Angela Himsel has a life she describes as “pretty Upper West Side Jewish. “I belong to an Orthodox synagogue,” she said. “I’m very active in the sisterhood. And I was very active in my kids’ day schools.” (She is the mother of three children.) “As you know, the Upper West Side is a very tight Jewish community.”
But if Himsel’s current UWS life is typical for the area, her background isn’t. The blond, blue-eyed, 57-year-old writer was raised in rural Indiana, the seventh of 11 children. Her family was a member of the Worldwide Church of God, led by the since disgraced Herbert W. Armstrong. It was an apocalyptic religion that predicted (until 1975) that the rapture would occur in 1975, and that all its followers would be lifted to Petra in Jordan. It also taught that British, American, and some Europeans were direct descendants of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. The church followed Mosaic law, including observing the sabbath on Saturdays and celebrating major Jewish holidays.
Himsel tells the story of her journey from small town girl awaiting Jesus’ return to Jewish mom and wife in her fascinating, informative, and well written memoir, “A River Could Be a Tree.”
As a young devotee, she believed the Bible to be fact.
“Fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Jews believe that there were six days of creation,” she told me in a telephone interview. “We believed there was a flood that destroyed everything.
“To think that that was not true is to say the Bible was lying. If the book was not historically factual, then you are saying everything we believed in a was a lie.”
She started to see cracks in the orthodoxy around 1975 when Armstrong’s predicted rapture drew near. “That was definitely the beginning” of her doubts, she said. But still she held on to her belief when Armstrong changed gears, indicating his belief that the Rapture was delayed, but still coming.
But her appreciation of Judaism started when she was a student at the University of Indiana. She decided to spend her junior year abroad. Her first choice was Germany, where her family was from. Her second choice was England. “Growing up, I thought about Israel as this magical, mystical land,” not some place to visit, she said. In fact, it was not among her top 10 choices. But then fate intervened.
As she considered her options in the university’s office of overseas studies, she saw a brochure that featured a building with a large gold dome, and it immediately brought to mind all of her childhood religious studies. She writes: “In my imagination, Israel was imbued with holiness unlike any other place on earth. I was certain that merely stepping foot on the soil would bring me closer to God, closer to the Holy Spirit, and thus to salvation.”
It was there that her route to conversion began. “I was 19 and being exposed to Jews, which I hadn’t experienced before” she said. “This was a whole new world. And looking at this world I realized that maybe not everything I’d been taught was right. I think questioning yourself and questioning others is the way you make changes. In Israel I questioned the church, but I was still pretty convinced that Jesus was the messiah, or if I questioned it, had a moment, I quickly squelched that because that put me in danger of leaving the church — and I wanted to stay.”
But she decided to spend her senior year in Israel too, and living there took her further and further from the strict doctrinaire and patriarchal philosophy of a church that forbade women from wearing makeup.
“I think it was just the whole experience of living with Jews, the Friday night dinners, and talking about things,” she said. “Jews were willing to disagree and challenge and say maybe that’s not true, that there’s another way of looking at it.
“Being able to question, to realize everything wasn’t white or black and right or wrong, that there are lots and lots of questions and lots and lots of answers” changed her.
The final decision to convert came after she returned to the States, moved to New York, and met her husband (whose name she prefers not be mentioned). He was 14 years older than she was, the son and brother of Orthodox rabbis, divorced, and under the impression he couldn’t have children.
It turns out he was wrong.
Himsel found herself in a conundrum. Her then boyfriend, though he probably would describe himself as an agnostic, still wanted her to convert — hopefully before the child was born so the baby could be Jewish halachically.
Angela wasn’t convinced. “I always felt I had a relationship with God,” she said. “I didn’t feel I needed [formal] religion to determine my relationship with God. That was a very Christian way of looking at religion, it was just between you and God.
“In Judaism you’re part of a community. You have a past. It’s one thing for me to have a relationship with God; but if I’m going to have a relationship with Judaism I have to be part of it.”
She went through the conversion process almost three decades ago, so I asked how that process changed her. “I think I changed my vision of God because of Judaism,” Himsel said. Seen through the prism of “the Talmud, and also many thousand years of writing,” God isn’t “the cranky old man, a kind of punitive God.
“It’s not that that God doesn’t exist in the Hebrew Bible, but I think I now view God more in the context of the world that the Bible was written in. He is a lot more complex, a God of justice and mercy, too.”
Himsel’s father was surprisingly okay with his daughter’s conversion. “I think that as a young father he was an autocratic bully, but as he got older he changed,” she said. “He saw that one of my older sisters left the church, and another married a divorced man. By the time he came to me he said, ‘whatever.’ Also, he liked Judaism because we celebrated the same holy days, even though we didn’t believe in Jesus.”
Which really left me with only one more question. I wondered if Angela had a plan B, just in case there really was a rapture.
She laughed and said that she had just discussed that issue with one of her sisters: “I told them if they ever get the call to go to Petra, they better call me.”