Quick! How many current middle grade fantasy books can you think of whose magic is rooted in Judaism? There was a flowering of Golem books a little while ago--here's a good summary, and there's The Inquisitor's Apprentice, and its forthcoming sequel. There are a number of other fantasy books whose protagonists are Jewish, but which don't take place in an imagined space in which Judaism and magic co-mingle.
This space, however, is exactly where The Path of Names, by Ari Goelman (Scholastic, April, 2013), is set, and to make it even more unusual, it is primarily contemporary. The setting is a camp for Jewish kids, and the magic that drives the plot comes specifically and exclusively from the magic of the Kabbalah.
13-year old Dahlia did not want to go to a camp for Jewish kids. She wanted to spend all her summer at magic (the stage kind) camp, honing her skills as a magician. As a math and magic geek, she's pretty certain that this paritular camp isn't going to full of new friends. (Irrelevant aside--I tried going to camp only once--Scottish dancing camp--when I was a grown-up. It was horrible. All the other campers knew each other already. I felt for Dahlia.)
And Dahlia did not want to start seeing ghosts--two little girls who only she could see, who seemed to be trying to communicate to her. And she most certainly did not want to be possessed (on occasion) by the spirit of a long-dead young Rabbi from New York, whose book of esoteric writings just happened to show up on the camp bookshelf...
And Dahlia most certainly did not want to be involved in a life or death struggle in which she is forced to use her fledgling understanding of the Kabbalah against an extremely powerful enemy willing to kill children in his quest for magical power...
I think this is one that will appeal most strongly to the self-identified geek girl. The mystery and the magic and the backstory and the subplots are complex and somewhat esoteric, and as a result it helps to pay close attention while reading. Happily for me, I found the story more than interesting enough to do so. The parts that I liked best were the flashbacks to the story of the young Orthodox Jewish man who is haunting Dahlia. He's a young man who has found the 72nd Name of God, in a system of belief where names and numbers have real power--power for which bad guys will kill-- and his story is tremendously exiting.
But sadly for me, I never managed to care all that much about Dahlia as a person. She's kind of cross at life for most of the book, and rather stiff--and not tremendously sympathetic, emotionally, although intellectually she was more so. And, again on a personal level, I never quite found that the supernatural elements of this story (and there were lots of them, very interesting ones) ever roused in me more than intellectual curiosity. In short, this isn't a book that pulled on my heart or made my hair stand on end.
Your mileage may, of course, vary--and I do, as I said above, think that there is an audience for this one--the smart, mystery-loving 10-12 year old girl (especially the one who likes math puzzles and who doesn't care for summer camp bonding activities).
So, having written my own review, I'm now curious to see what other people thought, especially since I myself had a trouble deciding whether I really liked it (interesting, engrossing story!) or not (left kind of disappointed emotionally).
Here's what Kirkus had to say. I don't know why they put 12-15 for age of reader. There isn't any sex, and the horrible deaths (not that many of them, and not that horrible) happened in the past, the bad guy is less scary than Voldemort, and Dahlia is only 13. The Kirkus reviewer calls the book "challenging," so maybe that's it, but if that's the case, I think it underestimates the 11 year olds of today, whose minds seem to me considerably more agile than those of most adults. Typical smart 11 year old--oh, esoteric system of numerology that involves the hidden names of God? Bring it on.
You can read the starred Booklist review at Amazon, but here's the punch line: "With the help of her friends, she uses her mystical powers to confront the Illuminated One, who selfishly seeks the name for himself. Debut author Goelman’s story is full of exciting plot twists and well-rounded, engaging characters—all amped up by thrilling esoteric magic." Ok, maybe it was just me not hitting it off with Dahlia.
And finally, here's an interview with Ari Goelman at The Lucky 13s.
Feel free to mention any other contemporary fantasy books drawing on Judaism in the comments (which is to say, not books in which the main character just happens to be Jewish and then meets a unicorn or whatever).
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher