Angela Himsel – A River could be a Tree

Fig Tree Books, New York, USA, 2018

As I sit down to write this, the ACT has just entered a seven-day COVID-19 lockdown, its first since early 2020, and I am reminded how very important books and words are to me, have always been to me. Books are a source of solace, information, mind expansion, vicarious experiences, armchair travel and joy.

Barbie spoke to Angela Himsel via Zoom

I am also reminded as I think over my reading of Angela Himsel’s fascinating and beautifully written memoir and my recent conversation with her, thanks to the marvels of Zoom, how many momentous world events come within the scope of this book – so much that has been survived and overcome by people everywhere across generations.

Angela Himsel grew up in Jasper Indiana under the influence of her evangelical church, The Worldwide Church of God. Her heritage is German, speaking of the religious schisms of previous centuries and in the twentieth century of questions of morality and expediency. Her life so far has been an interesting one, to say the least, much of it a quest for answers to the unanswerable, a determination to find a single truth where no such thing exists.

With Catholic and Lutheran roots, the author travels to Israel during her university studies – perhaps a strange choice, but it seems that something about biblical history was always a pull. There her world is expanded to learn, amongst other things,  about Judaism, Islam and the realities of modern Israel, as opposed to an imagined time freeze of biblical stories.

Later, living in New York, experiences as well as intellectual and spiritual investigations led her to a religious practice of ‘Jewishness’, which she found she liked. Thence to a relationship, a pregnancy and a marriage with a Jewish man.

This summary does no justice to the intimate and detailed ruminations Angela Himsel shares with us, along with the minutiae of her family life, her studies, her flashes of understanding and insight, her foibles and strengths candidly on show. It makes for engrossing reading and for me was a view into a world I would otherwise have been unlikely to share, or even to see.

The author’s easy conversational style could beguile us into mistaking this as a chatty memoir. It is in fact a substantial work which explores the nature of family, of heritage and of love. We are all surely seeking our identity from the moment of our birth and in this work, Angela allows us entrée into her deep desire from childhood to somehow enter a state of grace.

Now in her mid-years she seems to have found that grace in an outward looking mind, one that in the words of her foreword writer Shulem Deen, allows myth to be dispelled and ‘life supporting illusions’ to be shattered without fundamental loss, and replaced by a focus on bigger questions for the world rather than a navel gazing search for personal salvation.

I loved this book. It gave me so much to think about and brought me worlds we cannot currently visit, as well as figurative worlds we can only see through the shared experiences of generous others.

Thank you to Fig Tree Books for my review copy and to Angela for a generous conversation. Thanks also to New York writer Esther Amini (Concealed, Greenpoint Press, NY, 2020 – see https://www.livingartscanberra.com.au/esther-amini-concealed/ ) for the introduction to Angela and her work. I met Esther through the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. So delightful the way one thing leads to another.