I Thought I Was the Only One
An Interview with Sarah Yoheved Riegler
Holy Woman, Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup, and Holy Woman are among my favorite books, and they all have one thing in common: they were written by Sarah Yoheved Riegler. I find her life story fascinating, and when it comes to writing other people’s biographies, she transmits their stories in a way that allows you to hear their voices. Her latest book, I’ve Been Here Before, treads on new ground: gilgul neshamos, the transmission of “soul sparks” from one life to another. Like all her books, it is riveting, but what makes this one stand out is its uniquely compelling subject matter combined with teachings and inspiration that frame the Holocaust in a way I haven’t yet seen.
I’ve wanted to interview Sarah Yoheved for a long while, and I’m excited to share our conversation within these pages. I hope you’ll find it as intriguing and inspiring as I did.
RR: The subject of gilgul neshamos of Holocasut victims is fascinating. I first read about it in an article you wrote for Ami magazine.
SYR: It was through that article and an article I wrote for Aish.com that people started to write to me. I made an online survey asking people about their dreams, phobias, flashbacks, panic attacks, and other evidence about having perished in the Holocaust. I put it online, and 450 people responded. Based on that research sample and the approximately 100 people who emailed me about the subject, I began to write the book.
RR: How long did it take you to write it?
SYR: About eight years, on and off. I took time to off to write Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup, about Henny Machlis, z”l. I’m also a wife and mother, so it wasn’t full time writing. This book was always in my head, yearning to come out.
RR: You open the book with a story about a stopover you made in Vienna, a city you had never visited previously but where you experienced a sort of sinister déjà vu.
SYR: Yes. I refused to stop in Frankfurt during my travels, and instead accepted a stopover in Vienna. That was pretty stupid, because Hitler, yemach shemo, was born in Austria.
RR: You write that you refused to stop in Frankfurt because “as a Holocaust-obsessed child I had vowed never to set foot in Germany.” Take me back to when you were a child, to when you first began to feel that way.
SYR: I was born in Philadelphia to second-generation American parents with no connection to the Holocaust, but as far back as I can remember, I had a seething hatred of Germans. I thought all Jewish kids felt that way. But when I was in third grade of Hebrew school, after a conversation I had with my teacher about my refusal to buy German products, he asked our class, ‘How many of you hate Germans?” I expected everyone in the class to raise their hands, but when I looked around, it was just me and one other child with our hands in the air. In ninth grade, when we got to choose a second language to study, my friends all chose French or Spanish. I chose German. After the first week of class, I had a vivid dream in which everyone, including me, was speaking fluent German.
RR: Did you understand what was being said?
SYR: Not a word. I had no idea what was going on.
RR: When did you start to believe that you may be a gilgul of a Holocaust neshamah?
SYR: Everything – my obsession with the Holocaust, my dream, my aversion to anything German – remained a puzzle in my life until I learned about the concept of reincarnation. When I learned about it, it opened my eyes and finally explained something I hadn’t been able to understand for all those years. The AriZal, who lived in the sixteenth century, said that there are no more new souls being born into this world. We’re all old souls and we carry vestiges of a previous life within us.
RR: You describe your fear of falling that you attribute to being shot into a pit in your previous life.
SYR: We enter this world with the fears, desires, and attractions of a previous life. You may perceive a fear you harbor as irrational because it has no basis in your current life, but it is rational based on the context that it may be rooted in your previous life.
There is one story in the book about a rosh yeshiva who had an unexplained fear of showers. He liked to swim and he was able to take baths, but he could not step into a shower. He visited Efim Svirsky, a religious therapist, who put him into a state of deep relaxation, a technique that allowed him to access unconscious thought, assuming that the shower phobia stemmed from some sort of childhood trauma. Instead, when Svirsky told him to go back in time, the rosh yeshiva found himself in the gas chamber.
RR: Why haven’t we heard these kinds of stories before?
SYR: The people who have these experiences don’t talk about it. No one talks about it. I got a letter from a doctor who read the book. There is a story in there about a scientist who had a dream about the Holocaust, and the doctor was amazed because she had the same dream, and the scientist is her oldest and best friend! They had the exact same dream, but they didn’t know about it for years, because neither of them spoke about it.
RR: Why do you think they had the same dream?
SYR: They must have once been sisters. That’s the kind of irrational attraction I’m talking about when I say that it’s carried over from one life to the next. Interestingly, of all her daughter’s friends the doctor’s mother liked the scientist best. She was very interested in her.
RR: Did learning about reincarnation play a role in your becoming frum?
SYR: Not really. What got me frum was learning about the idea of love of G-d from the Rambam. Rabbi Joseph Polak from the Boston University Hillel came to our ashram and he spoke to us about that subject. I had attended Conservative Hebrew school all my years growing up, until I went to college, and I never heard about love of G-d. The Rambam was a rationalist, and he wrote about it. That’s what got me.
RR: How did you go from that to becoming observant?
SYR: Well, it was a journey. Rabbi Polak invited me for Shabbos. Through him I came to know about a spiritual series about Judaism and yoga given by Rabbi Dovid Din, which intrigued me. Rabbi Din said that the word halacha comes from the word lalechet, to walk. He said that Judaism is a spiritual path that takes you somewhere. I liked that.
RR: Because you were searching.
