A Riv­er Could Be a Tree: A Memoir

By – June 17, 2019

Just think what would hap­pen,” the author’s father rails, dri­ving to church with his ten chil­dren piled into the shab­by Cadil­lac, if a riv­er thought it could be a tree!” Or, so the author’s choice of title implies, if a fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­t­ian could become a Jew.

Improb­a­ble as that may sound, it was actu­al­ly not so improb­a­ble giv­en that the author was raised in the World­wide Church of God, where the Sab­bath was kept, begin­ning at sun­set on Fri­day night. Her fam­i­ly also observed Passover and the Feast of Taber­na­cles (Sukkot), with­out ever acknowl­edg­ing that these were Jew­ish hol­i­days. Lit­tle did they know that not far from their ham­let in South­ern Indi­ana, were Jews whose hol­i­days they were cel­e­brat­ing and com­mand­ments they were keeping.

Himsel’s ren­der­ing of her child­hood is evoca­tive and engag­ing. Sat­ur­days belonged to God and meant attend­ing ser­vices, lis­ten­ing to cler­gy hol­ler­ing about the end of days. Sun­days belonged to fam­i­ly. Himsel’s por­tray­al of her pater­nal Catholic, Ger­man grand­moth­er is par­tic­u­lar­ly well done, despite some errors in Ger­man spelling and phrases.

The author’s quest to pro­pel her­self out of her child­hood world of small hori­zons comes as no sur­prise. The vis­its of the pub­lic library bus were a child­hood high­light, and she dreams, ear­ly on, of see­ing the world. Her par­ents prove more tol­er­ant than one might expect and don’t oppose the author going to col­lege or study­ing at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty in Jerusalem.

Here the nar­ra­tive becomes occa­sion­al­ly com­i­cal as she trav­els to Israel search­ing for the bib­li­cal land: Not only had I been unpre­pared for Jews liv­ing in Israel, I hadn’t expect­ed Arabs, either.” She brings the Israel of the 1980s to life quite effec­tive­ly. Back then, for exam­ple, a pale blond girl like her stuck out, as Sovi­et Jews hadn’t arrived yet.

Curi­ous­ly, how­ev­er, the author’s jour­ney to becom­ing a Jew does not begin in Israel. Even though she expe­ri­ences many Jew­ish hol­i­days there, she offers no reflec­tion on how those dif­fered from her church’s prac­tices nor how they affect­ed her. No spir­i­tu­al aha” moment is shared, even in the lat­er chap­ters that describe her oscil­lat­ing path towards con­ver­sion, when her sud­den preg­nan­cy forces her and her Jew­ish boyfriend to final­ly decide where their rela­tion­ship is heading.

The last chap­ters address the author’s life as a Jew. While the inter­sec­tions of her fam­i­ly of origin’s Chris­t­ian life and her own family’s Jew­ish one could have offered insight on how to nav­i­gate such chal­lenges, they instead por­tray a seem­ing­ly easy jostling of obser­vances and tra­di­tions. The author’s par­ents’ remark­able tol­er­ance seems ground­ed in the sin­cere earnest­ness with which they pur­sued their own spir­i­tu­al quest. If their daugh­ter chose a dif­fer­ent quest, so be it. At least her father-in-law, a rab­bi, could final­ly explain to her dad the count­ing of the Jew­ish years. How endear­ing that that would be her dad’s prin­ci­pal con­cern when he is invit­ed to his first grandson’s bris!

While the sto­ry is less about per­son­al trans­for­ma­tion than one might expect, A Riv­er Could Be a Tree presents a lov­ing and high­ly read­able fam­i­ly portrait.

Annette Gendler’s work has appeared in the Wall Street Jour­nal, Tablet Mag­a­zine, Kveller, Bel­la Grace, and Art­ful Blog­ging, among oth­ers. She served as the 2014 – 2015 writer-in-res­i­dence at the Hem­ing­way Birth­place Home in Oak Park, Illi­nois. Born in New Jer­sey, she grew up in Munich, Ger­many, and now lives in Chica­go where she teach­es mem­oir writing.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Angela Himsel

  1. How does the title reflect the author’s own per­son­al journey?

  2. The author opens the mem­oir dis­cov­er­ing that she didn’t get her peri­od. The blood nev­er came,” con­cludes the pref­ace. This her­alds her preg­nan­cy and the begin­ning of life. How does the con­cept of blood” play a role in the telling of the story?

  3. The author’s par­ents left their respec­tive Chris­t­ian faiths – Catholi­cism and Lutheranism – and chose a new strain of Chris­tian­i­ty. Did her par­ents’ will­ing­ness to defy their fam­i­lies affect Himsel’s abil­i­ty to make her own reli­gious choice?

  4. While Himsel’s sto­ry mir­rors much of America’s his­to­ry – from immi­gra­tion to two World Wars to the shift from rur­al to city life, as well as the rise of fem­i­nism (and the push­back against it), and inter­mar­riage – is hers a quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can sto­ry? How or how not?

  5. A Riv­er Could Be a Tree takes place in Chris­t­ian, white, rur­al south­ern Indi­ana, Jerusalem and the West Bank, and mul­ti­cul­tur­al New York City. In what ways do the three vast­ly dif­fer­ent geo­graph­i­cal set­tings inform the author’s expe­ri­ences and choices?

  6. Does the tone of the mem­oir change as the author changes? If so, in what ways?

  7. How does mak­ing friends with peo­ple liv­ing in the West Bank affect the author’s view of the Israeli/​Palestinian conflict?

  8. While Himsel’s life expe­ri­ences are cer­tain­ly unique, is there a com­mon thread in her sto­ry that res­onates uni­ver­sal­ly? What might that be?

  9. The author leaves her devout Chris­t­ian back­ground and becomes Jew­ish, and fore­goes a small town for the big city. Despite what she reject­ed, what does she still hold on to?

  10. What scenes stayed with you when you fin­ished read­ing A Riv­er Could Be a Tree? Why?