Trans­for­ma­tional jour­ney

An­gel Him­sel’s mem­oir of her con­ver­sion to Ju­daism is a beau­ti­ful read

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • AARON LEIBEL

Early in A River Could Be a Tree, An­gela Him­sel writes: “Mar­tin Luther… mar­ried a nun, a woman he had helped smug­gle out of a con­vent in a her­ring bar­rel. While ir­rel­e­vant to Luther’s re­li­gious be­liefs, a nun in a her­ring bar­rel is al­ways worth men­tion­ing.”

When I read that pas­sage, I was sure I was go­ing to love this book. I was not to be dis­ap­pointed. Him­sel is par­tic­u­larly hon­est about pro­vid­ing in­sight into her thoughts and feel­ings. She shares so much with the reader that only the cliched hyper­bole “bar­ing of the soul” seems fit­ting.

Him­sel’s mem­oir traces her trans­for­ma­tion from a fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tian – a mem­ber of the World­wide Church of God – who grew up in ru­ral In­di­ana into a prac­tic­ing Jew liv­ing in New York.

Dur­ing her jour­ney to Ju­daism, she con­tin­ued to be­lieve in a God who would pun­ish her se­verely for her sins – a kind of an early He­brew Bi­ble, vengeance-seek­ing ver­sion of Je­sus – and yet she con­tin­ued to act in a way she be­lieved was evil and would pre­vent her from be­ing saved and mak­ing it to the “King­dom” of the right­eous.

As an un­der­grad­u­ate at In­di­ana Univer­sity, she would play cards and drink beer until late at night, de­fend women’s rights in dis­cus­sions with fem­i­nist friends, go “skinny dip­ping” and read works of les­bian fic­tion. But she had been taught that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was a sin, abor­tion was im­moral, and “Je­sus was pre­par­ing to pounce on earth.” By her church’s stan­dards, “In­di­ana Univer­sity was the devil’s play­ground. I was hav­ing fun on Satan’s teeter-tot­ter and jun­gle gym even as I pri­vately de­nounced them.”

Even be­fore she had met – or even thought about – mod­ern Jews or their re­li­gion, she was alien­ated by some of her church’s doc­trines. She was ap­palled, for ex­am­ple, by her church’s misog­yny.

“The min­is­ters in­ces­santly re­minded the con­gre­ga­tion that it was Eve who had tempted Adam, Eve who had dis­obeyed, Eve who was re­spon­si­ble for the world’s ills,” Him­sel wrote. “The church railed against the pro­posed Equal Rights Amend­ment as be­ing an as­sault against the fam­ily. Women had their role, but in their role, they could never rule over a man. It was un­nat­u­ral, un­godly, un-Chris­tian.”

This theme – ques­tion­ing the doc­trines that her church ad­vo­cated but stick­ing with it be­cause of her fear of not be­ing among the elect who will be saved when the Chris­tian Mes­siah re­turns – is a con­stant until she con­verts. With­out min­i­miz­ing the re­li­gious and psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tance she had to travel from the World­wide Church of God to Ju­daism, some tenets of her faith eased that tran­si­tion.

That church, while be­liev­ing in Je­sus, cel­e­brated the Sab­bath on Satur­day, Jewish and not Chris­tian hol­i­days and did not eat foods for­bid­den in the Bi­ble to Jews. So, to be­come a Jew, Him­sel was not forced to give up Christ­mas trees, Easter eggs and ba­con – perks of Amer­i­can Chris­tian life al­ready for­bid­den by her church.

Be­fore her spir­i­tual jour­ney be­gan, she vis­ited Is­rael as a stu­dent study­ing abroad – an ex­pe­ri­ence that greatly af­fected her.

“In my imag­i­na­tion, Is­rael was im­bued with ho­li­ness un­like any other place on earth,” she writes. “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.”

But her study in Is­rael gave her a new per­spec­tive on re­li­gion and the na­ture of life. “With­out in­tend­ing to, and with­out even know­ing it my­self, I was turn­ing spir­i­tu­ally south, to­ward Jerusalem and to­ward the first-cen­tury rab­bini­cal Ju­daism that Saul/Paul had left be­hind. In­stead of the Chris­tian view that this world was the devil’s, and that Je­sus alone could swoop in and save it, I was drawn to the pos­si­bil­ity that this world was God’s and that we, as God’s part­ner, would per­fect it.”

Even­tu­ally, af­ter mov­ing to New York, dat­ing a Jewish man and be­com­ing preg­nant, she de­cided to leave her church and be­come a Jew. Her ini­tial de­ci­sion to con­vert was closely con­nected to her un­born child, want­ing him or her to be ac­cepted com­pletely as a mem­ber of the Jewish com­mu­nity – lead­ing to her con­vert­ing un­der Or­tho­dox aus­pices to ensure that ev­ery Jew would ac­cept her child as Jewish.

But it wasn’t only about her child. On a trip to In­di­ana to see her fam­ily, Him­sel at­tended a church ser­vice, where she found the min­is­ters cer­tain they knew what God wanted, what he thought.

“Cer­tainty made me ner­vous,” the au­thor writes. “I was far more at ease with am­bi­gu­ity. This was a com­plete re­ver­sal of how I used to be. It was much more Jewish to be am­bigu­ous and uncer­tain.”

Ap­par­ently, the con­ver­sion took.

The au­thor, An­gela Him­sel, will be at­tend­ing a read­ing and book sign­ing on Fe­bru­ary 5 at the Tmol Shilshom cafe in Jerusalem.


AN­GELA HIM­SEL found her­self ‘turn­ing spir­i­tu­ally south, to­ward Jerusalem.’

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