The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer, (MIRA Books); Reviewed by Pearl Adler Saban
The Matzah Ball, Jean Meltzer’s first novel (MIRA Books), which came out just before Hanukkah, is a delightful read. It tells the story of “nice Jewish girl” Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt, the daughter of a well-respected, renowned rabbi. Rachel also just happens to be a bestselling author of Christmas romance novels. Not only has she written and published these books for the past decade, but she actually loves everything about Christmas: the music, the décor, the colorful lights, the Christmas trees, and of course, Santa. Writing her award-winning books under a pen name has allowed Rachel to keep her career a secret from her family and friends; how would she even try to explain her holiday romance novels to them or to her father’s synagogue community? And while she has kept her writing specialty a secret, she has also managed to keep another secret: neither her editor nor her publisher knows that she suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Because she writes from home, they don’t see when she has difficult and painful days, when every joint hurts, or when she needs to sleep for hours at a time. Rachel’s books feature healthy characters with beautiful storylines that offer them a happy-ever-after, so unlike her own life.
Rachel is told by her publisher to write something new and different for a change: a Hanukkah romance! Having written about Christmas cheer all these years, Rachel doesn’t even know how to begin to write a Hanukkah story. But she fears that if she doesn’t, she will lose her publishing contract. She decides to seek out inspiration for her story at the Matzah Ball, a large-scale social event and concert to be held on the last night of Hanukkah. With tickets sold out, her only option is to volunteer with the planning of the Matzah Ball so that she can get to attend the event.
Doing so has her working with Jacob Greenberg, who is not only the creator of the popular Matzah Ball but is also Rachel’s archenemy from years ago when they attended the same overnight camp for one summer. Jacob Greenberg had frustrated her, embarrassed her, and even broken her heart back then. They might’ve been enemies, but the two had also developed a budding attraction for one another, which was cut short. Although they haven’t seen one another since they were adolescents, Rachel still can remember how Jacob wreaked havoc with her mind and heart. And now, throughout their week of volunteering together, he manages to do the same!
But when Rachel and Jacob begin to be honest about the past and present, about their relationships with family members, and about the secrets they keep from others and from themselves, they realize that hearts can mend, and healing can begin…
Although her writing is light and humorous, Meltzer still manages to be serious, and it is through the book’s well-defined characters that she educates her readers about what she herself suffers from Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, aka Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In addition, traditional Jewish concepts weave their way into the story. Meltzer has a great understanding of everything Jewish. And yes, like Rachel, she also loves everything Christmas!
Meltzer’s joy and talent for writing, her love for Judaism and Hanukkah, and her holiday spirit are contagious, and as you turn the pages of The Matzah Ball, you will find many reasons to laugh out loud or smile.
Meltzer studied dramatic writing at NYU Tisch, and became an award-winning TV writer/producer, then left that career to study in Israel in religious seminaries and attend rabbinical school. After five years, she had to leave the program due to her debilitating illness and return home. While homebound for two years, she started to write her novel. Ten years later it was published; since its release, it has become very popular among Jewish and non-Jewish readers. “I’m proud that I’ve been able to write a Jewish story in a joyous and positive way,” says Meltzer. “And I’m proud that I’ve shown the best of the community that I come from — whether that be the warmth of a Shabbat dinner crammed full of people or the beauty and wisdom that can be found in our tradition…. I’m also proud that I’ve taken something that is often invisible to others, mainly chronic illness, and help make the struggles of millions more readily understandable. I’m proud that I’ve written a story where anyone — Jewish, chronically ill or disabled — can find a happy ending.”
The Matzah Ball’s happy ending has given Meltzer a happy and successful new beginning as an author. Her next book, Mr. Perfect on Paper, will be released in August 2022.
Reviewed by Pearl Adler Saban
Year first published: 2021
The book's page at the pubisher's site