On Saturday mornings, my father roused us with, “Boys, girls, get up! You got to make hay while the sun shines!”
We exited our rooms — there were two or three or four siblings per room, depending on the year, and we fought over access to the one bathroom. Then we ate a quick breakfast of oatmeal or Cream of Wheat. My mother was a devotee of anything natural and unprocessed and authentic. Wheat germ and blackstrap molasses were mainstays. We looked suspiciously on Cap’n Crunch.
My four brothers, scrubbed and pink-cheeked, ears jutting out below the almost military-style haircuts that our doomsday Worldwide Church of God demanded, wore ill-fitting hand-me-down suits. My five sisters and I wore dresses that came to the middle of our kneecaps, in accordance with church doctrine. Just as Saturday was set apart from the rest of the week, I felt distinctly set apart from, and indeed superior to, our neighbors on the Sabbath. As members of the Worldwide Church of God, we followed a strict set of dogmatic law — as believers in the imminent return of Jesus and the End of Days, we observed all biblical holidays and dietary laws, were forbidden from celebrating popular American holidays, and women were obligated to obey their fathers and husbands.
But still, I yearned to belong to the America outside. I learned early to squelch personal desires like exchanging Valentine’s Day cards with my classmates, giving and receiving Christmas presents, or eating turtle soup (against biblical dietary laws) at my grandparents’ house. Anything that didn’t fit in with the life I was supposed to live. Anything that prevented me from getting closer to God.
We piled into one of our rotating, fixer-upper, ancient Cadillacs and drove past rural Indiana’s weathered barns and billboards that urged us to “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco.” Stacked on top of one another in the car, we grumbled and complained. We were bored. Jim took up too much room; Ed was deliberately bumping his legs up and down, causing Liz, who was seated on his lap, to lunge forward almost into the front seat. Wanda wanted the window rolled up because her AquaNet-ed hair was getting messed up, and Paul was sure that I had deliberately elbowed him. Within minutes my father yelled, “Would you kids PIPE IT DOWN!”
It was an hour and a half drive to Evansville, where we attended church services at a seedy gray building that the church rented from the Order of Owls, a fraternal society founded in South Bend, Indiana. In 1904, it was open to white men only. Our church, the Worldwide Church of God (now more mainstream evangelical and known as Grace Communion International) had no connection to the Owls, except to rent “The Owl’s Home” on Saturday afternoon. The church did not build or own houses of worship. This would have cost money and deprived it of money needed to preach the gospel to the world. Instead, rented movie theaters, Masonic lodges, auditoriums, and various other public spaces served as our “churches” for Saturday services.
During the long ride, my father railed against the evils of drugs, miniskirts, evolutionists, and women’s libbers, all of which seemed to have overtaken America like a scourge in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was the time of Woodstock, the Summer of Love, the long-haired Beatles, and bra-burning women.
Incensed that women no longer knew “their place,” Dad made his case as he drove: “God created a role for everything in the universe. Just think what would happen if a river thought it could be a tree! God is not the author of confusion. It says that in the Bible, and women are confusing the way God intended them to be. They’re so mixed up these days that they’re mixing everybody else up. A wife is supposed to submit herself to her husband, for he is her head even as Christ is the head of the Church.”
The ministers often quoted this verse from the book of Ephesians, the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, to justify why wives should neither make decisions on their own nor work outside the home if their husbands didn’t want them to. In all things, one’s husband had final say.
“And Mama,” my father continued, “You should know that. It won’t work, with you pullin’ gee, and me pullin’ haw.”
I imagined my father hitched to the plow, calling, “Haw!” while my mother shook her head and pulled in a different direction, “Gee!” He often accused her of deliberately undermining him. Which she did: covering for my older teenage siblings when they went out on Friday nights, the Sabbath, and turning a blind eye to my older sisters rolling up the waistband of their skirts to shorten them when they left for school.
I tuned out my father’s loud, tiresome, and contentious diatribes that made my heart jump and immersed myself in a word search puzzle or reading Trixie Belden. With books, I learned the useful art of tuning out things I didn’t want to hear.
When I was in my teens and the 1970s women’s movement -— Ms. magazine; Roe v. Wade; Hel:en Reddy’s feminist anthem song “I Am Woman” — was in full swing, I started challenging my father during those car ride lectures. While I still believed the Bible was God’s sacred word and contained laws that regulated how we should live, I thought the Bible could be interpreted in more than one way. I questioned why things had to remain the same.
“Daddy, I don’t believe that God created men and women unequal,” I argued. “Or that one of us is supposed to serve the other. We’re all the same in the eyes of God.”
