The Path of Names: what would probably happen if Harry Potter was a girl at Jewish summer camp

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Ari Goelman’s The Path of Names.
I was flipping through the internet one day when I saw a tweet that likened Ari Goelman’s recently published The Path of Names to a Jewish Harry Potter tale, and immediately clicked over to read the article. You guys probably know by now that I take my 14-year-long Harry Potter fandom and all references to the series very seriously, so of course (of course!) I had to check it out.

Young Adult (YA) fiction is a badass genre loved by tweens, teens, and adults alike and I figured several of you’d be interested in the book based on a sheer love for all things YA. I had a few accessibility concerns since the setting for the book is a Jewish summer camp and I have no idea how many of you are Jewish, but was assured by several sources online that Jewish terms and references in the book would be way easy for anyone to follow.

With that, I dove headfirst in. And I have to tell you: guys, I love this book.

In trying to figure out the best way to review the book, I realized I had a two big options. I could just ramble on for 1,500 words about what I love and why, or I could concisely spell out the high and low points that I perceived. Honestly, I kind of just want to call them medium points, because I don’t think I could refer to any part of the book as a “low” point. Here goes:

The plot

I’m trying extra hard to give away as little as possible because mystery is a big part of the reading experience, so I’ll be careful. The premise is relatively straight-forward: our protagonist, Dahlia, is being sent to summer camp by her parents. The camp is distinctly Jewish, and Dahlia is totally annoyed that she even has to be there in the first place — especially since her older brother is a counselor. She agreed to go only if her parents in turn agreed she could attend magic camp later that summer, and is resolved to practice magic for the oh-so-long week that she has to be at camp.

Dahlia is an aspiring magician, which is crucial to the entire plot of the book. Within minutes of arriving at camp she’s convinced she’s seen two ghosts, and a few days later she’s having eerily realistic dreams about a young man on the run in New York City. To make things a little weirder, there’s a gigantic hedge maze at the camp that the creepy caretaker Barry warns all the campers to stay away from — but no one knows why.

Even though she hates nature walks and really wishes she could be anywhere else on the planet, Dahlia finds herself making a few friends. Everything at camp is ok until she picks up a book during a Kabbalah class and can’t seem to get rid of it.

And! That’s all I can say.

You really don’t need to know anything about Judaism to get it

I’m ethnically part Jewish but wasn’t remotely raised in the religion. I know a few things that I’ve picked up here and there, and have a file stored away in the back of my head of pop culture and holiday-related terms to pull out when relevant. I know enough to know that Judaism isn’t just a religion — as with many faiths it’s also a philosophy and way of life — and that there are many ways Judaism is practiced. Before reading the book I knew about Hebrew but not how to read it, and I had never heard the world golem except in relation to Gollum from Lord of the Rings (also, I know they’re not related but don’t even know enough to know if that’s offensive to say). I’m laying this out there to tell you that you don’t need to know anything about Judaism to follow — and get way into — this book.

I also didn’t realize how mystic Judaism can be — I’ve heard of Kabbalah because Madonna practices it, and had no clue that originally Kabbalah was used to define the inner meaning of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh). Color me ridiculous, but it had never occurred to me to look it up. Having not been raised in or even around Judaism for most of my life, I knew nothing about the more esoteric side of Judaism. In fact, before I started the book I was curious to see how a book could be about magic and religion at the same time (and truth be told, I still don’t know how much of what is said in the book is actually, you know, real Judaism).

If you ARE Jewish or have spent a lot of time studying Judaism, get ready to geek out hard. I don’t have the life experience, but I’m pretty sure anyone who has attended a Jewish summer camp or had to figure out the numeric value of Hebrew letters is going to get a MASSIVE giggle out of a lot of the stuff talked about in the book.

The reading experience

I was immediately into Dahlia’s story and related to a lot of what she was experiencing, even though I’m now a 28-year-old woman who has never actually been to summer camp for longer than two days (and that one was Southern Baptist!). Due to things like work and motherhood I didn’t have a chance to read it again for a few days, but I found myself wondering what would happen and thinking about the story whenever I had a chance. Like I said: hooked.

The middle of the book has a few slow sections, which mostly have to do with filler details about camper interactions and relationships. I wasn’t as into that because I don’t presently have a relate-able area of my life — like I said, I’m 28, married, and have a four-year-old. The tween and teen dramatics would probably totally keep the interest of a younger reader, and everything is extreeeeemely well-written so I stayed with it.

Chapter 19 was the turning point for me — the point where I knew that I was going to be way, way in love with this book by the time I was finished reading. I can’t tell you why, obviously, but I’m pretty sure at least a few of you will feel the same way. I don’t even WANT to get started on everything from Chapter 28 on until some of you had read it (maybe a Book Club revival is in order?), so get back to me.

Read it, and let’s discuss

There’s only so much I can say before I start getting into details that I don’t want to divulge. There are tons of interviews with the author out there right now, and you can easily find the book online or locally. And I really, really hope some of y’all do, because I need to talk about this book, like, yesterday.

Comments on The Path of Names: what would probably happen if Harry Potter was a girl at Jewish summer camp

  1. I’ll check it out! I just can’t quit YA lit.

    On another note, if you want to read AWESOME fantasy that has more in depth stuff with golems, I highly recommend Terry Pratchett. They’re lifted from traditional Jewish golems, but they’re definitely Pratchified so if you’re researching your Jewish heritage, start elsewhere 🙂
    The two books that come to mind are Feet of Clay and Making Money.

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