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Germans, Jews, and Sex

Center for Jewish History (map)
15 W. 16th St.
New York, NY 10011

In the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision of 2014, the US Supreme Court recognized the right of same-sex couples to marry, which was undoubtedly a significant victory for those fighting for equal rights for gays and lesbians. Nevertheless, demands for the full-equality of sexual minorities remain bitterly contested, both in the courts and in society, in the US and across the globe. As this long struggle continues, it is an opportune moment to reconsider the key role that German-Jewish reformers played in advancing an understanding of human sexuality that has informed the gay and transgender rights movements in important ways. Nearly a century ago in Weimar Germany, a group of physicians and psychologists around Magnus Hirschfeld, many of them Jewish, fought to end the criminalization of homosexuality in Germany with arguments based on a study of human sexuality that was empirical and descriptive rather than normative; the inscription above the door of Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin read Per Scientiam ad Justitiam—“Through Science to Justice”. At the same time, Jewish feminists played a major role in movements for birth control, abortion access, and women’s sexual agency. Legendary author, educator, and therapist Ruth Westheimer will join historians Atina Grossmann (Cooper Union), a scholar who has written widely on birth control and abortion reform in Germany, and Robert Beachy (Yonsei Intl. University), author of the new history Gay Berlin (2015) to discuss the legacy of these pioneering figures.

Ruth Westheimer is a psychosexual therapist who pioneered speaking frankly about sexual matters on radio with her program Sexually Speaking in the 1980s. Born in Germany in 1928, Westheimer was sent to a children’s home in Switzerland, where she escaped the Holocaust. After military service in Israel and studies at the Sorbonne in Paris and the New School in New York, she earned a Doctorate of Education from Columbia University Teacher’s College. Her work for Planned Parenthood inspired her to pursue further education in human sexuality under Helen Singer Kaplan at New York Hospital-Cornell University Medical Center. She later participated in the program for five years as an Adjunct Associate Professor and has also taught at Lehman College, Brooklyn College, Adelphi University, Columbia University, NYU, Yale, and West Point. She is the author of dozens of books, including Heavenly Sex: Sexuality in the Jewish Tradition (1996) and, most recently, The Doctor Is In: Dr. Ruth on Love, Life, and Joie de Vivre (2015).

Atina Grossmann is Professor of Modern European and German History, and Women’s and Gender Studies at The Cooper Union in New York. Her 1995 study Reforming Sex: The German Movement for Birth Control and Abortion Reform, 1920-1950 used a broad range of sources—from police reports, films and personal interviews to sex manuals unearthed from library basements and secondhand bookstores—to analyze a remarkable mass mobilization during the turbulent and innovative Weimar years of doctors and laypeople for women’s right to abortion and public access to birth control and sex education. More recently, her scholarship has shed light on Jewish life in Germany in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

Robert Beachy is Associate Professor of History at Yonsei International University. His history Gay Berlin (2014), situates the origins of modern homosexual identity in debates about national unification, politics, and masculinity in Germany from the 1860s through the 1920s. It suggests that it was in Berlin, rather than in other European and American metropolises, that contemporary gay identity first emerged and flourished. His current project, Long Knives, focuses on homosexuality under the Nazi regime and analyzes the complex evolution of Nazi policies toward homosexuality from open toleration to persecution.