How does an evangelical Christian woman from Indiana end up an Orthodox Jew in Manhattan?
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How does an evangelical Christian woman from Indiana end up an Orthodox Jew in Manhattan?

“In A River Could Be a Tree, Angela Himsel falls in love with Judaism, and we fall in love with her.” —Charlotte Rogan, author of The Lifeboat

“Himsel admirably narrates her life story in page-turning prose that is both entertaining and moving. … An intriguing tale of one woman’s search for identity and community.”
—Kirkus Reviews

Angela Himsel was raised in a German-American family, one of eleven children who shared a single bathroom in their rented ramshackle farmhouse in Indiana. The Himsels followed an evangelical branch of Christianity—the Worldwide Church of God—which espoused a doomsday philosophy. Only faith in Jesus, the Bible, significant tithing, and the church’s leader could save them from the evils of American culture—divorce, television, makeup, and even medicine.

From the time she was a young girl, Himsel believed that the Bible was the guidebook to being saved, and only strict adherence to the church’s tenets could allow her to escape a certain, gruesome death, receive the Holy Spirit, and live forever in the Kingdom of God. With self-preservation in mind, she decided, at nineteen, to study at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But instead of strengthening her faith, Himsel was introduced to a whole new world—one with different people and perspectives. Her eyes were slowly opened to the church’s shortcomings, even dangers, and fueled her natural tendency to question everything she had been taught, including the guiding principles of the church and the words of the Bible itself.

Ultimately, the connection to God she so relentlessly pursued was found in the most unexpected place: a mikvah on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. This devout Christian Midwesterner found her own form of salvation—as a practicing Jewish woman.

Himsel’s seemingly impossible road from childhood cult to a committed Jewish life is traced in and around the major events of the 1970s and 80s with warmth, humor, and a multitude of religious and philosophical insights. A River Could Be a Tree: A Memoir is a fascinating story of struggle, doubt, and finally, personal fulfillment.

To purchase A River Could Be a Tree: A Memoir, please click here.

Chapter 1

My mostly German ancestral blood determined my physical characteristics: tall, very light-skinned, blue eyes, and blonde hair. And while blood doesn’t determine one’s spiritual beliefs, it certainly has an influence.

Until the year 1500, both my mother’s and my father’s German ancestors in Pettendorf and Hummeltal, Hamburg, Berge, Prignitz, and Mistelgau were Roman Catholic. Maybe they were devout. Maybe not. Maybe they resented that the Catholic Church demanded taxes and church fees. Common practice in Catholicism at the time was that if they couldn’t pay, they were threatened with excommunication or denied the sacraments they needed to save their souls. Whatever they may have privately felt about the Roman Catholic Church, they wouldn’t dare speak out. But then, a German monk named Martin Luther challenged the papal practice of selling indulgences. Luther believed that forgiveness was for God to decide, and buying an indulgence would not absolve people from punishment or ensure their salvation.

Martin Luther became synonymous with the Protestant Reformation—the protesters against Catholicism. Protestants stripped Christianity down to its essentials. The Bible, not the pope, reigned supreme. All who believed in Christ were “priests.” Clergy could even marry. At age forty-one, Martin Luther himself married a nun, a woman he had helped smuggle out of a convent in a herring barrel. While irrelevant to Luther’s religious beliefs, a nun in a herring barrel is always worth mentioning.

The religious schism in the seventeenth century between Catholics and Lutherans culminated in the Thirty Years’ War, a war that splattered the blood of one-fifth of all Germans – millions of souls – into the soil. Until World War II, it was one of the longest and worst catastrophes in European history.

My mother’s German ancestors remained Catholic, while my father’s sided with Evangelical Lutheranism. It wasn’t either family’s decision. Each village was obliged to accept whatever religion the local lord chose. Some villages went back and forth between Catholicism and Lutheranism for centuries.

In the 1840s, both my mother’s Catholic family and my father’s Lutheran one uprooted themselves and pressed westward across the ocean to America, escaping internal revolts, high taxes, and crop failures in their farming villages.

They replanted themselves in the wooded, rolling hills of southern Indiana, where their seeds of every kind took root. Though transplants, they never forgot their homeland, nor did they leave behind their traditions, their mother tongue, or their prejudices. In the Midwest of the 1950s, when my mother, a Catholic, fell in love with my father, a Lutheran, it was practically considered a mixed marriage.

