Title: The Matzah Ball
Author: Jean Meltzer
Publication date: September 28, 2021
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is a nice Jewish girl with a shameful secret: she loves Christmas. For a decade she’s hidden her career as a Christmas romance novelist from her family. Her talent has made her a bestseller even as her chronic illness has always kept the kind of love she writes about out of reach.
But when her diversity-conscious publisher insists she write a Hanukkah romance, her well of inspiration suddenly runs dry. Hanukkah’s not magical. It’s not merry. It’s not Christmas. Desperate not to lose her contract, Rachel’s determined to find her muse at the Matzah Ball, a Jewish music celebration on the last night of Hanukkah, even if it means working with her summer camp archenemy—Jacob Greenberg.
Though Rachel and Jacob haven’t seen each other since they were kids, their grudge still glows brighter than a menorah. But as they spend more time together, Rachel finds herself drawn to Hanukkah—and Jacob—in a way she never expected. Maybe this holiday of lights will be the spark she needed to set her heart ablaze.
This Hanukkah-themed romance was a nice winter treat, with surprising depth amidst some of the goofier shenanigans.
Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is the daughter of a prominent Long Island rabbi. She’s an observant Jew… and a secret writer of bestselling Christmas romance novels. She’s spent her life in the public eye, always being monitored by her father’s congregation — is she following all the traditions? is she living a good Jewish life? is she a dutiful daughter? — so how would the congregation react if they knew about her hidden obsession with all things Christmas?
When her publisher declines to renew her contract for more Christmas romances, instead requesting a Hanukkah romance, Rachel panics. To her, Hanukkah is yet another Jewish tradition, nice, but not evoking that sparkly holiday magic like Christmas. But if she’s going to get a contract for a new book, she’ll have to find a way to find the magic in Hanukkah as well… and for inspiration, she’s needs to get a ticket to the sold-out Hanukkah blowout, Matzah Ball Max.
Matzah Ball Max is being produced by Jacob Greenberg, a famous and very successful producer of massive celebrity parties and music festivals and the like. But now, for the first time, Jacob is looking to reconnect with his Jewish background, as well as his problematic family history, by throwing the Hanukkah party of the century.
Back when Rachel and Jacob were twelve, they attended Jewish summer camp together, where they were each other’s first loves and first kisses — but a major conflict left them holding lifelong grudges against one another. Still, Rachel needs a ticket to the Matzah Ball, and reconnecting with Jacob may be her only hope.
The Matzah Ball deals nicely with Rachel and Jacob’s respective backstories and current challenges. For Rachel, this means exploring how she lives with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome — yet another part of her life that she tries to keep secret. For Jacob, it’s coming to terms with his late mother’s years of chronic illness and his father’s abandonment, which led him to teen years full of acting out and resentment toward everyone who cared about him.
As adults, Rachel and Jacob are cautious when they encounter one another again after so many years, but their old connection is still there, and each reluctantly recognizes that their feelings may be more than just dislike and old hurts. They have to be willing to be honest and open up in order to deal with the past and move forward, and this proves difficult for both of them.
There’s a lot to love about The Matzah Ball. For me, well, they had me at “Jewish summer camp”. As the author explains in the notes following the story, she grew up in an Ashkenazi Jewish family in the Northeast, and so much of what she describes absolutely rings true for me. And as for the summer camp piece, all I can say is that if you grew up attending a Jewish summer camp, you’ll get it. The lifelong friendships, the way those brief summers become life-shaping experiences… yes, yes, yes, so true!
I also really loved the warmth with which the author describes Jewish traditions and home life. She’s clearly lived all of this, and while I was afraid initially that the book would include too many stereotypical Jewish-isms, it’s all conveyed with respect and appreciation.
The romance is sweet, and builds nicely along the course of the novel — with the usual amount of miscommunications and nearly-impossible obstacles that you’d expect in a romance novel. Also very well done is the portrayal of Rachel’s chronic illness, shown with sensitivity and compassion — again, based on the author’s own real-life experiences. Here, Rachel’s CFS informs every aspect of her life, and while she’s not looking for pity, she’s also very much aware of how her illness keeps her from living the life she once thought she’d have.
On the downside, there are some slapstick-y scenes that I’m sure were intended to be humorous, but to me, they were just cringey. Putting Rachel in an awful matzah ball costume, having her get stuck in doorways, and colliding with a giant menorah? Just, no.
I also didn’t love a scene with Jacob’s grandmother, in which she shares her Holocaust experiences with Rachel as a sort of pep talk for getting out there and facing her fears. I appreciated hearing about Toby’s experiences, of course, but didn’t like how something this tragic was being spun as a device for getting Rachel to go after Jacob when all hope appeared to be lost.
Overall, though, I did really like The Matzah Ball. Despite its occasionally cornier scenes, there’s a sweetness and warmth that shines through, and I loved the portrayal of Jewish family life as a vibrant way of experiencing the world. This was a very enjoyable read, and I’ll be on the lookout for more by this author.