How does a woman who grew up in rural Indiana as a fundamentalist Christian end up a practicing Jew in New York? 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.
A River Could Be a Tree
On a warm, slipping-into-autumn, New York City morning in September 1988, just before my twenty-seventh birthday, I realized my period was a day late. Or maybe even two days late. I wasn’t rigorous about keeping track of it. My period was like my bank account—if it was within my mental ballpark, I didn’t worry. But then it was three days late, and five days, and finally my younger sister Sarah said, “You know, you might be pregnant.”
“I don’t think so.”
Denial was one of my trademark characteristics. But in this case, I had reason not to be too concerned. My boyfriend, Selig, was fourteen years older than me and had been married before. A doctor had told him and his then wife that he was infertile.
When I met Selig, I was twenty-two and had just moved to New York City from my hometown in southern Indiana. I was ambivalent about marriage, kids, or commitments of any kind, the residue of growing up the seventh of eleven children in the Worldwide Church of God, a small, apocalyptic, doomsday faith whose ministers shouted, “Brethren, Satan roams society like a lion seeking to devour you! God has raised up this Church to warn the world that the End Times are coming!”
Who would choose to bring kids into a world that was coming to an end very soon?
So once, just once, Selig and I were careless about birth control.
“Take a pregnancy test,” Sarah urged.
The blood never came.
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.
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 Holidays—or God’s Holy Days—Which?, 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.
“In A River Could Be a Tree, Angela Himsel falls in love with Judaism, and we fall in love with her. Her passion, humor, and curiosity shine through as she discovers it isn’t the answers that give life meaning, but the quest for answers and the people met along the way.”—Charlotte Rogan, author of The Lifeboat
“A River Could Be a Tree is an odyssey of love and faith, told in a voice mixed with pathos and humor. Angela Himsel shows us how intricate, layered, and painful are the bounds of family, and finally how it is possible to honor both the ties we are born with and the ones we choose to create on our own.”—Gabrielle Selz, author of Unstill Life
“Honest, yet humane, Himsel masterfully describes her spiritual walk along life’s long-narrow bridge from an impoverished childhood in rural Indiana with parents fiercely devoted to an apocalyptic cult, and ending in the embracing warmth of the Jewish community of the Upper West Side. Her journey is a testament to the importance of having no fear. In this regard, Himsel is not just a force of nature; she’s the Mary Karr of Indiana.”—Mort Zachter, author of Dough: A Memoir, winner of the AWP Award
San Francisco Book Review
In delightfully flowing prose, Angela Himsel recounts her beginnings as one of eleven children lovingly raised within an impoverished family in rural Indiana that was ruled by the fundamentalist Worldwide Church of God. Indoctrinated from infancy in the bible stories and the teachings of Jesus, the author was molded by its instructions.. Not until she entered the university, away from home, did she start to seriously question her upbringing. By chance, the opportunity to study at the Hebrew University in Israel, opened a new world to her. While she hoped to trace the biblical stories and its patriarchs within the mideast, this educational window allowed her to meet strangers and examine divergent views. Still bonded by her past teachings, she painfully tries to dissect out the religious leader’s transgressions from her basic religious indoctrination. This is her story, fluently written and tinged with wit of how she found redemption in the teachings of the Bible within the Jewish community. It is an absorbing account of a young woman discovering a different world from the one implanted in youth, going out and testing her beliefs, and finally finding stability in another religion whose rituals apparently fulfill her needs.
“Inspiring and brave, A River Could Be a Treedefines what we all need in some way—the freedom to discover our own unique path in life and the courage to choose it. Throughout Angela’s journey of self-discovery and spiritual awakening, we recognize beauty in the uncertainty of life. Her ability to illuminate this is a true gift to her readers, and her story serves as a powerful reminder that we don’t have to settle for what is expected of us. We can all find pieces of ourselves reflected in this delightful memoir.”