My mother, Viola, was born into a staunchly Catholic family, the eldest of seven children. She grew up on the family farm on Schnellville Road in Jasper, Indiana. She was raised on chicken dumplings, lard sandwiches, sauerkraut, turnip kraut and sausages, frog legs and turtle soup. My mother hunted squirrels, set rabbit traps, and caught frogs that she skinned and butchered and then fried in flour, salt, and pepper for supper. She wore dresses that her mother sewed out of feed sacks. When manufacturers realized their sacks were being used for clothing, they deliberately designed them with flowers and pretty colors. Like everyone else in the county, my mother went to first grade in 1939 speaking German and very little English. She finished eighth grade, but after that, there was no school bus to pick her up on her country road. For high school, she rode into town with her dad at six in the morning when he went to work and stayed with her aunt Victoria for an hour and a half until it was time to walk another half hour to school. My grandfather picked her up after school, but more often than not he stopped at the Sunset Tavern to drink. She’d either have to wait in the car until he was finished or go into the bar to get him.

After a few months of this schedule, she quit school and cleaned houses for five dollars a day. She also worked in a cannery peeling tomatoes for a nickel a bucket. The highlight of those days was piling into a car with one of the boys from the cannery and going out for a Coke, equal in cost to one bucket of tomatoes. In the summer, she picked strawberries for five cents a quart.

At one point, she considered becoming a nun: for a girl with no possibility of getting a higher education, the nunnery represented security. “It would have been an easier life,” she said. “No babysitting or housekeeping or working in the field.”

Despite the threatening letters that many of their neighbors received during World War I, and the understandably negative public opinion about Germany after both world wars, my family and the entire county was German and proud of it. Whether it was sentimentality or nostalgia for a lost world that they’d idealized, or pure, sheer stubbornness, the people of Dubois County held on to their German language, not to mention their German work ethic, thriftiness, stoicism, and tendency to sweep everything under the carpet. For over fifty years they ignored the sexual abuse of young boys by a revered priest, Monsignor Othmar Schroeder, the founding pastor of the Holy Family parish in Jasper, who served from 1947 until 1975. The scandal was exposed nationally in the New York Times in 2007. My mother said that had any of the boys told their parents, they would have been beaten for saying such a thing about a priest. At the same time, these German-Americans cherished their deeply rooted suspicion-bordering-on-hatred of anyone not white, Christian, and heterosexual.

Years later, my mother recalled her uncle Lawrence getting very drunk and going outside at night and shouting up at the sky, “Hi-ho, Hitler!”

“You mean ‘Heil Hitler’?” I suggested.

“Maybe it was.” She suddenly realized what she hadn’t understood as a child. Her fun-loving uncle was a Nazi sympathizer.

On my father’s side, after World War I ended and my paternal grandfather Ed had finished his army service, he met my grandmother Helene in Hamburg. They could not have been more different. My grandfather had only been able to attend school through sixth grade before leaving to work on the farm, while my grandmother finished high school in Hamburg, regularly attended the opera, and her sister Margaret was a ballerina touring Europe. Ultimately, my grandmother decided that whatever life in the United States offered, it had to be better than remaining in postwar Germany, where hyperinflation rendered millions of marks worthless. By the end of 1923, a loaf of bread in the Weimar Republic cost, literally, a billion marks.

In March 1924, after getting married in Germany, these grandparents arrived in Haysville, Indiana, to dirt roads without streetlamps and men who spat chewing tobacco toward a bucket in the kitchen but often missed. There, just a few miles north of my hometown of Jasper, my father was born in a three-room log cabin that had belonged to his great-grandfather, Johann Conrad Himsel.

When World War II broke out, my great-aunt Margaret fled Germany with her Jewish husband, Walter. The Nazis had come to their apartment building to take Walter, and they escaped to the roof. My grandparents put up the farm as collateral and sponsored them to come to the United States. They lived on the farm for almost a year before relocating to Boston. Walter died before I was born, and my father recalled him fondly as a good man. Because I never knew him, I didn’t give him much thought until years later when I began to understand what the Holocaust had been, and how people like Walter were considered “other.”

At eighteen, my father was drafted to serve in World War II. He was in an engineering unit, building bridges for the Allies and blowing up enemy bridges from Belgium to Luxembourg to France to Germany. In a small box, my grandmother kept the letters he wrote home. Throughout the summer and fall of 1944, while he was in basic training in Texas, he followed the hunting and planting season from a distance.

