Book Review: Finding a life path

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Sometimes a person’s cultural identity is set when they’re very young. These people feel comfortable within the personal/religious/national identification offered them by family and the surrounding culture. Others struggle with their identities – exploring different options in order to find a place that feels like home. The writers of two recent memoirs belong to this second category: Ilana M. Blumberg examines how her experiences as a teacher led her to move her family to Israel in “Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American” (Rutger’s University Press), while in “A River Could Be a Tree: A Memoir” (Fig Tree Books), Angela Himsel chronicles her travels from evangelical Christianity to Judaism. Both writers portray the difficulties and joys of their spiritual journeys.
Blumberg’s memoir begins with a clash between her American and her Jewish identities. For most of her teaching career, she saw no difference between what she calls her “identity as an observant Jew and a passionate American.” Both of her identities profoundly affected her teaching style, whether she was working in a small Jewish day school with very young children, as a college professor or as a volunteer at a middle school. For Blumberg, her Judaism and her civic Americanism meant her teaching should affect change in the world: “I had been teaching with the belief that there was no meaningful education, whatever the content, without ethics and that the deepest purpose of teaching and studying, particularly the humanities, was not self-advancement or personal pleasure, but the transformation of a world in urgent need of intelligent, sustained care.”
Her teaching ideas were formulated during her time at a Jewish day school. The school sought not just to teach basic skills, but the children themselves. Rather than treating each subject on its own, lessons overlapped – connecting reading to writing to science to nature, etc. Students were encouraged to talk to each other, not just to the teacher, since this created connections between them, allowing them to learn from each other. Unfortunately, Blumberg found it far more difficult to create student-to-student learning in her college courses. When teaching a writing course, she also sought material to make the students think so they not only learn to become better writers, but discover important lessons from the lives of those who were oppressed or had fewer opportunities. While the students did address the material in the classroom, Blumberg realized that few incorporated these lessons into their lives outside the class.
Even worse was her experience volunteering at an impoverished middle school. Classroom doors were locked and supplies were few. Students appeared and disappeared for reasons she wasn’t always able to determine. The experience makes Blumberg look closer at the type of society in which she wants her children to live. It seems to her that there is a divide between American education and the type of education she wants her children to have. This makes her long for something different: “I wanted to go home... to a community of people who believed as I did that the aim of human life was... to transform and make holy. I wanted to be in the company of people who believed that no world where some people suffered because they were poor or black or both was a good enough world.” Blumberg realizes she wants her children to live in that type of community and decides to move to Israel.
Life is not perfect in Israel. It proves impossible to find the same kind of day school her children attended in the U.S. One child in particular has great difficulty adjusting, so much so that the parents visit a psychologist to help deal with the problem. Yet, Blumberg slowly sees her children becoming more Israeli, even as she feels more and more American. She also runs into some of the same problems with her students in an Israeli university setting that she did in an American one. However, that doesn’t leave her dissatisfied with her move, but rather looking for ways to improve her life in Israel.
“Open your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American” made compelling reading because of the author’s open and honest discussions of her successes and failures. She admits her own learning curve – recognizing that she will always have to adjust her expectations and teaching style in order to help different types of students. Readers will rejoice in her successes, while discovering that even the best teachers may not be able to help students overcome all their obstacles.
While Blumberg grew up in a Jewish home, Himsel was raised in an evangelical household that belonged to the Worldwide Church of God. The rest of her parents’ Midwestern families were members of the more traditional Lutheran or Catholic churches. so her parents change of religion proved a source of conflict. Most of the citizens in her home state came from German stock, and she grew up in a family where emotions were rarely expressed. Family life centered around the teaching of the Worldwide Church of God, which was started by the controversial figure Herbert W. Armstrong. Armstrong believed the world would end shortly and the only people to be saved would be those belonging to his church. He based parts of his religion on the Old Testament. While members of his church accepted Jesus as their savior, they did not celebrate Christmas or Easter, instead observing biblical Jewish holidays. He also forbade his followers from seeking medical help no matter how ill they were, something that had a great effect on Himsel and her family.
Himsel longs to travel the world, but figures there won’t be time before the world ends, When that doesn’t occur as early as expected, she finds herself in college and decides to study abroad for a year. Her first thought was to spend the time in Germany since that’s her family’s heritage. However, when she spots a brochure about a year abroad in Israel, she opts to visit the Holy Land in the hopes of having a spiritual experience. The Israel she found in the early 1970s was different from that of the Bible, though: “I pictured Jerusalem as spacious and silent and filled with holy people, people who were friendly and good and might even bear a likeness to the prophets. That expectation soon proved wrong.” Israel, instead, is noisy and full of demanding people. As a young blonde American, Himsel received a great deal of unwanted attention. She does come to appreciate her time there, so much so that she remains in the country for a second year of school.
Adjusting after her return to the Midwest proves difficult. She decides to move to New York City with the help of a friend made in Israel and looks forward to a different type of future. Yet, she finds herself unable to give up the church completely since it offers her a chance to be reunited after death with a loved one. That doesn’t stop her from taking synagogue classes and learning more about Judaism. Dating an older Jewish man on and off, Himsel is unsure what she wants: whether to practice Judaism or any religion. Once she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, she finally decides to convert.
The most interesting sections of “A River Could Be a Tree” described Himsel’s childhood and her parents’ connection to the Worldwide Church of God. Also absorbing were her tales of the hard-scrabble life her parents led and how they kept their faith even during difficult family circumstances. Himsel’s clear and open look at her own life and that of her family shines light on their flaws and on their desire to live a spiritual and worthy, if unconventional, life.