—Ruth Wariner, author of The New York Times bestseller, The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir
“In A River Could Be a Tree, Angela Himsel falls in love with Judaism, and we fall in love with her. Her passion, humor, and curiosity shine through as she discovers it isn’t the answers that give life meaning, but the quest for answers and the people met along the way.”
—Charlotte Rogan, author of The Lifeboat
“Angela Himsel’s memoir A River Could Be a Treeis one woman’s incredible journey down the proverbial road to Damascus, except that Angela’s conversion was more process than presto. This coming of age memoir takes the reader from the faith of a childhood immersed in the Worldwide Church of God, to Orthodox Jewish New York, by way of Israel and Germany. Angela traces her genealogical and theological roots, in a search for identity and connection, and gives her readers stories of heartbreak, humor, longing, and love.”
—Lucia Greenhouse, author of fathermothergod: My Journey Out of Christian Science
“Adherents to any faith know well that religion can be both constricting and fulfilling at the same time. And at the core of everyone’s spiritual journey is a belief that we are all seekers, searching for something deeper beyond ourselves. Himsel eloquently embodies this notion in her compelling new memoir. In often raw and engaging fashion, she takes her readers along for the ride—through love, loss, and religious rearrangement—to a conclusion that is both satisfying and enlightening.”
—Benyamin Cohen, author of My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith
“A River Could Be A Tree is an odyssey of love and faith, told in a voice mixed with pathos and humor. Angela Himsel shows us how intricate, layered, and painful are the bounds of family, and finally how it is possible to honor both the ties we are born with and the ones we choose to create on our own.”
—Gabrielle Selz, author of Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction
“Honest, yet humane, Himsel masterfully describes her spiritual walk along life’s long-narrow bridge from an impoverished childhood in rural Indiana with parents fiercely devoted to an apocalyptic cult, and ending in the embracing warmth of the Jewish community of the Upper West Side. Her journey is a testament to the importance of having no fear. In this regard, Himsel is not just a force of nature; she’s the Mary Karr (author of The Liar’s Cluband Lit) of Indiana.”
—Mort Zachter, author of Dough: A Memoir, winner of the AWP Award
“A River Could Be a Treeis a riveting, intimate memoir of growing up in rural America in a family of eleven children with a father who is an avid follower of an Evangelical Christian sect. With boundless curiosity and rigorous erudition, Angela Himsel navigates a spiritual life while deftly melding the personal with the compelling realities of life in a cult and cultural norms in other religions. Sprawling several religious worlds, this tragicomic memoir is spellbinding.”
—Eva Fogelman, author of Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust
Lilith — Ilana Kurshan
Slippery Questions about Salvation and Faith
A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel (Fig Tree Books, $23.95) takes its title from her father’s cautionary words to the author when she was a young girl: “God created a role for everything in the universe. Just think what would happen if a tree thought it could be a river!” And yet Himsel’s personal transformation, chronicled in this candid and insightful memoir, is just as dramatic. She grows up as the seventh of 11 children in an evangelical Christian family in rural Indiana, where her parents, both of German descent, fall under the sway of a charismatic evangelist preacher named Herbert Armstrong, leader of the Worldwide Church of God. Armstrong convinces them that faith in Jesus, heavy tithing (which, unbeknownst to them, serves primarily to fund Armstrong’s private jet, crystal chandeliers, and Thai prostitutes), and a rejection of the evils of American culture will save their souls, which will be raptured to the ancient Jordanian city of Petra upon Jesus’s imminent return. When Himsel’s younger sister Abby, then nine, becomes so ill with a heart condition that she can no longer attend school, her parents refuse all medical treatment, in keeping with Church doctrine; Abby dies a few years later. “So focused on watching for Jesus’ return, I’d had no idea that someone in my own family was soon to depart from the earth,” Himsel painfully reflects.
