Move over, Harry Potter at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, and make way for Dahlia Sherman at Camp Arava. Scholastic, Inc., the publisher that brought us the biggest-ever phenomenon in children’s literature, has released a mystical fantasy novel for preteen readers set at a Jewish sleep-away summer camp in rural Pennsylvania.
Before long, terms like Kabbalah, golem and gematria will be rolling off kids’ tongues as easily as dementor, horcrux and arithmancy.
“The Path of Names,” by first-time novelist Ari Goelman, has 13-year-old aspiring magician Dahlia arriving at Arava reluctantly, her parents having insisted she attend a session at the camp — where her older brother Tom is a counselor and she’ll meet other Jewish kids — before going to magic camp later in the summer.
As she settles in to her bunk, the aloof and skeptical Dahlia sees two little girls appearing to walk through a wall. She assumes it must be some kind of trick, but soon things get weirder when she dreams about a Hasidic Yeshiva student named David Schank in 1940s New York who has discovered the 72nd name of God. The intelligent and inquisitive Dahlia uses bits of information she picks up from the camp’s flaky Kabbalah club instructor and a mysterious old book to figure out she is being possessed by the spirit of this dead Yeshiva bocher with the same initials as hers.
Schank has enlisted Dahlia to save the ghostly little girls and prevent the leader of an evil organization called “The Illuminated Ones” from learning the mystical name and using it to gain eternal life and the power to uncover all of life’s secrets.
Of course, since this is summer camp, there are also the smelly cabins and communal bathrooms without enough hot water, and the usual cast of characters, including the mean girls, the geeky kids, the cute counselors, and the annoying guy who tells everyone he and Dahlia are a couple, when they’re most definitely not. And this also being a Jewish camp, there are announcements and songs in Hebrew, Israeli dance classes, and visiting post-army service Israeli counselors with thick accents.
Critically, Camp Arava has a very old and grumpy groundskeeper who is intent on keeping kids out of an overgrown hedge maze not far from the camp’s pool. Readers eventually discover that both the man (well, not exactly — but no spoilers here) and the maze are key to the mystery Dahlia must solve and the enemy she must face.
“The camp setting came first for me, then I decided to make it a fantasy,” Goelman told The Times of Israel. Unlike his protagonist, Goelman, who now lives and works as a university professor in Vancouver, grew up in suburban Philadelphia looking forward to going to Jewish camp every summer.
Although his family belonged to a Conservative synagogue, there is no doubt in the author’s mind that his positive Jewish identity came from his 13 summers at Camp Galil in Ottsville, Pennsylvania. Over the years he progressed from camper to counselor to director at the Habonim Dror-affiliated camp.
‘They never tell you in Hebrew school about all these rabbis in the Talmud who threw lightning at their enemies’
The Labor Zionist environment was a good fit for Goelman, who had lived in Israel during his father’s several sabbaticals at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, and who never liked religious observance.
“My dad had been involved in Habonim, my grandfather had been in Hashomer, and my uncle went to Camp Galil, as I and my siblings did,” he said. “It would be fair to say that there was lefty Zionism in our family.”
Goelman, 40, wrote the first draft for “The Path of Names” in three months in 2009, expanding on a short story he had written almost a decade earlier while taking a year off to try his hand at writing before pursuing a PhD in urban studies at MIT. Just as he was certain he wanted to set it at a Jewish camp, he was also sure it was going to be a fantasy.
“I read everything as a kid, but I really loved fantasy. And pretty much everything I write now is in the fantasy genre,” he said.
However, when it came to both magic and mysticism, Goelman had no personal experience to go on.
“Fortunately, my uncle is a Jewish Renewal rabbi, so I was able to ask him a lot of questions,” he shared. “I really studied up on Jewish mysticism, and I discovered that they never tell you in Hebrew school about all these rabbis in the Talmud who threw lightning at their enemies.”
Given the book’s general audience, he was somewhat concerned about making the book “too Jewish.” Camp Arava’s secular atmosphere helps, as does Dahlia’s not having a strong Jewish educational background.
“That way, the reader learns these Jewish concepts and Hebrew terms along with Dahlia,” the author explained. “And my editors actually suggested that I put in more explanations to make the Jewish things even more explicit.”
“To Jews, this book might seem very Jewish, but to non-Jews it’s about a magic system, about good guys and bad guys,” Goelman said. “And stories with secret societies and heroes who rise to the demands are always fun.”
“Of course, I do anticipate some nitpicking from the Jewish community.”
Some may find troubling a scene where the son of the Yebavner (a fictional Hasidic sect) Rebbe, at the behest of his father, shoots an Illuminated One point-blank to keep him from harming David Schank and finding out the 72nd name. He then — again, on the orders of the Rebbe — turns Schank out into the street, banishing him forever from the fold.
“I realized that one of the reasons I, perhaps naively, haven’t worried much about that is I think the Yebavner Rebbe comes off pretty well. Everything he does, he does for the sake of the community,” Goelman reflected. “He gives up on the chance of this amazing piece of learning, as he’s worried it will make his community less safe. He uses his foresight entirely in the service of his community rather than to make himself wealthy or powerful.”
As can be seen from this example, like in the Harry Potter books, there is violence in “The Path of Names.” But it is mainly implied.
‘I do anticipate some nitpicking from the Jewish community’
“Dahlia does go into a scary place, but she is not physically hurt,” the author said. He also pointed out that kids at that age, when their bodies are resilient, don’t understand their own mortality and put themselves into dangerous situations without first making the calculations that adults would.
For those preteen readers who see beyond the Kabbalah-fueled action, there are moral takeaways from Dahlia’s adventures at Camp Arava. Although Dahlia is the brave hero, there is something that appeals to her about the rationality of what the evil The Illuminated Ones’ leader says.
“This speaks to our tendency to rationalize things and look away, to the fact that we are complicit to so many of the bad things in our world,” Goelman said.
Only after finishing the novel and seeing how Dahlia has moved away from her self-imposed isolation, did he realize that there is also a message about the importance of being connected with others and of being responsible to one’s community.
“Community and relationships are hard, but as you grow up you begin to value these things.”
Goelman has already completed another middle-grade novel, which he is now working on getting published. He loves writing for this age group.
“There are things you can do for this audience that are not limited by genres. You can cross boundaries.”