He wrote:

How does the corn look by now?…So Robert and dad went fishing and didn’t even get a bite. I think they started fishing too late. They should have fished in June already…Have you got a good clover stand in the wheat field?…I guess squirrel season closes today. It won’t be long and the rabbit season will open again…I suppose by now it should be pretty cold up in Indiana and I guess old cottontail rabbit is getting hell about now.

On November 6, 1944, he wrote:

Here in England as you know everything is black out and you have to feel your way around. If censorship would not prevent us from writing certain things, then I could write you a plenty, but as it is now we cannot write it so we might as well forget it. I guess by now you’re done husking the corn and busy rabbit hunting and cutting firewood. Well, I certainly hope that there are lots of rabbits around.

And in 1945:

Well today I’m starting my second year of army life…By the time this letter reaches you I know that you’ll probably be planting corn, picking cherries, etc. I hope that you had plenty of mushrooms this year, and I hope that I’ll soon be able to help you hunt them again soon. I suppose by now the woods are so green that you can’t see through them anymore. Well here spring is a little later than at home, and you remember those flowers I always liked at the old house well they are just beginning to come out here. I can still remember what a nice day it was last year at this time when I was inducted but it doesn’t do me any good to look back.

Then, on VE-Day:

We just got back from the brewery about an hour ago where we got six cases of beer, and that’s the way we’re celebrating the end of the war…I imagine by now there are very few men left at home, and it may very well be a hard year at home for the threshing season. Well, now we are allowed to tell of our past experiences in the E.T.O. but at the present time we cannot talk much about Germany…All of us think we’re going to the Pacific, of course no one knows for sure.

President Truman dropped the bomb, and instead of boarding the boat in the harbor in Marseille that would take them to the Pacific, my father returned to the United States. Like many veterans, he spoke little of his specific experiences during the war. In later years, he recalled the Battle of St. Vith in Belgium, and how after, “People crawled out of their basements like rats. Everything was gone.”

Now and then he referenced the concentration camps that all of the American troops in Europe were required to see, to bear witness. He said that when he told the local people in the county what he’d seen in the concentration camps, they hadn’t believed him. “They didn’t believe Germans could do that, so they didn’t believe me. But I seen it with my own eyes, we were forced to go in there for that very reason, so nobody could say that it didn’t happen, but you can’t tell these hardheaded people around here nothing!”

When he returned, he found a job in Peoria, Illinois, and moved there. In 1946, he came home for Christmas, having just turned twenty-one.

Walking to church on Christmas Eve, my grandfather was struck and killed by a young drunk driver who, like many others, had spent the evening at the bar. My father and his younger brother Robert found my grandfather in a ditch, his bloodstained cap still on his head.

In the trial after my grandfather was killed, a priest who’d been seen helping wash the blood from the accused’s vehicle took the stand and swore that the man, a Catholic, had been in church. The Catholic judge and jury acquitted the man who’d killed my grandfather. The word of a priest was sacred, undisputed. Never mind other eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence that proved his guilt.

Those centuries of barely slumbering hatred for Catholics and their presumed willingness to do anything, forgive anything, just for a contribution to the church, were roused, and my father vowed to kill the man. My grandmother talked him out of it. In a second trial, the family was granted a small sum of money in recompense for my grandfather’s life and blood. “He could have at least said he was sorry,” my grandmother said.

The young man died not long after, in a car accident. My grandmother said to his mother, “You see, God is getting even.”

His teenage sister, who had been in the car with him and had asked, “Did we hit that man?” became a nun.

Throughout his lifetime, my father was fairly certain that the Catholic Church was the Antichrist, a sentiment that had been passed down through the ages starting 500 years before with Martin Luther, the priest-turned-founder of Lutheranism, but was validated for him when a Catholic priest protected a murderer.

He’d hoped to travel and to continue doing engineering or mechanical work. But then he became responsible for the family’s 140-acre farm and nursery business, and so he remained and made certain his thirteen-year-old sister, also named Viola, went to high school.

Several years later, at a local dance, this dutiful Lutheran man met my mother, a Catholic woman who once considered becoming a nun. We were all aware of the irony of her going on to give birth to eleven children.