Himsel is a diligent student, but her parents struggle to make ends meet, and no woman in her family has ever attended college. “What I would be when I grew up and where I would live was, however, probably a moot point,” she recalls. “The world was going to end in just a few years, in 1975, and I would not have time to get married, have children, travel, or become an adult.” But at the prompting of a guidance counselor who recognizes her talent, she applies to Indiana University—“the devil’s playground,” by the church’s standards, but her parents for the most part allow their children the freedom to make their own choices. She considers spending her junior year abroad in Germany and visits the School for Overseas Studies, where a brochure with a photo of the Old City of Jerusalem catches her eye, and she instead spends one year—and then a second year—in Jerusalem in the early 1980s. She falls in love with the city and all it has to offer her: “It felt as if I was in the beating heart of the world, the place where every conflict large and small, political and personal, jostled for attention and demanded to be acknowledged and discussed. I felt alive in a way I never had before.”
A considerable portion of this memoir is devoted to the two years Himsel spends in Jerusalem, where she is exposed to academic Bible study and begins to think of Jesus less as Savior and more as a First-Century Jewish man. She becomes close friends with an American woman living in the West Bank with her Palestinian Muslim husband, and with a religious Jewish woman who moved to Israel from Brooklyn, both of whom expand her perspective. She learns from the local news about Sadat’s assassination and the death of Moshe Dayan, and she finds herself increasingly engaged with her surroundings while questioning many of her most deeply-held assumptions. When she returns to visit her family in the silos and barns and rolling hills of southern Indiana, she cannot wait to run away.
Himsel’s memoir is primarily a young woman’s spiritual autobiography in the vein of Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God or Danya Ruttenberg’s Surprised by God, and the book is most engaging when we are privy to the author’s religious journey. And so we tag along loyally as she visits relatives in Germany, moves to New York City after graduation, and tries her hand at several entrylevel jobs, but her story becomes interesting again when she becomes pregnant while dating Selig, an older man from an Orthodox Jewish family, and wrestles with whether to convert to Judaism. At this point she has stopped attending church and is already studying Kabbalah at a local synagogue, but conversion classes do not appeal to her: “I wanted answers. And answers to the big questions, like ‘What Kind of FAITH is Required for Salvation?’ not to questions like why the Bible begins with the letter bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, instead of aleph, the first letter.”
Still, she proceeds with conversion and struggles to figure out what sort of Jew she is going to become. The end of the book races forwards in time—the birth of three children, the death of her parents years later—and we arrive at the final pages somewhat breathless and struggling to keep up.
And then in one of the book’s final chapters, Himsel offers us a moment of comic relief when her young son, on a visit to Indiana, looks at her family’s pigpen and mistakes it for a sukkah. It seems Himsel’s father was wrong, and not just about Herbert Armstrong. If a pigpen can become a Sukkah, then perhaps a river can become a tree after all.
As a child, little held my imagination as did the mystery of the Sambatyon River.
Like every Hasidic child in our insular enclave in Brooklyn, I was raised on the stories of the Bible and Talmud. From an early age, I learned of the Israelites who’d been driven away by Sennacherib the king of Assyria, who conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and scattered our brethren tribes to places unknown. That left only us, the Judeans—the tribes of Judah and Benjamin—as the known remnants of the ancient people of Israel. The others became known as the ten lost tribes.
Lost—except we knew one thing: they lived beyond the Sambatyon River, which we could not cross. For one thing, according to Talmudic tradition, the Sambatyon prevents passage by tossing boulders in the air six days a week, resting only on the Sabbath when crossing a river is forbidden. More importantly, the Sambatyon’s very location remains a mystery. And so the ten lost tribes remain apart from us until the Messiah will come and lead us to them, at which time the Sambatyon will rest forever.
I remember, at around age ten, studying a world atlas and wondering how it was that we could not find the Sambatyon. The remotest islands in the Pacific, the forbidding peaks of the Himalayas, the enormous Amazon River snaking its way through thousands of miles of dense jungle, all were fully charted. Only the Sambatyon they could not find?
How could the lost tribes have gotten so lost?
Turns out, they were just living in Indiana.
