A River Could Be A Tree - Angela Himsel, Interviewed by Avi Dresner
The Berkshires’ third annual Jewish Festival of Books will take place at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington from Thursday, July 18 through Sunday, July 21.
On Friday evening, July 19, after Shabbat evening services, which begin at 5:45 p.m., author Angela Himsel will be discussing her memoir, A River Could Be A Tree, which traces her journey from one of eleven children, growing up in rural Indiana as part of an apocalyptic, doomsday Christian sect led by a white supremacist to a Modern Orthodox Jewish woman living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
On Saturday, July 20, during Shabbat morning services, which begin at 10:00 a.m., Himsel will be in conversation with author Tova Mirvis, whose memoir, The Book of Separation, traces her journey away from her Modern Orthodox upbringing, as she leaves both a marriage and the religious community of which she was a part.
Their conversation will be moderated by Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, which is sponsoring the event and the authors’ solo appearances. Among other topics, they will recount their two journeys to and from Modern Orthodoxy, and explore the power and complexity of community, family, tradition and finding one’s own path and meaning.
Angela Himsel’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Jewish Week, Forward, Lilith and elsewhere. Her column “Angetevka” on Zeek.net won two American Jewish Press Association Awards. Angela holds a BA from Indiana University, which included two years at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and an MFA from The City College of New York.
Avi Dresner, co-chair of the festival, had the privilege of interviewing Angela Himsel in April, and this is an excerpt of their conversation, a longer version of the conversation that appeared in the June/July issue of the Berkshire Jewish Voice.
Avi Dresner: Angela, if I had a dollar for every memoir written by a former member of an apocalyptic, doomsday Christian sect who became an Orthodox Jew…So, I guess what I’m saying is what makes yours different from all the others?
Angela Himsel: [laughter] What I think makes mine different in general from someone who came from some kind of fringe extreme faith…is that I didn’t lose contact with my family and that my family was very supportive of my decision. And that just because I made a different choice didn’t mean that I had to abandon them, or that they would abandon me. There wasn’t that either/or; it was possible to hold on to both.
AD: Angela, yours is one of those examples of truth being far far stranger and more interesting than fiction. There are so many fascinating qualitative pieces of your story that I’m not quite sure where to begin so, I’m going to take a cue from your book and begin quantitatively. To paraphrase you, you write that Midwesterners like you are fond of numbers, which are safe and concrete, and far more comprehensible than emotions. So, with that in mind, there’s one eye-popping number in your bio and your book - namely that you grew up as one of eleven children, but the most amazing number to me in the eleven child and two adult household was the one bathroom. That seems to be like the miracle of the loaves and fishes but in reverse.
AH: [laughter] Right! Exactly!
AD: In all seriousness, though, your family certainly took the Biblical command to be fruitful and multiply literally, but that was by no means the only thing they took literally from the Bible. Even though your family was part of this Christian sect, you observed the Sabbath on Saturday; you celebrated all the Jewish Holy Days; you didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter because of their pagan roots; you didn’t eat pork or shellfish. So, I imagine from that perspective, at least, it was a lot shorter and easier trip to Judaism for you than it would have been for other more mainstream Christians.
AH: I think that’s true. I was more familiar with the Jewish holidays and the Sabbath on Saturday. So it was easier in that sense.
AD: I alluded to some of the more mainstream Jewish Biblical practices that you and your family observed as members of the Worldwide Church of God, but there were a number of other church practices and beliefs that were far from mainstream. For example, the church’s founder, Herbert Armstrong believed that at the end times there would be a rapturing of the faithful to the Place of Safety located in the city of Petra in Jordan. He also preached a version of British Israelism which, according to Shulem Deen’s introduction to your book, is a doctrine that claims that the ten lost tribes ended up in Great Britain. As proof, this theory claims that the British people got their names from two Hebrew words, brit, covenant and ish, man. So the British are literally the “people of the covenant”. Another underpinning of this theory claims that the word Saxon comes from Isaacson, which supposedly proves that the Anglo-Saxons are descendants of Isaac. You grew up believing this stuff as Gospel truth, until your Hebrew University advisor in Jerusalem - where you went to study in search of the Holy Spirit and finding proof of the truth of the Bible - inconveniently pointed out that “that makes no sense…The Torah wasn’t written with English in mind.” The question that all of this raises for me is how little religion - any religion - stands up to rational questioning. My personal opinion is that all religion is crazy, but mine is less crazy than all the others, but that’s probably just because I grew up with it as the norm and center of my universe. So, all of this is by way of asking you what’s the difference really between “regular” religion - whatever that means - and a cult, like the one you grew up in? Is it just a question of degree and who’s getting rich off of it?
