On the Saturdays of her childhood, Angela Himsel and her 10 siblings, along with their parents, piled into an old Cadillac and would drive an hour and a half across Indiana to a rented hall in an old gray building. As faithful members of the Worldwide Church of God, they’d listen to preachers shout about the End of Days.
Yes, Saturdays. Following church doctrine, they celebrated Jewish holidays, eschewed medicine and doctors, didn’t eat pork or shellfish, tithed much of their minimal income to the church and believed that the world was about to end. And then, Jesus would arrive, and they — if they hadn’t sinned — had been chosen to witness that.
Himsel’s memoir, “A River Could Be a Tree” (Fig Tree Books), tells of her odyssey from rural Indiana to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where she now lives; from a life bound by the tenets of the Worldwide Church to her conversion and embrace of Judaism. She’s a brave guide, full of humanity, honesty, Midwestern humility and humor. As she explains in an interview, she first fictionalized her story into a novel, and then spent a decade creating the non-fiction narrative, doing interviews and research to assure accuracy.
Her ancestors, on both sides, were immigrants from Germany, who replanted their lives in southern Indiana beginning in the 1840s, but never forgot their homeland, traditions, language and also their prejudices; her mother’s side was Catholic and her father’s Lutheran, and theirs was something of a mixed marriage. Together, her parents found their way to the Worldwide Church of God, drawn in by the teachings of its founder, radio evangelist Herbert Armstrong.
On Sundays, they’d pile back into the car to visit both sets of grandparents’ farms, one in Jasper and one in Hayesville, where she and her siblings learned to slop pigs and feed chickens. Then they would gather there for Sunday dinner. Frequently trying to serve them pork roast they wouldn’t eat, her Lutheran Himsel grandmother would yell at her father that they’d joined a cult, enraged that they gave so much of their money away, tithing three times per year.
“I hated to agree with Grandma, but even though I knew that we had to suffer the sacrifice of the material for the spiritual before Jesus returned and saved us, it would have been nice to have new shoes instead of hand-me-downs,” she writes, remembering her younger self.
Himsel grew up with “hardworking, beer-drinking, potbellied, red-faced, old-time, bib-overalled men and gray-haired, Deutschy-talking, coarse-handed, strict and reserved women,” she writes. “If the world didn’t end before I became an adult, I would take my place among them.”
She begins questioning the church for its outlook on women, affording them few rights and lots of blame for the sins of Eve. With its changing rules, like a sudden ban on make-up, involvement with the church felt like “walking on spiritual quicksand.” She says that she wondered, “How could Jesus be so petty as to be concerned with my mascara?” But real fears of sin and Satan still ran deep.
A child of resilience and imagination, she can see a future for herself beyond Indiana. After convincing her family to allow her to attend the University of Indiana, she considers spending a semester in Germany to learn of her family’s roots, and notices a poster about study in Jerusalem. She assures her parents — and she herself believes — that this sojourn will bring her “closer to God, closer to the Holy Spirit, and thus to salvation.”
From the moment she arrives, she’s smitten with modern Israel, very different from the biblical backdrop she’d been expecting. She learns Hebrew, begins studying the Bible from new perspectives, dives into the last 2,000 years of Jewish history she knew nothing about and loves the engaged conversations that flow at Shabbat tables. As an American, she moves freely between Arab and Jewish communities, and finds mentors among her teachers. One year turns into two, with a summer in between traveling to Germany. Through all of this, she remains affiliated with Pastor Armstrong’s church.
While participating in an archaeological dig, Himsel realizes that she’s not just digging to find the biblical past but was “digging around in my soul, trying to excavate the answers buried there. I had a whole new set of questions in addition to the ones I’d set out with a few months before,” she writes.
Returning home to Indiana, she’s interested in getting far away and moves to New York, where she has a series of jobs. Himsel finds a local branch of the Worldwide Church and attends services, where ministers continue to rail about the world coming to an end. She’s more interested in the classes she is taking at Park Avenue Synagogue and the 92nd Street Y, delving into Judaism. In New York in the 1980s, she feels very much at home.
Not long after, but with some twists along the way, Himsel has a Jewish husband, a rabbi and rebbetzin as in-laws and three Jewish children. Her parents and siblings are very accepting of her choices; her father would enjoy asking the rabbi questions about the Bible, and her mother and mother-in-law projected a compatible warmth that drew people to them. All of the Indiana relatives have joined them for family bar mitzvahs and recently the wedding of Himsel’s older son.
Both in the memoir and in conversation, Himsel is at ease talking about God, more than most of her Jewish friends are; her writing, with its blend of reverence and irreverence and deep belief, is reminiscent of the spiritual memoirist Anne Lamott. Himsel, who is the longtime co-president of the Sisterhood of The Jewish Center on the Upper West Side, says, “I do feel God’s presence in the world,” noting that the God she faces now is not angry, like the God of her childhood.
“I still am very interested in theological questions, but I’m not as worried about getting the answers anymore. I like that I can have a smorgasbord of answers,” she says.
These days, her prayer life is still important, but mostly done in private conversations with God. She remembers being so surprised to see Jews standing in private prayer, as her family prayed kneeling down at their home in the evenings.
None of her siblings remain connected to the Worldwide Church of God. About Herbert Armstrong, they came to learn that the money he raised from her parents and other poor families was used to buy his Rolls Royces, private airplane and other expensive indulgences. She says that her family wasn’t aware, and that his accusers were, in fact, thrown out of the church and shunned. Even in the last years of his life, her father didn’t believe the accusations, only that Armstrong might have been flawed, and that God chose to speak to them through flawed individuals.
Shulem Deem, who wrote in “All Who Go Do Not Return” about leaving the chasidic world in which he grew up, contributes a compelling foreword. Himsel comments, “His story is so much more dramatic than mine, and heartbreaking. I identify emotionally with him, for questioning and wanting a different life. I was able to hold onto both — I was able to go forward and hold onto my family.”
The book title is drawn from a maxim repeated by her father, that God made the universe and that things weren’t meant to change, that a river could not be a tree. But she now believes otherwise.
So, when asked about whether the book has a message she’d like readers to take away, she says, “That change is possible. A river could be a tree. You can start your life one way, you can choose another fork, you can reinvent yourself if you want to. You can do that in 21st-century America.”