When I sat down to write my debut YA novel, in December of 2019, I thought I was writing a book about violent antisemitism, about worlds colliding, forbidden love, and betrayal. The novel tells the story of Hoodie Rosen, a Jewish teenager who has to figure out where—or if—he fits in his family, his community, and the outside world.
I also thought It was an important novel in terms of representation and identity. It’s weird, and probably big-headed, to think of your own book as “important,” but that’s how I thought of it. I still think of it that way. Maybe you need to think your novel is important if you’re going to advocate for it.
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There are precious few representations of Orthodox Judaism in mainstream young adult literature—the ones that come to mind are Una LaMarche’s Like No Other and Leah Scheier’s wonderful The Last Words We Said. So I thought I was making a contribution there, centering an Orthodox teen in a way that would reflect Orthodox experience and open a window for others into an observant Jewish world.
Two years after I finished the book, I received a blurb from Vesper Stamper that changed the way I saw my own novel. She wrote that my novel gives the “common but often-dismissed spiritual journey of many teens the respect it deserves.” And it started me thinking about the story in a completely different way.
That quote got me thinking about the difference between cultural and religious identity. When I was writing the book, I’d thought of those two as a packaged deal, a pair of matching items that are always sold together. But I began to read through the story again, following them as separate stories, two separate threads that don’t necessarily have to be wound around each other.
No matter what Hoodie does, he will be culturally Jewish. His name is Yehuda Rosen. He’s circumcised and bar mitzvahed. He can read Hebrew. He knows three different Yiddish words for “penis.” He finds matzoh ball soup comforting. Though I think everybody finds matzoh ball soup comforting, so maybe that’s a bad example. What I’m say is: For better or for worse, you can’t shed your cultural identity, even if you want to. The circumstances of your birth and upbringing just aren’t under your control.
Hoodie is religiously Jewish, but he doesn’t have to be. Spirituality is different. Where certain cultural indicators are external—your name, for instance—belief is entirely internal. Your beliefs are yours and yours only. You own them and have agency over them in a way you can’t with culture. Hoodie can pray three times a day, but only he knows if he believes the words he’s saying.
According to Gallup polls, 75% of Americans identify as religious. About half of Americans belong to a religious congregation and say that religion is “very important” to them.
So as American teens are figuring out who they are, where they fit in their worlds, and what they want out of their lives, they are also struggling to figure out what they believe. I imagine many of them, like Hoodie, find that their beliefs aren’t always what they—or their community—expected them to be. And I hope those teens can take something away from Hoodie’s story, from his spiritual journey. Even if they’re not Jewish. Perhaps especially if they’re not Jewish. I hope their relationship with belief makes them feel powerful, gives them a sense of agency they might not have in other parts of their lives.
And I’d love to see more books that follow teens’ struggles with belief. Don’t get me wrong, there are a number of great examples already—Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha At Last and Erin Hahn’s Never Saw You Coming, for instance. But I want to see more of those stories. I want our representation in kids’ literature to keep an eye on the internal journey through faith, because it is a common story, one that deserves our attention and consideration. And it’s one that applies across cultures and identities.
There’s another takeaway here for me personally. Somebody else’s reading of your book might surprise you in the best way. That one sentence in Stamper’s blurb completely changed the way I read my own book.
Your book might have something to say that you weren’t even aware of. The story you thought you were writing might not be the one that your reader reads. I think that’s pretty cool, and it’s a reason we should all keep telling our stories: because they might be important in a way we never considered.
Meet the author
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Isaac Blum (he/him) is a writer and educator. He’s taught English at several colleges and universities, and at Orthodox Jewish and public schools. He lives with his wife in Philadelphia where he watches sports and reads books that make him laugh while showing him something true about the world. The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen is his debut novel. You can visit Isaac online at isaacblumauthor.com and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @isaacblum_
About The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen
* “Funny, smart, moving, courageous, and so timely it almost hurts.” —Kirkus, *STARRED REVIEW*
* “Blum tackles themes of acceptance and community [in] this impressively drawn story.” -Publishers Weekly, *STARRED REVIEW*
The Chosen meets Adam Silvera in this irreverent and timely story of worlds colliding in friendship, betrayal, and hatred.
Hoodie Rosen’s life isn’t that bad. Sure, his entire Orthodox Jewish community has just picked up and moved to the quiet, mostly non-Jewish town of Tregaron, but Hoodie’s world hasn’t changed that much. He’s got basketball to play, studies to avoid, and a supermarket full of delicious kosher snacks to eat. The people of Tregaron aren’t happy that so many Orthodox Jews are moving in at once, but that’s not Hoodie’s problem.
That is, until he meets and falls for Anna-Marie Diaz-O’Leary—who happens to be the daughter of the obstinate mayor trying to keep Hoodie’s community out of the town. And things only get more complicated when Tregaron is struck by a series of antisemitic crimes that quickly escalate to deadly violence.
As his community turns on him for siding with the enemy, Hoodie finds himself caught between his first love and the only world he’s ever known.
Isaac Blum delivers a wry, witty debut novel about a deeply important and timely subject, in a story of hatred and betrayal—and the friendships we find in the most unexpected places.
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 09/13/2022
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years
Filed under: Guest Post