A river could be a tree - the story of Angela Himsel

A Jerusalem meeting with Angela Himsel, whose true story is so unusual that it could never make it as fiction.

Rochel Sylvetsky, | updated: 15:06

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Rochel Sylvetsky
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A river could be a tree – and a member of the Indiana chapter of the Worldwide Church of God can end up an Orthodox Jewish mother on NY's Upper West Side.

Truth is stranger than fiction, goes the old adage. In the case of "A River Could be a tree" by Angela Himsel, my conclusion is that it is an instance where "you definitely can't make this stuff up," as the expression since expropriated by Netflix goes. No one could create the unbelievable autobiographical story told by this writer in flowing, witty, plain-talking prose.

I met with Angela Himsel when she made a trip to Israel to promote her book and decided to ask if she would tell me about her life firsthand. She agree to find the time and we enjoyed a cup of coffee on Jerusalem's bustling Emek Refaim street together, while I tried to reconcile the amazing life story she wrote - called A River Could be a Tree - with the attractive, self-confident and articulate woman sitting opposite me.

A Rvier Could be a Tree
צילום: INN:RS

Question: Tell me about the beginning of the long journey you took to where you are today – to being someone who seems utterly at home in modern Israel and familiar with Jerusalem's streets.

Angela: My childhood was the farthest point you can imagine from Emek Refaim Street. I grew up in Jasper, Indiana, 7th of 11 children in a rural family of German origins that belonged to the Worldwide Church of God  As children and teens, my father, a true believer, made us feel that the sect's unusual practices were  the only way to live – that all other Christian denominations had interpreted things incorrectly.

We celebrated holidays on the Jewish dates,  as the sect instructed, went to church on Saturday, donated tithes (this with my parents struggling to get by), believed implicitly that the Apocalypse would come in 1975 and that if we were deserving, we would be transported to Petra, in Jordan, where we would be saved.

Question: Weren't there tenets that you found troubling?

Angela:  The cult believed that God was the Healer and that seeking medical help was not allowed. My beloved sister had a heart problem – we will never know if medical procedures could have saved her, but my parents did not go that way.  They loved her, prayed for her to be well -  but she did not make it.  They really loved us all, we were certainly a warm family and still care about one another today, but their beliefs guided all their actions.

Question: How did the sect's demands affect your own daily life?

Angela:  Everything was part of religious observance and I was always worried about not deserving to be saved. Still, I could not observe the church's absolute ban on makeup as I got older - . I am blond and if I don't wear eye makeup, I fade into the woodwork. When I reached my teens, I ignored that ban despite the criticism.

Only many years later, did I realize that I was raised in an apocalyptic cult run by a corrupt, embezzling womanizer who lived in splendor while we counted pennies and followed his commands. My parents had no idea.

Question:  So what happened?

Angela:  I was allowed to go to college – and there I saw that there was a big world out there, with choices. I wanted to spend a study year in Germany, looking up my roots – I knew German from home - but I saw pamphlets on Israel in the student office and, imagining it as still looking like the Land of the Bible in ancient times, decided to go there instead.

It was a shock to realize that only Arabs ploughing fields and Bedouin encampments looked somewhat biblical, but I loved it there and I ended up studying in Hebrew U for another two years. The archaeology that revealed glimpses of the past excited and intrigued me, as did the people.

As time passed, and I delved into various subjects academically, I found myself unable to reconcile the idea of a transcendent G-d also being someone who has a son – you see the debates with myself in the book. I became more and more drawn to Judaism and Jews.

Question: A great deal of water flowed under the bridge as you got to know Jewish Israelis, Palestinian Arabs, went to Germany to find relatives and went back to the USA, choosing to live in NYC. I am leaving the fascinating details for the reader to discover for himself. Still, I do want to ask - Where do you place yourself today? How do you explain it?

Angela:  I think I can be called a seeker. I looked for connection, for something I could relate to, for where I could feel comfortable as myself. I found that I can be comfortable in Christian cults – keep a loving connection with my family, as they do with me – my parents came to the brit celebration of my sons, although they hadn't the faintest idea of what they were coming to.  But I feel a sense of belonging in Jewish spaces – and my open-hearted Jewish in-laws helped me feel accepted, were overjoyed at my conversion to Judaism.

The landscape in Indiana is simple – all those beautiful rolling fields stretch out in every direction. That is where I grew up, In Israel, the outlook is completely different, extremely complex. Looking at the vista from Mount Scopus, one can sense and see the layers of civilization in this special land.

Views change, she says, making that statement amusing as well as portentous. We had never talked or met before,, but we turned quickly from interviewer and interviewee into two Jewish women enjoying a warm and comfortable chat.

As a born and bred New Yorker, who grew up in an Orthodox pro-Israel environment and made my own – observant - home in Jerusalem, choosing to continue as best I can my parent's legacy while adding practical Zionism to my life (and all its attendant results, like grandchildren in the IDF), I found it intriguing to see Angela make her complex and difficult choices.

Angela's book is not the story of a naive true believer type who changed one set of religious precepts and beliefs for another. Angela is not repeating her father's way of life in another context, although she is not judgmental regarding her parents. Quite the contrary, she is careful to preserve respectful ties with her upbringing, although she spent years exploring, studying, experiencing and then choosing where she wants to belong, finding her identity on her own terms.

The book is hard to catalogue – an autobiography, but something of an odyssey, except that the protagonist does not come back home to rural Indiana after years of wandering, instead finding a new home in New York's Upper West Side liberal Orthodox Jewish community. Angela has most definitely tied her life and spirit to the challenges and destiny of the Jewish people. She has, however, to some extent, embraced Judaism on her own terms, (the Upper West Side community is accustomed to that) – and, it came about through her own desire for meaning. 

If my impression of the book and our meeting is correct, her conversion did not result in a concentrated attempt to adhere strictly to the many halakhot that define Orthodoxy, which concentrates on Judaism as a quest to fulfill in detail that which G-d wants us to do and less what we feel comfortable doing.

Howver, Jewish sociologists have defined various types of Orthodox Jewry, and Angela is a staunch member of one of them. Meanwhile, leaving evaluations up to G-d, I highly recommend reading how Angela falls in love with being Jewish, being Orthodox, and finds the courage to act on her convictions.