AH: I think that the extreme [forms of religion] tend to be centered around a charismatic leader. They tend to pop up suddenly out of nowhere. They’re afraid of individuality, asking questions, people have to conform, and there’s always some sense of shunning. Cults make you fear others and the world itself. I don’t think mainstream religions have that as much.
AD: You write that, as adults reading an exposé about Mr. Armstrong and the church, some thirty odd years after you left it, your sister somberly said to you “Ang, we were raised in a cult.” I can not imagine what that must have felt like for you but, as someone who values the healing power of humor, I really admire how you treat the subject comedically at various points in the book. In one place, you write how your sister would often leave a message if she got your answering machine saying “Where are you? Did you go to the Place of Safety without me?” And, in another part, how you and two of your sisters played a prank on another sister, leaving a note on the restaurant table saying “Went to the Place of Safety. Sorry you weren’t chosen.” Of course, it wasn’t always fun and games, and, in fact, being members of the Worldwide Church had deadly consequences for one of your younger sisters, Abby, who died as a result of the church’s prohibition against seeking medical attention on the grounds that, according to the church, the medical profession was pagan in origin. Meanwhile, you later found out that Armstrong routinely saw doctors himself. And, yet, in spite of this, you write that your father was convinced for the rest of his life that it was his lack of rigorously observing the Sabbath that killed your sister.
AH: That’s right. I don’t think he could have handled it if he’d known that there had been another alternative. That had he sought medical care [she] would have been fine.
AD: And yet, your father’s belief notwithstanding, and strict as your upbringing was, I got the impression from the book that you really did have loving parents, who looked the other way at least enough for you and your siblings to tiptoe into Satan’s world, as you put it, with things like school plays and debate, which were often on the Sabbath, and eventually to leave the church entirely.
AH: They were definitely loving parents [who] would have done anything and did do anything for us, and they believed that they had raised us right. That there was one right way to raise us and that was it, and they did it. And, after that - I think this another mid-Western thing - there’s a sense that you do what you do and when your kids are “of age” then they make their own choices…I did not have Jewish parents micromanaging anything at all. It’s not the same cultural expectation.
AD: So, although your leaving took many years, the decisive moment came when you decided to do your sophomore year of college abroad at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As I said, you went there in search of the Holy Spirit and the truth of the Bible, but you didn’t find what you were looking for while others seemed to. One of my favorite parts in the book is when you describe how one of your fellow students at Hebrew U. took you aside and shared two intimate secrets with you about his sexual and religious identity. In doing so, he told you that he had a dream that Jesus came to him and said he loved him and, after that, he became a Jew for Jesus. You sum up that experience by saying “A gay Jewish guy got the Holy Spirit. Not me. Goddammit.”
AH: I was very upset about that, you can tell.
AD: Your experience in Israel also starts you down the path towards Judaism, but it isn’t until you learn that you’re pregnant with your Jewish boyfriend’s - now husband’s - baby, that you decide to take the plunge officially. Do you think it would have happened eventually anyway without that catalyst?
AH: I’m not sure it would have happened. I wasn’t really keen on signing up with another organized religion - any organized religion. I didn’t want any religion to have control over me. I still don’t, by the way. I was happy kind of living on the periphery of Judaism, not fully committing. But as much as I was avoiding organized religion because of my past, there was a void there. I just didn’t want to acknowledge it. So, I’m happy that I found myself in a position where I had to make a decision, but I don’t know that I would have found my way there otherwise.
