Jew Review: ‘The Matzah Ball’

When Jean Meltzer’s father suggested to her that she write a book, he also told her it shouldn’t be a Jewish one — “No one reads those,” he told her. Well, thankfully, apparently Meltzer didn’t listen to that last bit of advice.

Her first novel, The Matzah Ball, published by MIRA Books, features “everything Jewish” and more. The book has Hanukkah, a “nice, Jewish girl,” Christmas, a chronic illness…and lots of romantic (and not-so-romantic1) sparks flying. And, oh, there is a healthy dose of humor, too.

Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is a young Jewish woman with a secret: she loves Christmas, with its tinsel, colorful lights, trees, Santa, and holiday figurines. For the past decade, she has made her living as a bestselling Christmas romance novelist, yet has managed to keep that part of her life hidden from her family and friends, writing under a pen name. What would her rabbi father say, or her fawning mother – or their synagogue community – if they knew the truth? Her holiday romance novels offer happy endings for their heroes and heroines. Meanwhile, Rachel remains single, a chronic illness and its debilitating effects often holding her back from living a complete life. Even her publisher and editor are kept in the dark about her illness, while she continues to write her award-winning novels from her apartment.

When Rachel’s diversity-aware publisher tells her that she must write a Hanukkah romance, she panics. She doesn’t feel that this Jewish winter holiday offers the same magic and excitement that Christmas does, and is afraid that with no ideas to write about, she will lose her contract with the publisher. For inspiration, Rachel plans to attend The Matzah Ball, a Jewish concert event being held on the last night of Hanukkah. But with the popular event sold out, she is forced to volunteer with its organizer, Jacob Greenberg, in order to secure a ticket for herself.

Jacob is no stranger to Rachel. He was her overnight camp archenemy years ago, and Rachel still remembers the frustration and embarrassment she suffered at his hands, as well as the heartache. So while there is still a leftover grudge, a friendship of sorts develops through Rachel and Jacob’s interaction while preparing for the blowout event. As they work together, they recognize their own strengths and weaknesses and learn to improve on them. Even when that means sharing the truth: about Rachel’s health problems and restrictions it causes, and Jacob’s difficult family life, and the lasting effects it has had on his relationships. In The Matzah Ball, both Rachel and Jacob take this journey of authenticity — to finally arrive at their own Hanukkah miracle of acceptance.

Author Meltzer studied dramatic writing at NYU Tisch, and was a successful TV writer/producer, winning several awards, including a Daytime Emmy. But in 2006, she gave that up and went to study in Israel, attending seminary and rabbinical school for five years before her chronic illness caused her to leave her program. 

Besides her facility for writing, it is her personal knowledge of, and experience with, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), as well as her knowledge of Judaism and its many religious laws, that she diligently brings to the pages of The Matzah Ball. She wants her readers to see how Judaism and its ages-old practices can enrich one’s life. And as a strong advocate for ME/CFS, Jean also wants readers to understand that even though the disease is called “an invisible one,” because its sufferers appear to look or behave normally, the symptoms are very real and often debilitating.

Thankfully, Jean worked for ten years through her own pain and discomfort to bring readers a very sweet and bright book, just in time for this year’s Hanukkah season. Her next Jewish-themed rom-com, Mr. Perfect on Paper, is scheduled for release in August 2022. Jean’s chronic illness might slow her down at times, but she intends to keep writing and sharing her Jewish joy with readers everywhere.