Get your holiday season off to a strong start with the fabulous debut novel, The Matzah Ball.
For the last decade, Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt, daughter of one of the world’s most prominent rabbis, has made a living as Christmas romance novelist Margot Cross. The job has been ideal for her – it allows her to work from home, a must for managing her myalgic encephalomyelitis – and the idealized Christmases she weaves into her books have given her a magical, wondrous place to escape to while living with her debilitating disorder. She hates that she has to treat her career – and her passion for Christmas – like a shameful secret but what else can a nice Jewish girl do?
Apparently, write Hanukkah novels. Her publisher, in a push to include more diverse content in their lineup, wants books about the joys of other celebrations and they want Rachel to spear-head the campaign with a romance set during the Festival of Lights. Rachel has always considered the eight-day feast rather un-merry seeing it as “two nights’ worth of semi-decent presents followed by six nights’ worth of school supplies.” However, it is made clear to her that it is Hanukkah or no contract. Rachel leaves her editor’s office despondent.
Heading home on an empty subway car, Rachel closes her eyes and takes some time to mourn what could be the end of her career. When she opens them a Haredi man has somehow silently and mysteriously appeared across the aisle from her.
He must have been a thousand years old, incapable of moving at high speeds or great distances, but he was suddenly there, inches away from her, feet almost touching, smiling warmly in her direction, with rosy- red cheeks and twinkling brown eyes.
He gets off at the next stop, dropping his copy of Jewish World News on his way out and though Rachel tries to catch up to him and return it, he has vanished without a trace. Then while folding the paper up and returning to her seat, she sees it – an article about the Matzah Ball Max with a Hanukkah theme which is being touted as THE party to be at for the holiday season. It’s the perfect place for Rachel to find story inspiration.
But since it is sold out, attending won’t be easy. Fortunately, she happens to know the event planner – Jacob Greenberg, her Jewish summer camp arch-nemesis. And she also happens to know where he will be that night – celebrating Shabbat at her parent’s house. Rachel races over there and makes the candle lighting with only seconds to spare. Now she can throw herself on Jacob’s mercy and get a ticket.
Jacob isn’t feeling particularly merciful, especially towards Rachel. During the worst year of his life, she’d added to his heartache by standing him up for the closing dance at summer camp and added insult to injury by refusing to respond to any of his calls or letters asking why. Jacob needs Rabbi Goldblatt to light the Menorah candles at the Matzah Ball Max and give a note of solemnity to the celebration, but he doesn’t need the man’s daughter messing with his emotions while he works on a career-making-or-breaking event.
Then it strikes him that there is a perfect way to get closure for the summer camp débacle and get some added help for his project – give Rachel a ticket in exchange for her working with him over the next few days. He hopes their proximity will force her to be honest about what occurred in their past.
The cultural aspect of this book is spectacular. Rachel’s Judaism is more than just the typical window dressing of lighting a few candles – we’re shown how her faith affects every aspect of her life, from what she eats to a world view that places family and community central to her identity.
The author also does a great job of showcasing living with a chronic illness. I especially appreciated how Rachel rationalizes tradeoffs, such as making choices needed to get through the next twenty-four hours that might cause health risks down the road. Ms. Meltzer captures with complete credibility the impatience and intolerance of others who don’t understand what being chronically ill means and the frustration and hurt caused when people accuse the sufferer of faking or exaggerating their illness to get out of things they don’t want to do.
And Rachel is, frankly, fabulous. She’s fun, quirky, decent and kind in spite of all she has going on. But she is not honest – she lies to Jacob, her family and to her community about what she does for a living and keeps a large part of who she is hidden from those she loves for most of the book.
Those lies contribute to the biggest problem Jacob and Rachel have as a couple – they don’t communicate very well. The big falling out that occurred during summer camp was that after pranking each other for months, Rachel and Jacob had connected and shared a first kiss, a moment seen and photographed by the guys in Jacob’s cabin. Rachel believed Jacob had set that all up to humiliate her and was furious that this important rite of passage would forever be tarnished by being part of an elaborate joke. Jacob has an entirely different perspective on the event and the subsequent fallout (why is explained towards the end of the story) and has never understood why Rachel wouldn’t just talk to him about what happened. But they were twelve when all of this went down and holding mature conversations about emotions isn’t exactly a tween strong point.
The problem with Jacob is that he doesn’t seem to have matured much beyond his doofus twelve-year-old ways in his dating techniques. He has the same sense of humor and still tries to prank Rachel into paying attention to him as an adult, which goes about as well as you would expect. And where Rachel struggles with telling the truth, Jacob struggles with boundaries. He doesn’t seem to understand when he takes a joke – or even a favor – too far. There are times in the story where his exuberance leans dangerously close to disrespect for Rachel’s autonomy. It works – just – because Rachel is a strong character with a fabulous support system. When Jacob does cross lines, she lets him know and the people who love her – especially bestie Mickey – are quick to come to her defense.
I loved their romance in spite of the above foibles. The author does such a wonderful job showing us who these people are and why they’re perfect for each other that I found myself rooting for them from the start. And I really appreciated learning the details of their long-ago summer camp romance and seeing them work through their issues to make a more adult connection in the present.
Ms. Mehtzer’s love for Judaism and her real-life experience with myalgic encephalomyelitis help The Matzah Ball to ring with sincere, heartfelt authenticity. I was completely charmed by the story and think readers looking for a poignant, slow burn romance will enjoy it too.
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