Religion and magic at Jewish camp

Review of The Path of Names

As the father of boys who love to read fantasy, I was delighted to hear about The Path of Names, a new book in that genre from a Jewish perspective. Thanks to the PJ Library and our temple library, we’ve been able to give them many wonderful Jewish stories when they were younger. Now that our twin ten-year olds are reading on their own, there seems little from a Jewish perspective to capture their attention. Most popular fantasy is either entirely secular (Harry Potter), or reflects pagan (Percy Jackson) or Christian (Narnia) themes.

How well does The Path of Names work? As someone more inclined to science fiction, I can’t judge the book’s intrinsic appeal to fantasy lovers. But I do think it artfully captures a distinct and vital Jewish message within an engaging and suspenseful narrative.

Imagine the Harry Porter stories told from Hermione Granger’s perspective, absent Harry himself. She’s smart and fascinated with magic, but doesn’t get on well with other kids. Voldemort tries to seduce her into sacrificing her classmates and gaining the power of the dark arts. But then she fights him off, and realizes along the way that love is the greatest magic of all.

Not to spoil the story, but that’s roughly what happens to thirteen-year-old Dahlia, the heroine of The Path of Names – with a key addition. All magic stems from renderings of the name of God. Dahlia learns an especially powerful version of the name, and has to decide whether to embrace the mystical path of divine knowledge, or to return to the material world. She chooses life, even though this means going back to the mean girls who’ve been teasing her, and to her parents who don’t understand her – because human fellowship is what really matters.

All of this takes place at a Jewish summer camp in Penn., similar to Camp JORI where our boys go. Her parents sent her there because they worried she was caught up in her math puzzles, videogames, and sleight-of-hand magic tricks. Forget Hogwarts – this camp is an ordinary magic-free place, except for an abandoned maze on the edge of the property.

The maze turns out to be guarded by the camp’s anti-social custodian. Dahlia sits through a talk on Kabbalah by the camp’s hippie counselor, which eventually leads her to the secret name and the maze. The plot darkens and centers around two girls murdered decades ago. But everything turns ok with a satisfyingly intricate ending.

The book is advertised for kids 10-14, but I haven’t given it to our boys just yet. Think the later, bleaker Harry Potter stories, with less humor. The ghosts here are no laughing matter.

The story invites a sequel, so we can see whether Dahlia has actually changed her outlook on other people. If so, maybe it will dig deeper into its opening epigram, “Religion is just magic, but with more words.”

Path of Names focuses on Kabbalah, the mystical study of higher planes of reality, connecting almost all the way to God. But unlike other mystical systems, which encourage practitioners to free themselves from the ordinary world, Kabbalah grounds itself in our world. By performing acts of kindness and respect, we heal not just our own world but also these higher planes of reality. Our deeds here and now determine what happens above, not the other way around.

What words, what incantations/prayers, would Dahlia have to learn to change her actions?  What can she do to move past the petty insults and snubs common at this camp and the rest of teenage life?  Let’s hope the author tells us in another book.  

JOHN LANDRY ( lives in Providence and has reviewed a number of PJ Library books for The Jewish Voice.