Vanessa Zoltan believes in literature like it’s religion — and she’s out to prove that the two are hardly different. After leaving a progressless career in education reform, the self-described “devout Jewish atheist” enrolled in a master’s program at Harvard Divinity School, where she hoped to become a happier and altogether better person. Zoltan did, before long, feel more fulfilled in the presence of traditional religious structures. But she had yet to feel changed by them. It wasn’t until she was sitting in a chapel-turned-classroom that she drew a connection between a professor’s lecture and Jane Eyre—her favorite novel — and realized her path forward. As she communed with fellow Eyreheads, she would go on to learn that the book “did not determine the sacredness; the actions and actors did, the questions you asked of the text and the way you returned to it.”
In these sixteen intimate essays — which culminate with an accessible guide to sacred reading — Zoltan practices what she preaches, analyzing scenes from Jane Eyre, and other novels that have resonated with her, with midrashic attention. She applies characters’ situations to her own life experiences, and even to those of her grandparents, all four of whom survived the Holocaust. When in the throes of chronic illness, Zoltan identifies with Jane’s will to live despite, or perhaps in spite of, the pain the girl has suffered at the hands of her keepers. When struggling with severe depression, she sees in Charlotte Brontë’s heroine a young woman caught in a similar state of in-between. And when she reflects on a personal failing in her work as hospital chaplain, she does so through the lens of Harry Potter, ultimately sensing that, sometimes, people in crisis don’t want advice — sometimes, like Harry in the final moments of the series, all they need is company.
Zoltan establishes early on that each essay serves as a kind of sermon, and each concludes with an offering of universal truth. While some of these offerings veer into redundancy and cliché, Zoltan nevertheless manages to generate surprise. She intimates, for example, that even a devout atheist like her can learn from Jane’s devotion to fairies, to phenomena that science cannot explain. Better yet, she stresses the importance of taking after Bertha, Jane’s dauntless foil who literally burns the patriarchy to the ground.
Zoltan approaches her primary text of choice as one would any exegesis: with a critical gaze. After so many chapters of praying with Jane Eyre, Zoltan, a white woman, comes to reckon with the ways in which her beloved novel is a racist argument for Western colonialism, slavery, and misogyny. “I had chosen this book to put at the center of my life,” she writes. “I had chosen it because the Bible was too tainted.” Likewise, Zoltan’s studies of Harry Potter force her to confront its author’s transphobic beliefs. Without such instances of self-scrutiny, the collection might have risked forsaking sacredness for idolatry. But Zoltan’s awareness — passing though it may be — reinforces her convincing thesis: that a text is not a text, but how a reader questions it.
Kyra Lisse is Jewish Book Council’s Editorial Fellow. She is a 2022 graduate of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, where she studied creative writing and Latin. Currently, Kyra is a second-year MFA candidate and graduate assistant at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, concentrating on creative nonfiction. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.