Making the longlist for the National Book Award, Jewish author Isaac Blum’s debut YA novel, “The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen,” centers an Orthodox Jewish teen caught in the middle of antisemitic violence — and everything else most teens deal with, from grappling with their identity to first loves. As Blum explains, “Hoodie’s family, and their Orthodox community, have just moved to a new town called Tregaron, but the locals aren’t happy about all the Jews moving in at once. When Hoodie falls for the daughter of the mayor leading the charge against his community, and the town is struck by series of antisemitic crimes, Hoodie is forced to choose between his first love and the only world he’s ever known.
In addition to writing, Blum is also an English teacher, having taught at several colleges and universities, and at Orthodox Jewish and public schools. He currently lives in Philadelphia with his wife. I chatted with the author about his inspiration for the book, the importance of bringing positive representation of Orthodox Jews to the mainstream, and what he hopes readers, Jewish and not, will take away from “Hoodie Rosen.”
First of all, welcome to Hey Alma! Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Thanks! I’m Isaac! I’m an author and teacher from Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. If Hey Alma weren’t a Jewish publication, I’d just say I’m from Philadelphia, but I feel like most Jews have a Bala Cynwyd connection of some kind. Mine is that I’m from here.
During the day I teach high school. In the evenings and summers, I write young adult novels about Jewish teens.
I dislike eggplant. The texture is really gross.
What was the inspiration for your debut novel, “The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen”?
In December of 2019, there was a shooting at a kosher market in Jersey City, New Jersey. Two gunmen opened fire on shoppers in a targeted antisemitic attack. The shooting at the market followed months of growing tension — in Jersey City and elsewhere — between long-established communities and a new influx of Orthodox Jews. The attack wasn’t an isolated incident — antisemitic violence has been on a sharp rise in the United States — but it was the one that moved me to write. I wanted to show, as best I could, how antisemitic bias starts, grows, corrupts and ultimately leads to violence.
With that said, it’s a funny book — I promise.
Would you say there are any parallels between yourself and your protagonist, Hoodie Rosen?
We’re both Jewish dudes. So there’s that. But Hoodie and I have lived pretty different lives. I think we’re most similar in our outlook on life. I think his voice is basically just my voice, or the voice I had when I was a teen. We share the general inability to take things seriously. We’re both sarcastic and irreverent. Frankly, it’s easier to write a character who thinks a lot like you.
What drew you to storytelling, particularly young adult fiction?
I don’t know exactly why I love storytelling. I think some people just have this want or need to express themselves creatively, in an attempt to make sense of the world, and writing is the creative medium that I’m least bad at. If you heard the songs I write, you’d definitely tell me to stick to writing.
I do know why I write young adult fiction. Adolescence is tough, fraught and messy. But adolescence is also this unique opportunity to come of age, to figure out who you are as a human being. Most people only get to do that — figure out who they are and what they believe about life — one time, so it has this extra level of urgency that I find really exciting. Even as a teen, I was like, “Man, this coming-of-age thing is intense.”
As an author longlisted for the National Book Award for Young Peoples’ Literature’s, how does it feel to know a book centering an Orthodox Jewish teen is on that list?
Unfortunately (for me), my book didn’t make the shortlist. But having my novel on the longlist was an incredible honor, and to have an Orthodox Jewish protagonist in that novel was amazing. Representation matters! It’s important for teens (and adults) to see themselves reflected in literature, and wide representation also helps people understand cultures and religions they aren’t familiar with. I hope that this kind of Jewish representation can help prevent the kind of antisemitism my book is based on.
Was the fact that there’s not a lot of positive Orthodox Jewish representation in media or literature a consideration for you when writing this book?
Absolutely. Most of the mainstream depictions of Orthodoxy are in the form of leaving narratives. They portray Orthodox Judaism as oppression, and the protagonist is fleeing. I’m fine with narratives about leaving Orthodoxy — I think there will always be people for whom a highly ritualized lifestyle doesn’t work. But I don’t think that should be the only story. There are so many people who find deep meaning and beautiful, supportive community in Orthodox Judaism, and those stories need to exist also.
What’s something you hope Jewish or non-Jewish readers will take away from the book?
I have a corny answer to this question, but it’s the honest one. In the novel, Hoodie builds this strong friendship with Anna-Marie, a non-Jewish girl. In the wake of tragedy, their relationship helps them heal each other and their communities. I want readers to see that something as simple as mutual curiosity can build empathy and understanding. Sometimes it doesn’t even take mutual understanding. I really think earnest curiosity can be enough.
As a Jewish author, what types of Jewish representation do you hope to see more of in the future?
I have an extensive wishlist here, but I’ll try to limit it:
I want to read some Jewish sci-fi. Are there still Jews when humanity colonizes space? What are the rules of the Sabbath on the spaceship? Can the sentient robot be Jewish? Those aren’t all serious questions, but what I’m saying is that I’d like to see more Jewish stories outside of realistic fiction.
I’d also like to see more lighthearted stories of Jewish joy. Lots of Jewish stories — at least mainstream ones — focus on Jewish oppression. Which makes some sense. The Jews are frequently oppressed. But I’d like to see more Jewish literature that focuses on the more everyday parts of Jewish life. And I recognize the irony here, since my debut novel is significantly about antisemitism.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?
Question: What’s the funniest Jewish book you’ve ever read?
Answer: It’s a tie between “Blue Moose” and “Return of the Moose” by Daniel Pinkwater. The novels are for children, but they’re seriously just the funniest things ever written.
What advice might you have to give to other aspiring writers, especially other Jewish writers?
My general advice to aspiring writers is this: Don’t underestimate how much of writing “success” is luck. The only thing you can control is your persistence. Persist, and give yourself more chances for the luck to break your way.
My advice to Jewish writers is this: Don’t think you have to write stories that are less Jewish in order to appeal to non-Jewish readers. It’s true that Jews are a tiny minority, but I think one of the reasons people read is to learn. It’s a fun trick of literature: you’re reading this fun story but by the end you’ve been tricked into learning about an interesting new world you didn’t know much about. Non-Jewish readers might be interested in your Jewish story, the same way you might be interested in theirs.
Are there are other projects you are working on and at liberty to discuss?
I’m working on another Jewish young adult novel, slated for publication in the spring of 2024. Where “Hoodie Rosen” is significantly about Jews interacting with a hostile outside world, I’m writing a book that’s more about intra-Jewish disagreement.