A River Could Be a Tree: A Memoir

A River Could Be a Tree: A Memoir


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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.

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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781941493243
Publisher: Fig Tree Books LLC
Publication date: 11/13/2018
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Angela Himsel is a freelance writer based in New York City whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Jewish Week, the Forward, Lilith Magazine, BOMB Magazine and several other outlets. Her weekly column “Angetevka” on Zeek.net examined her life as an observant Jew on Manhattan’s Upper West Side against the backdrop of her fundamentalist Christian upbringing in Jasper, Indiana. For this body of work, Himsel received the American Jewish Press Association’s Rockower Award for Excellence in Commentary. She holds a BA in religious studies from Indiana University, which included a two-year stint studying at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and also has an MFA in creative writing from The City College of New York. Himsel is represented by The Deborah Harris Agency. More information can be found at AngelaHimsel.com.

Shulem Deen is a writer, journalist, and author of the award-winning memoir "All Who Go Do Not Return." He is a regular contributor to the Forward, and in 2015 was listed in the Forward 50, an annual list of American Jews with outsized roles on political and social issues. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Salon, Tablet magazine, and elsewhere. He serves as a board member at Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers assistance and support to those who have left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

My parents were perplexed when I told them I wanted to spend my junior year in Israel. I was perplexed that they were perplexed. Hadn't we all sat in church for years and years listening to the minister and reading our Bibles and studying about the place in which God appeared, where the spiritual world met the physical plane? Wasn't Israel as much our spiritual home as Germany was our physical one?

Although going to Jerusalem to connect with my spiritual DNA made logical sense to me, it was considered a crazy, impulsive whim to both my parents and my siblings. In his end-of-the-world tone, my father warned me, "It's a powder keg over there! Jesus has to return lest all flesh should perish.'

My mother, however, clipped a bunch of newspaper articles about Israel to try to help me prepare. But I wasn't interested in what was going on there at that moment. It was biblical Israel I planned to inhabit.

Reading Group Guide

  1. Were you surprised by the reaction of Angela’s family, particularly her parents, to her decision to convert and live a Jewish life? Why or why not?
  2. How did growing up in such a large family with ten siblings influence Angela’s decision-making and/or approach to life?
  3. Angela’s love of the written word reveals itself early in her life. How do you think that influenced her journey?
  4. While you admire Angela’s conversion story, what are your feelings about Jews who convert out?
  5. What do you think Angela’s life would be like today had she never studied at Indiana University or abroad?
  6. Angela is from a small town in the Midwest. How did these values stay with her as she traveled beyond the physical and educational borders of her childhood?
  7. Do you think Angela’s journey is more about leaving, seeking, or finding?
  8. How does the role of women—in Angela’s family, in the church and in society—figure into her decision-making? Who from her life do you think was her greatest female influence?
  9. In addition to the use of “river” in the title, rivers pop up throughout the story. How do they serve as a metaphor for Angela’s life?
  10. Angela’s father dictates much of what goes on in the household and is the driving force behind the family’s connection to the church. What does Angela’s relationship with her father as a young Christian woman and then as a Jewish adult say about each of them?
  11. Angela’s knowledge of religious history is extensive. Did any of her insights spark a desire for you to explore an aspect of Judaism or its teachings?
  12. Angela longs to feel connected. What do you think it is that primarily connects us, and us as Jews?
  13. In what ways do you think Angela’s role as mother to her three children was influenced by her roots in Indiana? Or her Jewish values?
  14. Why do you think Angela felt that hers was an important story to tell?

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