Or so believed Angela Himsel, who, in her memoir A River Could Be a Tree, tells us about her upbringing in Jasper, Indiana, within the Worldwide Church of God, an apocalyptic, doomsday Christian sect led by Herbert Armstrong, a former Ku Klux Klan member who preached a version of British-Israelism, a doctrine that claims the ten lost tribes ended up in Ireland and Great Britain. Armstrong himself claimed to be descended from those lost tribes, and so his followers, too, at least spiritually, were identified with them.
Angela Himsel was similarly raised on stories. To a young Angela, seventh of eleven children, the biblical figures of Adam, Noah, and Joseph were as real as her shotgun-toting Catholic grandfather and her Lutheran German-speaking grandmother. “I was a literal-minded child,” she writes. “I imagined God hanging out in the neighborhood, popping up on the street unexpectedly. I wished God would do that still, show up at the courthouse square in Jasper or maybe just appear in the backyard while we were playing Red Rover.”
It is not only the literal-mindedness of the stories that would come to guide Himsel’s life, but also a yearning for that divine encounter, that of bumping into God in the backyard. Specifically, what she yearned for was an encounter with Jesus and the Holy Spirit, who would be her path to salvation, to the afterlife, to the rapturing of the faithful to the city of Petra, Jordan—Armstrong’s very specific apocalyptic fantasy—where Jesus was to greet them in a great fatherly embrace.
Which brings us indeed to Jesus—embodying Christian charity and goodness and love and eternal salvation to some, apostasy and persecution and pogroms to others. To Angela though, Jesus was no abstract notion, no theological symbol cloaked in a metaphor of God made flesh, but the central figure in a cosmic drama so real that every smallest deed affected her role within it.
“Life . . . . requires life-supporting illusions,” wrote Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of mythology. “Where these have been dispelled, there is nothing secure to hold on to.” As the myth of the Sambatyon and the lost tribes was to me, so the myth of Petra, the place of safety to which the faithful would be raptured, where Jesus himself awaited, was to Himsel. The “life-supporting illusions” of our respective faiths were the stories that gave our everyday life meaning.
What happens, however, when the myths are dispelled?
When the myths are dispelled, the stories lose their power, and as often as not, the edifices built upon them first shake then crumble. Not without a showdown, though, body wrestling with soul, our infant selves yearning for stories with literal meaning and our evolved minds forced to a painful reckoning with truth. “Truth”—life’s certainties previously handed to us in tales of literal, material reality—we now learn, is barely within human grasp, and where does that leave us and our wondrous illusions?
For Himsel, that reckoning arrived slowly, as it did for me, as it does to all of us with imaginations so fierce, so protective of our need for story, that our souls scream in protest for our illusions to remain intact. Illusions, though, have ways of dissolving, and when they do, they leave us fallen, stricken, to contend with a sterile reality.
A chance encounter with a photo-covered brochure of the land of Israel was the gateway to Himsel’s own forced reckoning. A student at the University of Indiana, she discovered an opportunity to study abroad—specifically, at the Hebrew University in Israel. This was not, to her, Israel the modern state, but Israel, ancient homeland of the Israelites and all the other biblical figures. “I imagined John the Baptist fasting in the desert and David fighting Goliath . . . . Israel was the place that God had chosen for Abraham’s descendants, the place where Jesus had walked and preached.” The tantalizing fantasy of myth actualized. “Modern Israel was just a conduit to the distant past, which was where I hoped I would find the Holy Spirit.”
It was in Israel that Himsel discovered that her mythology required a serious reorientation. These were “not Jews who rode on camels, but people like me who complained it was too hot or too rainy, who told jokes and swore and had their own opinions.” First in her biblical studies classes at The Hebrew University, and then on an archaeological dig, Himsel found the historical basis of her cherished Bible stories in doubt, and so, too, their truth.
“God created Man in His Image,” one of her professors joked, “and man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.”
