Zibby Owens: Angela Himsel is the author of memoir A River Could Be a Tree. Angela has contributed to The New York Times, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and Lilith, among other publications. She received the American Jewish Press Association Award for her column Angetevka on Angela has 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.

Welcome, Angela. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Angela Himsel: Thanks so much for having me.

Zibby: Of course. Can you please tell listeners what A River Could Be a Tree is about?

Angela: It’s a memoir. It’s about growing up. I’m the seventh of eleven kids. I grew up in Southern Indiana in what some people might consider a cult. Let’s call it an alternative kind of religion. It was called the Worldwide Church of God. We believed that the world was coming to an end any second. We were going to be spirited away to Petra in Jordan when the world came to an end. I grew up that way. Through many twists and turns, I ultimately converted to Judaism. It’s about that particular religious journey. I would hope that it’s also about the possibly of change in any sense of the word.

Zibby: You’ve gone through so much, this major transformation. When did you decide this was a book?

Angela: I didn’t, to be honest. I love fiction. I was always writing fiction. I really was not that interested in writing about myself, to be quite honest. I was writing some essays that had been published in The Jewish Week. I had a column on Angetevka. A lot of the essays drew from my background. I was juxtaposing them. Angetevka comes from — it was a play on Anatevka because my name is Angela. Anatevka, about this little tiny Jewish village. I felt like I lived in this little tiny village on the Upper West Side of New York City which was very different than the rural place that I inhabited as a child. I called it Angetevka. I kind of juxtaposed my world today to the world I left behind, even though I didn’t really leave it behind. I wouldn’t say I left it behind. I certainly carried it with me, as we all do.

I was writing these essays and a friend of mine said, “You should write a memoir.” I said, “Eh, I don’t really feel like it. I’m not interested in myself that much.” Then I thought, you know what? I have all these essays. Maybe I’ll just link them all together and call it a memoir. I was so lazy as a writer. I started to do that. It was clearly not working. I needed the beginning, the middle, and the end. I needed an arch. I needed everything that you need in fiction, obviously, but in nonfiction. Then I started to get serious about it and really wanted to make it into not a lot of separate stories and vignettes, but into a complete book. That’s when I really started to work on it as a memoir. I really did just back into, though.

Zibby: How long did it take to write?

Angela: The truth?

Zibby: Yeah, the truth.

Angela: The truth, fourteen years.

Zibby: Wow.

Angela: But I wasn’t working on it the whole time because I was going back to fiction, my big love. I was also raising kids and writing essays and that sort of thing. I would write it and I would think, this is it. I’ve got it. I think this is it. Sent it out to agents. It wasn’t it. Didn’t get an agent. Then I revised it, sent it out. I did that. That really is the process, for me, of being a writer. Other people undoubtedly are better writers and faster writers and don’t start thinking that they’ve got it before they’ve got it. It took me a while to get it to this place.

Zibby: You have so much information in there. It’s not just your story. You wove in a lot of religious history. I feel like you must have done some research.

Angela: I love research. That’s the other thing.

Zibby: You could tell. I was like, does she kind of secretly want to be writing a history book?

Angela: I’ll tell you, not so secretly, I would like to be a librarian or yes, a historian, or a teacher. I like to be taught things. I like to learn new things. When I read a book, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, I love to learn new things. I like it when they make it interesting for me to learn it so I don’t feel like I’m in History 101. It became more imperative to me. I certainly realized while I was writing the book, something that I understood, but not so well. Sometimes you just don’t understand these things. I certainly understood that we are all a part of a much bigger world. Our own little world may seem incredibly important, but I needed to really explore the world that my parents came from. I needed to explore the world of immigration because immigration plays such an important role in American history for absolutely everybody. I really needed to go into that. I also needed to go into, in my case, the Catholic and Lutheran divide. My mom was Catholic. My dad was Lutheran. Then when they came together, it was a very big shanda, as they would say in Yiddish. It was a very big shame. I really needed to explore that. I spent entirely too much time on Martin Luther, let me just tell you. I know a lot more about Martin Luther now.

Zibby: I had flashbacks to fifth-grade workshops with my pencil script filling in, “Who was Martin Luther?” By the way, not that this is any of my business, but it is not too late for you to be a history teacher or anything you want. I have kids at four schools. They would love to have a fabulous author, historian teacher. Just saying, if you think about it. Back to your book, you are the seventh of eleven children.

Angela: I am.

Zibby: What was that like?

Angela: Chaotic. You have four kids. Let’s just triple that, practically.

Zibby: I know. That’s what I’m doing in my head. I want to just crawl under the covers.

