Book Review: The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer

Title: The Matzah Ball
Author: Jean Meltzer
Publisher: MIRA
Publication date: September 28, 2021
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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.

Thursday Quotables: The Hanukkah edition!


Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel
Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

(published 1989)

Getting into the holiday spirit with an old favorite!

The king of the goblins roared with fury. The earth trembled and a mighty wind arose. It ripped off the synagogue roof and blew down the walls. It splintered the great timbers and scattered them like matchsticks. Around the menorah the whirlwind howled, but the candles never flickered. They burned with clear, steady flames. The king of the goblins had no power over them. The spirit of Hanukkah had triumphed.

Wishing all who celebrate a joyous festival of lights!

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (, if you’d be so kind!
  • Leave your link in the comments — or, if you have a quote to share but not a blog post, you can leave your quote in the comments too!
  • Visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

Flashback Friday: A Hanukkah Favorite!

Flashback Friday is my own little weekly tradition, in which I pick a book from my reading past to highlight — and you’re invited to join in!

Here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

Happy Hanukkah! Your turkey may be nothing but leftovers by now, but you’ve still got six more days to chow down on latkes! In honor of the (very early!) festival of lights, I thought I’d highlight a family favorite for this week’s Flashback Friday post:

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins
by Eric Kimmel
Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
(published 1994)

Synopsis (Amazon):

What are the poor villagers to do? The holiday-hating, hill-dwelling hobgoblins are bound and determined to ruin yet another Hanukkah for them. Every year the beasties snuff out the menorah candles, destroy the dreidels, and pitch the potato latkes on the floor. But these wicked wet blankets never counted on someone as clever as Hershel of Ostropol showing up. Using his wits and a few props–pickles, eggs, and a dreidel (a square-shaped top with Hebrew letters on each side)–Hershel manages to outwit all the creepy critters and break the spell. This fabulously creative adaptation of the ancient Hanukkah story in which the Syrians forbade the Jews to worship as they wanted, keeps the spirit of the original while adding a spine-tingling twist. Warmth and humor prevail, even in the midst of hopeless-looking circumstances. Award-winning illustrator Trina Schart Hyman creates lively and witty pictures that pair perfectly with Eric Kimmel’s words to create this Caldecott Honor Book. (Ages 4 to 8)

I have never seen a more rapt group of 6-year-olds than on the day that my son’s teacher asked me to read a Hanukkah story to the class. Once I began the story of Hershel and the icky, creepy, mean creatures who were trying to destroy Hanukkah, they were hooked. Even today, my 11-year-old pulls this one off the shelf for a Hanukkah read-along (although he’d probably be thoroughly embarrassed that I said so). Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins has it all — scary creatures, an ordinary guy who outsmarts the baddies, and really funny (and a little bit frightening) illustrations as well.

Sure, there are plenty of Hanukkah books to choose from, but how many have goblins? We’ve always loved this book at my house, and I’m glad none of us are too old to enjoy it once again this year!

Happy Friday! I hope you’re enjoying the company of a terrific book… and avoiding the shopping madness!


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Happy Hanukkah to me! A celebration – with books.

Earlier this week, I wrote a blog post as part of the Top Ten Tuesday blog hop, about the top 10 books I’d like to receive as gifts this holiday season (or any holiday season, or ever, really). I bemoaned the fact that no one in my family or circle of friends buys me books, for reasons too sad to get into again (but you can read my post here, if you’d like).

But really, it wasn’t entirely fair for me to make this statement, as my wonderful and amazing daughter is the exception to the rule. A brief moment of mommy bragginess: My daughter, age 22, is smart, funny, caring, and a reader; she’s the light of my life, and everything a mother could want in a daughter. We make each other laugh; we share the same taste in books, movies, TV shows… you name it.

And so, darling daughter — currently spending a year in Alaska as an Americorps volunteer — sent the family a package in time for Hanukkah, which we opened tonight after latkes were eaten, candles were lit, songs were sung. And in that package was a book for me! And guess what? It was:

  1. A book that I didn’t already own
  2. A book that I hadn’t already read
  3. A book that I hadn’t even known existed

Success! My girl is amazing. She got me… drumroll, please… the brand-new graphic novel of A Wrinkle In Time! A Wrinkle In Time is only one of my very favorite children’s books, and now THERE’S A GRAPHIC NOVEL! (Please excuse my excessive use of caps lock — I’m a tad overexcited at the moment).

You know when someone gives you a present, and you open it up and it’s not really something you’re all that into, but you smile and say “wow!” and “oh my god” and other inane things intended to show happiness with something you could really do without? This was not one of those times. Darling daughter picked out the perfect something — something that I’ll enjoy, something I’m excited to receive, and most important to me, something that shows that she really knows me.

I can’t wait to read my new book. I love my daughter. Basically, I’m a happy camper.

See? The way to a booklover’s heart is through her bookshelves. ‘Tis the season to give and receive good books. And, oh yeah, one more time: I love my daughter.