In Isaac Blum’s absorbing debut, The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen, Orthodox Jewish teenager Hoodie Rosen has recently moved with his family to a non-Jewish town where the locals are tamping down plans for a large Jewish development. When antisemitism comes to the surface with escalating hate crimes, the community blames Hoodie for bringing misfortune on them all by becoming friends with the non-Jewish daughter of the town’s mayor. We spoke with Blum about his richly imagined characters, Orthodox education, and writing an evocative depiction of a minority culture that outsiders can connect with.
Tregaron is not a real town. Is there a specific reason you set this book in a fictional place?
In the last four or so years there have been a bunch of antisemitic attacks all across the United States. I wanted it to feel like the events of the book could happen anywhere, because that kind of bias exists all over the country and the world. Also, because this book is based on some specific events, I think it would take away some of the creative freedom if I made it just a retelling. It would have given me an extra responsibility to tell it just as it happened and that would be more difficult and more fraught.
Hoodie has a distinctly teenage voice and often tries deflecting through sarcasm. His Jewish friendships also seem caught between genuine affection and beleaguered tolerance. Was there a particular inspiration for who he is and how he moves within his community?
I think it’s a universal feeling about friends you grow up with, especially among teenage boys. Mostly deep down it’s affection; I feel okay saying this having been a teenage boy, but they aren’t comfortable being emotionally vulnerable outwardly to their friends or even to themselves. So what really is a deep affection often comes out looking like beleaguered tolerance on the surface. It’s tough if you’re protecting yourself feeling-wise to come out and gush about your best friend when boys are taught not to be that way. I would love to have some cool story about what I based the voice and the sarcasm on, but it’s really just the way my inner monologue would have sounded like as a teenager. That’s the way I thought about the world—the sarcasm and the general inability to take things seriously.
Hoodie’s mother works a lot as a teacher, only showing up briefly during Shabbos preparations, so his older sister Zippy plays a very maternal role in the household. Can you talk about the choice to make his mom a minor character?
Someone told me in a class that if you’re writing a book for kids or teens and want them to have an adventure, you need to get the parents out of the way. Which makes sense if you’re going to write a teen story and you want the characters to have agency and you want your teen readers to feel through the characters. You need to either set the parents up as antagonists or get them off to the side. So I wanted to set up one of the parents, the father, as a kind of antagonist but I didn’t want to make both parents working against Hoodie. So that left the mom off to the side. In early drafts the mother basically didn’t exist at all and my editor said she doesn’t have to be everywhere but she has to exist. Having Zippy function as a mother makes their dynamic more interesting. A lot of sibling relationships in books and in life are antagonistic and I wanted to show that they didn’t have to be that way and they can help each other come of age.
Hoodie’s father is frustrated that Hoodie doesn’t share his commitment to documenting the antisemitic attacks. Could you elaborate a bit on what is driving his father’s response?
His perspective is that the town’s resistance to the housing development is antisemitic and they wouldn’t oppose the construction if Jews weren’t moving in. The town’s argument is pretty carefully articulated so that it doesn’t sound antisemitic. The lawn signs don’t say “No Jews,” they say “Protect the town’s character.” Hoodie’s father sees that coded as antisemitic and when the gravestones are defaced, that is proof to him. Their opposition is antisemitic and he has this key that will unlock what he wants, which is to have a new place to live. So when Hoodie pulls that rug out from under him, that’s where the anger stems from.
You’ve taught at Orthodox schools. Was the education there as freeform and self-directed as Hoodie’s, where he’s allowed to wander around outside if he feels like that’s what he needs?
I am hesitant to generalize about all Orthodox schools, but at a public school, they’re responsible for teaching you a certain set of things but they are not responsible for developing you as a certain type of person. They’re supposed to—and need to—respect your culture, religion, and spiritual beliefs and the diversity of those perspectives. Whereas, if you’re a parent sending your kid to an Orthodox Jewish school, you’re expecting they will come out an observant Orthodox Jew and ready to live that life. The people who are teaching you, your rabbis there, are not only teachers, they’re also immediate role models the way your math teacher might not be a public school. So sometimes that need for self-reflection or spiritual thought processes supersedes the education. At public school they’re not in charge of forming your identity, or not a specific identity, whereas at a yeshiva, that’s the primary goal.
The novel is packed with specific elements of Orthodox life. There’s often a pressure on marginalized writers to dilute these kinds of details to a presumed neutral, usually Christian, viewpoint. Did you feel any pressure like that while querying or editing the book?
To be candid, my agent is Jewish and my editor is Jewish, so not so much pressure. But I wanted to be immersive but not inaccessible. If you throw somebody into a cultural deep end, they might feel this book is written just for insiders. I didn't want it to be that way. I wanted to make sure there was hopefully enough context for Orthodox life that it feels instead like they’re not getting lost but learning things and figuring out what that life is like. So the pressure was less about diluting it and more just making sure there’s enough context and explanations.
This was acquired at auction as part of a two-book deal. Can you talk a little bit about what’s next for you?
Yeah, I’m working on my second young adult contemporary novel, currently slated to come out in spring 2024 from Philomel Books. It will be a standalone novel but in a similar world, also very Jewish, with a different take on some of the same things.
The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen by Isaac Blum. Philomel, $18.99 Sept. 13 ISBN 978-0-593-52582-1