SYR: Yes. I went to Brandeis when it was 80-percent Jewish, and I didn’t know a single Jew who regarded Judaism as a spiritual path that takes you somewhere. Anyway, what happened was that I had written a biography of my guru’s guru. In return, she gave me two thousand dollars and two months to go anywhere I wanted. I had been in an ashram for 15 years, but I decided to go to New York to follow Rabbi Din. There I met Rabbi Meir Fund. He said that if I wanted to learn about Judaism, I had to go to Jerusalem.
RR: So you did.
SYR: Oh, yes. Rabbi Fund enrolled me in Neve Yerushalayim. On my first night in Jerusalem, I met the Rebbe of Amshinov and Rebbetzin Heller, who both influenced my life tremendously. And I stayed in Jerusalem. I’m still here. I’m going on 37 years in the Old City.
RR: I find it interesting that your discovery of reincarnation had no impact on your spiritual reality. It solved the puzzles of your German dream, your aversion to Germany, and your experience in Vienna. Didn’t it prove to you in some way that there is a G-d?
SYR: I knew that Hashem existed. I didn’t need proof. You know, the Netiv Shalom says that all the baalei teshuvah of this generation are gilgulim of the Holocaust.
RR: I’ve had dreams about the Holocaust, but you wrote that you don’t accept experiences of grandchildren of survivors like me as proof that they are gilgulim from that period.
SYR: That’s true. The reason is that in the case of children and grandchildren, these can be inherited memories.
RR: Did you get any backlash from readers?
SYR: Yes, from frum-from-birth men. There are a lot of frum men who do not believe in the concept of gilgul neshamot. People who don’t ever quote Rav Saadia Gaon in any other situation, suddenly start quoting him as saying that there are no gilgulim.
RR: How do you respond to that?
SYR: I respond to that in Chapter Two, where I explain that Rav Saadia Gaon never used the term “gilgul neshamot” but rather “ha’atakah,” which refers to the soul returning whole into a new body. Gilgul neshamot is a different concept, wherein soul sparks return to this world for tikkun.
RR: What’s the most common feedback that you get from the book?
SYR: “I thought I was the only one.” Everyone says that. A 24-year-old woman from Mexico wrote to me that she always had nightmares of the Holocaust until today. The first time she was in Yad Vashem, she fainted. Reading my book healed her.
RR: Is this the most important book you’ve written?
SYR: Holy Woman was the most important. Or Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup.
RR: Did Rebbetzin Kramer (ed note: the subject of Holy Woman) know about your Holocaust-related experiences?
SYR: No. I would never talk about them with a Holocaust survivor. I think one of the reasons this book wasn’t published for a long time is that Hashem was waiting for there to be fewer survivors who would be pained by it.
RR: Is it offensive to survivors?
SYR: I’ve encountered children of Holocaust survivors and survivors themselves who feel like who are these people who claim to have trauma from something we endured?
RR: Was writing this book therapeutic for you?
RR: Was it disturbing?
SYR: No. I wrote this book for three reasons. One, there are thousands of people out there who are afraid to talk about their experiences and I wanted them to know they’re not alone and they shouldn’t be afraid. Two, the second part of the book is about tikkun, and I wanted to teach people that life has a purpose. And three, Rav Noach Weinberg, of blessed memory, always said that when you teach people you have to say Hashem loves them. Whenever I wrote articles, I would write that and people would respond, “Well, what about the Holocaust?” Gilgul neshamos answers that question.
RR: Which story impacted you the most?
SYR: The story of Yael Shahar. She had nightmares and flashbacks of being a teenage Sonderkommando in Birkenau and was plagued by the question about whether it was possible to do teshuvah. The conceot that one can be metaken past gilgulim fascinated me.
The story of Brian Arthur Rish also intrigued me. He was not Jewish and didn’t know any Jews but dreamed that he was a scribe putting crowns on letters. Today, he is a frum Jew and he works as a sofer, putting crowns on letter.
RR: What about other periods of history? Have you ever met someone who had flashbacks to, say, the Inquisition?
SYR: Lots of people are gilgulim from that time period. I just met someone now on my travels who has Jewish descent on her father’s side and believes she’s an Inquisition soul. She’s always felt an inner compulsion towards Judaism. Half the Jews of Spain converted to Christianity because they didn’t want to leave. Now they are making the journey back to Judaism as a tikkun.
RR: Now that you’ve finished the book, what are you working on?
SYR: I give a weekly marriage webinar called The Kesher Wife. It’s for married women who choose to work on themselves through their marriage. It’s like a support group. We don’t use names, and everyone discusses their struggles and successes. My approach is tool-based, and because the sessions are weekly, it allows for ongoing work instead of temporary inspiration.
RR: Will you use the workshop material to write a book about marriage?
SYR: No, but it started because of the idea for a book. A lot of frum women were enamored with Laura Doyle’s The Surrendered Wife, so Rebbetzin Raizy Auerbach told me to write a Jewish version of the book. When I approached ArtScroll with the idea, they said that I wasn’t yet qualified enough to write it and I should start by doing a workshop. That’s what I did – on five continents. I didn’t come up with a Jewish version of The Surrendered Wife; I came up with Torah-based tools and concepts that led to the webinar. And I don’t want to make it into a book.
RR: If you had to find a common thread that ties all your books and your webinar, what would it be?
SYR: The most important thing in life is to have a loving relationship with Hashem. Know that Hashem loves you, no matter what is happening in your life.
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