Therein lies a truth not only about God but all our beliefs and values, as well as our stories. All of it made by man in his own image. Civilizations are built on stories, written in different times in different places repurposed by different populations for different reasons, until they come to tell us something far beyond their literal meanings. We still do that today, as we visit movie theaters or get lost in novels, seeking symbols in stories. They speak to our desires, fears, joys, and so they guide us toward meaning. Our stories, Joseph Campbell wrote, speak “not of outside events but of themes of the imagination.”
This more evolved understanding of the function of stories, however, is new to us. It is a relative blip in time from when we considered the historic and the mythic to be one and the same. Christopher Columbus, a sophisticate for his time, who believed in a spherical rather than a flat earth, was also convinced that the Orinoco River, the mouth of which he encountered as he passed between the island of Trinidad and the northern coast of South America, was in fact, the biblical Gihon River, flowing directly from the Garden of Eden through the Mountain of Purgatory of Dante Allighieri fame.
To Columbus, Eden was no mere symbolic truth, but material reality. In “History, Prophecy, and the Stars,” Laura Ackerman Smoller writes that Columbus, in addition to an enlightened adventurer (as well as an opportunistic plunderer), was “also stirred by a curious blend of astrological prognostications and apocalyptic fervor.” From his journals and letters, we learn that Columbus believed the world had less than 200 years to go before the end times, thus seeing it his mission to convert the natives of the New World to Christianity before Jesus’s return.
A century or so later, in the city of Prague, Johannes Kepler worked out the laws of planetary motion, grounded in mathematics and the empirical evidence of his day, even as he maintained a side gig as an astrologer. As James A. Connor writes in a biography of Kepler: in medieval times, astrology, even to men of science, contained “the story of God’s relationship with the human race.”
In Prague, around that same time, was also a Jew, the great mystic Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal, advisor to Emperor Rudolf II on the teachings of the Kabbalah. Also: creator of the famed Golem of Prague, a man made of clay, created by Loew using a magical Kabbalistic formula and who was to protect the Jews of Prague from anti-Semitic persecution.
Like the Sambatyon, the golem’s existence was, in my own childhood, as true and as real as any historical fact. The Sambatyon was as real as New York’s East River, and the golem as real as Prague itself, which was, to me, as real as Brooklyn—why would it not be? The Maharal and the magical powers of the Kabbalah required no more corroboration than the existence of the moon and the stars beyond. That the golem’s creation defied nature was a marvel, but so was the airplane and the rocketship and the submarine. So was the electronic calculator on my teacher’s desk. I understood none of it, and so all of it was real.
I remember when I first encountered the notion that the golem’s existence might have been fictitious. I was well into adulthood, around age 24, a father of three, when a friend of mine who had left our insular Hasidic enclave to study at institutions with more modern orientations, where Hasidic lore was ridiculed and all mysticism was suspect, returned with a storehouse of ideas that cast doubt on much that I knew to be true.
“You thought the golem was real?!” I remember him asking once, and the incredulity in his voice made me feel at once foolish and angry. Foolish for my own gullibility. Angry at him for spoiling the myth.
The myths would be spoiled further, over and over again, as I would come to see that some of our stories were truer than others. It wouldn’t be long until much of the narrative that upheld my life and my uni- verse, my “life-supporting illusions,” fell to the demands of historical evidence, including much of what I had once believed about the sto- ries of the Bible and the Talmud; the world atlas, upon which I tried in vain to find the Sambatyon, would serve forever as a sad reminder of a shattered illusion.
The ecstasy of discovering material truth in a mythic story is matched only by the devastation that follows on discovering that material truth to be utterly implausible if not demonstrably false. And so we under- stand Himsel’s desperate desire to find her stories not only in books, but in the very ground she digs in, in the archaeological work she takes part in as part of her university studies. She seeks not merely to discover but to confirm the myth she already holds. When she finds just the oppo- site, we are hurtled with her into the psychic mess that follows.
Is there a bridge from historic truth to metaphoric truth? Is there a way through the initial cognitive dissonance to an embrace of mul- tiple truths, to the view, put forward by science writer Stephen Jay Gould, of “non-overlapping magisteria,” that the “truths” of science and religion, existing at first blush in unresolvable contradiction, are not, in fact, in conflict?