Angela: I know. My mother did, probably. I think that it’s not until you have your own kids, to be honest, that you realize what a huge undertaking it is to have one child. One child seems like a huge undertaking when you’re a new parent. Then when you have more than that, it’s like, wow, how did they do that? Did they drink? They didn’t. They actually didn’t drink. They didn’t smoke weed, which a lot of parents are doing apparently. No, they didn’t. It wasn’t easy for them.

Zibby: Are you going to say, also, that they had no help?

Angela: They had no help, obviously. They had no money.

Zibby: How would you even transport everybody anywhere?

Angela: On top of each other’s laps because this is before seatbelts were actually a necessity. I never had a bed to myself. I always had a bed with a couple of siblings. It just depended on the rotating list of who was moving out and that sort of thing. In fairness, my oldest sister is eight years older than me. My youngest is fourteen years younger than me. There were not eleven kids living at home at the same time. I guess there were always eight or nine. It’s hard for me to remember. We had three bedrooms. We were always on top of each other. There was a lot of fighting, who stole what, who decided to wear somebody else’s underwear because their underwear wasn’t clean, the usual siblings but times a lot.

Zibby: Were you in charge of doing all your own chores?

Angela: Yes, everybody had their own chores. We were always mopping with a mop or with a rag on the floor. The house was a mess.

Zibby: Laundry and all that?

Angela: The laundry, we actually didn’t have a washing machine and a dryer for a long time. We had to go up to the trailer court, which is not in the book. We had to go up to the trailer court where they had public laundromat. We had to do laundry on a Sunday afternoon. There were always about ten loads of laundry. We would just hang out for the afternoon. I will say, I think that one of the benefits of it is that those were in some sense, when I look back, absolutely great afternoons. I’d hang out with my sisters. We would laugh and joke and drink Tab.

Zibby: Hello Tab.

Angela: Hello Tab, from the machines. The other thing is that you certainly don’t take things for granted. I think that of all of my siblings in general. I would say they’re all pretty easygoing. You don’t just get all head up about something because it could be worse. It always comes down to that. It wasn’t easy.

Zibby: Since we’re on the Jewish theme with your book and everything, you know that folk tale that’s the topic of many children’s books, how the rabbi comes and the guy has all these kids? He doesn’t know what to do. He says, “Get a cow and see what happens. Now get two roosters.” Then they get all the animals. Then he takes the animals away. He’s like, “Oh, it’s peaceful.” He’s like, “See?”

Angela: Exactly. It’s all about perspective, what you’re used to and that sort of thing. Having said that, I’m very happy whenever I don’t have to share a bed with anybody.

Zibby: You decided to have three kids?

Angela: I did. I have three kids. Honestly, after having kids, I had so much more renewed respect for my parents. Really, no help, worked really hard and had to feed these kids and clothe them and all of that.

Zibby: It’s like having a party every day.

Angela: Not necessarily a fun party.

Zibby: Okay, not a fun party.

Angela: And one bathroom, by the way, just in case you’re wondering.

Zibby: I was wondering.

Angela: One bathroom, lots of loud knocking. “You’ve been in there for at least a half an hour!” I’m very fast in the bathroom now because I never had time there. There’s a personal note.

Zibby: Wow. Was there enough food, though? Did you all have enough to eat?

Angela: We did have enough to eat. One of the things today — I don’t mean to make this a political thing. When people talk about how there should be no government handouts, as somebody who grew up on government handouts, I say, why would you punish the kids, really? We had free lunches at school. There should be free lunches for kids who don’t have food to eat, in my opinion. In fact, I think there should be free lunches for everybody at school. You shouldn’t differentiate between kids because then that also puts them in an embarrassing position. We joke still today about all of the Thanksgivings in which we had beans and cornbread. That was our Thanksgiving. Having said that, I like beans and cornbread. It was okay. My mom really made things stretch. Because my grandparents and my aunts and uncles and so on lived on farms, we also had chickens and a big garden. We did have our own food. We canned food and that sort of thing. There was always food, but it was peanut butter sandwiches, and beans and cornbread, and that sort of thing. Again, it makes you be just be okay with whatever in many respects.

Zibby: I know there’s a scene in your book when you were about eight years old. Your family moved. They thought the end of the world was coming. They had to move houses. You all up and left. Did you feel, at the time, like, oh, my family’s a little different than everyone around me? Were you a part of a whole community where everyone was doing things like that?

Angela: No, we were the only ones in our county who were in this church, the Worldwide Church of God. We were the only ones. My mother’s family was Catholic. My father’s family was Lutheran. They were not happy that we had joined this church. There’s nothing like being a kid and feeling that you’re better than everybody else, secretly. I secretly thought we had the truth and they didn’t. You could feel many things at the same time. It’s a multiplicity of feelings here. I definitely felt different than everybody else. Sometimes that was awkward. Sometimes I really just felt superior, to be honest, because we were chosen and they weren’t. I felt bad about it, that they weren’t chosen. We were. They weren’t. Obviously as an eight-year-old, you buy into anything that your parents tell you. If your parents tell you that Jesus is returning soon — he was supposed to return in 1975. If your parents tell you this, then you believe them. We had a much better house that we left behind than the farmhouse that we moved into which had coal-burning heat. We had to go down in the middle of the night and throw on some wood and some coal. We definitely were living like it was the 1950s in a sense, or ’40s maybe.

