For 20 years, the Harry Potter series has captivated readers and moviegoers with its characters who become family and its overall, well, magic.
To compare it to something like a Torah may seem extreme, but for Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, it isn’t too far off.
The two started the weekly podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text last year, which they’re bringing to PhilaMOCA on July 17 for a sold-out live show.
As Zoltan was working on her thesis at Harvard Divinity School — where the two work and studied — about treating secular texts as sacred, she used Jane Eyre in a community class as an example for research.
Four women came each week, as community was one of three factors needed to treat a text as sacred. Another factor requires trust that the more time you spend with a text, the more blessings it will give you, and a third is that you have to treat the text with rigor.
While the Charlotte Brontë classic is interesting, ter Kuile had a friendly suggestion.
“He came to the classes and at the end of the class … he was like, ‘Vanessa, this is so cool what you’re doing, it’s really amazing but it would be even better if you did it with a book people actually read,’” she recalled. “And I was like, ‘What book is good enough that people actually read?’ And he was like, ‘Harry Potter.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a really good idea.’”
They started a class examining Harry Potter as a sacred text and 90 people showed up to the first session. About 40 people stuck with it, but more started writing to them asking if there was a way to Skype in or if they would hold a webinar.
From that, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text was born.
“On a very selfish, personal level, I’ve loved just the rigor of it,” she said. “The studio time has become sort of like going to shul — we do our preparation work, we read on our own and study and prepare. Then we show up and it’s minyan, we discuss the text together in a small room, Casper, Ariana [Nedelman, producer] and I. It’s become its own sacred practice, not just on a performance level.”
Each episode begins with ter Kuile and Zoltan playfully competing against one another to give the best 30-second recap of the chapter they’ll look at through the lens of a specific theme. They’ve used “commitment” or “being a stranger” when they started the first book to “rivalry” and “frustration” in Prisoner of Azkaban, which they’re in the midst of now.
They use spiritual practices such as Lectio Divina and the Jewish practices of havruta and pardes to look deeper into the chapters for meaning.
Zoltan, an “aspiring Hufflepuff” (Pottermore dubbed her a Slytherin) who grew up in Los Angeles, didn’t start reading the series until she was in her 20s when she and a date swapped their favorite books. For her end of the deal, she had to read the first three in the series. By the end of Prisoner of Azkaban, she was hooked.
“I just could not put it down,” she said. “It just felt incredibly high stakes in a way that felt different from a lot of children’s literature, or frankly a lot of literature.”
The podcast has given her the opportunity to delve deeper into not only the books, but her Judaism.
While neither Harry, Ron nor Hermione were Jewish (there was a mention of an Anthony Goldstein in Order of the Phoenix, however), there are plenty of Jewish themes and ideas to be discovered — not the least of which are World War II parallels.
In fact, she recently co-wrote an article for Tablet supporting the idea that the series enter the canon of Holocaust literature.
“They get to the heart of a lot of the things that we want kids to learn about the Holocaust — the banality of evil, the arbitrariness of survival, the way that good and evil interact — and it does so in a fantastical way that isn’t necessarily as traumatizing as studying the Holocaust at a young age,” she said.
Throughout the episodes, Zoltan has found numerous Jewish references, from something as sweeping as World War II to potential symbolism in Dudley Dursley’s 36 birthday presents in Sorcerer’s Stone. Double chai, she noted.
The double chai reference is “not necessarily intentionally Jewish the way that Holocaust imagery really is intentionally Jewish,” she added, “but just because I was raised so Jewish, I see Judaism everywhere within it.”
The podcast has grown since its 2016 beginnings, and Zoltan is looking forward to examining Deathly Hallows (her favorite book) and meeting more listeners during the live events.
The live shows are intentionally structured like a church or temple service, she said, including opening sermons.
“You turn to a neighbor and share things, we have moments of reflection, there’s music, we end on offering a blessing. We use spiritual practices in each of the shows,” she explained.
She’s excited for the Philly show not just for the chance to meet listeners but to head to Sabrina’s Cafe for challah French toast — a staple she’s been missing since working for her master’s in nonprofit management at the University of Pennsylvania.
She hopes the podcast continues to connect with listeners as they go through the books, and she and ter Kuile have started developing videos and lessons for communities that have started their own “Harry Potter as a Sacred Text” classes.
“In a perfect world what the podcast is doing is giving people the opportunity to train themselves to be kinder and braver, so that is the goal,” she said, “and then the other thing is any solace it offers to people through tough times.”
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