By – December 31, 2022

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.

Discussion Questions

Khubiar’s Just a Hat fol­lows the com­ing-of-age jour­ney of Joseph Nis­san, a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Iran­ian Jew­ish immi­grant grap­pling with his iden­ti­ty in 1970s small-town Texas. Joseph faces this chal­lenge in a town devoid of Jews. He cre­ates close friend­ships with the Ybar­ra twins, his Lati­no allies, and is often mis­tak­en as Lati­no him­self. As the Iran hostage cri­sis of 1979 unfolds, Joseph strug­gles with bul­ly­ing, dis­crim­i­na­tion, and con­ceal­ing his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. He also learns that his father has been con­ceal­ing secrets of his own. 

Khu­biar expos­es the harsh real­i­ties of anti­semitism and dis­crim­i­na­tion, reveal­ing the igno­rance and prej­u­dice Joseph fields from peo­ple who are unfa­mil­iar with Jew­ish cul­ture. The nov­el brave­ly tack­les the inter­nal divi­sions with­in Judaism, shed­ding light on the ten­sions between Sephardic and Ashke­nazi Jews and clar­i­fy­ing mis­un­der­stand­ings about Sephardic cus­toms. Infused with humor and authen­tic­i­ty, the sto­ry is acces­si­ble for and relat­able to a young audience.

Just a Hat is a poignant explo­ration of Joseph’s expe­ri­ence nav­i­gat­ing the chal­lenges of grow­ing up in a place where he feels like an out­sider. Guid­ed by the sup­port of his friends, Joseph finds his courage and, in the process, dis­cov­ers who he real­ly is.