Zibby: Or 1850s.

Angela: Maybe a little bit later.

Zibby: This is like Little House on the Prairie.

Angela: Kind of. We had a furnace. It took coal and wood.

Zibby: When you were growing up, I’m so sorry, your sister passed away.

Angela: She did.

Zibby: Can you tell me a little more? Are you okay talking about that?

Angela: I am. I wrote about it. It was one of the hardest things to write about, obviously. It was such a seminal moment in my life. It really, in many respects, was a turning point. Although, I don’t know that I realized it at the time. I was eight years old. My sister was diagnosed with something, a heart illness of some sort. She was nine. She was fifteen months older than me, so we were very close. She suddenly was bedridden. She couldn’t get out of bed. She did have a heart ailment. I believe my parents took her to the local doctor. I know that it was pretty much forbidden in the church to go to medical doctors. You were supposed to have enough faith that God would heal you. If you didn’t have the faith, that was even worse. If you didn’t have faith, you weren’t going to get into the kingdom come. You certainly wanted to have faith that God would heal you. When I was researching the book, I did talk to my parents a little bit about it. It was just really hard to have that conversation as to what exactly happened to her. Could she have been saved had she had better medical care or any medical care? I don’t believe she had any.

Having said that, it was 1973. Heart surgery was really just being pioneered at the time. I was researching this. Open-heart surgery had just begun, I believe. It’s impossible to know if she’d had better care, if she’d had antibiotics — it could’ve just been a case of antibiotics. I really don’t know. It was a really, really hard time to be eleven years old and your sister dies and she’s not coming back. The first time you deal with mortality, it really does slap you on the face. It really does, no matter what your age. It certainly does when you’re eleven. You realize, wow, she’s really not coming back. I guess we didn’t have enough faith. There is also that sense of self-blame, whether it’s yourselves as a family or your individual self, that if this had happened, then that would’ve been taken care of. If I’d had more faith, then she might not have died. I do think that when death happens in inexplicable ways, the people who survive are left with a sense, not just of loss, but of what if? It definitely took me a long time to process that, especially given that I was fifteen months younger than her.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

Angela: Thank you.

Zibby: You had this upbringing. Then you decide when you’re in college that — first, you realize you’re gifted. Your guidance counselor realizes you’re amazingly brilliant and you could go to college.

Angela: No, no, not amazingly.

Zibby: Yes!

Angela: I was smarter than the others. That’s pretty much it.

Zibby: Okay, don’t downplay it. You end up going to college. You’re the first one to go. Is that true? Did I make that up?

Angela: My older brother had gone, but the first girl, yes.

Zibby: The first girl to go. While you’re there, you find a brochure about Israel. You decide you want to go. Then your entire life changes again. Where was this brochure? What did it look like? I want to start reading magical brochures.

Angela: I remember. What happened before that, I will tell you, is I had come home for the weekend, gone to church with my parents. We observed Sabbath on Saturdays, not on Sundays. I went to church with my parents. The minister got up there and pretty much just launched in and said that Satan had got ahold of the church. It was because of women wearing makeup that Jesus couldn’t return. I like makeup. I like it a lot. Really, that was hard for me. I really believed — again, you go back to, it’s almost like a magical realism. If this happened, then this would happen. If I got the Holy Spirit, if I somehow could get that bolt of lightening, then I could get it. I actually went to this office of overseas studies. I was going to go to Germany for the year. Then I saw this other brochure. It looked so sunny and bright compared to Germany, which was a little dark. It was a picture of the Dome of the Rock, which is gorgeous and in Jerusalem. It looked so happy and inviting. All of the words, to me, they were just like porn. Judaean Desert, ooh. Bethlehem, hmm. Nazareth, hmm. I was all excited about the possibility of being in the Holy Land, and holy in the sense that this is exactly where all of the events had taken place. I think that for a lot of people there’s a sense that if you’re in that physical location, whatever that physical location is, then you will be closer to the events that occurred there. I felt like being there would just give me some kind of faith that I was lacking. I thought that it would be fun, to be honest. I just thought it’d be fun. I decided to go.

Zibby: I was really struck by — I’m sitting here with you, obviously. You have long, blond hair and blue eyes. You’re tall. You’re of German descent yourself. When you went to Israel, people were not having it, in a way. They were calling you slutty and feeling you up and doing all sorts of inappropriate things of the time, which is awful. Then you went to Germany where you look like everybody else. You went from feeling completely out of place to completely in place. Somehow, the juxtaposition of those two experiences when you’re the same person, it had so much to do with identity. I don’t know. Tell me how you felt about it.

