Review: Just a Hat

Just a Hat

by S. Khubiar

Blackstone Publishing, 2023

Category: Young Adult
Reviewer: Cheryl Fox Strausberg

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As a thirteen year old kid growing up in the late 1970s in rural Texas, Joseph Nissan lives two lives. At school, he’s Joseph. He speaks English, he’s a math whiz, he just wants to fit in - not only to stop the persistent bullying from his white classmates but to be able to approach his first crush. At home, he’s Youssef. He speaks Farsi, he often translates for his Iranian immigrant mother who struggles with English, and he studies for his Bar Mitzvah. There’s a lot he doesn’t understand though, like why his parents are terrified of the police or why they never talk about their life in Iran. He follows their seemingly strict religious observance but wonders why he can’t play the piano on Shabbat, why he can only eat the food his mother cooks, and he wonders why, if community and religion is so important, they don’t live closer to the Iranian-Jewish community in a larger city like Dallas - where they travel twice a month to spend Shabbat.

All of this comes to a head when Iranians take American diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran hostage. Then the invisible lives that Joseph’s parents have created become more visible and the bullying becomes threats against all of their lives. From this fear, Joseph’s parents finally open up about their lives as Iranian Jews and what drove them to seek new lives in America.

Just A Hat is a poignant coming-of-age story from a group not usually featured in novels, and set in a time period not usually associated with Jewish-American history. Mizrahi culture has been long missing from Middle Grade and Young Adult literature and, therefore, this one is a breath of fresh air. Not only does it illuminate the reader on Mizrahi Jewish culture and history, but it highlights the more modern immigrant experience and the American Jewish experience in rural America. This is a welcome addition to any library and should be under serious consideration for a Sydney Taylor Book Award.

However, a note to our sensitive readers: there are two scenes in which you should take note. One is a scene in which Joseph is bullied using derogatory language that in modern context we would identify as slurs (it made this reviewer feel nauseous while reading) but in historical context would have been used more freely without censure. It does help the world building and makes the reader truly empathize and sympathize with Joseph’s life. The second scene is when Joseph receives corporal punishment at the hands of his father. The beating Joseph receives with his father’s belt is difficult to read and isn’t discussed or put into context until the very end of the book.

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Reviewer Cheryl Fox Strausberg has spent the past 10 years as a school librarian in Jewish schools - most recently at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. She talks about Jewish books and Jewish representation on Instagram as @kvellinlibrarian.