Set in 1979, the year of the Iran Hostage Crisis, Just a Hat follows twelve-year-old Joseph Nissan and his Persian Jewish family, who fled Iran and settled in small-town Texas. The neighbors are unfamiliar with Jewish families, and even more so with Persian Jews and their customs, attitudes, and appearance. Most of Joseph’s classmates assume he is Hispanic and mistreat him, calling him racist names. Joseph’s feelings for the daughter of a fundamentalist Christian preacher complicate his already complex life.
His parents have deep, dark secrets of their own that they are unwilling to divulge. They eventually share some of their fears with him, and he begins to understand the complexities of Middle Eastern life, especially for Jews, as well as why his parents are so fearful for his safety. Over time, Joseph learns to be confident about who he is and what he stands for.
Just a Hat presents a piece of history to readers who may be unfamiliar with this time and place. The book is full of Jewish content — including a bar mitzvah, Yom Kippur, and Shabbat — and humor. There is much to learn from and enjoy about this simply presented yet complex story of a boy who grows into a fine man in a complicated society.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.