With this we must all grapple—believer or heathen. Our stories are shaped in the image of our beliefs, and when what once was history becomes myth, the stories and their meanings, our beliefs and values, remain. What to do with the stories is the question. For the believer: How do we maintain the myth when history rejects its literal truth? For the non-believer: where do we find our life-supporting illusions when our scientific instruments interrupt our imaginations?
For Himsel, the answer comes slowly, agonizingly, as she attempts a vertiginous balancing act between her critical reading of the old tales, and her desperate desire to cling to the stories so deeply embedded within her they cannot be excised, only reoriented. Jesus takes on an even more fully human figure: a Semitic man, a Jew, living in the Galilee. Through that understanding, she grows enamored with Israel’s Jews and their story. Still, she struggles with what appears to be Jewish indifference to Jesus, blending the Jesus of history, the Jew from Galilee, with Jesus the mythic figure in the great apocalyptic drama to come, her own yearning for that great encounter still beating. In a friend’s sukkah during the Sukkot holiday, she finds herself agonizing over this:
I looked up at the Jerusalem sky . . . . Without believing in Jesus, I thought, Jews were missing out on a big part of the meaning of the Feast. It didn’t just recall Moses wandering in the desert for 40 years. It also represented the second resurrection. If I remained in the church, I would be there when the last trumpet was blown and the dead were resurrected from the ground. I wanted to be there.
Where we thought she had let go of Jesus, we find she has not. She herself, over and over, thinks Jesus gone, only to find that he has returned. And with that, somehow, the myth lives.
Back in the states, after moving to New York City, she encounters Jews once again. This time, she must reconcile the seeming contra- diction of Jews who maintain the centrality of their own story, even as many choose to ignore the faith built upon it. Her boyfriend Selig, son of an Orthodox rabbi but himself an atheist, confounds her most, with his ease in finding the synthesis that so eludes her. Most of all, she struggles with the inexpressible burdens of the mythology within her. “The power of Jesus blood, and my stubborn refusal to completely let go of the church,” she tells us,”was not easy to explain, especially to a Jewish atheist who had not grown up believing I would be raptured to Petra, to salvation.”
Again and again, there he is, Jesus, appearing and reappearing, just as she thinks she’s moved on.”Like an old boyfriend I still had feelings for, but to whom I couldn’t quite commit. If I actively rejected Jesus whose blood had been sacrificed to give me eternal life… the door to the Next World would be forever shut to me. I would never see those I’ve loved and lost and who resided there.”
Not Jesus of history, not Jesus the Jew, not even the Jesus of the theologian, mere doctrinal symbol, but Jesus and his crimson, metallic blood, as true and as real as the blood of her own finger when pricked. Jesus who might show up in front of the courthouse in Jasper. Jesus, to whose bosom she yearns to be close. Jesus, whose blood sacrifice is to give her eternal life.
Himsel ends with: “You always return for blood.” Indeed, blood is a recurring theme in Himsel’s story. The blood of her own German ancestry. The blood binding her to her family, even as she embraces the story of another tribe. The blood of her menses, which she discovers the Jewish faith fears obsessively. The blood of Jesus, sacrificed for her sins. Most of all, the blood of Jesus.
What, however, is blood about?
“For the life of every creature is its blood,” the Bible tells us in Leviticus, and if blood itself has a life force within it, it is story. It is history. It is myth.
As Himsel clung to her own stories, I, too, find myself clinging to mine. The atlas will never show the Sambatyon, but its force still has power over me, the legend of the lost tribes still exciting my imagination. The Maharal and the golem, too, are forever true to me; they will never be otherwise, even as the historic truth says otherwise.
When the myth is dispelled, there is nothing secure to hold onto. When the myths lose their power, the edifices built upon them shake, crumble, and with them, we fear, goes life itself. And so the task then is to keep the story alive. To retain the myth. The myth that gives us life. The story within the blood.