Memoir recounts growing up, holding on, letting go

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

Freelance writer Angela Himsel, 57, grew up in Dubois County and was one of 11 children, but she wasn’t a Catholic. Her immediate family instead belonged to the Worldwide Church of God, a doomsday cult led by Herbert Armstrong.

Himsel

The teachings of the cult were based on the a literal reading of the Bible and British Israelism — the belief that the British, American and many European peoples descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel — and would become known as Armstrongism.

Though a devout Christian for much of her early life, Himsel said doubts creeped in during her high school years. In college, she studied in Jerusalem and discovered Judaism, ultimately deciding to convert.

In her memoir “A River Could Be A Tree,” Himsel recounts growing up in the cult, leaving the cult and setting up a life in New York City with her husband, Selig, whose family follows orthodox Judaism.

The Herald caught up with Himsel to talk about the book, growing up in Dubois County and converting to Judaism. The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

On growing up in Dubois County in the 1960s and 70s, but not being Catholic:

My ancestors have been in the county since the 1840s, so we have lots of extended family in the county. My mom (Viola Recker Himsel) grew up in Jasper, and my dad (James C. Himsel) grew up in Haysville. On Sunday’s we went to visit grandparents and other family, so in that respect we were pretty typical for that time and place. But religiously, we were different. I certainly felt separate from others because our religion was so different. We went to church on Saturdays in Evansville. We didn’t celebrate Christmas and Easter, so our extended families never got us gifts on Christmas or anything like that. We were together, but there was always a sense of otherness. Still, my parents’ families accepted that we were in (the Worldwide Church of God). They might not have liked it, but they didn’t treat us any differently.

On questioning the teachings of the Worldwide Church of God:

I definitely had concerns throughout my high school years. That was kind of at the height of the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. That went against the church’s teachings, which taught that women should be submissive to men and that Eve brought sin into the world in the Garden of Eden, causing the imperfect state of the world. I just found it intellectually hard to agree that everything was Eve’s fault.

Then, the world didn’t end in 1975 like we’d been taught. So you’re logical mind starts to kick in, but you’re so indoctrinated that you still just go with it. And the church cracked down on questioning, saying that it’s a sign that Satan got a hold of you.

On what drew her to Judaism:

While in college at Indiana University I got the opportunity to study at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem for two years. I went to Israel as a Christian, but found myself drawn more and more to Judaism. I was there taking Bible courses with Jewish students, and when you’re with people who are not of the same faith, you start to see the world from their perspective. I started to see that I didn’t have to be what I grew up as. I could make a choice. I started taking classes on Judaism.

When I moved to New York after college, I kept up with the classes. Then, I converted when I was pregnant with my son (David). My husband (Selig) is Jewish, but in order for our son to be considered Jewish, I had to convert. In Judaism, there’s the tradition that for the child to be accepted as Jewish, the mother has to be, so I had to think about what kind of family I wanted. Did I want a family with two religions? But I wasn’t really Christian at that point. I wasn’t really anything.

On what Judaism offers her that Christianity didn’t:

I think with Judaism, it’s more open and willing to be questioned than my brand of Christianity. It may be different in other types of Christianity. I can only speak from my experience. Also with Judaism, there’s no emphasis on the next world. There is a next world, but you don’t have to worry about if you’ll get it. You’ll get in. I liked that Judaism was more concerned with ethical behavior in this world. And I was rejecting the whole premise of Christianity, really, that Jesus is the only way to get to God. I think there are many ways to get to God.

On why she wrote “A River Could Be A Tree:”

I was writing essays about bits and pieces of my story, and someone said I should write a memoir. I didn’t want to. I’m a Midwesterner, so I don’t like talking about myself much. But I decided to take a memoir class anyway. I workshopped it, and the other writers in the class really liked it. We stayed in contact after the class, and I kept working on it. It was helpful to know that others understood what I was trying to do with the story. I was trying to tell a story that’s universal, even if it is specific to me. It’s about what you grow up with, what you hold on to and what you let go of.

On the meaning of the title:

That actually comes from a scene in the book where we’re all piled into the car on our way to church in Evansville. Dad was talking about how women don’t know their roles now and how they should be content to follow the Biblical role. God made roles for everything after all, and what would happen if a river thought it could be tree?

On how it feels now that the book is out:

I’m happy it’s out. It makes me feel a little vulnerable, obviously. You’re telling your story, and you’re telling other people’s a little bit at the same time. But I was careful to keep it focused on my story and not anybody else’s. They have their stories to tell.

So far, the reception has been good. For some reason, people are really drawn to stories about cults. They seem to think they’re sexy. I think there’s also an interest in that kind of extremist religion, especially because we’re seeing a lot of that in society. People are curious. But beyond that, I hope there’s a lot of humanity in (the story). And if there is, I think that’s probably because of Dubois County and the way people are raised there — those core values and how you’re taught to be honest with people, but still being kind about it.

Himsel will host a reading and Q&A session at the Jasper Public Library at 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 20. She will have books available for sale and autographs.




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