“Tater Doll,” my father literally threw up his hand and said, “You’re so stubborn, a team of twenty mules ain’t gonna change your mind. You would argue with the devil if you thought you were right!”
I took that as a compliment.
When we arrived at church, a deacon stood at the door and greeted us with a big smile and outstretched hand. “Mr. Himsel, Mrs. Himsel.” Close to 200 people attended services with us every Saturday. They came from the tristate area: southern Indiana, southern Illinois, and northwest Kentucky. Until the mid-1970s, they were all white. Growing up, I was oblivious to the lack of racial diversity in the church — not shocking, given that this church stated dogmatically that blacks were intended by God to be slaves because their ancestor, Noah’s son Ham, was cursed to be “a servant of servants unto his brethren”?
My mother greeted other women warmly by their first names, while my father offered a formal handshake and addressed everyone by “Mr.” and “Mrs.” We walked down the aisle to claim a row of hard metal chairs, where we would sit for the next two hours. Wanda, eight years older than me, and Mary, four years older, often sat with friends they’d made. My older brothers, Jim, Ed, and Paul, sat with us. Sarah, the youngest, sat between my parents and occupied herself with her coloring books. Abby, Liz, John, and I — all of us a little over a year apart in age — were clumped together, and we shared a hymnal, passed notes, and poked each other if someone was yawning loudly or if a whisper had become too loud.
In the back was a soda vending machine. The deacons had placed a piece of paper over the coin slot so we could not buy soda on the Sabbath, as we were forbidden to shop or spend money. While we were, of course, not allowed to work on the Sabbath, the church shifted its position on what exactly constituted “work” whenever “new truths” were revealed to Herbert Armstrong, founder of our church. At one point, we were not even allowed to buy gas for the car to drive to services; later, a new truth emerged to allow us to buy gas if it was an emergency. It was difficult to keep track of the ever-changing rules, and just as I’d figured something out, it was changed. Being part of the church felt — like everything else in my life at the time — like walking on spiritual quicksand.
Years later, I found my way to Indiana University.
During sophomore year, I looked into studying abroad in my ancestral country of Germany, but when I stopped by the Overseas Office to apply, I spied another brochure — for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. 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. So just like that, I twisted, I turned, much as I change lanes while driving — swiftly, at the last second, and often without looking into my rearview mirror to check the traffic. Good-bye castles, hello camels. The Holy Spirit beckoned.
It was fascinating to see that Israel bore little resemblance to the country I’d expected to find. In my imagination, time there had stopped after the first century. Though reason should have dictated that I wouldn’t find men in tunics and sandals watering their camels at the wells, my emotional understanding of Israel was strictly connected to its past. Aside from the Holocaust, I knew nothing about Jewish history. What had happened to Israel, or to the Jews, in the 2,000 years since Jesus was crucified, I didn’t know. But I wanted to find out.
I stayed in Jerusalem for two years, and became increasingly drawn to Judaism. From Shabbatot spent in Israeli homes across the country, to studying Hebrew and the Bible — I was captivated by Judaism’s focus on how to live and behave in this world, not merely on how to get into the next one. I was fascinated by Judaism’s openness to be challenged — the exact antithesis of my education in the church.
I returned to the States at age 21, and moved to New York City, where I continued my own exploration of Judaism through various classes. There, I started dating a Jewish man, an Orthodox rabbi’s son in fact, whom I would later marry. But I decided to convert on my own, and on my own terms.
When I called my parents and told them I was converting to Judaism, my father said, “I see. Well, you’re an adult now, and you got to make your own decisions. Your mama and me, we done our best, and when I meet my Maker, I can honestly say that I done my best.”
“Yes, you did,” I agreed.
In retrospect, when I think back on the family car rides in Jasper, I see that they marked the beginning of me digging around in my soul, and of me challenging my upbringing. I spent years trying to excavate the answers buried there, the same ones that had troubled my parents: Where were we from? And where were we going?
I could never have known that the journey would lead me to where I am now: A Jewish New Yorker. When I look at my three children, I see how the branches of our families’ trees reach toward the past and sway into the future, “l’dor v’dor,” from generation to generation. Their roots are nourished by the Patoka River and the Jordan River, the Hudson River and the East River. My children are a future I was petrified would never come.
Angela Himsel grew up in Jasper, Indiana as a member of the doomsday Christian faith, the Worldwide Church of God, now a mainstream evangelical church known as Grace Communion International. Her life-long search for salvation and understanding led her across the globe, ultimately bringing her to a very unexpected place: As a practicing Jew on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Angela’s memoir “A River Could Be a Tree,” out on November 13th by Fig Tree Books, recounts that journey. For more, visit angelahimsel.com or figtreebooks.net.