking, kind, sweet . . . ." In New York she entered the sociology program at the New School for Social Research and soon found that she was pregnant. This delighted and surprised her--she had always assumed she was too small to have a baby. She and Dan married, but when their daughter Miriam was a year old, they separated.

She soon met Fred Westheimer--"handsome, intelligent . . . short." After some maneuvering that she describes as "feminine wiles," the two were married. Their son Joel was born about a year and a half after the wedding.

When her son began school, Ruth went to Columbia Teachers College where she earned her doctorate in education in 1970. In her first teaching job, she taught sex education. This led her to seek more training in human sexuality, eventually studying at an advanced training program for sex therapists at Cornell Medical School where she became an adjunct associate professor. After hearing her lecture about sex education, the community affairs director of WYNY invited her to interview for a Sunday morning talk show. That led to the offer that created Dr. Ruth--15 minutes right after midnight on Sunday morning. Ruth Westheimer had her own show.

Less than a year and a half later, Dr. Ruth was a national celebrity. Featured in major newspaper and magazine articles, as well as television talk shows, the author of a popular book, "Dr. Ruth's Guide to Good Sex," her radio show expanded to one hour and within a few years was syndicated nationally.

She has parlayed her success into occasional movie roles, television appearances and lucrative commercials where she promotes, among other things, chocolate mousse, soda and typewriters. She acknowledges the "Dr. Ruth" phenomena may end at any moment and she wants to enjoy it as completely as possible, relishing in the stardom and the access to celebrities as well as the life style it affords. But she still lives in the same home in New York's Washington Heights where she enjoys not only the view but also being at the center of the German-Jewish community. In many ways, she is still Karola Siegel, the little girl who worries about being short and needs people to like her.

Ruth Westheimer's lifetime has been extraordinarily full--she has lived in five countries, experienced more tragedy than most people will ever deal with, lived as an active participant in two of the most important events of modern Jewish history--the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel--celebrated personal joy and triumph and achieved more success than she ever dreamed possible. The book is filled with the minute details of that life, who she knew, what she did, how her life evolved. What is missing from the book is thoughtful analysis of how the events of her life have shaped her as a person. We learn a great deal about what happened to Karola Siegel as she became Dr. Ruth, but we never learn much about the human being behind the events. It is an interesting story, but a story without a soul.

Perhaps all those years of being like that German doll that bounces back when it is down makes real introspection impossible. or maybe confronting her soul is just too painful.

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