AD: In my observation, converts to Judaism often wind up taking the religion more seriously than the Jewish spouse, and you touch on that in a beautiful and poignant passage about your husband, Selig, in which you write “I had trouble truly determining if Selig believed in God or if Judaism was a kind of heirloom, like Shabbat candlesticks, something to be passed down.” Has that changed, or do you still ask that question about him, and how do you answer that question for yourself?
AH: I ask that question about a lot of people. I even ask it about my kids now and again. Judaism is just so complicated in so many ways. There are so many different ways to be Jewish, and they are all valid. I’m not one to say this is the right way or the only way to be Jewish, and I wouldn’t want anybody to tell me the same thing. There are many Jews who don’t believe in God…Coming from a Christian background, that’s weird. You wouldn’t say you’re Christian if you didn’t believe in Jesus. The fact that Judaism and being Jewish is multi-faceted - the religion, the culture, the history, probably the food a little bit, and it’s Israel, it does make it more complicated and at this point in my life, it’s more appealing. Nobody wants to talk about God all the time.
AD: You also have another great quote on Jewish identity in the book, where you paraphrase a speaker you heard in Israel, who says that saying “I’m Jewish” as opposed to “I’m a Jew” is a cop-out. It’s “minimizing one’s identity, making it a modifier, not the actual thing.” You observe beautifully - in a way that only a former Christian who came to Judaism later in life could - that “A Christian would never say ‘I’m Christian-ish.’ ”
AH: Exactly. That’s true.
AD: So you convert with a Modern Orthodox Rabbi because your husband-to-be is Modern Orthodox and, yet, you will be driving on Shabbat for your appearances at the book festival. I say this not to judge you, but to ask about where you put yourself on the spectrum of Jewish observance.
AH: A friend of mine gave me a great word and you can use this. She said, Angela, you’re Flexadox. I belong to an Orthodox synagogue. I am a co-president of the Sisterhood. Like many people, I have many inconsistencies in terms of how rigorously I practice Judaism, for sure. This whole question of identity and feeling as if you have to fit into a box, I personally don’t like it. I think it’s divisive. I just feel like if you’re a Jew, you’re a Jew, you’re a Jew… because coming from the religion that I was raised in with a charismatic leader who told you this is how you have to be Christian, I definitely balk at that - that there is one way to be Christian, or one way to be Jewish.
AD: The title of your book comes from something your dad used to say in reference to women’s lib and women not knowing their place. He would say “God created a role for everything in the universe. Just think what would happen if a river thought it could be a tree!” In the church, a woman’s role was to submit herself to her husband. Don’t you think that there’s a similar subservient role of women in Orthodoxy - at least in the synagogue - and doesn’t that bother you as a woman in general and given where you came from in particular?
AH: It does bother me on one hand, but on another hand there’s always a tradeoff…I don’t love it that women can’t go up to the Torah and read from the Torah. Do I care about sitting with the men? No. I don’t care about that in the least bit. I like sitting with my girlfriends. We chat. We have a good time.
AD: At the festival, in addition to your solo talk on Friday night, you will also be appearing with author Tova Mirvis whose memoir The Book of Separation, traces her journey away from Modern Orthodoxy. I can’t wait for that conversation, and am wondering if you can give the readers a preview of what to expect from that dialogue.
AH: I think the fact that she grew up in it and I didn’t really does change things, and she was very committed to it and her family and, so I do think it was harder for her to leave. For me, going into it was different because I knew what I was going into, I actively chose it.
AD: When I interview authors, I’ll often play a little game I like to call how I thought your book was going to end and, with yours, I expected it to end with a family trip to Petra with your birth family and your chosen family. And, spoiler alert, the last line of your book is “My children are a future I was petrified would never come.” And I couldn’t help but notice your use of the word petrified, and I feel like I got my Petra.
AH: You did. That was deliberate.
AD: Angela, what’s next for you literarily?
AH: I’m working on a novel, a historical novel about King David’s wife Michal, who was King Saul’s daughter.
AD: When can we expect it?
AH: Oh, God willing, I don’t know. Who knows. I hope within two years.
Books will be available for purchase at Hevreh prior to and at both events however, since Hevreh does not accept payment on Shabbat, there will be IOU envelopes available. For more information, and to reserve your spot for these and other author events, visit hevreh.org/books or call Hevreh at 413-528-6378.