My parents were caught between my shotgun-toting, get-the-goddamned-hell-off-my-property, devoutly Catholic maternal grandfather, and the foot-stamping fury of my paternal grandmother, who often repeated the story of Martin Luther crawling on his knees to the Vatican. To hear Grandma tell it, you would think she’d been there.

At first, my parents devised their own Catholic/Lutheran compromise. Wanda, the oldest of my ten siblings, was baptized in the Catholic Church and had Catholic godparents. But my mother became more and more disenchanted with Catholicism, and the next three children—Jim, Ed, and Mary—were baptized Lutheran.

My mother grew up in an age when mass was still said in Latin, and Catholic doctrine taught that after death, the dead person remained in purgatory until thirty masses were said on his or her behalf. Those masses needed to be paid for by the family, and if a family was too poor, purgatory lasted longer, no matter the deceased’s spiritual merit. This offended my mother.

Seeking answers to age-old questions such as “Who was God?” and “What did God want from us?” my mother set out on a quest to find the one, true path to God. Since both my mother and my father felt like outsiders in many respects they were drawn to non-mainstream Christianity: preachers who simultaneously told them that they were special and had been chosen but reminded them that they were sinners and worms. No religious movement was too fringe for them to consider. My older siblings recalled attending a Baptist church for a while, going to tent revivals farther afield, and studying with a small group of local Jehovah’s Witnesses.

My mother gave birth to ten children within eleven years. As she was stuck at home, she listened to the radio while she warmed baby bottles on the stove, rolled out homemade dumplings on the kitchen table, canned tomatoes and beets, and pushed clothes through the wringer washer then hung them on the wash line. The radio evangelists provided her with adult company during the day and reassured her that God was out there, and He had a plan for her.

Radio evangelists were charismatic preachers who encouraged people to leave their ancestral denominations and follow them to salvation. In the late 1950s, both of my parents felt an affinity for the radio evangelist Herbert Armstrong, the founder of the Worldwide Church of God. Armstrong offered explanations for why bad things happened, why mankind existed, as well as provided an overall master plan and purpose of life that entailed God’s chosen people—the church members.

As a young man, Herbert Armstrong had belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. He’d studied Mein Kampf as well as L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, the basis of Scientology. When Armstrong’s wife became involved with the Seventh-Day Adventists, he began reexamining the Bible and was later ordained as a minister in that church. He was eventually kicked out, though he maintained he left of his own volition, and created the Radio Church of God, which later became the Worldwide Church of God.

Armstrong claimed that he could trace his own genealogy back to Edward I of England, and through the British royal genealogy, back to King Heremon of Ireland, who had married Queen Teia Tephi, daughter of Zedekiah. Though Armstrong’s bloodline to Zedekiah was never substantiated, we unquestioningly accepted the church’s version of history. British Israelism was a cornerstone of the church and cemented our sense of being God’s chosen. I strongly identified with those lost tribes, in exile, at least spiritually, in Indiana. I didn’t realize at the time, nor for a long time, that the ancient Israelites were alive and well and spread throughout the world. They were called Jews.

Armstrong’s radio program, The World Tomorrow, named after the theme of the 1939 World’s Fair held in New York, was devoted to analyzing “today’s news with the prophecies of the WORLD TOMORROW!” In other words, End Times prophesies. My parents tuned in and listened to Armstrong’s bombastic broadcasts like this one from the 1950s:

“You and your family are seated around the dining table. Your RADIO is tuned in to your regular entertainment program. Suddenly a great Voice thunders forth from your radio, ‘This is GOD SPEAKING! I interrupt your program to bring you a STARTLING DECLARATION OF WORLD-SHAKING MAGNITUDE! I come to announce the imminent arrival of a TERRIBLY DESTRUCTIVE WORLDWIDE UPHEAVAL of nature! OF EARTH! OF SKY! Yes, even of the WATERS! It is TIME YOU WAKE UP to the fact that you and your nation, the nations of the world and their leaders have sinned!’”

Having lived through the Depression and witnessed World War II and the first atomic bomb, the end of the world seemed entirely plausible, even imminent, to many Americans, including my parents.

Herbert Armstrong culled doctrine from his former church, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the British Israelism Movement, as well as the Mormons. These were all religious groups that stemmed from nineteenth-century America and were led by charismatic men with a vision of a more “authentic” Christianity. Free magazines and pamphlets were given out explaining the Worldwide Church of God’s doctrine. This appealed to my mother, who was wholly incapable of turning down anything she didn’t have to pay for and never left a restaurant without pocketing condiment packets, straws, and a fistful of half-and-half containers.