Angela: It’s funny because growing up in Southern Indiana where everybody was white — seriously, everybody was white. Everybody looked like me, more or less. There were a few variations, obviously. Honestly, if you had dark brown hair, you were considered quite exotic at that time. It’s not that way today, obviously. It’s a much bigger world that we live in. At that time, it really was. It was settled by German Americans. Swiss were still considered a little outsiders. Going to Israel where I never thought about how I looked because I looked like everybody else, to suddenly have that pointed out to me was kind of shocking. That really did make me so much more aware of discrimination on the basis of looks. It also made me aware of being welcoming to people who look different or people who have disabilities or just anybody in general who looks as if they don’t belong.

I’d never had that feeling before of not belonging physically. I didn’t feel like I belonged necessarily spiritually or emotionally, but I didn’t feel like I didn’t belong physically. I belonged very much physically to my town. Being out of place physically was definitely an eye-opener. It made me a lot more sympathetic to minorities because I was suddenly a minority. It was a shocking thing to be a minority. It never occurred to me that I could ever be a minority. It was certainly a good lesson for me, a life lesson of how you treat the stranger amongst you. I will say though, most people were really nice to me, but it was pretty much every day. A lot of Russian Jews have now immigrated to Israel. I just got back from Israel actually last week. They all think I’m Russian. It’s so great. I’m like, great, good. They think I’m Russian now. I don’t think it’s the same anymore. I think that it was really that particular time before there was this influx of Ethiopian Jews and Russian Jews and Jews from other countries.

Zibby: Now you end up converting to Judaism. I won’t go into all of the many events along the way. I don’t want to give everything away. Now that you’re an Upper West Side Jewish person and you have scenes from the Y and all these synagogues and you’re on the West Side, how do you make sense of your religious journey and how you got here? Now do you feel like, yes, this is who you were always meant to be? What’s your sense? What do you tell yourself about the whole thing?

Angela: I really do feel this is exactly who I was intended to be. Even though in many ways, I think that I stumbled into Israel accidentally — I wasn’t planning on going there. There was the brochure. If you want to be a little bit more mystical about it, you can say, as they would say in Yiddish, it’s bashert. It’s meant to be. Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. I don’t really know. I can only say that I’m happy with the choices I’ve made. I’m happy that this is the way it’s turned out for me. This was the right path for me. It’s certainly not the right path for everybody. Not everybody who goes to Israel decides they’re going to become Jewish. They remain Christian. That’s okay too. I went to Israel when I was nineteen. When you go at that time when you really are impressionable, then I think if you’re open to it, you could find all sorts of different paths that you would never have had an option for in Southern Indiana or on the Upper West Side of Manhattan or wherever you come from. Also, being away from home is just such a liberating experience. Nobody’s around. I can do what I want. Literally, it’s halfway across the world. All of those things combined to it. Yes, I feel that my identify, even if in many respects I’m still the kid from Indiana, in terms of faith, Judaism has definitely offered me a different sense of faith and a different experience of God than I had before.

Zibby: What’s coming next for you?

Angela: I’m going back to my original love because I’m tired of talking about myself. I’m working on a novel. It’s a historical novel. It’s not about me. Although, I think that fiction always ends up being about you one way or the other even when you try to avoid it. I’ll give you a little bit. It takes place in the time of King David, which is one of my favorite eras, that Iron Age period. Hopefully, I will maybe educate people a little bit. I’m doing a ton of research again, which is a lot of fun. I started off writing about Michal, who was King Saul’s daughter and King David’s wife. She knew both of the first kingdoms of Israel well as the daughter and the wife. That did not work out so well for her. I’m going to be writing about King David and that era through other lens, not just his lens.

Zibby: So cool. What a great idea.

Angela: I’m having fun.

Zibby: Good luck. I can’t wait to read that. Do you have any parting advice to aspiring authors?

Angela: Aspiring authors, I hope it doesn’t take you fourteen years. If it does, it does. One of the things I’ve heard many times from other writers is, “I don’t know if I can write this. What if my grandma reads it?” Forget grandma because she’s not going to read it. You should only be so grateful that it gets published in the first place. Don’t write the book thinking that it’s going to be published and somebody’s going to read it because it might not get published. Write it anyway. Write it despite everything. If you get so lucky that the book is accepted to be published, you can change it then. There’s always time to say, “You know what? Forget it. I don’t want that scene in there. That scene does not have to go in there.” You can always change it later. Write what you want to write without anybody, not grandma, not anybody on your shoulder. Just write it because it’s yours.

Zibby: I love that. It’s really good. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I really appreciate it.

Angela: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Thank you.


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