Should Christians Celebrate BIRTHDAYS?” (No.) “Is it a SIN to Have INSURANCE?” (No insurance can replace faith.) These were just a couple of the topics covered in the freebies, liberally punctuated with exclamation marks and capital letters to convey urgency. Eventually, my parents mailed away for the church’s Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Courses and, when we were all in bed, they sat in the kitchen and studied together.

They created a new bond over the material they were learning, a bond that overcame the gulf that separated them as Catholic and Lutheran. The correspondence course was practically like higher education, which neither had had access to before. It required them to read and think and study. “Why Study the Bible?” was one of the courses, as well as “Here’s the Good News…MESSAGE sent from Heaven.” By the time I was born, my parents were well on their way to being baptized in this new faith.

The church’s booklet Pagan Holidaysor God’s Holy DaysWhich?, and others like The Plain Truth about Christmas and The Plain Truth about Easter, explained that all true Christians should eschew Christmas, Easter, and Valentine’s Day, as they were steeped in paganism. Instead, like Christians had done until the fourth century, we celebrated all of the Holy Days mentioned in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, such as Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread; Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; Rosh Hashanah, the Feast of Trumpets; Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles; and Shavuot, or Pentecost. We also observed the Sabbath on Saturday, not Sunday.

We were the only family in the ocean of Catholics and Lutherans in our county who belonged to the Worldwide Church of God, believing that we had found the authentic, first-century Jesus.

In 1965, when I was four years old, my younger sister Sarah—the tenth of ten at that time—was born with what appeared to be a life-threatening abnormality. Her esophagus led into her lungs instead of her stomach, and from the X-rays the doctors determined that an operation offered her a fifty-fifty chance for survival.

My mother remained in the hospital recovering from a Caesarean section, and my Catholic grandmother came over to our house. “Let’s pray for Mommy and the baby,” she said to us. We knelt by the couch. My grandmother bent her head low. With fingers interlaced, she prayed with her rosary beads hanging from one of her hands. I had no idea exactly what it meant to pray, but I knelt too, and bowed my head, keeping an eye on my grandmother so I knew when we were finished.

While we prayed, my father and my mother’s sister, my aunt Shirley, drove the baby an hour and a half to a bigger hospital in Evansville. The new set of doctors took X-rays and declared that there was nothing wrong and the baby could be taken home. My parents believed that not only had God performed a miracle on our behalf, it was their faith in this new religion that was responsible for it. The prayers of my Lutheran and Catholic relatives were completely discounted.

A few months later, I suffered a near-fatal bout of double pneumonia. It felt like a hot air balloon was pressing against my chest, preventing me from breathing. My mother put cold washrags on my forehead and a mustard compress on my chest. It was winter, and a well-meaning friend of my parents brought us a Christmas tree, unaware that we didn’t celebrate Christmas. Because I was sleeping in my parents’ bed, I overheard my father say to my mother, “We can’t keep this thing, we got a sick girl in the house!” as if the Christmas tree carried the plague and might kill me. In the middle of the night, my father hauled off the Christmas tree.

I awoke to a minister from the Worldwide Church of God placing his hands on my forehead. There was a jumble of “Our Heavenly Father…in Jesus’s name, Amen,” then a dry, white prayer cloth was pressed against my forehead. That night, I fell deeply asleep. The hot air balloon pulled me up into the air and out of bed, and I drifted above the room, looking down at the bundle of blankets on the bed and at my parents huddled nearby. Then, with a thump, the hot air balloon collapsed. I landed hard in my bed. Though it was still a struggle to breathe, I could get air into me. I’d turned a corner.

My father attributed my recovery both to the minister’s prayers and to the fact that he hadn’t allowed the pagan Christmas tree to remain in our home.

God, through the ministers of the church, had performed two miracles in quick succession. Thus, my parents realized they had found the right religion, the Worldwide Church of God. They were baptized shortly thereafter and viewed it as a rebirth, the beginning of a new relationship with God, the beginning of traveling the path to God. Eschewing the spiritual soil in which they were raised, while remaining firmly planted in the physical soil of their youth, they had crossed spiritual boundaries heeding God’s call, similar to the biblical Abraham who had left his idols behind to follow God’s call to the Promised Land.